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A Life in Two Worlds
By Thomas Hughes
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Thomas Hughes
All rights reserved.
Travelling became part of my life well before I could remember. It gave me the opportunity to learn about different cultures and idiosyncracies, visit the most diverse geographical settings and develop my power of observation and photographic memory.
I shall always be grateful to my school teachers for their encouragement and guidance toward developing the habit of keeping a diary. It was the beginning of my penchant for writing. I discovered it was easier for me to write about my feelings, emotions and experiences than to express them verbally. The smallest detail would easily catch my eye.
Throughout the years of intermingling in the international professional communities of South America, North America and Europe, I would maintain that discipline of writing down my observations on places I visited, people I met and situations that brought to light major differences in approach and behaviour.
Later in life, I prompted myself to read again the manuscripts written in orderly dates and in consecutive copybooks. They were all kept locked inside my desk. Year after year, I kept them numbered, and when there was no more space to place those copybooks, I would store them in a safe at home. The pages of some of those copybooks had aged and turned yellow. I read them over and decided that I wanted to improve the structure and condense occurrences into a more dramatic or humorous analytical writing. It was like a therapeutical encounter and full acceptance of the past. However, full acceptance didn't mean approval of all events in my life, but rather agreement to be open to the experience of each special moment, even if the most intimate.
My first trip took place six months after I saw light in a maternity clinic in the city of Santos, Brazil, in June nineteen thirty-four. My parents and I were going to spend Christmas in England. At that time, Europe was concerned about the very near future while North America was doing great, depression was well over and the automobile industry was booming. Interest rates had gone down and housing was again at almost everybody's reach. So, why was Europe concerned? England and other European countries were beginning to seriously worry about the activities of a pint-sized German socialist politician, particularly their neighbouring countries and, of course, the Jews.
Mother, born in Hungary, was concerned about her country and the fate of the friends and family she left behind. She had lost both parents at the age of eight and was brought up by her grandmother and an aunt, a ballerina. Soon after her parents' death, her aunt was offered a contract with the renowned Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires and took her mother and Mother with her. A few years later her grandmother died and eventually the aunt married a Swiss who had business in Brazil. The aunt moved to São Paulo with her husband and took Mother along. A few years later, just after Mother's eighteenth birthday, she was offered a job in Santos. It was a friend of her aunt's who got her the job. At that time, Father was a merchant naval captain, whose ship was discharging goods in the port of Santos and reloading coffee, fruit and other merchandise back to England. He loved the sea. As he would often tell me, it was its grandeur and immensity that had captured him. At the age of seventeen, he joined the navy to fight in the First World War. That's how much he loved the sea. Mother and Father married in nineteen thirty-three and soon after Father proved that his love for Mother was deeper than his love for the sea. Mother had threatened him with choosing between her and the sea. Father then requested his shipping company for a ground job so he was relocated to Santos to improve the weight distribution on board the company's ships. And that is the reason why I was born in Santos, a small place, but the biggest Brazilian port, located an hour south of São Paulo, a huge industrial city that represented almost sixty percent of what Brazil manufactured at that time.
Most of my childhood was spent commuting between two continents, one old, one new, Europe and South America. During my early school years, I was encouraged to develop my natural power of observation and report my findings. Consequently, I became very good at creative writing, my travelling experiences offering material a-plenty. The British education system instilled in me the sense of discipline that I always applied to all aspects of my life and helped me keep my notes organized year after year. Extensive travelling through Latin America accompanied much of my professional life and increased the number of notebooks I filled with enriching observations on different cultures, peoples, customs and locations.
We spent every Christmas at my grandfather's home in North Wales. Capel Curig, where he lived, was a small village surrounded by mountains and deep green valleys. A few shops, a Post Office and a small church next to the transparent little creek, were the main attractions. Several houses offered bed and breakfast to the tourists that came to the area for fishing and trekking. Lots of campers visited in the summer.
