In the fall towards the end of my 7th year we left our precious and protected bubble-life among the BayAryans, and flew to an overseas destination that was anything but protected.
It was on a cool and blustery morning that we climbed into a hulking Pan-Am helicopter at the local airport and flew up to the big airport in San Francisco, then away to foreign land on a Pan-Am Jet Clipper 707s. Hawaii our first destination was delicious nectar. We stayed with old Missionary friends of my parents and ate poi at Church on Sunday – a slightly different take on the usual Communion Host. A few days later Japan was next and it was raining upon arrival. Tokyo was *interesting* wet-and-hot, and more Church friends to visit in Kyoto. Following that we arrived in Bangkok Thailand (and stayed in a Missionary bungalow – you get the picture?). The waterways called klongs and general environment was exotic beyond belief, and the heat had increased. Our friends there were the Naval Attaché whom my dad knew from Annapolis. Finally we landed in Calcutta – which was hotter than hell and stank like the devil, and still a hundred miles from our final destination.
At eight years old, desperately bored in the heat and humidity of the blistering sun, I would lay on my stomach on the cool red-purple tile floor and choose a random volume from the Encyclopedia, and open it up to and read. The first long, multisyllabic word that I asked my older brother how to spell was, “How do you spell, Machine-gun?” And he replied patiently because he was a whole year-and-a-half older, “Mac-Hine-Gun – you pathetic moron.” So learned to spell Machine-gun and studied its operation.
The diagrams in the Encyclopaedia Britannica for the air-cooled gas-operated .30 Caliber gun were tiny but detailed, with arrows and numbers. It was a treasure-trove. My young eyes and inquiring mind sought out each detail, from the combustion of the propellant, to the bullets’ travel, to the gas pushing on the bolt to reverse the bolt impulse, to cambering another cartridge – and it was there that I knew the cartridge was not one thing – a bullet – but that it was comprised of other components: primer, case, powder, bullet. Like how molecules build on atoms, and dysentery was made of various stains of surly and extremely unpleasant amoeba molecules that could nearly kill you as fast as a bullet. And I got sick that winter and nearly died. There was a week-long period of simultaneous vomiting and diarrhea until I was so weak I couldn’t stand up from my bed and had to crawl into the bathroom. It sure seemed like I was done-for, and that’s how I remember it , but my parents don’t seem to remember anything much except for few doctor visits from the Missionary Clinic. It must have been something bad in the food or unsanitary food-handling that even the unpleasant typhoid-cholera-diphtheria shots didn’t help.
Between the age of eight and eleven, I could tell you about many of the makes and models of WWI aircraft that ever flew – including their horsepower-to-weight ratio and engine size/hp – because I was busy reading, and the Encyclopedia Britannica had flight instructions and take-off and landing procedure as-documented were also very studiously examined, and nearly as important as reading Biggles – the legendary British airman, of whom the adventures were usually available at the railway station reading/magazine cart.
I read about Otto Lilienthal who flew gliders in Germany and shifted his weight around to control them. I read about the aces like the American Frank Luke who landed and took-off from a German observation dirigible, and race-car driver Eddie Rickenbacker, and the Canadians Ray Collishaw who flew a Sopwith Triplane, and Billy Bishop who flew an S.E.5a with a Lewis Gun mounted atop the wing and who may have shot-down and the Red Baron – Manfred Von Richthofen. And in reading all this I also learned about Richard Wagner, the composer of the Flying Dutchman and the great French Aces like Georges Guynemer and Charles Nungesser .
So I *knew* how machine-guns worked and also *how* to fly, and my brother and I built numerous tissue-paper covered model airplanes – not just from those simple die-cut and numbered “kits,” but hand-built from wax-paper diagrams pinned down to a table where you had to cut all your own sticks and pieces and spars and shapes. The center-of-gravity was a known concept and necessary component to aircraft design, and when I was nine I was determined to build a glider, and fly it off the rooftop of the old, three-story Missionary Bungalow. Mom (always) said, “Not today, we’ll do that another time.” And so my plans for a fabric-winged bamboo airplane never took final shape because it was dangerous.
Which was weird because we played with knives and the other usual dangerous toys, shot airguns (that were heavily controlled), swung from tall trees out over a canyon after jumping off a roof, slept under mosquito nets to avoid Malaria, traveled on steam-locomotives that stank like the devil, saw Leprosy and Elephantiasis close-up, had cobras rounded up from the garden – and generally lived amid a diverse population of where aboriginal bow-and-arrow hunters wearing only a lungi could be found sharing-space on the train platform next to a well-to-do Babu in perfect saffron-colored Kurta and Dhoti standing next to a khaki-dressed soldier holding a black-painted Short Magazine Lee Enfield with it’s forearm wrapped in wire.
And then they shipped us off to Boarding School and everything changed, again…