The Early Years – Taiwan

Please forgive me for not posting for a while…I had shoulder surgery some weeks ago and I’m getting back into the swing of things so when I return to work on October 24, I’ll be used to the “routine” again.

My last post concluded with the ship passage to Taiwan (aka Formosa).  We had departed Oakland, California and the journey across the Pacific to a nine year old boy was fascinating in so many ways – it was an exciting adventure, even better than the train ride from Arizona to New Orleans.  With the exception of restricted areas (engine room, bridge, etc.) I was free to roam the ship as I pleased.  I spent hours watching looking out over the ocean as the ship slowly moved towards our destination.  I even learned how to play shuffleboard.

At some point dolphins and flying fish began to accompany us – the dolphins gracefully arcing in mid-flight as they leapt from the water.  Sometimes there would only be one or two, other times it seemed there were dozens leaping in and out of the water in two’s or three’s in perfect harmony, their skins flashing brightly in the sunlight.  To me, it looked as if they were playing leap tag with the ship while always careful not to come too close.  At times I would be the only person on deck and during those times it seemed they were putting on a private show just for me.

As I look back, in many ways the transit across the Pacific was more than an adventurous ship ride between two countries.  I didn’t know it then but the passage from the United States to Taiwan was a journey that opened my eyes in so many ways to the world we lived in.  Although only nine years old I had already lived in different parts of Europe and the United States; I had been exposed to different lifestyles, languages, cultures, and people around me.  To me, as we were going across the Pacific, Taiwan would be just like the other places I had lived – even though my father talked to us about how different Taiwan would be from where we had lived before… that the culture, the people, the language and the schools would not be like anything we had experienced before.

So, before we arrived, I thought I was prepared but when we disembarked, in those few brief minutes going down the gangway from the ship to the dock, my world turned upside down and I felt absolutely lost.  Everything that I saw, heard, smelled was unlike any other experience I ever had.  At that moment, I wished I was back in Arizona and little did I know that the next three years would be one of the more memorable times of my life.

During WWII my father was a B17 pilot and at sometime point after the war he was “rifted” from an officer to a sergeant.  In his post pilot years before he was rifted, he helped support the Berlin Air Lift, went to Belgium to provide aid during the 1953 North Sea flood, and somewhere in between he was a Military Police officer in West Germany before being reassigned to Arizona.  Somewhere after being rifted he joined the Armed Forces Radio Network (AFRN) and became a radio news announcer as well as hosting various shows.  It was in this capacity as an AFRN announcer that he was reassigned to Formosa.

It didn’t take long to adjust to being in a new place.  I made friends in school and my brother and I would spend the weekends and summers exploring the areas around us as much as we could.  Being a young boy in a foreign land seemed more free to me.  Here I could roam pretty much as I wanted without my parents being worried when I was out all day.  The only rule was to be home before dark.  During the long days of summer we would explore, play baseball, go to Saturday morning matinees to watch the cartoons, and go swimming at the NCO club pool without our parents (once we had passed the swimming test).  The only “trouble” I know I got into was on thee occasions: The first when  my brother and friends looked into some urns we discovered; the second, when I had a fire cracker explode inches from my hand as I was tossing it away – there was no easy way I could hide the grayish color of my palm from the gunpowder; and the third was when my teacher sent home a note requesting my parents provide a magnifying glass for her to use when reviewing my assignments.  I didn’t like her so I wrote exceedingly tiny as I knew it would drive her crazy, particularly as she couldn’t say I didn’t do my work.  The firework and the homework incident didn’t bother me once the punishment was over with but what we found in the urns has remained with me.

When we discovered the urns we had no idea what was in them.  There were dozens of urns, none of which looked the same, under this open building near a lake.  Our curiosity got the better of us so we opened the lid on the first urn we approached.  The reddish brown urn was about four or so feet high.  We lifted the lid and gasped when we saw a skull and other bones.  We quickly put the lid back, looked into another one and saw more bones.  Just as we put the lid back on, we heard someone yelling at us in Chinese and saw a farmer running towards us with his hoe in hand.  We immediately ran back home.  That evening I told my parents what we had done and seen, expecting the worst as I knew eventually they would find out.  My father was quiet for a while and then, in a very grave voice, told me that in this country, unlike the graveyards of western countries, the bones of the dead were placed in urns, that this was the Chinese way of honoring and respecting their ancestors, that we should never do this again, that we should understand and respect the lives and cultures of the country we were living in.    I was ten at the time and, even then, this was a sobering experience that has remained with me to this day.

As an AFRN announcer my father interviewed US and Taiwanese military personnel as well as Taiwanese people at various local positions and government jobs in his role as a news reporter.  My father made friends easily and soon he was being invited to Taiwanese social events and to his friend’s homes.  We would often accompany him when visiting his friends and through these visits I soon realized that in spite of our apparent differences, in many ways we were alike, that a smile broke through the ice, that we had similar likes and dislikes, that people simply wanted to be treated no different than I wanted to be treated.

To say that I had these epiphanies as a child in Taiwan would be wrong as at the time I don’t believe I realized the significance of this new point of view.  What I can say is that the experiences of living in different countries, seeing how other people lived, realizing that we were similar in spite of cultural differences was the understanding that I took with me, that has allowed a greater understanding of our place in the world.

Soon our three years were up, we boarded another ship to back to the United States to my father’s next posting at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Next post…Kentucky and France (the Kentucky portion will be brief, I promise).

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2 Responses to The Early Years – Taiwan

  1. apple.e.e-s. says:

    a smile can always break the ice. this my favorite post of yours.

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