Father was one of seven children, three girls and four boys. One of the boys died soon after I was born; he was the eldest. Then there was Kathryn, Father, Ian, Jennifer, Nancy and Henry. Ian was an electrical engineer. His arthritis and asthma prevented him from being drafted. He married Joan, who was a certified nurse. Ian died when I was at school in Harrow. Kathryn married Harold, an accountant, and I got to see them quite often in later years. Jennifer, God save her soul, also died when I was still in Harrow. As a matter of fact, all members of this family, with the exception of Kathryn and Father, died at a considerable young age. Henry was the black sheep of the family. He had no steady job and no formal high education. As the French would say, he was a "Bon Vivant". He joined the RAF and was shot down in Burma, where he died in hospital a few days later. He will always be remembered as the first royal Air Force aviator to be shot down in the Second World War. Nancy was the big shot in the Hewlett family. She had an Oxford degree and was a brilliant mind. She married John, also an eminence in education. He was a history professor, and a good one too, very much liked by both students and peers. When Nancy died of bone cancer, he was desolate and became very ill. Jennifer, Ian's widow, went over to take care of John when he left hospital. They were both in their early sixties. They became close, so much so, that a couple of years after Nancy's death, they decided to get married. They were together for over twenty years, until John passed away in his sleep. Jennifer followed him soon after from liver complications.
It is said the age of reasoning comes at seven, not so for memories.
Several important facts made Christmas of 1939 different and I remember most of them. War was declared, Father announced he had been drafted and it was the last time all the Hewletts would reunite around the Christmas table, the annual gathering Grandfather cherished so much. Father would mention this time and time again. We were already in North Wales when he received the draft order. This particular Christmas, Capel Curig was all white, covered with snow. The whole Hewlett clan gathered in front of the fireplace, waiting to see who would be called to carve the turkey. Ian anticipated he was out of the list. Henry, the lazy one, pointed at Father saying that, as a young boy, he wanted to become a veterinarian and vets know where bone joints are. Father used to laugh a lot at Henry's silly remarks, this time it was not even true. What he always said he wanted was to own a ship and live on it. Anyway, he carved the turkey and when everyone was well into emptying their plates, Father made the announcement. Silence reigned in the dining room for a few minutes. Henry broke the silence, as most were looking at Mother to see her reaction.
"Congratulations, Edward, that makes two in the family who are going to fight this war."
"You are wrong, Henry", Jennifer stood up and continued, "it's three of us who are going to win this war. I volunteered as a nurse."
"Good grief", Mother said as she was getting up from the table. She mumbled some words in Spanish and dashed to the foot of the stairs.
"Sue, please", Father approached her and grabbed her arm. She turned round and said, "I cannot understand you and your family. Why are you all so eager to go to war?"
"Sue, dear. It is difficult to explain to you that we are not a family of warriors, quite the contrary, we are peaceful citizens. But when we see Hitler attacking and invading entire nations, we feel he needs to be stopped. We are going to war to protect our families and neighbours.
We cannot say it is the Danish, the Poles or the French war against that lunatic, crazy German. If we don't do something about it, next we know he is invading us and getting stronger and destroying Europe. He will then decide who is fit to live and who must die, and we cannot allow this to happen. Just imagine if Hitler decided that you could no longer take care of little Billy and you would have to turn him in to the Germans, so that they would place him in a training camp together with thousands of other little boys and girls." Father had to choose the simplest way to explain Mother his reason for joining the navy.
Finally, peace and calm was restored and everyone returned to the table to finish our meal. It was to be the last Christmas lunch before England enforced food-rationing cards. I remember how little we were allowed to eat during the war. And even after the war ended, rationing continued for quite some time. During my school years, I was really lucky because all my aunts and uncles would pass on their chocolate rationing cards to me.
And Father went to war. Several times I caught Mother crying after he left, so she would quickly reassure me saying everything would turn out fine. Months later, a German submarine near the Portuguese coast sank Father's ship and he was seriously wounded. However, he and about ten other survivors were rescued, after spending over forty-eight hours lying on a sort of raft in freezing waters. It took Father another three or four days to reach London. By then, he had developed pneumonia, so he spent two weeks in hospital under medical supervision and then continued his recovery at home. A spokesperson from the naval intelligence service visited him a couple of times and they would have private conversations behind closed doors. He received his instructions in early nineteen forty-two. He was to fly to Pernambuco, Brazil, right away and meet with James Granger, the American Consul in Recife. Father was required to take his family along on this mission. Father thought it was a great opportunity to be close to Sue and myself, little Billy, as he would call me. While Father was in hospital, I visited him every day after school. I would tell him that although I was not quite six, I could read fast and I would read to him from my school reading book. He was impressed at how fast I could read, what he didn't know is that I was going so fast because I knew almost all the words by heart. Father would tell me stories of how he sank ships and how the big blazes of fire would illuminate the sky at night. I was fascinated by those stories. What I found difficult to understand was a fire starting in the middle of the ocean and lasting so long if water puts fire off. But I never dared question Father about it.
