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Circling Excerpt 2: Part I (Soaring) — Chapter 1: Geography (First Section)

This is the first third of Chapter 1.  It goes downhill from here.  And up, and around.  And around.  I invite you to subscribe so that you will receive all the postings.  And I genuinely welcome your comments.

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1.     Geography

 

“There is an eternal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.”

— Josephine Hart

 

Retracing the circular journey, it seems that whatever success I have had in life began with the need for a precautionary pee in Germany, the benefits of a dirty mind in Vermont, and the challenges of teaching Eskimos in Alaska.

 

Most of my childhood memories were agreeable but atypical. In high school in Washington, D.C., I was part of a pseudo-intellectual set. My friends and I took hikes along Rock Creek, held pretentious “philosophy parties” with jug wine on the weekend, enjoyed sunrise breakfasts to watch the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, and conducted poetry readings at twilight on canoes going down the river. I still blush to remember the time I was asked to bring poetry by Keats. Unable to find any of his works in my parents’ bookshelves, I brought a volume of Yeats instead. (I figured that Yeats was a lot like Keats, just a different first letter…)

Teenagers in what was becoming the most important city of the world enjoyed a heady combination of Southern ingenuousness and Northern sophistication. The city was indubitably gracious: children gave up their seats to adults on the bus, men opened doors for women, and salespeople were always friendly. In 1960, Kennedy and his Camelot cabinet had just come to town, with brilliant minds and enough openhearted largesse to save the city, the country, and the world. Civil rights and urban renewal became the watchwords of the day, and my parents were prominent activists in both areas. It was an enchanting town for insiders.

With encouragement from my mother, a precinct captain for the Democrats and active in numerous social and political causes, ten of my friends organized a publicity campaign to improve the deplorable physical conditions of the D.C. public schools. Four others joined me in tutoring junior high school and elementary school students in a less affluent part of town. And when my best friend Mabrie and I got television and newspaper coverage following our refusal to pay the “discriminatory and illegal” class dues imposed by the school principal, we gained special prestige among the “teenage intelligentsia” that we all thought ourselves to be. Like the city itself, we were full of ourselves; in a word, insufferable.

Looking back, I warrant that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For better and worse, my parents both grew up with a sense of invulnerability and self-importance, and my subconscious goal was to match their outrageous teenage stories with one or more of my own.

 

My father’s classic story, paraded for special occasions, new suitors, and interested grandchildren, involved a real-life duel. Yes, the kind with swords, against a nobleman, at dawn, over a woman – the full nine yards. He had an elaborate narrative about visiting his parents in northern Italy where his father was managing several mines for an English company. It was the summer of 1939 and Dad had just finished his freshman year at college. Entering the local bar, he met a nobleman, the fiancé of an attractive woman who sometimes played tennis with Dad. When the duke loudly insulted America for its stance on fascism, Dad responded by criticizing Hitler and Mussolini.

The enraged duke slapped Dad backhanded on the cheek, a challenge to combat. Perhaps he assumed that Dad would back down or lack the skill to engage in a duel, which had been outlawed in Italy for nearly fifty years. But Dad, who was on the fencing team at college, gleefully chose swords as the weapon of choice before returning home to spend a sleepless night and await the dawn.

The fight, which was held at daybreak in a gentle grove overlooking a river, included an attending doctor and two seconds. The duke came dressed in black velvet pantaloons, a white silk shirt, and elegant leather boots, while Dad showed up bare-chested, in tennis shorts and golf shoes (for extra traction). It was reportedly an arduous encounter because the two were evenly matched in strength and skill.

Dad’s fighting skills tended toward the defensive, and he saw that the duke often left his right flank exposed just after thrusting forward. So, awaiting a good opportunity, Dad set up an attack in such a way that when the duke lunged forward, Dad parried to the right, pulling his opponent with him. When the duke brought his sword back to the left to strike again, Dad snapped his to his right, such that his opponent impaled his forearm on the tip of Dad’s blade. Dad gleefully explained that he gently passed off the sword – with the duke’s arm still attached – to the surgeon before walking off to shower and play tennis with the duke’s now ex-girlfriend.

How much of it happened as Dad described? Though I’m quite sure that my ever-gracious father added plenty of dramatic license, one had only to meet him to know that the substance of the story was true. His persona was marked by an ingenuous and enchanting self-assurance that fans of David Niven can recognize. I consider it a key to his character because on that day he understood that he was both charmed and charming.

 

My mother’s epic story happened in 1935, when the Gestapo stopped the train on which she was traveling from Göttingen to Paris while they grilled her on the whereabouts of the thousand dollars that she had had when she arrived in Germany to visit her governess’ family only three weeks earlier. Mom was an unwitting smuggler for peace activists in the United States who were helping to finance the exportation of German Jews after Hitler’s ascension to power. Unaware of how rapidly Hitler had corrupted German society, her father, a minister and antiwar activist, had given her money to take to his Lutheran counterpart in Germany.

