The year I spent in Texas was pretty much the worst year of my life.

Reed Junior High School had an Eighth Grade class of over 500 students – the school I moved away from had 20 – and I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of it, confused as well by a Texas culture that made no sense to me and upset that my parents would willfully uproot our family and bring us to this outlandish place.

We settled in Duncanville, a sprawling southern suburb of Dallas, in a rancher on Peach Street, part of a 1960s development with small but pleasant enough houses, rentals mostly.  The walk to school took about twenty minutes and brought me up to Vinyard Road at the edge of the neighbourhood – yes, Vinyard, not Vineyard – a street with a mystery to its name and characterized by larger lots and older, not always well-maintained, properties.

I don’t recall the first time I met Jude; it was his dogs who befriended me.

As I passed his run-down house early one September morning, the dogs, resting on the front porch, raised their old greying heads to eyeball me, then got their stiff legs under them enough to come padding slowly down the overgrown lawn, huffing and wagging their friendly greeting.  They were mongrels, of course, old and rotund, looking as if they might have some Lab and German Shepherd in their lineage.  They licked my hands, happily grunting and smiling, circling around until, as if by some secret signal or pre-determined agreement, in unison they abruptly ended the ceremony and headed back to the porch, throwing themselves down in their respective places and nodding off again, tired already from the social exertion.

Their names, as I learned later from Jude, were Obesitas and Katastrophe.

“Obi! Kati!” Jude would yell, himself barely visible in the darkened room behind the screen door, “Saviour Christ Almighty, git y’r asses back up here on the porch and leave that poor kid alone!”  Then the door would fly open and out he would come, maneuvering his wheelchair across the porch with remarkable speed and agility.

Jude’s legs were amputated above the knee.  He wore faded denim vests over white T-shirts, wire-rimmed glasses, and had long grey hair which he pulled back in a pony-tail. He was almost always surrounded by a sweet, grassy fragrance, something I only later in life came to recognize as weed.  It was impossible for me to tell his age, the wrinkles of his face being contradicted by his lean, strong arms.

It wasn’t long before the pattern of my homeward afternoon treks became punctuated with stops at Jude’s house, sitting on the top step of the porch with Obesitas and Katastrophe, Jude – having learned my preferences – fetching me a can of Mountain Dew from his fridge, pairing it with a packet of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as he educated me in all things Texas.  Many times, though, the house was quiet when I passed by, and occasionally there was a bright red pick-up truck parked out front.  From the front room came the deep, resonant voice of an unknown man in conversation with Jude.

The red pick-up was there again when, on a crisp February day, pulling the collar of my leather fleece jacket closer to my neck, I turned the corner and saw the flashing lights of paramedics parked outside Jude’s house.  I crossed the street to stand on the far side, not wanting to be in the way, not wanting to be too close to what was happening, appreciating that no-one else knew Jude was my friend.

There was a dark sedan there too, and another pick-up parked alongside, a white one with a canopy and meshed wire doors at the back.  Through the lattice, watching me in sad silence, I saw the long faces of Obi and Kati.  The whole scene was eerily quiet: four vehicles cluttered at the edge of the lawn, one with flashing white lights, and not a living soul to be seen, except the two dogs, heads bowed in dreadful, knowing expectation as they took it all in.

Presently the front door creaked open and a paramedic emerged pulling a stretcher, helped by a colleague on the other end, and carrying what must have been Jude’s remains, covered by a light blanket.  They expertly loaded the gurney into the ambulance, slammed the doors shut and drove away silently, the flashing lights switching off half-way down the block.

Another man emerged, this one wearing a tan khaki shirt and dark jacket with a City of Duncanville badge embroidered on the front.  Just as silently, he got in the white pick-up and drove away in the opposite direction.  I watched until he reached the intersection and the dogs disappeared from sight.

I wasn’t sure what to do now.  I wanted to go home, felt I should, but at the same time knew that doing so would somehow be a betrayal of the budding friendship I had with Jude.

Before long the two remaining men made their way outside, the older one pausing to lock the door behind them before they stood together for a moment taking their leave, the younger man in dress clothes finally initiating a handshake, then marching to the dark sedan and speeding off.  What remained was the shiny red pick-up truck and an older man.  He looked as big and strong as a bear.

