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Before It's Too Late
My Life And My Recollections
By GEORGE CLARK
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 George Clark
All rights reserved.
MY LIFE AND MY RECOLLECTIONS
GEORGE EDWARD CLARK
Based on information from my mother a German bombing raid was taking place at 3:30 in the afternoon when I was born in Paris, France on September 6, 1939, six days after the Nazi invasion of Poland. And according to my birth certificate, which is handwritten in French, I was born in the province of Vanves where Paris may be located. However some confusion surrounds this conflicting information because the certificate indicates my birth to have taken place in Juan Le Pans which is a city not even close to Paris, but is instead located on the French Riviera. Although I'd like to clarify the matter, the odds are the truth will never be known since my mother died in 1998 at the age of 84.
Her maiden name was Ariadne Dovnarovitch, and she was born in 1914 to Russian parents. Her father Alexander, was captain of a navy warship in the Russian Crimean fleet, whose politics favored the Russian Czar, and he was thus considered a "White Russian," while her mother Marie, to my knowledge was not a political activist but a homemaker.
Since her childhood my mother has preferred the name Ariane and she once told me about my grandfather Alexander, who had refused to join the Bolsheviks in 1917 when the revolution took place ... even after being offerred numerous "special" considerations to support the Communist movement. As the result of his refusals, he was subsequently arrested, imprisoned and shortly thereafter executed by the Communists, known as "Red Russians."
My grandmother Marie, as a young mother was now facing difficult and dangerous times, having grown up in a wealthy family whose members belonged to the Czar's inner group ... all having held various high-ranking Ministerial positions within the government. With the revolution taking place they now faced the loss of their lives, their life-styles, their wealth, and certainly their political futures as well. She in turn had enjoyed a life of grace, laughter, gentility and wealth, while sharing her childhood days with two other sisters, Vera who was older, and Toscia who was younger. Now with the revolution at their doorstep, their age of innocence was about to come to an end, as they faced an unstable future, with years of uncertainty, fear and danger, under conditions that I can't fully comprehend even today.
As my story continues, and based on what I have been told, my grandmother, after the loss of her husband, was now faced with some grim decisions. She was a "White Russian" with a three to four year old daughter, (my mother), with no job skills and no place to go. In addition she was now an outcast as far as the communists were concerned and feared she would be caught and imprisoned herself. In the meantime her mother had died from blood poisoning after being run over by a horse-drawn streetcar, her father had been executed, other relatives had scattered to the four winds, and she and her sisters, along with her young daughter were now alone in an alien and strange environment. It was a time for choices. They could either stay in Russia to face the inevitable, or they could leave, which was the only practical choice they could make.
My desire in assuming this project, is to try to write about my own experiences in a relaxed writing style. I don't want this to be a tedious or boring read, and I'll sometimes take the liberty to elaborate on various topics or experiences on which I have specific opinions. So let's have some fun, as I discover my writing style and you learn something about me. Also, please remember that this text expresses only my opinions which I've portrayed as accurately as I can.
So far all of this may sound very "Russian," even melodramatic I suppose, but the horrible experiences and persecutions the Russian people have endured over past centuries has given them, as a people, a somewhat fatalistic national persona in which they seem to actually revel in their misery. Consider for example the alcoholism problem that has dominated their national psyche, to the extent the Russian people until recently, in my opinion, had largely given up and survived with a sense of hopelessness. To illustrate my point, and this is based on what I've been told by American missionaries, that even today many major Russian cities have acceptable infrastructure within the city limits, but try driving out of the city to another city one will discover that after ten or twenty miles the highway suddenly stops, to be replaced by a two lane paved or dirt road, or in some cases nothing. I'm certainly not suggesting there are no roads leading to and from Moscow, but what I am saying is that they are a relatively backward nation when compared to Europe and the Western world. I've had church missionaries tell me that riding on Russian trains is like a time warp going back several centuries as you observe the backwardness of their agrarian society. What the communist propaganda machine had told the world over the years had been a big sham ... a lie ... and the Russian people know it. Remember also, that until quite recently the entire Russian population had been segmented, with a very small and wealthy ruling class of less than ten million in control of the nation, while the rest of the population subsisted on whatever their leaders would allow. In addition, they were told by Lenin first, and later by Stalin, that universal equality would elevate the communist philosophy to new heights and perhaps even world domination. But then Stalin "had all the answers," as he methodically exterminated over thirty million Russian citizens and Jews during his tenure ... all for the sake of universal equality and the proletariat ... "UTTER "MADNESS!
Over the years my mother had been reluctant to share her early experiences with me. I suppose this is because of what she witnessed and experienced, but I still don't know why she didn't provide me with more facts, even though I had asked her for more information on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, let me tell you what she has told me, to which I'll add my own personal experiences. I also expect this narrative to evolve into an autobiography of my early life up to around 1950 when I arrived in America. Any comments about my adult life are probably unnecessary at this point, since all family members have drawn their own conclusions on whatever impact I've had within the family, either positive or negative. So let's leave it at that. In the meantime, as my story unfolds there will be gaps in the time line, so if the reader will indulge me, I'll continue.