In the dozen or so times that Mom recounted the story, she still hyperventilated as she relived the innocent-looking shrugs and bald lies employed to hide the truth and protect her German friends. “Well, we went out to the opera several times, and I bought a whole bunch of clothes, and, oh yes, I had to buy presents for all of my brothers and sisters and family and friends back home…” she said, looking bug-eyed, curling her mouth down, and shrugging her shoulders in a most perplexed manner. Exasperated after questioning this fourteen-year-old ingénue for two hours, the Gestapo finally let the train proceed. And thus her teenage conquest of the Gestapo affirmed in her a steely courage and shrewd resourcefulness that was both a blessing and a curse.

 

With an inheritance of $1,000 from a great aunt, I traveled for a year between high school and college, taking classes and working for six months as an au pair in Germany and then meandering through Spain, Italy, and Greece, doing such odd jobs as washing dishes and working on a road gang. Since my parents grew up shuttling between Europe and the States (although usually accompanied by governesses or older siblings), they were relatively sanguine about my going off alone.

Or maybe this is the blessing – and the curse – of privilege, for while my family was never affluent, I grew up with an assurance that “the world was my oyster.”  It was assumed that I would make a positive difference in the world and that my life would be relatively painless. But would the advantages of prestige and education offset assumptions of invincibility and the familial burdens of high expectation? — Only time would tell.

In the beginning, it seemed either that God was protecting me or that my innocence served more a talisman against evil spirits than an invitation to mischief. Few could believe that I was barely seventeen. That plus the fact that I lacked the experience to recognize a come-on meant that most people treated me as a mascot whom they needed to protect rather than a love object. (Or I had learned my mother’s easy graciousness without her sexuality, and somehow managed to translate that into a friendly, but hands-off, approachability.)

Europe was an extraordinary gift, for I discovered that simplicity is a virtue and that status and sophistication are not all they are cracked up to be. A basic vocabulary of phrases in Spanish, Italian, and Greek sufficed for a month or more in each country, and I commend them to all young ladies traveling alone. They are: “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” “please,” “thank you,” “I love you,” and “Don’t bother me.” (“I love you” is especially helpful for pre-adolescents and grandparents who will then take you under their wing, while “Don’t bother me” is important for all others.) These phrases, a ready smile, and body gestures kept me hale, hearty, and happy for almost a year.

Greece was a special haven. Everything sparkles in the brilliant Mediterranean sun – the crystal Aegean Sea, the white sandy beaches, the spotless whitewashed buildings, the hearts of the villagers and simple peasants. Running out of money about a week after arriving, I found a succession of jobs helping sell crafts to tourists, washing dishes in a nightclub, and clearing rocks on a road gang. The foreman could have been an understudy to Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek with his flashy smile and zest for life.

 

But then comes undeniable proof that my life is firmly in the grip of the bizarre. Because my first SAT scores were not as high as I want, I opt to take them a second time, which means hopping a train to Frankfurt to the U.S. Army enclave known as “Little America.”

Arriving at the American high school twenty-five minutes before the test is scheduled to begin, I find only two adult proctors setting up. Being well versed in the value of a precautionary pee, I ask for the nearest toilet and learn that the girls’ bathroom is nearly a quarter mile down labyrinthine hallways at the other end of the building.

After closing the stall door, I discover the latch is broken. I am trapped in a cell that is two feet wide, five feet deep, eight feet high, and just shy of a quarter mile from the nearest human being. I spend five minutes in grueling attempts to shimmy up the slippery sides of the stall and lunge from the toilet seat to the top, hyperventilating all the while. (“Damn me – if I were as agile as my sister Allegra I could just shimmy up the walls. If I were as strong as my brother Peter I could muscle my way over. But I’m useless and helpless. Damn me!”)

I consider screaming but that is pointless. The proctors are far away, and there are apparently no other students with college aspirations. I decide on one last attempt before breaking down in tears and writing off the possibility of college later this year. Removing my shoes and socks to get better traction with bare feet, I breathe deeply, conjure up positive affirmations, place both feet on top of the toilet seat, and lunge for the top of the stall. This time I am able to get one toe over the top and then bully my ankle to the other side. I reach up, get an arm hold, and then carefully slide my body up and forward.

At which time the unbelievable happens. I am literally eight feet in the air with bare legs straddling both sides of the toilet stall, congratulating myself on my physical prowess and simultaneously trying to catch my breath, when the door opens and a young woman walks in. I say a sheepish “hello” and am about to explain why I am perched bare-footed atop this strange aerie. She looks up, spies me hovering like a raptor overhead, and bolts out. Sliding down and washing my hands in warm water to calm down, I chuckle at her terror. There seems something oddly familiar about her, but I can’t place it.

A minute or two later, she walks back in – more calmly this time – and looks skeptically at me, asking, “Felicity???” I instantly recognize Alice Kraft, a good friend from elementary and junior high school whom I haven’t seen in four years. I also know this is the most memorable story of bumping into old friends in strange places imaginable.

In that instance, I discover that terror is temporary and happiness can be found in adventurous abandon. I will go crazy places, encounter bizarre situations and, catlike, end up on top with eight more lives and a good story to boot.

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