Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son

Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son

by Adam Hochschild


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From the author of the best-selling King Leopold's Ghost, this haunting and deeply honest memoir tells of Adam Hochschild's conflicted relationship with his father, the head of a multinational mining corporation. The author lyrically evokes his privileged childhood on an Adirondack estate, a colorful uncle who was a pioneer aviator and fighter ace, and his first explorations of the larger world he encountered as he came of age in the tumultuous 1960s. But above all this is a story of a father and his only son and of the unexpected peace finally made between them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618439201
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 01/01/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 979,728
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

ADAM HOCHSCHILD is the author of ten books. King Leopold’s Ghost was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as was To End All Wars. His Bury the Chains was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and PEN USA Literary Award. He lives in Berkeley, California.


San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

October 5, 1942

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Harvard College, 1963

Read an Excerpt


THE MOST VIVID MEMORIES I have of my childhood are of the summer evenings when Boris's plane took off.

Boris Vasilievich Sergievsky, captain in the Imperial Russian air force, World War I fighter pilot, winner of the Order of St. George (which entitles the bearer to a personal audience with the Tsar, any time of day or night), test pilot for the Pan American Clippers of the 1930s, tenor, gourmet, lover, horseman, and adventurer, was, miraculously, my uncle. One day he had flown his plane down from the sky and, to the complete shock of all her relatives, had married my father's sister, Gertrude. She was then forty-one years old and had almost certainly never even kissed a man before. From that point on, life in our family was never the same.

Gertrude, my father, and their brother all spent the summer with their families on a large estate called Eagle Nest, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. When I was a boy, in the years right after World War II, Boris was retired from test piloting. He now operated an air charter business in New York City, flying people anywhere they wanted to go in a ten-passenger Grumman Mallard that could put down on land or water. During the summer, Boris spent the week in New York; for the weekend, he flew north to join his family. Then, on Sunday evenings, with a planeload of houseguests also returning to the city, he took off for New York.

First a crew of workmen used Jeep, winches, and a huge set of dollies for the landing gear to maneuver the plane out of its lakeside hangar and onto a concrete apron. Then more people began to arrive: passengers, family members, friends, and spectators, coming by motorboat over the lake, or by horseback or car on the mile-long road that ran through the woods to the hangar.

When his passengers had climbed on board, Boris warmed up the plane's engines on shore, watched by a cluster of admiring children. I knelt with my fingers in my ears, a few feet from the right wing tip. Through the cockpit window I could see the intent faces of Boris and his copilot. Their eyes checked instruments on the panel; their lips moved in a mysterious technical jargon I could not hear; their hands reached up to adjust a wondrous galaxy of switches and levers. First one motor, then the other, gave out a long, shattering roar so loud you felt as if you were standing inside the noise. The aircraft rocked and strained at its wheels; the saplings at the edge of the forest behind it bent toward the ground. Finally the engines quieted to a powerful whoosh, Boris released the brakes, and the plane rolled down the ramp into the water.

Boris taxied out to the middle of the lake, the propellers blowing a wet wind back over us on shore. Suddenly a great white tail of spray spread out behind the plane. Its wheels now folded into its belly, the Mallard lifted higher and higher in the water, transformed into a shape of sleek grace. A motorboat or two raced alongside, then were quickly left behind. At last, triumphantly, the plane broke free of the water and rose into the dusk. The engines' roar echoed off the lake; the very mountains vibrated. A plume of water drops trailed from the fuselage, then faded to a fine mist, then to nothing. On the ground, people quietly began talking again, moving slowly, reluctantly, toward the waiting cars. High in the sky, Boris dipped a wing and turned toward New York.

It would be tempting to linger on Boris, for his is the easy story to tell. Another's is much harder. Look more closely now at the people mounting the steps into the plane. They turn to wave from the cabin door, then duck their heads and step inside. Here is Boris with his square Russian face and hearty laugh; here is his copilot Elmourza Natirboff, a strapping, dashingly handsome young man with jet-black hair and a warm grin; here are laughing guests in brightly colored sport shirts or sweaters, carrying tennis rackets and golf clubs back to the city. And here, the last in line, politely letting the others go first, the only person wearing a suit and tie, is a stocky, middle-aged man with a shy, tense, embarrassed smile, ill-at-ease as he always is at any occasion when emotion is to be shown, even a simple weekly farewell. This book is the story of him and me, from those summer Sunday evenings when I waved good-bye to him and was secretly relieved to see him go, until I held his hand as he died and then was apart from him at last. He is my father.

My father. I always spoke of him, talked to him, thought of him that way. I never called him Dad or Daddy, only, in an awkward way, unlike any other child I knew, Father. There was always a stiffness in the air between us, as if we were both guests at a party and the host had gone off somewhere before introducing us. We never spoke about our relationship with each other, ever. But sometimes, in those uncomfortable silences, I greatly feared that he might do so, and that he might start by inviting me to call him by a less formal name. As if he were indirectly suggesting this, at times I heard him say to someone else in my hearing, "How's your dad?" But he never did ask me, and I never volunteered. And so he remained, until thè end, Father.

