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A STUDENT OF CHINA
I am six years old and my father is eating breakfast. He hunches at the table in our sparse dining room, his biceps fleshy beneath the sleeves of his T-shirt. The meat at the base of his thick neck folds redly. He is reading the newspaper. Now and then his spoon, wandering forward on its own, takes a stab into his cornflakes, which are sprinkled with wheat germ. When he has finished eating breakfast, he will dress, walk the hundred yards to the curb of South Stafford, catch the bus into Washington. He'll get off at the terminal at 12th and Pennsylvania and walk to his State Department building on 23rd Street.
He's an expert on China—a "China observer." It's one of the reasons why he reads the morning paper. He's always busy prowling, I am told, for news about it.
He says to my mother, gruffly, "Have you set out my suit yet?"
"Which one?" she asks.
"The herringbone," he answers. His eyes remain glued to some story in the Post. "And transfer my things."
"What tie do you want?"
His head lifts. He glares at her. "For Christ's sake, Peg! I don't really care!" His gaze dives back down into the grottoes of the Post. "Just make sure that it matches my shirt."
The things to be transferred: Watch. Wallet. Loose change. His spool of dental floss. Keys. A fresh handkerchief that my mother has ironed.
Breakfast is over. My father lifts himself. He marches up to the bathroom to brash and floss his teeth, andto administer olive oil to his dark, straight hair, which he keeps well cut. He favors olive oil on the grounds that it keeps your scalp loose; you should also wrinkle your brow on a regular basis to keep your scalp from getting tight. Tightness of scalp promotes early hair loss. He brushes his hair with ruthless vigor.
"Is my suit out?" he calls.
My parents' bedroom is on the ground floor of our apartment, at the greatest possible distance from the bathroom upstairs. My mother is in their bedroom, or else in the kitchen, busy fixing us breakfast.
"Peg!" my father bellows. "Have you put out my suit yet?"
"Yes," she calls out wearily.
"Have you transferred my things?"
Again she calls out: "Yes!"
In the same loud voice: "Get out my brown shoes!"
"My brown shoes! Get them out! Goddamit, can't you hear?"
My mother appears at the bottom of the stairs, dish towel in hand. "Ted, I'm busy," she explains. "The boys must eat breakfast."
"I'M GOING TO BE LATE!" he screams down at her.
"Your things are all out."
A roll of thunder down the stairs. A furious scrabbling in their bedroom. My father, at last, appears, neatly dressed, elegant, handsome. His hair is slicked back and his shoes are well polished.
"My briefcase? Where's my briefcase?"
"Here." My mother is standing by the front door with his briefcase. She wears a stiff expression.
"All right," says my father. "Good! Now: Tie my tie!"
He gazes into the distance, the line of his jaw tight. His back is straight, his arms militarily rigid at his sides. He looks like a cross between a thoroughly spoiled child and a ferocious drill sergeant.
My mother throws a four-in-hand: the broad part of the tie around the narrow part. Around; under; up; through. Down. She tightens and straightens.
The whole times she is doing this, my father is criticizing. "That's too tight. Loosen a little. I'm going to be late. I wish the hell you'd get my stuff ready for me sooner. Are my dispatches in my briefcase?" It goes on and on.
The tie, at last, is finished. My father grabs his briefcase and his raincoat. "Is there money in my wallet?"
"Yes," my mother answers. "A five and five ones."
He kisses my mother quickly, saying nothing to me or my brothers. He slams out the door, joining the stream of other fathers who flow downtown to be absorbed by the government offices.
"You have to understand! Cruelty means absolutely nothing in China ..."
The Fairlington Theatre! The Saturday matinee! When the house lights dim and the great velvet curtains swing open with a rustle, it feels as if I'm falling into a pleasant, wakeful dreamspace, chuting down the Warner Brothers music that always starts the afternoon.
The newsreel today begins with footage of an air show. B-29s crowd the sky in formation, propellers in a roar, the planes as neatly spaced against the backdrop of clouds as checkers on a board. The camera cuts abruptly to the throng of spectators, where a pigtailed girl and her stupidly hatted mother are waving patriotic pennants as the planes swarm over. The girl and her mother are smiling. Their free hands are raised to shield their eyes from the sun.
The context alters, transporting us to China. The announcer's voice, so commanding and mellow, is intoning matter-of-factly about mass executions that are under way in Peking. Men are being led out one after another in rapid succession into the center of a huge square. Each has his hands tightly tied behind his back and wears a loose, baggy shift that looks like pajamas. A small paper target with a bull's-eye in its middle has been fastened to the back of each victim's neck. Without ceremony, each of these men is driven to his knees and dispatched with a bullet at the base of the head.
