Tuesday, March 9, 2004

War in the Mountains and Peace in the Desert

We knew that we were going on a long trip. Large trunks were open, with piles of belongings placed in stacks to be sorted and packed. Daddy was making travel arrangements, Mother-checking lists of what we would need. We knew the time had come when we saw copies of travel documents and money being sewed into mother’s corset.

There had been tension in the country for some months, as the Italians had sent their army to invade Ethiopia from the north. Mussolini, wearing his black shirt, had been
screaming that Ethiopia needed to be colonized and civilized. Many of the army officers and pilots joined in this expedition, sensing a release from boredom, and new adventure. They were determined not to allow the humiliation of 1896 to be repeated. At that defeat, the Italians were sent home humiliated by barefooted-Ethiopian soldiers who had relentlessly practiced guerilla warfare. They would swoop down from the high mountains, reigning terror with their swords and ancient muskets. This defeat had rankled in the hearts of the Italians.

Now the war was on different terms. The Italians had tanks and airplanes. It was 1935. The Ethiopians were fighting to retain their freedom. Foreigners joined the ranks of the Red Cross. Many sent wives and children out of the country.

When we tearfully kissed our Daddy goodbye, he would be heading to Dessie to help with the hospital and Red Cross. Although he was not trained as a medical doctor, he would help Dr. George Bergman and Dr. Tesla Nicola. Mrs. Nicola, with sons, Bruce, Darryl, and baby Ben, would leave for America. Mrs. Bergman, with Clyde and Phyllis would travel with my Mother, Shirley and me to Egypt. Before we left Addis, Mother had seen me on the front porch of our Kabana home. “Why do you keep looking up in the shy?” she asked. “See those big birds flying overhead,” I answered, not taking my eyes from the shy. “I am looking to see which one Clyde is on. He told me that he fly’s over our house to check up on me.” Nothing my Mother could say could convince me otherwise. Clyde was five years older than I, and Phyllis was a year younger than Shirley.

Aunt Gertrude, as we called Mrs. Bergman, was one of the most congenial travel companions. All disasters brought laughter from her lips. She was the kind of Auntie that we loved to hug.

Our train pulled out of the Addis station and we would stop three times before arriving in Djibouti. The stops were Dierdawa, Harrar, and Hawash. Some nights there were unscheduled stops due to fear of “Shiftas.” The bandits who would take out portions of the rails to cause a train wreck. Or, if the locusts had settled on the tracks, they would make the rails slippery and unsafe. At each stop we would be tucked into cots with netting draped over us. In lower altitudes there was the fear of the malaria mosquito. We were accustomed to all manner of other insects, having to hop into our beds and say our prayers from this safe distance. We knew that Mother had her usual bottles of Iodine and Lysol and we would be well protected.

Once in Djibouti, we found the only hotel. We had been there only a day when the man whose room was directly below ours, came with a complaint to Aunt Gertrude and Mother. It seems that Shirley and Phyllis had found a knothole in the floor and could, with proper aim, drop tangerine peelings upon his head as he sat below. This proved to be very embarrassing to the mothers. We tried not to look at him when we went into the dining room for meals. Here there were large sheets attached to horizontal poles. At one end was a rope, which a boy would pull back and forth. This gave some coolness and kept the flies from settling on us.

Arrangements had been made for us to travel to Egypt, where we would live in a house in the suburb of Cairo. For many years to come, this location was to be an orphanage. We knew it as the location, according to tradition, where the baby Jesus and his parents had stayed when they fled to Egypt. The flat roof of the house was ideal for play and for spreading clothes to dry. There was an open gazebo with seats and an area where we could play in the sand and not be subject to the scorching sun. Our mothers took turns marketing and preparing meals.

Aunt Gertrude was especially pleased on one shopping expedition when she came back with a quart size container of exotic perfume. It was a delicate green and she had bartered with great skill. The one big problem turned out to be that the contents were odorless. We should have known, because the persons who came to barter seemed to practice slight of hand most of the time. My mother decided to negotiate with a carpet maker in the local bazaar. Week after week, we would walk to his shop to approve of his beautiful skill. The result was an entrance rug and a large rug, both done in soft shades of brown, with woven designs of the Egyptian lotus blossom and the God Horace, with wings outspread as he knelt on either end of the carpet. Mother hoped to place this rug in our Addis Abeda home, along with the bright Turkish rugs she had already used. She proved that there is more than one way to cover a dirt floor.

