My Dad was born in Shanghai a few years before the Chinese Revolution of 1924-27. His father was an executive with a multinational corporation, charged with revving up the company’s operations in China at the time my Dad stepped out of the womb.
Stories I’ve heard suggest that my grandparents were more interested in entertaining business associates than in raising a family. My Dad and his sister were cared for by a Chinese nurse, and for the first few years of his life Dad spoke a pidgin Chinese that only the three of them understood. He told me a couple of times how frustrating it was to try communicating with his parents only to have them laugh at his “cute” attempts to do so.
As revolution spread in China, my grandfather was transferred to South Africa. The family home (pic1, pic2, pic3, pic4) in Johannesburg had tennis courts and a complete complement of cooks, drivers, butlers, gardeners, and maids. My Dad attended British schools in which he was occasionally whacked with a cane across his backside or hit with a ruler until the palm of his hand was a single giant blister. Even as an adult he thought it worthwhile to have been caned for once referring to the headmaster of his school as ‘Lord Plushbottom.’ Gotta respect that.
When my grandfather’s health began to fail, the family left Johannesburg and settled in a suburb of New York City in 1933. What a miserable time to be the new kid. After years in British schools, Dad’s lack of familiarity with American culture, education, and sports, and his British accent and sensibilities, made him stick out like a sore thumb. And his father was dying. And it was the middle of the Great Depression. And he was a teenager.
Somehow my Dad made it through high school. His older sister had her heart set on studying fashion design in NYC, but by that time the family could not afford higher education for both kids. Because he was the boy, it was determined that my Dad would go to college and study engineering. His sister rarely missed an opportunity to remind him that she regarded his education as at her expense, something she appeared to resent for the rest of her life.
Dad studied industrial engineering at New York University and aeronautical engineering at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute. During his college years he and some friends bought an old wooden boat; he rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle; and some time in this era he earned his private pilot’s license. His eyesight wasn’t good enough to become a military pilot in World War II as he’d hoped, but the US needed engineers to build planes in support of the war effort. He went to work for Pratt & Whitney, then moved across the country to San Diego and worked for a company that manufactured aircraft engine pods.
Dad met, dated, and married my Mom in San Diego. We’ll see what I can dig out of the archives about the beginnings of their torrid love affair.
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It helps me to imagine my father riding a big old Harley, sailing with his buddies on Long Island Sound, and learning something as adventuresome as flying a small plane.
It helps me to see pictures of him as a laughing, happy-go-lucky young man after his not-very-happy boyhood years.
It helps me to realize that some of the activities (sailing, swimming, tinkering) I enjoy most, and in which I have great confidence, are things he taught me.
And maybe when Susan reads this, she’ll be more receptive to my occasional wistfulness for a motorcycle…