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Part 12

by Betty Dahl

Kodaikanal: High School Years, continued


Adolescence in Kodai was both simple and complex. There was no strong emphasis on dressing uniquely to express one's inner self since we had few clothes to pick from. Yet we each tried to somehow make ourself unique in other ways--a bow in our hair, colored shoelaces or Indian bracelets. For a while, students exchanged items of clothing for greater variety. Sometimes an outfit was worn for a week--just by different girls. The boys would never know to whom the original belonged. Unfortunately not all girls had good hygiene or would wear deodorant, making it uncomfortable to share with these girls. Fortunately, orders came from Erkie that this practice of sharing clothes would no longer be allowed.

Nevertheless, the usual growing pains hit. I grew shyer and very self-conscious, but had a strong sense that I was unique. I changed the writing of my name to Bette to reflect this uniqueness. I reminded myself that I was first in my class, and was often singled out to perform musically, tutor other students in Latin, or demonstrate how to prove a theorem. However, the boys teased me and told me I was too bright for them to tolerate on a date, so dates were not as frequent as I would have enjoyed. At first I would sit in the dorm and stew about it, but later came to a more mature acceptance of my fate. I refused to underplay my skills in order to get a date. Rather, I took charge of the younger children to allow the matron a few hours off and to get some spending money. As I grew older, I accepted more and more responsibilities of this nature as a substitute for dates, though there is no doubt in my mind that I would rather have dated. Surely there were boys who could love intelligent girls, but where were they when I needed them?

Like most adolescent girls, we compared body shapes. My biggest concern was that my breasts were too small. I never wore a size bigger than Size A until the births of my babies. I resigned myself to being a single teacher, as no male would overlook such a fault. I even entertained the thought of becoming a nun as I equated having large breasts with the capability of having children. When I found out the truth of the matter I cried out of sheer relief as I had a fondness for children and certainly saw it as a future role I would seek.

Because of the influence of my parents, I developed a strong sense of ethics and fairness. Because of this, I was very upset when I would see other students cheating. I would not dare to cheat and was incensed with friends who did, feeling that all should study and have equal chances to demonstrate learning. When I saw blatant cheating, my sense of justice was affronted and I would tell the teacher in as discrete a manner as possible. Usually they took care of such behaviors, making changes to ensure honesty. Later, as a teacher in grade school and college, I still agitated for high moral standards.

Social Life

Two distinct social groups formed: the missionary kids were called MK's and the wealthy oil kids were called RK's for "rich kids." The RK's flew to India on airplanes and made fun of ship travel; they had clothes that were fashionable while ours were hand-me-downs from siblings, clothes donated to churches, or clothes sewed by our mothers or Indian tailors. The RK's had money to spend in the bazaar and we MK's were lucky to get there once a month for coconuts and bananas or a little candy; RK girls had imported Kotex, while most of the MK girls made do with Indian brands that were not very absorbent; the rich had caramelized condensed milk at their birthday parties and pull-taffy when they wanted it, as well as lots of bubble gum and chewing gum, while the MK's were lucky to get any even for a birthday party.

I recall getting a letter from Dad explaining that I could not order taffy for a birthday party, as there was no extra money for those things. I was devastated and decided to seek employment as a student. I was hired by the parents of one of the oil kids to tutor Latin and math courses, and I took on eight piano students at the request of my piano teacher. I was paid enough to get Kotex and pull-taffy without bothering parents, and that felt wonderful. I decided I could work very hard to get the feel of financial independence, and never again did I feel I was dependent on others for money. I just worked more hours.

