16 June 2013

When I was small, my father used to tell me a fantastical story about a little boy who grew up very, very far away in China and whose life was full of magical adventures.

It wasn’t until I was 11 or 12 that I learned that little boy was my dad and, as the years unfolded, so did his story. 

My German grandfather, Maurice,  was the Far East head of a Swiss textile company in the ‘20s and ‘30s. He and his bride, Alice, lived in Shanghai with their cook, maid, valet and chauffeur (it was a pretty luxe life for expatriates back then). Then my father, Walter Rudolf Newman, came along. He grew up speaking German (which he still speaks beautifully), Mandarin, and English, and was educated at the American School. 

Life sounded idyllic and even the frightening times were marked with a boyhood sense of adventure: one day, he and a friend were playing in a creek when he was 11, they were close enough to the fighting between the Chinese and Japanese that Dad was hit with a errant piece of  shrapnel in his knee. My father remembers riding his bike home with his leg bleeding, terrifying my grandmother. For years, my father could tell if it was going to rain based on how his knee felt. 

From a young age, my father frequently traveled throughout Asia and Europe with his father, usually by ship or by train. One time, he was sleeping on a pull-out bed when he was two that somehow folded back up on the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Siberia and no one could find little Rudi, who snoozed away in the flipped-up bed while my parents and train personnel frantically searched for him. 

Every two years or so, the family, which soon included my dad’s younger brother, Fred, would return to Wurzburg, Germany, where my grandparents had grown up and kept a home. 

Everything changed after the Sino-Japanese War started.  Shortly after the shrapnel incident, my grandparents felt my father should receive a proper education and sent him to boarding school in Saffron Walden, England (he left a month before a huge, devastating blitz destroyed much of the Bund, the main business district). No one could have foreseen what happened next.  Hitler came into power and because my grandmother had Jewish blood, my grandparents remained in Shanghai throughout World War II. If they had attempted to return home, she would have been thrown into a concentration camp. 

My father couldn’t get back to China and stayed in England, first attending a Quaker boarding school and then London Polytechnic for college. He didn’t see or talk to his parents from the time he was 11 until he was 22. They communicated solely through monthly letters delivered by the Red Cross. He had a foster family— a lovely farming family who raised hogs— that he spent school vacations and summers with until he turned 18. His legal guardian was the British head of the same Swiss textile company for whom my grandfather worked, a man named Mr. Wagner, whom my father regarded as a second father. My father cried more when Mr. Wagner died than when his biological father passed.

During the war, my father joined the Civil Defense and then the Royal Air Force and drove war-wounded soldiers coming back from the front from Folkstone to hospitals in London. He also was a bike messenger for the military and fell in a crater from a bombing and was in a coma for a time.

For my dad, it was all one big adventure. In photos from that time, he was quite dashing, he looked like a young Gregory Peck.  He remembers it as a grand old time. He sang in the opera, he posed nude for college art classes, he modeled,  he and his American cousin met Glenn Miller at the USO (shortly before Miller’s plane went down). With a twinkle in his eye,  he’d tell me that he and his best friend from college, Mike, had more than their pick of the ladies. Yes, it was wartime and there were blackouts and air raids, but somehow, my father made it all sound terribly romantic. 

It wasn’t until much later that I realized it wasn’t as grand for my grandparents, though it was not nearly as bad as it could have been. They could have been thrown into an internment camp, but the Swiss consulate sent a letter to the Japanese consulate vouching for my grandfather, and asked that he and his family be given special consideration. He, my grandmother, and uncle were under house arrest at the height of the Japanese occupation of China. Dad doesn’t seem to know much about their time then because his parents probably didn't want to burden him (and also their letters would likely have been censored) and my uncle doesn’t like to discuss it. My grandparents eventually surrendered their German citizenship and received what were called Nansen passports, issued to stateless refugees.

In 1947, my father got notice that he was No. 99 on a list of 100 Non-Chinese Chinese who could come to America. On very short notice, he left London and came to the East Coast, while my grandparents and uncle came to the United States from Shanghai. In 1948, they reunited in Los Angeles, where my grandparents lived until they died in the ‘70s and where my uncle still lives. 

My father moved to Atlanta, where he met my mom, and they eventually settled in Raleigh, where I grew up and where he still lives. 

As I grew older, I learned more and more of the story and I still frequently ask my father for details, trying to glean anything I may have missed. A few years ago while looking through some old photos, we found a map of Shanghai from 1938. My father was able to immediately identify where his family had lived, where he had gone to school and where my grandfather’s office was in the Bund. It’s all the stuff of movies; his own version of “Empire of the Sun.” 

I’m writing this on the plane from Raleigh to Los Angeles. I got to spend Father’s Day with my dad today for the first time in years. We went to a restaurant with noodles. My father has loved noodles since he grew up in China. My father has trouble walking now. He primarily uses a motorized scooter, but he’s been working hard with the physical therapists and nurses at the assisted living facility where he lives to be able to use a walker for very short distances. Today, he did a great job at the restaurant and the exhilaration he seemed to feel in getting out seemed to outweigh the exhaustion and supreme effort it took. 

Though today was a day for me and my sister to give him gifts, it felt like he gave us a really big gift today. I love you, daddy. Happy Father’s Day.

in honor of my dad, who loves public television (and especially all the British programming), today’s $10 goes to UNC-TV.

June 16: UNC-TV

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