The Russian and Siberian winters are famous for their severity and numbing cold. And so during winter of either 1917 or 1918 this small group of women including my mother booked passage on a train headed to Sakhalin Island in order to escape a Russia that was rapidly being closed to the outside world. Sakhalin Island is north of Hokkaido, which is the northernmost island in the Japanese-island chain. It was nearly a three-thousand-mile trip under extremely difficult circumstances, and the cold was so severe, the train would often freeze to the tracks every time it stopped. Over the years I've read several books written by Russian refugees who have described similar trips during this period, and the hardships that were encountered. Along the way there were skirmishes between the Cossacks who were loyal to the Czar and the Bolsheviks who were chasing the refugees. There were bandits on the trains who stole and raped. There was hardly any food, and the competition to find a warm place to lie down bordered on the desperate. When someone died, they were simply thrown off the train like a sack of potatoes. This was not a first-class train ride with eggs sunny-side up in the dining car and drinks in the club car. In fact most of the cars were boxcars, where the occupants would build a fire directly in the car itself. After several weeks of terrible hardships this pitifully small band of women ultimately arrived in Harbin, one of the larger cities in eastern Siberia, where they were lucky to find accomodations with political loyalists. They rested here for a short time until making the last leg of the trip to Sakhalin Island, this time without harassment.
The story line becomes somewhat clouded at this point, but it was here on Sakhalin Island that my grandmother Marie met a man she later married. His name was Alfred Mildner, a prominent and wealthy hotelier who had been born in Alcase Lorraine.
"Father Alfred," as we used to call him, was born in Colmar, a small village in the coal-producing region of Alcase. He grew up with, and went to school with the philanthropist Albert Schweitzer of all people. They were close friends and maintained a life-long correspondence, which I didn't discover until several years after he came to North Carolina to live with John and Ariane. But I'm getting ahead of myself so let me get back on track again.
Although some of my early memories are murky, my earliest recollections have to do with the sensation of being pushed in a stroller and being attended by my new Japanese amah ... considering that my original amah went back to China with my parents. I can recall my fascination in watching the wheels as they crossed over obstacles and negotiated sidewalks. I can also recall the luxurious feeling of being pampered and catered-to as I surveyed my surroundings, while being transported in my stroller. And maybe it was from these sensations that I developed my great joy of travel and exploration.
I don't think I was a capricious or spoiled child, although I recall being very well taken care of at the Tor Hotel in Kobe, Japan. Father Alfred owned this hotel, and my arrival there, at the age of one took place in late 1940, after a somewhat circuitous journey, from France to Shanghai, China where my mother and father Edouard had taken me. As I understand the story, Mother had worked at the Macy's Department store chain in Paris and had been offerred a position in their Shanghai store shortly after the war started in Europe. I'm confused here as to how this came to pass, considering that the Japanese were already fighting in China prior to Pearl Harbor. Under those circumstances, I can't imagine why Macy"s would offer her or anyone a job in a war zone, much less having her move halfway around the world to accept it. But then there are so many holes in the stories I've been told that I don't have a true sense of what actually happened.
But I also know that sometimes in life truth is stranger than fiction, so rather than questioning all I've been told, let's assume for the sake of fairness that most of what I'm writing here is basically accurate. In any event, my Mother my Father and my Chinese amah got settled in Shanghai and shortly thereafter traveled from Shanghai to Kobe by steamship, a two day voyage in those days. This was in the summer of 1940 and the plan was to holiday with her parents and to present me to them as her first-born. As the story continues, she and my father spent a month or so in Kobe and then returned to Shanghai leaving me with her parents, with the intention of coming back to Japan in the very near future to retrieve me and return to China. At this point the world exploded with the infamous Japanese "Rape of Nanking" followed soon thereafter by the attack on Pearl Harbor. These events made any further travel out of the question, as all international borders closed, and the world was now at war.
So, here in 1941 as an infant I was now stranded in Kobe, Japan with my grandparents, with no sense about what was happening in the world. As it turned out I was very lucky, because I'm confident I would not have survived the hardships my mother and father encountered in China during the war. They had to scrounge on the streets for every scrap of food they could find, and in essence had to live very much like all the other Chinese who were trying to survive the Japanese occupation. And if you read the history of the Japanese occupation of China, you'll learn the occupation was brutal, and the repression quite similar to the Jews' experience in Nazi, Germany. As to my Chinese amah, she returned to China with my mother and father, left them one day, and was never seen again.
My recollections during those few years prior to 1942, when we moved to Oike to get away from the American B-29 raids consist of numerous happy and innocent events. Let me recall them for you as they took place, and I'll also explain later in this narrative how this move to Oike took place and why.