The social event of the junior and senior years was definitely going to the prom; everyone wanted to go to the prom. Mennonites frowned on dancing so going to the prom meant just eating and hanging out. How does a girl tell a guy she isn't allowed to dance but would very much like to go to the prom? Fortunately or unfortunately, a boy named Pete professed to be in love with me and was a sure bet to ask me on any conditions. I, on the other hand, was interested in an invitation from his younger brother. I went to great lengths to accidentally-on-purpose put myself in the company of the brother so he could invite me to the prom, while avoiding Pete. No luck. I was so absorbed in getting an invitation from Pete's brother, but Pete found a way to ask me first. It was hopeless since protocol dictated that a girl go with the one who asked first or stay home, something that seemed a worse fate than going with Pete. His brother never did go to the prom, which seemed such a shame. Hope gone for a pairing with his brother, patient Pete and I finally went to the dance; it was held in the school gymnasium, which had been lavishly decorated. The dress I wore was not what I dreamed of wearing. Friends counseled me as to how to improve its look. Nonetheless, Pete told me how nice I looked and I accepted his words with deep gratitude.

Proms were held in the Old Gym

After the dinner, Pete asked me to dance. I had not yet told him I didn't know how to dance and wasn't allowed to because of our religious sanctions. I was in turmoil but finally blurted out that I had accepted the invitation without telling him about the dancing and that it was not fair to him to do so. I apologized profusely but sincerely. Pete was a gentleman and said he would far prefer to take a walk since the evening was so nice. He forgot that girls often wear uncomfortable shoes to a dance so they match the outfit, and suggested we take the three-mile walk around the lake. Two problems: I needed to use the bathroom first before undertaking such a jaunt and two, I didn't know if I could make it in these shoes. The first problem was soon taken care of when Pete suggested we make a pit stop before leaving. However, the second one was not resolved because I did not dare show up in the dorm to trade shoes since it would mean the matron would find out that I had left the dance and was on an illegal pass outside the dormitory quarters.

The first part of the walk went fine, though I walked rather slowly. Then I stepped in a pile of cow manure and did not want to let on, but finally I laughed and told Pete what had happened. He felt bad for suggesting the walk in the dark with good shoes on, so we both kept apologizing until we tired of it and agreed to laugh, take off our shoes and finish in bare feet. The rest of the walk ended up being more fun and we talked about events and plans for the future. Pete confided that he didn't think he had the grades to get into medical school, and his father expected both Pete and his brother to be doctors like him. I thought too that his grades were too low and certainly too low to gain a scholarship. (Interestingly, Pete actually did end up being a doctor, and a good one.) I told him I had no clue as to what I wanted to do when I grew up into adulthood. I didn't feel like assuming adult responsibilities yet. I was in some dream world when it came to the future; I was still going to be a famous writer or brilliant pianist or outstanding chemist.

Illegal Excursions

The village was off-limits to students, and this made an excursion there all the more tempting. We thought of many ways to get out of the dorm while not alerting the matron; she had too many to watch anyway. We put mounds of pillows under the blankets on our beds and shaped them like a person. Then we stood guard for each other and distracted the matron as she made evening rounds. The escapees headed to the village with money for coconuts, bananas, jelebis, halva or other goodies, which were shared on their return. I never got caught but heard of others who did. The unspoken rule was that if caught, don't rat on others.

In the village the old men lined the streets, sitting cross-legged and chewing betel nut with a red substance on it. One day a group of us decided to have a spitting contest and thought it would be good to get some betel nut so we could make our saliva red. This made it easier to see where the spit landed. We ended up so sick that we had to be put in the dispensary for the weekend. No doubt we had taken some hallucinogenic drugs. In any case, I still vividly recall the scolding and the ill feeling from the betel nut. I was cured of trying that stuff again. I was so thankful to get well and bore my punishment stoically.

My Writings

I spent many of my idle hours reading or writing. The following are sample of word images I wrote down in my 8th grade notebook:

"The bugle call of the rooster announced the beginning of a new day."

"Thundering drums and flashing lights announced the arrival of Queen Weather. She let down her skirts of rain as she stomped her way across the sky. An angry woman on the move, I thought to myself. To her back, old man sun waited impatiently at the delay. People needed to be up for work. Finally, with a few shakes of rain and mutterings under her breath the Queen made her exit. Old man sun smiled and made the people happy again."

"The sun sank lazily out of sight after a long day's work, surrounded by fluffy pink cloud cushions."

