Sunday, October 9, 2016

Alameda, California 1938

I am four years old. And my world is small.

Who are all these people? Mostly all I can see is legs. And skirts.

It’s the Depression - 1938 and we are busted.

The family, I mean. The tall, long legged man who comes and goes can’t hold a job. The nice Catholic lady is stuck with a vow of Obedience to the Man. That’s the fate of being an ex-patriate, Australian Catholic wife in the Thirties. And the man who has survived the Battle of the Somme in 1917 has re-developed his taste for scotch

We move a lot – the Aussie word is ‘shift’. The moves are in the night and long after the rent is due. We stay in the same suburb but why the landlords can’t find us is a mystery. Maybe other people do the same thing. But then, mother has the gift of the Blarney and dad is a Will o’the Wisp.

Our last stop is the second floor of a sparsely furnished, wood-frame apartment close to Alameda’s shunting yards. The freight trains in the backyard bring the out-of-work bums from the East and load the outbound freight from the Port of Oakland. 

It’s Sunday morning and dad opens the Oakland Chronicle’s funnies and reads them to me; Buck Rogers. Black Barney, Doctor Huer, Buck and his young protégés, Buddy and Alura are fighting the Martian cat people and the Mongol hordes, the evil Killer Kane and his ‘squeeze’, Ardala Valmar. To author Philip Nowlan and illustrator, Army Air Corps Lt. Dick Calkins they are surrogates for the real foreign aggressors who will soon throw the world into war. My brother Jim who died two years ago would have been a Navy man maybe even a carrier pilot. Then I would have had a model, a mentor. He is dead too soon which rips out my mother’s heart. She blames my father. Why?
“Your drinking has caused this, Will! I can never forgive you.”

In my I.Magin suit with pearl buttons, we are in the City. San Francisco. The big people I am used to seeing every day are hurrying. Where are we going? I cannot understand what's happening. It's not the usual routine of being washed, dressed and fed. Hurry, hurry, hurry.

The man has surrendered the family passport for free passage ‘home’ to Australia.

We are now in a small space with the steamer trunks - large trunks that I shall remember for the rest of my life.  I see suitcases, I feel secure. The smell around me is a ‘new’ smell like the paint on my black toy train but there is no train. Like so much, it is left behind.  But I can and see Dutchie, the girl doll I have undressed. I hold my Teddy bear out of the round window and hold him tight. He can’t swim, but I will soon get my first lessons.

The Voyage ‘Home’

Big ship, little boy. No other kids so the big people are kind. They pass me around.

There are several ‘white hat’ sailors in Steerage. They are to be stationed in Pearl Harbor. When the aft cargo hatch is removed and turned into a swimming pool, I ride on their backs. They are teaching me to swim. No fear of the water now nor ever.

The bartenders gave me root beers. 

“There are roots in the root beer,” the bartender tells me.

“What are roots?” I ask.

No answer. Never an answer, or if there is one, I am distracted by the shipboard excitement and hear nothing.

For years whenever the word ‘root’ appeared, I picture that icy drink in the ship’s bar - the drink of my early childhood, which never reappears until my return to the United States many years later.

I imagine that roots are little balls of flavor like peppercorns; sweet, strange. I see a place that grows roots for sweet drinks for little fair-haired boys with round faces confused by a world larger than can comprehend.

Now, much older, I what understand what roots are. Roots are like stars - distant, invisible and incomprehensible to adults. Roots are part of the mystery of childhood.


We anchor for several hours in Sydney Harbor near “Pinchgut,” a knob of rock with a miniature stone fort – the site of the noonday gun. The sky is a clear winter blue, the water sparkles, the harbor dotted with sailboats and ferries is narrow and the shoreline indented with sheltered coves, edged in lush parks and gardens and houses with red-tiled roofs.

The tugboats nuzzle the S.S. Mariposa into the pier. 

Down we go; down the narrow plank into a mob with suitcases and everybody smells of wool and mothballs their coats recently taken from the steamer trunks.

“Addie, we’re home,” says the big man. He has only £3 in his pocket. Not much even in 1938.

The taxicab with the trunks and four passengers speeds up George Street, left on King Street and up William Street through the Cross.

“Where to, mate?” says the driver.

Mate? A new word I’ve never heard but one that I will carry with me all my life.

“Bondi Beach’s just the ticket,” says the cabbie. “You’ll be right.”

We dodge the green and yellow trams* through Darlinghurst and Kings Cross, and Bondi Junction. Another ten minutes to Bondi Beach with its vacant lots, tiled-roof, brick houses.

On a three storey, brick apartment building opposite Campbell Parade, the fish and chip belt of Bondi Beach, is a “To Let” sign. Will goes inside; returns and pays off the driver.

“Good luck, mate.” And the cab leaves.

Will has talked the manager into waiving the deposit for the first week’s rent! “My funds are still clearing from America.”

The world is starting to make sense.