He saw me across the street and stopped, considering.  Then, his mind made up, he came to me, exuding an air of authority that made it impossible for me to move.

“Hi, son,” he said, “you’re the young man who’s been stopping in to see Jude, am I right?”  Yes, it was that deep voice I had heard before, coming from Jude’s front room.

He knew he was right, but I confirmed it anyway: “Yessir,” I replied, adding eagerly, “I didn’t mean to pry, I just…wondered what was happening.”

“Rex,” he said, extending a baseball mitt sized hand.  I shook it, feeling even smaller than my 13 years, and told him my name.

“Well, son, it’s a sorry business, but I suspect you’ve figured it out by now.  Comes a day when we all have to meet our maker.  Did you know Jude well?”

“He was nice,” I said, not knowing how to answer. “The nicest person in the neighbourhood, if you ask me.”

Rex looked down at me; I could see he was deliberating about what should come next.

“That’s good of you to say,” he said, lowering his voice.  “I thought so too, though I reckon there are mighty few folk around here who would agree with you.”

“How do you mean?” I countered.  I couldn’t imagine anyone having anything bad to say about Jude and his two friendly dogs.

“Son, why don’t you hop in my truck for a bit, get out of the cold, and I’ll tell you all about our man Jude; probably best if you know the rest of the story.”

Jude, it seems, had in his early years been a particularly successful Dallas businessman.  He had it all, as they say – a high-powered job, a glamorous wife, a mansion of a house and a fleet of fast cars.  Then his wife became ill with a mysterious ailment, the doctors were at a loss, and ultimately she was left paralyzed below the waist.  She became depressed and weary of life, losing her sparkling personality and gaining much weight.  Jude couldn’t handle it; he despised who she had become.  He divorced her, the settlement making provision for her to be cared for in a home.

“And about six months later Jude and I met for the first time,” said Rex.  “Not really ideal circumstances, you could say.  You see, son, I’m the former Fire Chief of this city – retired now – and one day a call came in for a Corvette that had crashed and flipped out on Highway 67, threatening to burst into flames.  It was Jude.  Drunk and going way too fast.  Both his legs were caught when the engine block got pushed back into the footwell and in the end there was just no saving them.  Double amputation, the very next day.”

Obesitas and Katastrophe.  I kept my thoughts to myself.

“Anyway,” Rex sighed, “I fell into visiting Jude in the hospital, kind of felt sorry for him in spite of his shortcomings, and the visits never stopped. Well, until now, I guess.”  He went silent, staring out the windshield.

“What about the dogs?” I whispered, more to myself than to him.

Rex stirred.  “They’ll be put down,” he said, as gently as he could.  “Hell, they were in the pound waiting to be put down when Jude rescued them in the first place.  He loved them back to life and happiness, gave ’em a few extra years they couldn’t rightly expect to have, but there ain’t nobody gonna want two old hounds like that, ‘specially with such odd-ball names.  There comes a time when a stream has run its course, when the story comes to its proper end.  But I’m pretty sure, now everything is said and done, they will all finally rest in peace.”



When the Commies Came to Play

The year, I’m guessing, was 1973.  And it must have been late in the year because I remember the threat of rain throughout the day; Brasilia’s dry season had come and gone.

At the Summer Olympics the year before, the USA men’s basketball team had suffered a controversial and ignominious defeat at the hands of the USSR during the final match in Munich.  The Soviet players went home with gold medals and the Americans went home with…nothing: they refused to attend the medal ceremony or even accept their silver medals which, nearly 45 years later, are still being held by the International Olympic Committee, awaiting a change of heart by Team USA.

But the early 1970s was also the height of détente, the slow thawing of Cold War relationships, chief among them those nations which held nuclear arsenals.  Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR, and US President Richard Nixon met in Washington in June 1973, one of the high-water marks of the process.

In that spirit, with the Americans still bruised and sulking about a basketball game, and yet both nations looking for opportunities for gestures of good will, someone at the US Embassy in Brasilia came up with the idea of challenging the Soviet Embassy to a friendly basketball game.  A rematch.  Our embassy staff against yours.

Surprisingly, the offer was engaged.

The capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, was largely built in the 1960s, and among its planned oddities – a city of half a million people laid out in the pattern of a giant airplane and having no traffic lights? – was the fact that the embassies were allocated space based on the perceived importance of each nation to the people of Brazil.  So the closest embassy to the centre of government is that of the Vatican.  The second closest is Portugal, the mother country.  Third and fourth are toss-ups:  the USA and USSR.  It would have been easy enough for the one group of diplomats to walk to the other embassy after work – the embassies are literally just across the street from each other – but of course that would mean playing the game on partisan soil.  What was needed was a neutral venue that came with a decent basketball court.

And so it was that the compound of SIL – the Summer Institute of Linguistics, where my father had his print shop and where we lived – came to host the USSR v USA Basketball Rematch, Diplomats Edition.

The Americans arrived first, mid-afternoon, filling up the parking lot with their Chevy Suburbans and spilling onto the lawns around the basketball court.  Their team was far from the pencil-pushers we had generally expected; instead, it seemed populated almost entirely with young US Marines, no doubt the security detachment at the embassy, led by a particularly tough and foul-mouthed officer.  They warmed-up with the regimental discipline so typical of American sports teams, doing exercises and drills in unison, looking for all the world like winners.

Time ticked on.  The USSR didn’t show, and the Americans grew both impatient and undiplomatic.  “Those Ruskies, they ain’t nothing but no-good, lying chickens; make a gesture of good will with them and see where it gets you….”  (These are only the more polite of the many comments which were vented.)

In the end the Commies did come.  Late in the afternoon, I and some of the other neighbourhood boys acting as scouts as we stood with our feet on the bottom strand of the wire fence at the edge of the compound, spied a single ZiL limousine stopped on the street below.  Soon a long line of similar ZiLs eased slowly up the street, pulling in behind the first car, and parking where they stood.  Up the pathway came the Soviet team and their supporters, and what was immediately obvious to all was that their security detachment had been left at home; to a man, these men really were middle-aged pencil-pushing diplomats.

The game was a farce. In no time the young American team was winning by double digits, running circles around their Soviet opponents.  But even in winning the Americans could not help but let the unsettled score of the Olympics goad them on to bad behaviour, the brash Marine officer repeatedly picking fights for no apparent reason, glad to have an excuse to let loose another stream of expletives.  One by one, red-faced, huffing and puffing, the Soviet diplomats allowed themselves to be substituted by the SIL men who stood watching from the sidelines, my father – an American – included.

The teams shook hands at the end, the Americans exulting in their victory, high-fiving each other enthusiastically as they threw their gear into the Suburbans, driving off with horns honking in triumph.  The Soviets waited until the Americans were gone, thanked their hosts, and withdrew to their ZiLs, going as they came, disappearing around the corner in a long, dark uniform rank.

Travel Notes

When the wind blows from the North we can hear the train.

Not the thump-a-thump, thump-a-thump we heard as the carriages crossed the viaduct at the end of the street in the Czar Peter neighbourhood of Amsterdam, when the bedroom windows stood futilely open on hot summer nights; nor even the vague and distant rumble of the Canadian Pacific, now in Abbotsford, British Columbia, when the traffic at the corner had finally gone to bed, leaving the throb of massive diesel engines and myriad steel wheels to roll up to us from the Matsqui prairie, mixing gently with our dreams.  No, here the Chiltern Railways up Ruislip way sounds more akin to someone sliding a dinner plate across a stainless steel counter, a long metallic swoosh drawing ever away, disappearing into silence.

What did travel first sound like to me?

Perhaps it was the comforting two-stoke knock of the Recreio, the reliable Amazonian riverboat that would fetch us from the mission station in the pre-dawn darkness, tying up briefly at the flutuante, the mantels of the Coleman lanterns casting white-hot light across the dock as the assorted luggage and goods of the locals – homemade hammocks, pods of Brazil nuts, large smoky balls of real rubber – were quickly loaded aboard, headed upriver to the markets at Manaus and onward to the world beyond.

Later, as a teenager in Brasilia, bed-time coincided with the last flight from BSB, a VASP Boeing 727 whose Pratt & Whitney engines emitted an almighty scream as it climbed for the clouds, headed north over the planalto. I would pull the sheet up over my head in a vain attempt to fend off the mosquitos, and dream of far-away places.