Mission Stations

We lived at two mission stations when we were back in India this last time: Shamshabad and Mahabubnagar. It was during these years in India that there were major changes in the country. India gained its freedom from British rule, and the area was divided into the two countries of India and Pakistan. While we children were aware of these events, they didn't affect us a lot except as they affected our family. Dad sent Mom up to Kodai for safety while he stayed at the mission station. He was in Bombay during the riots, and we feared for his life. In Kodai, life continued on in a fairly normal fashion, with studies, boys, and activities taking up most of our time and thoughts.


Shamshabad was the first mission station we went to when we arrived back in India. We knew the Lorenzes would want to come back to it and that our stay there was temporary. A grand old car was a part of the Shamshabad mission station and with the car came Old Benjamin, the driver. He was so proud of that car and happy to drive the family into the big city of Hyderabad for shopping excursions. He always dressed up for these excursions and expected that we too would wear our finest clothes. The car was kept shiny and clean.

Among my most vivid memories of Shamshabad were two incidents involving the Razakars, a lawless band who were roaming about in the villages near us and killing indiscriminately. This group was connected with the Nizam, a Muslim who was trying to maintain Hyderabad as an independent state rather than become a part of predominantly Hindu India. The first incident was when an oxcart from a nearby village came to our compound; in it was a man who had been shot when some Razakars had come to his village, ordered the people to line up outside their homes, and then shot into the group. Others had been killed; this man was among the wounded. He had a huge infected open wound in his back, which must have been terribly painful since he had had to lie on straw while traveling to our hospital. Luckily, he made it through this ordeal.

Another time the folks in our compound told Dad that some armed strangers, probably Razakars, were sighted under the bridge right outside of our compound. Dad decided we needed to get police protection from the village, which was about five miles away. Since this meant he had to drive over the bridge where the Razakars were hiding, we were terrified. The single missionary ladies and some of the preachers joined the rest of us in the main bungalow, and we had a prayer time. Dad started the car, Indian men opened the compound gate, and Dad gunned it out across the bridge. It seemed like such a long time before he returned; with him came some police officers, who patroled the compound through the night. The next morning we went outside, happy that there hadn't been an attack and we were all alive. When some of our folks finally ventured out of the compound to check the area, it was all quiet--but they did find signs of a campfire under the bridge. Who was there, I don't think we ever found out.

Another memory of this mission station was of mice crawling into bed, over my feet, body and even over my face. During one of my first nights there I woke up and felt something furry by my cheek. It was a mouse, cuddled in for warmth. From then on I faithfully used a mosquito net around my bed.

Shamshabad mission station still had no electricity or running water. There was little to do after it turned dark, so we would head to bed early. Early in the morning the crows got us up with their raucous cries right outside the doors leading to the upper verandah. All our water had to be boiled and stored in kundas. These larger clay pots kept the water fairly cool; later we transferred these to smaller koojas, which had narrow necks that facilitated pouring. We used this boiled water for our tooth brushing and all beverages since water was drawn from wells which often served as a place for animals to get cool and to drink, a community swimming place and also a source of water for human consumption.

When we arrived in Shamshabad, the annual mission conference was being held there. All the missionary families gathered for a general meeting that included discussion of problems and plans for the future. Rev. A. E. Janzen had come from the Mission Board in Kansas to attend this conference; he planned an all-night prayer vigil. What he had not calculated on was that the missionaries were tired, and one by one they fell asleep on their knees and the prayer vigil broke up early.

Missionary Conference at Shamshabad

We children entertained ourselves and practiced on a program to give for the adults. One day we decided to hike out to an outcropping of rocks, some miles away. Paul and Helen Dick were in charge of the rest of us, which must have been a chore since we insisted on climbing all over the rocks; snakes were known to inhabit that area. On the way back, we ran out of water. We thought we had enough canteens of water along, but with it being a hot day we had gone through our supply. Our complaining made us even more thirsty. At one point we had to cross over a small creek. Gwen and Joanne decided they'd rather take the risk of getting sick from the polluted water than go without a drink any longer, so they broke folks' adamant rule: never drink unboiled water. We finally saw the compound walls ahead and began to run. Once home, we drank and drank and drank--the water was about the most delicious I've ever tasted.