While we were living in Egypt, Phyllis came to her mother with a complaint. “Why is it,” she asked, “that my name is not in the Bible?” Her mother said she did not understand. “Well,” Phyllis said, “Shirley has her name in the Bible.” It turned out that Phyllis had been memorizing the Psalm, which reads, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” Young children are very literal. Years later, Lester Ortner told me that when he was a child he would sing the chorus of “I Come to the Garden” and in the chorus the words gave him concern as to who Andy was…Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me. The actual words are “and He walks with me, etc.”

During our stay in Egypt, Mother and Aunt Gertrude taught Shirley, Phyllis and me. Clyde was destined for bigger and better things. He was enrolled in the American school in Cairo. He disdained to have us follow him, so we kept a safe distance. He was very posh in his uniform; short pants, navy jacket and cap, knee high socks, black shoes, and tucked under his arm a magnificent brief case.

Playmates who came to join us in Materia were the nine children of the Farag family. They seemed to be all ages and very well mannered. Mr. Farag was an employee of the Egyptian railroad. He was always wearing a business suit and red fez, which made him look even taller than he was. He had the distinction of joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church as one of the first in Egypt. Desiring to exchange his day off from work from Friday to Saturday, he approached his employer. There was nothing that could be done except to appear before the local judge. He made his request. His request was denied. The judge promptly fell over dead. The next week Mr. Farag had to appear before a different Judge. He made his request. His request was denied. This Judge also fell over dead. It took a few weeks to go before the third Judge. This time the request was granted.

We used to go to church where the Farags and ourselves were the only ones present. The service was held in a home and we learned to sing in Arabic, “I will make you fishers of men.” One day we had left the house and were descending the steps, all except Salem Farag. He was walking carefully on the rail. He was, until Shirley gave him a playful shove. His mother was very embarrassed to report this to my mother. To this day, Salem has this scar on his forehead.

We had lovely excursions into Cairo and into the bazaars. The Cairo museum was open, and even in our observation we found it a disaster. Nothing was in order, but thrown together helter skelter. We could walk by chariots, touching the gilded wheels, which had become loosened. What a way to display mummies of kings and queens…. All thrown together in a pile.

There were the trips out to the Pyramids. Our mothers would take the four of us on the train right to the end of the track. There we negotiated for a horse and buggy. The driver would flick his whip over the backs of the horses and they were off in a spray of sand. Usually, we could view the British soldiers on parade when we were nearing the station. The Scottish bagpipers would strut forth in their wool kilts, bagpipes blaring loudly into the Egyptian sky.

Once at the Pyramids, we were allowed to play for hours in the sand. Once mother and Aunt Gertrude climbed the largest Pyramid with a guide to help them hoist themselves up each large granite block. Another guide was left to care for us as we picked up pieces of alabaster.

It seems like a hundred years ago that we had this serene time by the Pyramids. There was not another soul in sight. From the Pyramids we walked over to the Sphinx who seemed to be guarding the desert. We admired the profile, remembering that it was Napoleon’s soldiers who shot away a portion of this nose.

It was in walking between the Pyramid and the Sphinx that Shirley declared a sit-down strike. With true Danish stubbornness, she sat in the sand and refused to move.

During our stay in Materia, we met Mr. Stanley Bull. Because of the war, his wife was in England and since he was now in a country, which did not have a good connotation of his last name, we always referred to him as “Mr. Stanley.” Many years later, when my father was President of the West Indies College in Jamaica, Mr. Bull and his family came to join the faculty. One occasion, Mrs. Bull and another friend had joined in neighborhood “Harvest Ingathering.” They had not thought of the impact of their names until they introduced themselves at the first door. “I am Mrs. Bull and this is Mrs. Hoag.” (Pronounced hog).

We were still paying weekly visits to our carpet maker in Mataria. The workmanship was progressing slowly but exquisitely beautiful. Each time we went to the shop, we stopped to admire a very tall slender oblisque. It was dark blue, very shiny to the base, which disappeared into a small pool of water. Why this oblisque was placed here, we did not know, but loved to lean over the rail to admire our reflections.