I was an only child. What few friends I had were usually so awed by being invited to fly to the Adirondacks on Boris's plane or to travel abroad with us that they never said anything critical of Father. To my mother, he was the most wonderful man in the world, a man who could do no wrong. I never heard her find fault with him or disagree with him in any way. And so for many years it was unimaginably hard for me to do so.

Father was, I thought as a child, a man of vast endurance. I was sure my own body could never become so strong. Whenever we were at Eagle Nest he rode horseback through the woods for many miles each day. In the summers he swam across our lake and back every evening, more than half a mile in all. Until he was nearly fifty, once a summer he swam a six-mile course through a chain of lakes. And he boxed. With a punching bag, with an instructor at his club gym in New York, and, from the time I was five or six on, with me.

He always initiated it. "Adam, do you want to box?"

"... O.K.," I replied, feeling that constant uneasiness.

"How about this afternoon at three o'clock?" Everything in his life was by appointments, for which Father was always precisely on time.

"... O.K." I didn't like the boxing, but I could never think of a plausible reason to say no. And he never learned, never took the hint, from the fact that I never suggested that we box.

At three o'clock we put on our gloves. For him boxing was not an art, a game, or a chance to playfully vent aggression. It was instead a chance to exercise his upper body muscles. Everything was broken into prescribed movements; every punch fell into categories on a list in his head. He called them out:

"Right to the body! Left to the jaw! ... No, turn your fist, like this. Harder! Left hook! Good! Left to the body! Hard as you can!" His body was like brick: I did hit as hard as I could, and he seemed to feel nothing. "Right hook! Right to the jaw! Good!"

Then there was a brief period of free-for-all boxing, with no called-out instructions. He never hit me hard. My punches just bounced off him. Sometimes we would go into a clinch — half-clinch, half-hug — as if only in the midst of this stylized conflict could we allow ourselves a gesture of affection.

"That's enough for today," Father said. Then, removing his gloves, he offered his cheek down to be kissed, not in celebration of something fun we had done together, but rather to be thanked, for something he had done for me.

When I grew a little older, I saw that Father was shorter than most men, although he had wide shoulders and immense stamina. Even as he aged, women always found something virile about him. He drank a good deal, usually vodka, without ever getting the least bit drunk. All his sports, even the boxing, he did slowly: the swimming was unhurried and deliberate, the horseback riding usually at a trot or walk. When younger friends swam across the lake with him on summer evenings, they always left him far behind, but he did not mind.

A short man, thus, but sturdy and strong, with small, round, rimless spectacles that glinted in the light, and a cultivated, grammatically correct speech, with every "who" and "whom" in place, a speech sprinkled with slight pauses in which he chose exactly the right word or made sure he was citing exactly the correct date. A voice that had in it not the sound of money, as Gatsby said of Daisy, but of wealth, which is something different: more enduring, more secure, inextricably connected with land, stretching forward and back in time.

Oddly, despite his systematic exercising, Father used a car to go the 150 or so yards between the large building at Eagle Nest where we ate with our guests and the smaller cottage where he and my mother and I slept. Yet he was never comfortable with anything mechanical, and never really got the knack of driving. He stalled frequently, shifted impatiently from first to third gear, or roared along forgetfully at fifty miles an hour in second. Many times, even at low speeds, he skidded off the road in winter, saved from injury only by the high Adirondack snowbanks.

Father's whole existence seemed regulated not by appetites but by will. He had a lifelong ability to take naps of predetermined length. "I'm going to sleep for ten minutes," he would say, glancing at his watch. Punctually, ten minutes later, he would wake up. Until he was in his early thirties, he was some fifty pounds overweight. He decided one day to take it off, asked a doctor what was the correct weight for his size, and for the rest of his life kept his weight within a few pounds of that mark. For some years he smoked cigarettes, but in order not to smoke too much, he simply decided never to smoke before 6 p.m. And, checking his watch once or twice as that hour approached, he never did.

Despite often being self-conscious and ill-at-ease, Father seldom noticed that others were aware of his eccentricities. If, for example, he took one of his ten minute naps when on an airplane, he blotted out the light by tearing a newspaper into strips, folding the strips into thick little squares, and wedging them between his glasses and his eyelids. It stopped traffic in the aisles; flight attendants and passengers turned and stared. But he didn't notice; he was asleep.

