Back to Stories

Part 10

by Betty Dahl

Back to India: Adolescence

Before we left for India, we took a trip to Mt. Lake to see Grandma and then to Hillsboro to take Phyllis and Grace to Tabor College. Leaving our sisters behind was so hard for all of us, and especially for Mom. We had been separated before, with some members of the family going up to Kodai and others staying at the mission station, but we had never before been separated by an ocean. We younger siblings will never forget looking back at the two of them as we drove away; we cried and cried.

Saying goodbye to Phyllis and Grace

We headed to San Francisco, where we were to board the S.S. Marine Swallow. It was due to sail to Madras by way of Japan. Leroy persuaded his family to see us off. I threw Leroy a streamer and we each held the streamer tightly as the ship began to sail; it stretched and then broke. Tears flowed as the streamer broke and Leroy became indistinguishable from the crowd on the pier. I spent a little time in mourning, but life will go on, I figured, and surely there would be boys in the new school. Perhaps there would be one who also could compete academically. I missed the feelings accompanying being infatuated, so I began to think ahead to other possibilities. How fickle infatuation can be.

The Swallow was a small troop ship hastily built by the Kaiser Ship Company. It had no stabilizers and was very unstable and rocked unmercifully. No sooner had the ship begun to move under the Golden Gate Bridge than Gwen became seasick. She would be bedridden until the motors stopped at the next port. She didn't want to eat, so we had to coax her to take liquids like soup and tea. I read to her daily until my voice gave out. One book I read was The Yearling; Gwen would later name a son Jody after the main character. She said listening to stories saved her life because she was so despondent after days of feeling ill.

I was fortunate to be among those who suffered very little from the rocking motion of the ship. Paul and I explored the decks. We had been told as Mennonite children that playing bridge was sinful, a gambler's game. However, as we watched, we could find little sinful about it and began to participate when we knew Mama and Daddy would not find out about it. I never figured out as a child why Mennonites felt bridge or poker were evil while it was okay to play card games like Rook or Flinch. The only reason we could figure out was that "things that are too much fun distract us from our religious mission and thus are evil."

Ships are natural exploratoriums. The crew frequently gave us opportunities to see the boiler room, to visit the Captain's deck, to steer the ship, and wash the decks. The crew came from many countries and generally were hard to understand, but we managed fairly well with gestures. Flying fish were a frequent sight and occasionally we sighted a whale. Once a whale went under the ship and rocked it. Passing ships signaled their greetings.

The family decided to enter the talent contest. We selected an action song. The lyrics were:

Shooshdee-feedley-feedley, Shooshdee-feedley-feedley, that's how the violin plays;
Doodley-doodley-um, Doodley-doodley-um, that's how the clarinet plays.
Tra-da-da, Tra-da-da, that's how the trumpet plays;
Broom-fitz-fitz, Broom-fitz-fitz, that's how the bass viol plays;
Brenky-shvenky-trenky, that's how the harp plays;
Boom - Ching - Drrrrr, that's how the drums all play.
(See Appendix for complete version.)

We won first place but wished we had come in second since we liked the second-place prize better. We received fruit candy bars for being first, while those getting second place received gum, something we rarely had.

Another time our family did a skit where everyone on stage kept bending their knees as the lines were spoken; it was funny to see all of us bobbing up and down throughout the skit. The main lines were:

Howdy, ma; howdy, pa
S'matter, Ma? S'matter, Pa?
We ain't got the money for the mortgage on the cow.
Why ain't you got the money for the mortgage on the cow?
Cause we ain't got the money for the mortgage on the cow.
Sob, sob: sob, sob, sob.
(See Appendix for complete skit.)

Catholic mass was held on Sunday mornings and sometimes Saturdays evening. Being from a Mennonite family, we had not seen a Catholic mass. All we had learned about Catholics was that they were evil and would not enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless they repented and chose our beliefs and discarded theirs. We had heard that Catholics used candles to evoke Mary's blessing and that their services were all in Latin, both of which proved to be true. We decided we wanted to see for ourselves what went on during a Catholic mass, but instead of telling our parents since we knew they certainly wouldn't approve, we hid behind some furniture in the lounge where the mass was being held and watched this big event. We had a good view of everything that went on. The priestly garb, the intonations, the candles and incense, and the unintelligible Latin songs and readings awed us. We also heard that one young priest skipped out at one of the ports to be with a girl with whom he had fallen in love. We found that very romantic. The Protestant services, by contrast, were very informal and not nearly as dramatic. Many different denominations were represented on the ship, and it was hard to find a common song to sing. Someone said he was from the High Church, and we puzzled about the existence of a Low Church.

Dad would always bring a large number of games when we traveled by ship. He would take one out at a time, and we would play and play that one; then he would add another for us to play. He spaced these so there were new games to play throughout the voyage. Dad also insisted that we do some lessons each day, although he never seemed to check whether or not these were complete. His philosophy about school was that we could learn faster when we got back into school if we needed to. He considered traveling a far more exciting way to learn. Because he was a history major, he taught us a timeline of events and asked us to hook all events to it. I never forgot this timeline; it was useful in high school and college history classes. For the most part, Dad's philosophy was accurate. Most of us worked harder to catch up or excel, and we all graduated on time. Moreover, we appreciated the travel and the things we learned visiting cities around the world. For me, this figured to be 2 1/2 times around the world before I finished high school.

The journey ended and we arrived in Madras (now named Chennai). Back in India at last! We older children had so many memories of growing up there. For Gwen and Joanne, although they'd been little when they had left during the war, the smells and sounds of the countryside made them feel as though they were coming back home. It was Margy's first time in India, so everything was new for her.

Going through customs was always an ordeal in India. All of the levels of authority wanted their share of payola. Tips were expected for everything and everyone. In India, tips greased the oil that facilitated the society, but it was a complicated system, a game of one-ups-man-ship. Mama's passport was held up until we gave the office of our Congressman a telephone call. This was because she had not sent in the extra fee the Indian consulate asked for to facilitate the issuance of the passport. Finally we were done with customs and could head to Shamshabad, where Dad and Mom would be serving for the next year. We were in a hurry to get there since the annual Mennonite Missionary Conference was being held there.

(To be continued)