During one of our trips to the Great Pyramids, our guides had taken us to a burial site nearby, which was for commoners. We went underground, passing between shelves, much like bunks on a ship. We could have handled the bones piled on the shelves, but the thought gave me shivers. Entering the burial sites in the Pyramids was very eerie. The long narrow passageways would end in the burial chamber that contained only the stone outer casket, much like a large bathtub. In later years, an Israeli flutist was allowed to record in the empty Pyramid. When he tapped his flute on the open Sarcoguphus, he would tune his flute to a perfect note of D Major. At the time I was there, my only thought was how to escape as quickly as possible from this prison, which was hot and lit only by a single light bulb. There were no other visitors, or hoards of camels, to tempt tourists to ride around the huge edifices. There was a solitary camel, which Shirley and I climbed on, clutching tightly when the beast was commanded to stand. We really preferred our Ethiopian mules.

Aunt Gertrude and my mother took a train to visit the Royal Tombs. The only one that was near Cairo was large and artistically decorated on the walls, Egyptian style. The colors were in earth tones and depicted the slaves and family possessions, which were to accompany the dead to a place in the future.

During the fifth month in Egypt, a trip to Palestine was planned. Our mothers were courageously packing and excitement was high. The morning before departure, we were having oatmeal for breakfast. Mother directed me to ladle the cereal into our bowls. Shirley refused her oatmeal and spread her hands across the bowl. I insisted that Mother had directed me, and when she still refused, the hot oatmeal landed on her hands. None of us were prepared for the redness, swelling, and pitiful screams. We took turns plunging her hands into cold water. I was aching for my sister, realizing that obedience to the letter of the law was not always a good idea. Since our travel arrangements had been made, we had to go on with Shirley’s hands bandaged. The long train ride through the shimmering sand, and black smoke billowing through the open windows, the hard wood benches, all made me more conscious of my contribution to my dear sister’s pain. When we look at photos of our trip, I am reminded of my crime. Walking on the Via Delarosa, pointing to the plains of Bethlehem, wherever we went, are the reminders, as Shirley’s hands are very visible. Somehow mother had enough salve and bandages to keep the burns from becoming infected.

There was not much cleanliness in accommodations, very few hotels or hostels. The night we were to spend by the Sea of Galilee there was only one small room to rent for all of us. After Aunt Gertrude pulled back the covers and exclaimed over the dirty sheets, the covers were pulled up, and we slept on top with our clothes on. Mother and Aunt Gertrude took turns guarding the door that night.

Next morning we took a small rowboat ride on the lake. Our mothers were determined for us to visit the places that we had read about in our Bible stories. In a visit to the Dead Sea we put on bathing suits to swim in the buoyant salt water. We visited the Cave of Machpelah and the Oaks of Mamre, where Abraham and Sarah had been buried, the tomb of Lazarus, the city of Jericho and the River Jordan. One of the moments that was very overwhelming to me was walking in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a very sacred feeling to walk under the ancient olive trees. The traditional burial tombs in the city of Jerusalem were more commercialized, including one by the Ethiopians. We had visited the Coptic Church in Egypt when we were traveling to Palestine. These tall Coptic monks, dressed in black with high, black, brimless, stovepipe hats, were impressed with two mothers and four children who could speak the Amheric language with them.

Walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Jerusalem, there is a flow of traffic with bazaars on each side of the street with wonderful aromas of spices and perfumes.

Masada had not been excavated in 1935, and it was not until 1978 that we took our two youngest children to Israel and were lifted by tram to the top of Masada. It would be a dream to spend a night there, under the bright stars, overlooking the sheer drop to the Dead Sea.

History comes alive when remembering our six months in Egypt. There was a carefully typed letter from Daddy when we returned to Cairo. “All is coming along well,” we read, “you can make plans to come back to Addis Abeba. It doesn’t look like the Italians will win the war.” Included with the letter was a photo showing Dr. Bergman, Dr. Nicola, and Dad. They had all grown mustaches and were standing by the American Red Cross ambulance.

