Years Beneath the Pines: From Pines to Palms
LUDWIG RANG, ALUMNUS CONTRIBUTOR
LONDON-My first American Christmas was even more memorable
than my first Thanksgiving. To start with, Hal and I got a ride with a
college friend as far as Washington, D.C., where we spent two nights and
one day sight-seeing.
Arriving late at night, I remember being driven down Pennsylvania
Avenue, with my first glimpse of the Capitol dome at one end and the White
House at the other, both lit up. (Years later at a London antiquarian's,
I was to buy a series of prints of early American scenes, including one,
on the wall behind me, of the Capitol under construction, with the dome
Early in the morning of our second day in Washington,
Hal and I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Jacksonville, Florida.
It was already so crowded that we only just managed
to get a couple of seats in the back where, to my surprise, sat only black
people, eyeing two white kids curiously, or indifferently, except for
one or two who gave us hostile stares.
Whenever the bus stopped on its way through the Deep South,
I was amazed to see restaurant and toilet facilities marked "Whites Only"
or "Colored," into which our seat neighbors obediently trooped.
It was the first time I was directly confronted with
the iniquitous practice of racial segregation. Yet this was the year 1954,
and the Supreme Court-the third seat of power in the famous system of
"checks and balances" that Professor Whiteside used to talk about-had
handed down a historic decision banning segregation in public schools,
heralding the beginning of the end of US-style Apartheid and the dawn
of an entirely new era in racial relations.
Another thing that amazed me even though I was by now
fairly fluent in English and attuned to the way most Americans spoke it,
was that I could barely understand what the blacks sitting with us said,
their southern-accented speech being all but incomprehensible to me. Fortunately,
Hal, not the least bit prejudiced, sat on the aisle, and I marveled at
the way he responded in kind to their good-natured banter.
Hal's father, a big man with big hands, met us on arrival
in late afternoon at the Daytona bus station. Taking both of my hands
in his, he welcomed me as warmly as Simon's mother and aunt had, after
hugging his son. I can still see his big, kindly face beaming down at
m The next day, with temperatures in the high seventies,
we went for a swim in the ocean, and on Christmas Eve, we went to midnight
mass in the Reverend Tucker's church.
Emerging into the balmy night, standing beneath palm
trees and looking up at the starry sky, I couldn't believe it was Christmas.
The next morning, sitting on a sofa in the Tuckers' living-room with Hal,
his little sister Kathy between us, we exchanged presents.
I forget what I gave Harold, but he gave me (I must
have asked him for it) a book called The Invisible Writing, by Arthur
Koestler, a Hungarian-born Jew and lapsed Communist, author of Darkness
at Noon, a post-war bestseller pillorying Stalinist Communism.
Kathy's present from me was a Bowdoin skunk that, according
to a diary I started that day, she named Lou, after me, because she said
she liked him as much, and, "he'll always be with us." I wonder what's
become of that little toy and the little girl it gave such pleasure to.
(Kathy did incidentally spell her name with a K, as
I see from one of my letters written home, reporting on my Florida Christmas,
beneath which she scrawled her name.)
Hal, already a chaplain's assistant at college eventually
became a Reverend like his Dad. Sadly we lost touch, and a letter I wrote
to him last summer care of an address in Wiscasset, Maine, given to me
by the alumni office, has gone unanswered or astray.
The little diary, bought at the student union shop on
campus, with RECORD in gold-embossed letters on the stiff black cover,
begins thus: "Thinking makes me happy. Koestler confirms that speaking
and thinking in a new language transforms one's pattern of thought." This
profound (even if not entirely original) insight is followed by the bit
about Kathy and her Bowdoin skunk.
On the penultimate day of the year, Hal and I drove
over to St. Petersburg. Standing on the seashore together looking out
over the Gulf of Mexico, I said to him, again according to my little friend
the diary, that sometimes I thought I too might become a minister. "But
it wouldn't work," I pencilled in afterwards.
I was to keep up the diary till nearly the end of the
school year and shall quote from it again. In my second and final year
at Bowdoin, I kept a more voluminous one, more of a journal, in conscious
imitation of the famous one of André Gide, a new favorite author, not
on the reading list either. Another was Thomas Mann.
Starting back for Brunswick on the last day of the year,
we stopped over in Boston-incredibly enough staying at the Parker House
Hotel (Nellie must have given me the money, since she spent Christmas
with friends in Bogota, still safe)-and celebrated New Year's Eve by going
to the movies to see There's No Business Like Show Business, with Ethel
Besides Merman belting out the famous hit song, there
was a scene, or rather a sequence, in the film I never forgot. It showed
the image of her partner or lover-movie buffs will remember the actor's
name-superimposed on railroad tracks along which he is seen walking away
on tour without her, with large calendar leaves falling like real ones
all about him to indicate the passage of time.
The sequence struck such a cord because it reminded
me of a similar scene four months earlier, almost to the day. On August
30, standing at the back of an express train speeding through perfectly
flat countryside towards Rotterdam, where my fellow Fulbrights and I were
to board ship for New York. I was all but mesmerized by the two gleaming
parallel lines seemingly converging at some hazy point in the distance,
beyond which lay my home in the Rhineland. I had come a long way.
With that image, I'd like to leave kind Orient
readers who have faithfully followed the author's travels and collegiate
travails over a sitar span of time, and who will hopefully resume doing
so next semester, beneath wintry pines.
In the meantime, here's wishing you Fröhliche Weihnachten,
and a happy new year.