The other day, descending the stairs of a London double-decker, pitching this way and that as the bus drew up to the stop, I pushed my way through the crowd of fellow commuters and stepped out into the roar of the airport. The smell of kerosene filled the air.  Looking East toward the rising sun I could see the ascending lights of five aircraft stacked up in their final approach; “Five times two”, I told myself, “ten miles of traffic I can see with the naked eye; and probably about a thousand passengers, all told.”

I never get over it.  How modern transport has so completely changed the world, how it has become so easy to move across the globe.  Ninety years ago, in 1927, my grandfather took his bride from Chicago to Seattle in a Ford Model T; upon arrival, my big-city grandmother didn’t like the look of the frontier town one bit, so they turned around and went home again.  The trip took three months.

Three of our daughters will be gathering in Edmonton, Alberta for Christmas this year, but we’ll be staying home in London.  Before the New Year we need to be in Amsterdam, where our fourth daughter is expecting a baby.  Oh well, I suspect we’ll all meet up again sometime next summer.

Where, I’m not yet sure; but really, does it matter?  Wherever it is, it’s less than a day away.


Wearing a business suit and putting on a lanyard at the bottom of which dangles a security pass extending to me complete airport access gives me another privilege too, an odd and unexpected social permission: to look at people .  The assumption on the part of those who see me is that I must be a person of some authority, that I have the right, perhaps the duty, to let my gaze linger if I wish, to carefully consider what I see.

And I do.  I look at people.  Far more than I ever do when I am a traveler myself, I pay attention to those I see, I read their faces, see their emotions, sense their weariness and anxiety, their tears and confusion.

Today I saw a woman whose face was badly scarred and whose manner told me she had suffered much for it.  She seemed to make herself smaller, following an erratic path as she repeatedly shrank from oncoming passers by.

When she saw me looking at her, knew that I had seen her features yet did not shy away from holding her gaze, she was visibly strengthened by the encounter, pulling herself up to her true height.


In Peterhead we saw a house whose uneven roof tiles told a story.

During the war the airplanes came one evening to bomb the harbour.  They missed their target, the bombs falling several hundred metres up the hill in the centre of town.  At that moment a children’s piano recital was being held in one of the homes.  The house took a direct hit, the piano flying over the roofs of an adjoining row of houses.

All the children died, but one.  Moments before the bomb exploded the young lad was sent to another room for misbehaving.

We wondered at the untold story, of a life lived under the weight of such grace.


Coming home, boarding the train, I slowed to fall into step behind a blind woman with a guide dog leading the way. As we proceeded slowly down the aisle, low and behold, another blind woman was seated up ahead with an almost identical dog.

The dog still leading the way saw this too and, reaching the other dog, decided that his person had gone far enough, choosing for her an empty seat directly across the aisle. So now the dogs were nose to nose, greeting each other.

The woman who was seated first noticed her dog acting strangely and said something to him. The woman seated second recognized her voice and said, “Oh, is that you Jane?”. And then they had a good chuckle and started off on a conversation.

Obviously the dogs were friends too.

British Electricity

Among the first things one notices about the British is their dysfunctional relationship with electricity.

There seems to be an underlying conviction that, at any moment, this unpredictable menace will leap from the wall and strike one dead. There is a presumption of evil here, of malicious intent. When and by what means, in the infancy of the creation of a national grid, the collective psyche suffered such an injurious and enduring trauma I will leave to qualified commentators of history, but clearly no other explanation can be found at the root of the overly cautious measures taken to protect the populace from a shocking end.

There’s a switch on everything. No, there are switches, plural, on everything.

The steaming cup of tea at my elbow illustrates the point admirably. Before the powers inherent in the force of nature we know as electricity can be applied to the problem of turning cold water to hot, the unsuspecting current must pass the watchful eye of no fewer than three gatekeepers, each fully capable of halting its progress. The first and last of these are familiar enough in all developed nations: a fuse box where the current enters the household, and an “on / off” switch at the end of the journey, on the appliance itself, in this case a kettle.

But a system that so admirably suffices for the protection and maintenance of the good health and wellbeing of citizens flying other flags has, inexplicably, been found sorely lacking in this otherwise so sensible realm. Here, an extra sentinel has been deemed essential. Standing between the vibrant power hidden in the wiring behind the wall socket and the chord of the appliance itself is a third, ubiquitous, barrier: every wall socket has its own “on / off” switch which, after having received the abuse of a three-pronged, fist-sized earthed plug thrust upon it, must itself be switched on.

