The Reason for My Madness, Part I

People often ask me how I came about my love for other cultures and languages. It has recently occurred to me that I have never written this story down, and yet it is one of the most defining chapters in my life.

I was born in the state of Wyoming to Texan parents. When I was five years old, my parents embarked on an adventure that would change not only their lives, but would shape my own: they joined a missionary team bound for Perth, Western Australia. I was the second of four boys; the youngest was born in Texas just weeks before we headed Down Under. So with all four boys in tow, stair-stepped in height and age, we boarded a plane in Dallas. After two or three layovers (I remember Honolulu and either Fiji or American Samoa, and Sydney, at whose zoo I held my first koala), we landed in Perth.

Perth-Australia

Perth, Western Australia

My memories of Perth are patchy. I remember there was no kindergarten, so I started first grade at five  years old. Because I had no American reference point as far as school was concerned, there were no major adjustments to be made. I also remember the tiny house my parents built at 1 Gill Street, and being such a voracious reader that my teachers had to look for more books for me to read. (I’ve spent my life trying to recover that love for reading. See my friend Jason Leonard’s blog post on the subject at theunitive.com.)

The most shaping experience, however, was not living in Perth for almost four years, but the trip home to the States. For reasons that I can only speculate about now, as both my parents are deceased, they decided to “take the long way home.” Rather than flying back the way we had come, they chose to return to the States by ship. Perhaps it was actually cheaper, in the mid-1960’s, to sail rather than fly. Perhaps they simply wanted to treat us to an unforgettable adventure. In any case, what could have taken two days instead became a five-week odyssey that changed me forever.

We boarded the SS Canberra, a 45,000-ton liner now dwarfed by many of today’s cruise ships. But it was almost brand new, and this 9-year-old thought he had landed in the lap of luxury. Meals for children were served separately, and we could order anything on the menu — can it get any better than that? I have vague memories of crazy ceremonies that involved being dipped in ice cream and then thrown in swimming pools and men dressed up like Neptune at the crossing of the equator. But what branded me for life were the ports of call along the journey.

colombo-poverty

Poverty in Colombo

The first stop was Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, still called Ceylon at the time. I remember very little of the place, but what I do remember will forever be etched in my mind: as we walked along the dirty streets, among the beggars were children whose legs had been broken up behind them by their handlers, consigned to a life of panhandling. As they scooted along the dusty roads with their tin cups, I remember a melange of horror, helplessness and compassion as I tried to process what I was witnessing for the first time. Lesson 1 for the 9-year-old: there was great poverty and injustice in this world, and I could only be protected from it for so long.

To be continued…

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