When we arrived in Addis we did not have time to unpack our trunks. We were introduced to the bomb shelter dug into the hillside at the bottom of the campus. There we found supplies and were handed our gas masks.

Mother, Shirley, and I listened for hours to the stories of the Italian invasion. Daddy gave us a full account, always full of optimism and faith. When he had reached the hospital in Dessie, traveling with Dr. Nicola and Dr. Bergman, they found large Red Cross insignias painted on the roofs. Dr. Bergman had built the hospital years before. At that time, the news media had sent reporters to cover the war, but they had all been detained in Addis. They were forced to send imaginary reports, using photos of natives painted with shoe polish and bandaged on all limbs. There was no communication from the front. October 3, 1935, Italians, under General Bodolio, crossed into Ethiopia. By November, the news reporters had come to Dessie and were camped in tents on the hospital grounds.

Emperor Heile Salassie was also in Dessie in his palace. The Italians were anxious to kill the Emperor, and decided that if they bombed the hospital, he might be seeking shelter there. They dropped forty-one bombs on the hospital, even with the Red Cross visible. Surgery was busy helping the injured. One nurse, Sister Maria, sustained a broken leg and was the only casualty from the hospital.

On December 8, 1935, the Emperor came to the hospital grounds where he and my father conducted a thanksgiving prayer service.

The Italians had air power much superior to the ten Ethiopian planes, eight of which could fly. There were stories of the enemy planes making deliberate strikes at Red Cross ambulances, some from Sweden, Switzerland, and England. Two doctors in one ambulance were killed. The retreat to Addis had begun.

One of the first Italian planes to land in Dessie landed while the reporters, including a young George Putnam, were still in Dessie. The Italians had lists of names, and Dr. Rohrbaugh, a Presbyterian missionary friend of my fathers, tells of the pilot’s eagerness to meet a reporter by the name of Knickerbacker. They shoved Knickerbacker into the pilots’ seat of the plane, demanding that he fly their plane. They had mistaken him for the world famous Eddie Rickenbacker. Years later, Mr. Rohrbaugh received $250.00 from the Reader’s Digest for this story, with verification from my father.

The tragedy of war was spread like a mist from the air. Natives, unfamiliar with airplanes, would look into the sky and receive deadly mustard gas. Death from this poison was extremely painful, with hair turned yellow, and tongues bloated. The nightmare continued.

On May 3, 1936, the Emperor and his entourage had left Addis Abeba by train for Djibouti, then by way of Palestine, for asylum in England. Had communications been more advanced, the Italians could have bombed the train on its way down the mountains. A short time before, the Emperor’s cousin, Legasu, mysteriously died. There would be no one to rule while Heile Salassie was in exile. June of 1936 would find the Emperor standing before the League of Nations, assembled in Switzerland, pleading for help. Not one nation volunteered their help. In quiet dignity the Emperor turned and pronounced, “Today it is my country. Someday, it will be your country.”

On June 12th the Pope blessed the occupation of Ethiopia.

The city of Addis Abeba was without government. Skies were blazing night and day, from fires started by the native looters. With “Teg” and “Talla” to heighten their drunken stupor, the shooting began. The palace was looted. Stray bullets flew everywhere. The Italian airplanes that flew over were showering leaflets in Amheric to quall the city. Two planes tried to land on the airfield after unsuccessful effort to strafe the two Ethiopian planes on the ground. To destroy the Ethiopian planes, they had to land, place straw against the planes, then set the straw on fire. Dr. Lambie from the Presbyterian Hospital, who also helped coordinate the Red Cross ambulances, found it amusing that the Italians were not accurate at bombing their target.

By now it was impossible to coordinate help to other stations. We rushed to our bomb shelter when the first plane came over. I can remember running down the mountain slope, holding my mother’s hand. I found it expedient to tell her that it was I who had broken her comb, as this seemed like a good time for confession. We were not in the bomb shelter too long, but were rescued by the British legation, which was nearby. The very tall Sikj solders from India protected the legation and came for us in an open truck. They also rescued the Americans from the Filwoha Hospital. We were on the Embassy grounds in tents with the Bergmans.

