Leaving: the longing, nostalgia, and truth of traveling young.

By Neva Knott

1968 was a time of global intensity; mores and values were changing, driving social unrest. 1968 marked the significant increase in American deaths from the Vietnam war. It also marked the date of student protests in France that were considered a cultural, social and moral turning point in the history of that country, and 1968 marked an equally intense protest at Columbia University. It was the year of the My Lai massacre and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wonder what was going through my father’s mind the following year as he made the decision and the requisite following choices to move his family out of America and into the world of third-world countries and extensive travel in the South Pacific and Asia. As he retired from his thirty-year career at the Washington State Department of Game and maneuvered us to live his boyhood dream of traveling, did he think about Vietnam raging out of control?

My parents with one of the brown suitcases, so happy and in love.

My parents with one of the brown suitcases gifted to my dad by his colleagues on his retirement, so happy and in love.

 

I realize now how I’ve lived much of my life in the same way–going without consideration of what’s to come, valuing experience and the journey over the outcome or the destination. I pause—how are those two things connected…my father’s choice to take us out of the country at such a tumultuous time and my lose-the-map way of living? Is there a connection? Or, might I just be supplanting perspective on my memory of him and my fascination with that time?

Dad's Retirement Notice in the Daily Olympian

Dad’s Retirement Notice.

We left the States in September of 1969. My dad’s new job was on the island of Saipan, in the Marianas Islands, in Micronesia. A small island, just fourteen miles long and five miles wide. The Battle of Saipan was a major offensive of WW II, featuring the Allied troops against the Japanese. Another historical tidbit–one theory on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is that once her plane was downed, she was held hostage by the Japanese in a Saipanese jail. Saipan is part of the Marianas Island chain which sit along the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the Earth’s oceans.

I was six, a few days from turning seven. My sister was four, just weeks from turning five. I remember the leaving. In my little girl mind I was unaware of all the steps—my parents leaving their jobs, the packing, the selling of house and cars, garnering of passports, inoculations, the intricate decisions  about what to take and what to leave behind. We left our dogs. We left my pet bunny. We left our house by the lake.

The night before we flew out, we stayed at grandma and grandpa’s. I asked my grandma to come with us, a simple child’s request. At four in the morning my sister and I were awakened, and left the twin beds in that room we’d napped in so many days of our childhood. The beds with the polyester flowered comforters, one pink and one yellow, the colors we’d fight over in choosing a bed.

Grandpa and me, Rachel and Grandma, a few months before we left for Saipan.

Grandpa and me, Rachel and Grandma, a few months before we left for Saipan.

My parents had traveled to Hawaii the year before, something neither my sister or I was aware of until we found the slides, Kodachrome images of mom and dad as tourists, iconic in their 60s garb and naiveté as travelers, holding up pineapples, wearing leis. When Rachel and I saw those images, we realized just how green our parents were at travel that morning we left behind the warmth of grandma’s. As we left the States, we stopped over in Honolulu before catching our flight to Saipan. In Hawaii, Rachel and I stayed in a hotel for the first time. We swam in a hotel pool and the ocean for the first time.

Hotel pools were to become the mark by which my sister and I judged the fun factor of each of many long trips to places like Bangkok, Australia, Indonesia, India, Saigon. Hotel pools were where we formed our bond as the world got bigger and bigger and we knew we had to stick together.

In Honolulu we shopped at the Ala Moana Center, then a new mall, visited the Polynesian Cultural Center and Pearl Harbor. In a sense, that first trip was a rite of passage to our new identities as world travelers, as little girls who would come to know that most cultural practices were wildly different than our world of Olympia, Washington.

Flying from Hawaii to Saipan was a journey from the first world to a pin-dot on the globe in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Because of Micronesia’s remoteness, our flight stopped at little islands along the way to drop supplies. When the plane landed on Saipan, a fire truck raced it down the runway, just in case. The airport was barely more than a cement hut. Over time, we’d come to love the empanadas sold at a stand there, full of spicy, greasy meat that dripped onto our hands with each bite.