And lest one be so feeble of mind as to forget that the potentially fatal energy is now free to roam hither and thither where it will, a helpful reminder is prominently displayed on the side of the activated button in the form of an indelibly printed red mark or (Capital Letters) “ON” notice.

But, I observe, this too is not enough. In practice the average Brit will not be satisfied to merely switch the wall socket off again once the required electrical current has been utilized. No, after turning the switch off they will instinctively take the additional, and wholly extraneous, measure of unplugging the appliance entirely. There is no trust whatsoever that the multiple safeguards already built into the system will avail the user of adequate protection.

I’ve not been in Britain more than a day and already I find myself markedly more skeptical and wary of the intentions of electricity. Suddenly it seems an inexcusable misdemeanor, if not the highest order of negligence, that I should fail to flip that red-tipped switch to “off” just as soon as my tea is ready. How long before I succumb to the habit of pulling the plug from the wall as well?

Never mind; I purpose to become fully enculturated in my newfound home; to embrace these curious rituals even as I am left to ponder anew the grace of God in securing my survival during so many blissfully ignorant and apparently dangerous years as I sojourned among other, less cautious, peoples.

Lockheed Electra

In the autumn of 1972 I was ten years old and my parents were heading back to Brazil.

My father was a printer by trade and after having spent nearly a decade with a mission agency in Manaus, followed by a three-year transition in Florida, he was now opening a new publishing and print operation in Brasilia.

We spent the summer in Seattle, from where the family originally hailed, staying in an empty University of Washington sorority house. At the end of August there was a car, a big Chevy, that needed to make a one-way trip to an address in Los Angeles; my two brothers and I spent the journey arguing about whose turn it was to sit in the middle.

Somewhere in southern Oregon or northern California we stayed the night with acquaintances of my parents. In the morning, making our departure, I got a quick kick in the backside for making a comment I had heard somewhere and that my 10-year-old brain thought fitting to the moment of taking leave: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you!”

Los Angeles was a blur; I don’t remember it. The next thing I remember was a choppy descent into the sketchy airport at Guatemala City where we would spend a few weeks so my father could consult with a printer there. All the other kids were in school already so we felt special being able to run around and play all day.

Then a skip of a flight to Panama City where we made a late night transfer to a plane bound for Bogota, passing the hours in-between watching the insects find an explosive end in the industrial-sized bug zappers of the airport lounge.

I’m not sure why we spent a few days in Bogota, Colombia, probably something more to do with printing. But when we were ready to go again we caught a SAM Colombia flight headed for Manaus, in Brazil. The airplane was a Lockheed L-188 Electra.


SAM Colombia Lockheed Electra

At the rear the windows were placed increasingly close together, taking advantage of the curvature of the aircraft to create an almost panoramic view.  There was a lounge there which, as soon as take-off was complete, my brothers and I immediately laid claim to. There were few other passengers anyway.

Stewardess [flight attendant] offering fruit tray to one of three passengers seated in Lockheed Electra lounge.

A Lockheed Electra lounge; this one from Eastern Airlines.

Bogota to Manaus is roughly a thousand kilometres, almost entirely over the Amazon jungle.  We sat there forever, hanging over the dark green carpet below, looking for rivers and lost tribes.  It was magical.

Then it all turned a bit scary.  One of the four engines on the Electra started smoking, sputtered and died, the propeller coming to a standstill.  The captain came on the intercom to tell us that we would have to turn back to Bogota.  Suddenly the fun was over and the jungle below seemed more menacing than delightful.

Of course we made it back to Bogota just fine and we eventually transferred to a different plane.  We got to Manaus where, even for a 10-year-old, the heat and humidity was truly oppressive. Again, we spent a few days visiting before finally making the last leg of our journey: to Brasilia, the then brand new capital of Brazil and the crowning jewel of the genius of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer.

I was late to 5th grade.  Way late.  Homework with fractions gave me evenings of headaches and tears until it finally clicked for me the next year. Mrs. Springer was half-way through A Wrinkle in Time and I never did quite get it.

But it was worth it.  The memory of that hop down the West Coast, through Central America and over the Amazon will always stay with me, and especially the view from the back of a Lockheed Electra.