Keep in mind that in those days and prior to the war Father Alfred was a wealthy man, who owned hotels in Switzerland, Portugal and Japan and lived a fine life. He spoke five languages fluently: Japanese, French, English, German and Russian. He was also able to communicate in Chinese, which is probably the hardest language to master. In essence Father Alfred was a very cultured man, who had important contacts with powerful people all over the world.... as we'll discover later.
He had a 1940 navy-blue Lincoln Continental 2 door convertible that he kept at the hotel. This was his personal car, and he was chauffeured daily to his various destinations. The car was always spotless and I remember his chauffeur whose name was Nomura, polishing the car and changing the white linen seat covers daily, which was the custom of the day when the passenger was someone important. I can also remember how that car smelled inside ... no plastic back then. This car also had these wonderful large round amber fog lamps perched on the bumpers between the headlights and the grill. As a young kid I was captivated and fascinated by the aura that car projected. The door handles were not handles but large chrome buttons that one simply pushed to open the door, which then magically opened completely without a sound. I can still see Father Alfred with his white Panama hat and his cigar being driven off in style. What a grand sight that was to me, and as I write this, I just can't help but smiling.
Father Alfred was a grand gentleman. He was small, with a slight build and stood no more than five feet four inches tall, but to me he was a giant of a man. He had a marvelous, infectious laugh that I still recall so well. I remember him reading The Bremen Town Musicians to me from Grimm's Fairy Tales and how he would just laugh that wonderful laugh of his, as he read about all the animals as they attacked the robbers in that dark kitchen.
He lived life to the fullest with the philosophy of doing anything he wanted but always in moderation. He kept highly detailed diaries, to the point of being able to tell you what the weather was like on November 14, 1923 for example. He didn't play the violin very well but loved it just the same. He loved life and he loved the people around him. He also had an amazing handwriting talent, which I've included in one of the pictures in the book. Also of interest is that what he wrote in that picture with such a steady hand was written when he was 90 years old.
He was a Renaissance man in the truest sense of the word. He was of the world, yet he was a relatively quiet and modest man who never lost his wits or sense of humor, even during those dark days of 1944 and 1945. Also keep in mind that he was ninety-three when he died in 1967 which would put him in his late sixties during the war while I was still a very young child. I dearly loved this man and I know that he loved me, and to this day as a sixty year old man myself I still mourn his passing, and think of him quite often. In essence Father Alfred became the father I never knew.
The only time I ever saw him lose his poise was in 1945 after the war had just ended, and his beloved Tor Hotel had been taken over by the Americans and converted into an officers club. It seems that after a large party a fire had started in one of the rooms and it burned to the ground. It had over 100 rooms and was totally destroyed. On that day he cried. He later told me how ironic it was that this world-class grand hotel, having survived the fires of war, had to burn down as the result of a drunken party. He had designed that hotel, had supervised its construction, and to him it had been a labor of love.
I recall being taken to a nearby park in Kobe and feeding pigeons, while my new Japanese amah tagged along behind me. She carried a glass bottle full of ammonia to apply to any mosquito bites should they occur (heaven forbid). Those were the orders from Granny who decreed that I should be protected in this manner. There is a picture of me in my old photo album at that park with her. You can see her, you can see me, but you can't see that bottle of ammonia which I hated, because one, it didn't work, two, she used too much of the stuff, and three, it smelled terrible. It's a smell I detest to this day. I also remember trying to run away from her when she came at me with that bottle but she always caught me, and the more I ran the more ammonia she applied. I used to also have to wear the most ridiculous short pants made of silk with these shirts or "blouses" as Granny called them. I hated my wardrobe, but really had no choice in the matter, since Granny had the amah at her disposal, and she was the ultimate enforcer of Granny's policies. And since I was only two or three years old I had no say in the matter at all.
Excerpted from Before It's Too Late by GEORGE CLARK. Copyright © 2013 George Clark. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
My Life And My Recollections.................... 1
Early Years.................... 7
Tor Hotel And Father Alfred.................... 13
Train Travel.................... 17
Lake Hakone And Mount Fuji.................... 21
War Clouds.................... 24
Living In Oike, Japan.................... 28
Experiences With Granny.................... 35
Granny's Breakdown.................... 41
The B-29 American Bomber.................... 45
The War Ends.................... 55
Post-War Adventures.................... 58
Tokyo, Yoyogi School, And The Warners.................... 69
Karuizawa And Related Topics.................... 86
Bobby George And My Bronchitis.................... 96
American Cars.................... 101
Stories Of My Father.................... 103
First Contact With My Future Parents.................... 104
More Adventures.... Sailboat Ride.................... 107
Transitions ... Looking Towards America.................... 109
Russian Orthdox Church.................... 113
Finally To America.................... 115
Trans Pacific Flight.................... 117
Los Angeles And Charles Clark.................... 129
Greenville, North Carolina.................... 137