Wave upon wave of men is hurried forth and shot. The city square has filled with their ungainly corpses.
I am gripped by an iron first. Not only the executions but the sheer numbers awe me. How could anybody—? It stuns me even more that these men die unprotesting. Die resigned, wholly silent. Why aren't they fighting? As their bodies fall forward, their broad, impassive Faces smash hard against the bricks, and their legs jerk briefly. Nothing more to it. For the uniformed guards who are executing them, the work is routine.
I feel caged, suddenly: straps have been fastened across my chest and firmly tightened. I want to look away, but can't. I grope for breath. My bowels go loose. Again I hear the announcer: "In a purge of the landlords," he intones, "the Communist leaders ..."
Numbness settles on me; I scarcely even notice Tom Mix and his cronies fighting off the bad guys and vanquishing the Indians. My father's words return to me: "You have to understand! Though Chinese civilization is ancient, cruelty means absolutely nothing in China; human life is worthless. They shit in the streets there. They eat dogs, you know; to tenderize the meat, they hang the critters up in trees and beat them to death. With a stick. Yes. A stick. The first time I saw it, it was very hard to watch. But you get used to it. You can get used to anything."
I step out of the theater into the afternoon sunlight. It's July 1950. My eyes blink and water as they straggle to adjust. Objects seem magnified; the swish and rustle of passing cars sounds extra-loud. My hands won't stop shaking. I climb onto my bike to wobble the half mile home.
When I get there, our place is empty. Jesus. Where is everybody? I hear my father's words again: "They shit in the streets there ... But you get used to it. You can get used to anything."
I'm not sure I can. I cast about our apartment for immediate comfort. Eventually I'm led to the big corner cupboard that dominates our dining room. It's an old maple piece that my father has refinished. He'd brought back with him, from his second trip to China just six months ago, a Chinese silver tea set that is kept in this cupboard. Scenes of life in China decorate all its pieces—the teapot, the coffeepot, the creamer, the sugar bowl. I lift out the teapot. The scenes on it show people laboring in paddies, or pulling heavy wagons up trails in steep mountains, or fishing in fast rivers with bamboo fishing rods. Everything is delicate. Peaceful. Harmonious. The people wear clothes that look like Japanese kimonos, intricate, embroidered. The women have their hair tightly pulled back in buns. Everybody smiles. Then how—?
I put the teapot back and step out the front door, into the long summer twilight. Where the hell is my family?
"They shit in the streets there ..."
Recently, the Joneses—Ed and Phil—have stopped by. Brothers, sons of Protestant missionaries, they grew up in China and speak fluent Chinese. Ed's a colleague of my Father's in the China Branch, at State. Phil is an agent for the CIA. Former OSS members, just like my father, they'd been with him out in Kunming, China, at the close of the war.
I've come into the room while Ed is saying to my father, "So. What do you think?"
The three men fall silent.
"Dick!" my father says. He nods his head only slightly.
Russia has been mentioned, Russia and China, and a new place, North Korea. It's always this way: their voices drop to a murmur in the midst of what appears to be a casual get-together. They are waiting for us—their kids, their wives—to leave the room.
So they can talk.
At night, when the planes fly over, I am lifted from my sleep. We live beneath the flight path into Washington National Airport, just five miles away. The pad of Fairlington we live in sits high on a hill looking out toward the Pentagon, and beyond that the city. The roar of the big planes on these humid summer nights shakes and rattles our apartment and jerks me upright on my mattress. Is it—? Has it begun—? Hot sweat pours from me. My mouth is chalk-dry.
I live around people who know too much.
Posted December 9, 2008
This autobiography is part frightening, part awe inspiring and part shocking as it dives into the generation war between the 'greatest generation' having fought in WW II and the Cold War, and their seemingly soft children. Ted Wertime was a Renaissance man having succeeded in music, espionage, diplomacy, and history. However, he also was an abusive spouse and father with his crowning achievement in his mind being the Citadel on top of the Southern Pennsylvania Allegheny Mountains. Ted tried to mold his children into his macho view of the world, which he expected to end soon. <P> Although he exposes himself, his siblings, and his parents to the world via this book, Richard Wertime has not written a papa dearest. Instead, this combination autobiography-biography paints a picture of a brilliant, but disturbed father passing dysfunctional relationships onto at least his second son, who copycats him. Surprisingly, this book does not seem as if it provides closure to the author who failed to attain that when his father rejected the touchy-feely notion even when Ted lay dying. Instead, it is a combination healing experience for the disturbed author and a reminder to the audience that parents have more than an obligation to their children, who need lots of love. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.