The first night on Saipan is forever etched in my mind. I can’t find the adjective for the sum total of the experience, but I remember the scene. Rachel and I were beyond tired. Our parents were tired. Collectively, we were clearly out of our element, and even at six I got this. We stayed at The Hotel Hafa A’dai. The hotel’s name means good day in Chamarro, the mixed language of the islands. The hotel was the best on the island, yet we were unseasoned travelers and didn’t know what that really meant. Our room had that musty smell I now know is inescapable anywhere in the tropics, a smell I now equate with longing and nostalgia and truth. There were geckos on the ceiling, they chirped all night, and my mother was scared of them. The air conditioner was loud and erratic, also a now beloved common feature of tropical hotels the world over. It seemed dark and dingy in the room, and our parents worked to smooth over the rough edges so that we could fall asleep in one of the double beds. Our new life awaited in the morning.

Our house on Saipan, on Capital Hill

Our house on Saipan, on Capital Hill.

During the four years we lived on Saipan, we went to the Hafa A’dai often, for dinner, to entertain visiting colleagues of my dad’s, or just so our parents could socialize while the kids swam in the pool. Music played from the bar, and our parents would linger while my sister and I went to the gift shop for Cadbury chocolate bars.

I don’t know what my dad intended, but I do know that traveling and living overseas during that world-gone-crazy time of the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped my world view. Maybe those experiences are what allow me to cope in these similarly chaotic times. I know they shaped my persistent belief that there are only two types of people in the world, regardless of social norms, politics, race, gender, creed, or culture–there are those who love and those who hate.

The swimming pool at the Hotel Hafa A'dai.

The swimming pool at the Hotel Hafa A’dai.

Sometimes, I dream of that first night on Saipan. Often, I dream of the Hafa A’dai pool and the beach just beyond its edges. I think I travel in my sleep to that innocent time, when my parents were alive and happy, to try to get back to whatever part of my soul is still there, listening to the geckos.

 

Leg

By Neva Knott

“It’s scar tissue.”

She runs his hand over the lump on her left thigh. It’s soft against the muscle under her skin. Just under the lump is a firm indentation. She worries that he, as her new lover, will just think it’s fat.

“I was hit by a car when I was seven and was never supposed to walk again. The impact fractured my femur.

“The accident happened when we lived on Saipan, an island in Micronesia, in the middle of the Pacific. A pencil dot on a globe. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes,” he answers, and becomes the listener she’s been seeking to finally tell this story.

“I was on the bus to day camp. It was parked along the curb, across the street from a little store. The store’s screen door creaked and moaned when pulled open. I was in love with grape Fanta at the time. The can of it in my lunch must have sweated. My lunch sack was wet, and falling apart, so I got off the bus to get a new sack from the store. I left the bus, with permission of course, because that was the kind of child I was. I looked both ways, stepped out, and started across the street in the cross walk.

“This is what I remember. I stepped out, and heard honking–loud, big car honking that wouldn’t stop. I jumped back, trying to get behind the face of the bus. I remember falling. I hit the back of my head. I lost one of my new flip-flops, bought for me especially for camp. My leg stung and hurt and swelled so quickly that my pants became unbearably tight. I cried because I thought I was going to get in trouble for crossing the street carelessly. My seven-year-old mind fixated on explaining that I had looked, I had held to the protocol of stop, look, and listen.

“Then time moved, though I don’t know how quickly or slowly. I was worried about my lost new sandal. I remember noise and confusion and faces above me. I remember people lifting me–I think even the man who hit me, and it was into his car–and they put me in the back seat of a big sedan, a Cadillac, maybe. I remember the word hospital said again and again. I didn’t want anyone to take me to the hospital without my parents. This must have happened before my dad was there, and that’s what made me worry–the illogical sense that these people would drive me away without my parents knowing that I was hurt. It was sunny, and then my dad was there. Medics must have come, because I remember them cutting my jeans off my swollen leg and checking my head. My white-blonde hair was matted with blood. The nurses at the hospital had to cut out a patch from the back of my head so I could have stitches.”