Our house in England, near South Harrow, had a huge garden and a small shallow square pool where I enjoyed sailing the small model boats Father built in his spare time. I started kindergarten at age four. I had to cross a wide park to get to school. In the middle of the park, there was a big lake where neighbours sailed their model boats on weekends. Father and I also took our boats to the lake. When Father left to war this practice was interrupted because Mother, afraid of air raids, didn't allow me to go to the park; not even on weekends. It was only after Father left hospital that we reinitiated the practice. But that didn't last long either. We were moving to Pernambuco, a place I had never heard of. I didn't have any participation in this decision, but even if I had, I wouldn't like to be separated from my parents.
Recife is the capital of the state of Pernambuco, located in the Northeastern region of Brazil. To get to Recife, we first had to fly from London to Dakar, on a super Constellation. From Dakar, we flew to Rio de Janeiro, at that time the capital of Brazil. I was fascinated with the trip. It was my first experience on a plane. The Super Constellation was very comfortable. It was like sitting at a restaurant for eight hours, being fed every single hour. I never had so much ice cream and chocolate cake in my life as I had on that Pan Am flight. I really enjoyed it. I could see Mother hanging tight to her seat. She would even grab hold of Father's arm and not let go, as if that would give her the safety she needed, while the plane roared its motors towards our new destination. Planes did not fly at night, so we had to overnight in Rio. We rode in one of those old open cars, from the airport to Copacabana, where our hotel was located. It was still daylight. As we were approaching the hotel, the city looked beautiful framed by hills on one side and the vast beaches on the other. I pointed at a cable car and Father told me it went up a hill called Sugar Loaf. Finally, after a good half an hour ride, we reached the famous Copacabana Palace Hotel, right in front of the beach. It was a beautiful white sumptuous building, a luxurious place.
"This is where Fred Astaire danced with Ginger Rogers", said Mother. I had no idea who they were but it looked nice. Mother seemed more relieved when we were having dinner by the hotel pool. It was a terribly hot and humid night, but quite clear. She did not speak a word till the end of dinner, when she asked,
"Edward, I am so glad we do not have to fly again that noisy plane. Is this where we are going to live?"
"No", Father replied, "we are only spending the night here. Early tomorrow morning we have to take another plane to Recife."
"Oh, my goodness. And how long do we have to fly on that bird, before we get to that city?"
"Another few hours. But this time we will be flying a DC3, which is a smaller plane. Do not worry, Sue, that plane can fly even with the motors off ", Father smiled reassuringly.
We got up early the following morning. At breakfast time, I was introduced to a series of strange looking fruits. The waiters were telling me the names of the different fruits in their funny language, which later I learned it was called Portuguese. It was the same language I spent the next few months learning and speaking in Olinda, a neighbourhood in the outskirts of Recife. Still today I'm not sure whether the people from Recife were serious when they compared their city to Venice in Italy. They would call it Brazil's little Venice, on account of its many canals, but similarities ended there.
When we arrived, Pernambuco was South America's center of espionage. On one side you had the German Nazis and on the other the American and British Allies. At the time, Father was transferred as a grounded naval commander, acting as a liaison between the American and British Intelligence Forces in charge of the North Atlantic Sea. I never knew exactly what all that meant, all I knew was that the Task Force to which he had been assigned, was extremely important. By then, Hitler had taken over half of Europe and Brazil was still a neutral country.
We had been living in Olinda, a sunny beach neighbourhood in the outskirts of Recife, for about six months. I had a private teacher coming home three times a week to teach me Portuguese. I picked up the language quite fast, and soon I could make myself understood. I also had another teacher to follow the British curriculum. Everyday, I would spend at least a couple of hours playing on the beach. I could also hear the yelling and shouting of the boys next door. The boys' mother got very friendly with mine and soon we were all invited to their place for dinner. The boys' father was a very well known surgeon in Recife. According to Mother, the boys were very undisciplined and badly educated.
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