Father planned all his activities elaborately, and always assumed everything was proceeding according to schedule. So much so that he sometimes ignored signs that it wasn't, especially if I was the one who pointed them out. Once we were both being driven in his limousine from Eagle Nest down the New York State Thruway to Manhattan. We stopped for gas; getting back on the Thruway our family chauffeur took the wrong entrance ramp and headed north instead of south. I was doubly sure of this when the setting sun appeared squarely on our left instead of our right. I timidly pointed this out to Father:

"Look, the sun's over there. I think we made a wrong turn."

"No ... I'm sure we'll be all right."

"But, Father, the sun sets in the west."

He shrugged, mumbled something, and went back to reading a book. He had bought the best limousine, hired the best chauffeur — bringing him over from England, in fact — how could anything go wrong? He still refused to believe we had made a wrong turn, and was startled when, some time later, the car turned around.


IN TRYING TO UNDERSTAND FATHER, his place in the world, and the background against which my relationship with him was played out, I have found myself following several threads backward in time and space. One, Boris's, leads to an airplane flight on a summer day in 1930. Another thread leads to a Jewish schoolboy in Germany, doing his homework on an evening in the 1870s. And one thread leads to a prospector, tramping through the African bush.

On the great central plateau of Africa, elephants and buffalo once roamed among forests of scrub trees and high red ant hills. Until early in this century, there were few European settlers. Late one afternoon in 1902, a lone white prospector, hunting for food, shot a roan antelope in a clearing on the banks of the Luanshya River. The animal fell against an outcropping of rock. The next morning the prospector noticed a telltale trace of green embedded in the stone. Extending thousands of feet into the earth below lay what was to prove one of the world's richest veins of copper. The prospector staked his claim, but the land was sold and resold, and it was to be others who reaped its bounty.

Sixty years later, in the country which today is Zambia, Father and I descend into the depths of the Roan Antelope Mine. We have been given long white coats and miners' helmets with electric lamps on top. Why the knee-length white coats, like doctors wear? There is an antiseptic feel about them, as if we are to be protected, set apart, from something messy going on around us: a white coat shows that you are supposed to remain clean. Other white men in white coats lead us along underground corridors of the mine, shouting above the din of drills and jackhammers and ore-carts rumbling along rails.

We pass gangs of black workers in boots and jumpsuits, being ordered about by white foremen. It is ferociously hot. Sweat makes rivulets in the coating of gray rock dust on the miners' foreheads. Their eyes stare at us, long and curiously. Later, at another mine, as I watch exhausted miners gulp down enormous platefuls of food, I hear a white official say, "We feed these chaps well — four thousand calories a day." Food is fuel.

Our visit below ground lasts only an hour or two; a long elevator ride whisks us back up to the surface. We visit vast rooms full of roaring furnaces, out of which pour golden spark-showers of molten metal. Cooled into slabs, the copper will travel by rail and ship halfway around the world, to a refinery in New Jersey. After the morning's tour, we have lunch at a corporate guesthouse with a man whom I last saw one snowy New Year's at Eagle Nest. In one of the company towns that now dot this region, there is a street called Hochschild Crescent; other streets, shafts, mines, and, in another country, a town itself are all named after mining executives we know, family friends whose children I have played with at Eagle Nest, who arrived for the weekend on Boris's plane.

Over lunch at the guesthouse, a black servant silently puts hot plates on the starched white tablecloth. With one ear I hear white officials with British or South African accents: "... opening up that new ore body off the north shaft ..."; "... fine new chap in tech training now ..."; "... the union'll be very sticky over the new job classifications. ..." But my mind is drawn away from the table, back to those few moments of exchanged looks with the black miners, the whites of their eyes standing out in grimed faces beneath helmets, in the heat, thousands of feet under the earth. What was said in those glances between us, with no time to talk, and no language in common? Those men then made only a few shillings a day; I knew, and in an inchoate way, without any clear images to accompany the feeling, I think they knew, that their labor, translated into dividends and stock options and executive salaries and directors' fees, subdividing among holding companies, finally flowed across the ocean, an invisible ribbon of metal that shaped itself into Eagle Nest.

But back there, all this was never discussed in such terms. In each of Eagle Nest's many bedrooms paneled in rough-cut knotty pine, there was only one sign of that ribbon of metal, only one piece of evidence for the prosecution: a burnished, reddish-brown paperweight a few inches long, a miniature ingot of copper.

Father's father had been one of the founders of the corporation that controlled that mine. Digging began several decades after the prospector shot the antelope. Father eventually headed the firm for some years, as did his younger brother after him. In the half-century Father worked for it, the corporation changed its name several times — The American Metal Company, American Metal Climax, AMAX — merged, sold off chunks of its business, and bought others. Technically, the mines in Africa and Mexico and Colorado, the office Father worked at during frequent visits to London, the ore-carrying ships and the smelters, mostly belonged to subsidiaries or affiliates or joint ventures. But around the house everyone referred to the whole network as "the Company."


Excerpted from "Half the Way Home"
by .
Copyright © 1986 Adam Hochschild.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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