She pauses, realizing she has forgotten the mark on her body that holds that part of the memory. She takes his hand and places it on the back of her skull. Maybe this scar marks the secret she can’t tell even herself, the fear of not being able to catch herself, fear of being found guilty of causing her own pain. She realizes this the instant he moves his hand around the occipital ridge of her skull.

“I don’t know if my mom came to the accident site. I don’t remember her being there. It would make sense that she was there, but also that she stayed back to watch my little sister.

“At camp, we’d been learning to sing You Are My Sunshine. I hate that song.”

She pauses for a moment as they rearrange themselves, adjusting sheets and pillows to better mold the coil of their bodies.

“But I can walk.”

She stares into the darkness. To herself she thinks, away from it all.  This is the biggest secret, the one she never tells, that she wants to walk away from the pretty little mess of her life. This is just one story. But, the memories are stuck in her body, held by the scar tissue in precise dimensions of her flesh, immobilizing her.

“Healing took a long time. I was in the hospital for over a month. A Navy hospital. On Guam. Most days, my mom was there with me. She taught me how to crochet and how to embroider. We made squares for a child’s quilt. My mom traced simple figures I selected from a coloring book onto fabric, and I’d do the needlework. I never put the squares together.

“I was in traction. I had a steel pin in my left knee. From it, my left leg was suspended in a 45-degree angle, in the air, so gravity would straighten my femur. I still have the pin-marks. I was on my back all that time. My right leg lay still and flat. Because of the traction, my left leg is longer than my right, and I have a spinal misalignment.”

She moves his hand against those indentations on her skin. He pulls her closer and says, “Keep telling me…”

“I remember the man who hit me with his big car tried to visit. Even now, I can see and hear my father arguing with him, blaming him, confronting him with the evidence, gesturing toward the small me, lying there.

“My worst memory of my hospital stay is the blood transfusion. That day, my dad had flown over from Saipan. My parents left the hospital to eat. My dinner came while they were out–liver, of all things. And then the nurses rolled in an IV full of blood. Again I tried to argue that my parents should be present before these other adults took over my body. Adding blood to it seemed a big deal to me, so big that, surely, my dad would object. The nurses wouldn’t yield to my logic. I looked at the liver on my plate, and at the blood seeping into my arm, and cried, my eyes not straying from the door as I watched for parents to return.

“I was in a body cast for, I think, about six weeks. At least I was out of the hospital and home. The cast was a weird contraption–all the way down my left leg, and to my knee on the right, with a cross-bar between my legs. I had to lie flat most of the time. My dad was in conspiracy against the doctors who said my destiny was a wheel chair. He devised a way to prop me onto a dining chair so I could at least sit at the table for meals. He also stood me upright at the kitchen counter, and I learned how to swivel on one foot to the next so I could walk around, at least as long as I had something to hold onto. Because of these secret activities, I wore through the first cast and had to have another one put on.

“When the cast was removed, I had a spindly left leg. No muscle, no strength. It couldn’t bear weight.

“My father put me in the ocean. The water held me, buoyed me, so that I could strengthen my legs. I’d float and kick and he’d hold my hands. Once I’d mastered floating and kicking, he put me in the swimming pool. There was only one on the island, at the Hotel Hafa Adai. I’d hold the edge and walk along the bottom, back and forth, from the pool steps until the water got too deep. After I’d mastered using my legs again in the weightlessness of water, my dad taught me how to walk around my bed by steadying myself along the edges and with him holding my elbow. Eventually, I could make it all the way around without his help. Then, he called my mom into the room, telling her we had a present for her.”

She recedes into her own mind. Her thoughts meld with the sensations of his touch. She thinks that her survival, her triumph, marked her first sense of self, though the little girl could not yet realize her strength.

As the darkness retreats into the grey dawn, he moves his hand over the scar tissue, and she knows this won’t be their last night together, tangled in sheets and stories.