At this precise time, the American Embassy, located five miles across town, was in trouble. The drunken rioters were trying to tear down the protective wall. It was thanks to a Morse code operator that no one was killed. This brave man sent the message to the Philippines, the Philippines to Hawaii, Hawaii to San Francisco, San Francisco to New York, New York to London, and finally London to the British Embassy in Addis. “COME AND RESCUE US,” the message read. After what seemed long hours, the British arrived to transport the Americans to safety.

It seemed like days that the Italian tanks rumbled by, on their way to occupy the city. They had not wished to destroy Addis Abeba, but the occupants had done most of it themselves. When it was safe to return to Kabana, Shirley and I spent hours picking up the spent shells. They were everywhere. Thatch roofs did not provide much protection.

One of the first nights back in Kabana, there were dozens of neighbors who fled their huts and were seeking refuge on one of the lawns at Kabana. It was a bright moonlit night, but when the Italian soldiers came, they did not see the refugees. Our God, who had protected us for so many days, was holding His hand over His people. The hospital at Filwoha had many hundred seeking refuge. When the Italian soldiers came, these natives were not so fortunate. They were marched outside of the compound walls and many were killed. Phyllis told us that the next day she was running and tripped into the bloated body of a dead man.

The Italians were not at all happy to have Americans in Addis. They called us the “White Ethiopians.” It was not too many days later that two soldiers appeared at the Kabana gate. They proceeded to question Shirley and me as to whom we preferred, the Italians or the Ethiopians. Only out of good manners we replied that we liked them both. Since they were not successful in getting information from us, they tried another approach. “We want to see your cook, Gumtesa,” they announced. Shirley, in her young innocence, ran to the cookhouse and called him. They took him off and shot him.

Now the looters were presenting some of their trophies. We had a few dishes, which looters had taken from the palace. Other foreigners had many of these dishes. The Emperors china had a wide gold band. The Queen’s china a smaller gold band. In the days after the Emperor returned from exile, he declined the return of these pieces of china. He had already ordered china from France.

Our family spent three more years in Addis. Travel was restricted, but after a time, we continued our exchange of schools, part-time riding to the Filwoha campus, and then having class on our campus. Mae Mathews was still our teacher. She had earlier told Aunt Gertrude that her son, Clyde, was a hopeless student and would never amount to anything. In 1954, it was with pleasure that Aunt Gertrude sent Mae Mathews Clyde’s graduation announcement from LLU School of Medicine. Aunt Gertrude had never forgotten Miss Mathew’s remark.

It was a sad day when we packed to return to America. The hope was that Mr. Cupertino from Italy would have more freedom with his countrymen. This was wrong, and he was even more restricted.

Della and Herbert Hanson stayed on, as did Mae Mathews and Balle Nielsen. Romance bloomed for Balle and Mae and they were married. It was fortunate for the Emperor that, upon his return from exile, there were some trusted friends to help him. Della Hanson assumed the job of reorganizing the Palace, with staff and supplies. She was very capable, and has told me of walking with her tools to fix leaky faucets and take care of other repairs. Uncle Herbert stayed on at the Akika Boys School, where Aunt Della taught music and began her work on translating the hymnal into Amheric. She had her apartment in the Palace and served for more than twenty-five years with the Palace functions. She had met President Tito, Queen Juliana, the Queen of Denmark, the Shah of Iran, and many other heads of state. Before an auxiliary luncheon at the Ambassor Hotel, I helped her arrange the beautiful invitations in a leather scrapbook, and place the luxurious lace tablecloth, a gift from Tito, sterling silver vases from the Queen of Denmark, and other gifts. In her talk at the luncheon, she gave all praise and glory to God.

After Uncle Herbert’s death and burial in Addis, Aunt Della stayed on and was there the day the Emperor was taken from his palace.

Our family traveled through Europe, then by ship to New York. This was my first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. This occasion reminded me of the feeling I had in walking through the Garden of Gethsemane.

On board ship were our few belongings from Ethiopia. There were gifts from the Palace, which we had treasured from earlier years, framed pictures of the pressed flowers Mother had helped us identify when we were in Palestine, our Turkish and Egyptian rugs, and many, many memories.

We were thankful for God’s protection. We had known His presence during the terror at night and the arrow by day.

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