A Safari

That May Paul left to go to college in the States. Before leaving, he expressed a desire to be able to take a safari trip into the forests of the wildlife preserve. I really wanted to go too, so we went together. We ate dinner at a clubhouse and slept on a mat on the verandah. Throughout the night we heard animal noises; some seemed too close for comfort. We heard hyenas, jackals, and a lion on the prowl, noisy monkeys. All of these sounds kept us from sleeping well. We were wakened very early in the morning. After a little breakfast, we went down to meet our tour guide, who told us to "board" an elephant. The task was rather difficult even though we were given a rope ladder to use when climbing the sides of the large beast. It all seemed so easy when we observed the trainer, but was much harder to accomplish ourselves. Once we were on the elephant, we had two choices: we could put one foot on the left and one on the right of its back; this required us to stretch our legs very wide open, which soon became tiring. The other choice was to hold a rope in our hands and sit sidewise, with both feet on one side. When I tried this position, I was always scared of slipping down the side of the elephant. I never did find a comfortable position throughout the whole ride.

We were off. As the sun began to lighten the sky, we watched a pride of lions drinking from a stream, deer venturing off to a meadow, a group of wild elephants that the leader of our group avoided because of the danger involved. Tame elephants come in second if they get into a fight with wild elephants. We were simply awed by the food intake of the elephants as they ferried us around the grounds. They grabbed leaves from trees as they passed. They would chew awhile and then look for water. After a meal they became playful and would dump a trunk full of water over us, drenching us from head to toe. We ended up feeling very damp and sticky because of our showers and the heat of the day.

When Paul left for Tabor College, I felt very alone. He and I had grown up together and now he would be at the other side of the world. He and two of the other senior boys left India on a small freighter. They planned to travel in England, and then head to America. Later he told us that his only coat had been stolen while they had stayed at a cheap hostel, so he had continue his trip without it.


Mahabubnagar, about 6 kilometers from Hyderabad City, was the family's next home as it was decided that Dad should develop a new high school there. Dad had taken a keen interest in schools and welcomed this assignment. Mahabubnagar was a prosperous city compared to the other towns in which mission stations were located. It had some elementary plumbing for toilets, though no showers or bathtubs. It had many noted visitors for Dad to invite as guest speakers for the high school, and the city life was always active with festivals and parades.

The Krishna River ran through some of the villages in the Mahabubnagar district. It was an important source of water for growing rice, but also was considered to have healing and redemptive powers. People traveled quite a distance to get this spiritual renewal through the act of bathing in the river.

The Mahabubnagar region was once known as Cholawadi, or the "land of the Cholas." There was a famous 500-year-old banyan tree located about three kilometers away. This tree covered an area of over three acres and could accommodate about 1,000 people under its shade. The church would organize picnics here. It was fun to run in and out of the roots and branches. We loved having curry during these outings under the banyan tree, but we learned that the whole chicken was used in the curry--guts and all. Mother would get quite irritated with Gwen when she would fuss about this. From that time I became more wary of all curry and tended to limit my tastes to vegetarian curries unless we ate at home.

Because of the constant addition of new roots, the banyan tree is considered immortal and thus is an integral part of the myths and legends of India. Wherever they are, they become the focal social point of the village because of the shade and also the natural seats formed from the gnarled trunks. Because it is such a unique tree, it is no wonder the banyan tree became the national tree of India and is mentioned in most writings about India.

At the Mahabubnagar compound there was a circle drive as one entered the gated station. Along this drive were a row of trees inhabited by monkeys. Flying foxes also inhabited the trees inside the compound. These were actually bats with a body, face and fur that resemble a fox . Hundreds of them would settle on a tree and demolish it in short order. To save the trees, Dad would try to drive them away. Frequently a loud noise would scare them off, so first Dad tried having us blast away on our musical instruments. If that action failed, he took a shotgun and aimed it at the tree with the most animals in it. Once we saw ten drop from one shot dad fired because they hung on the tree cuddled up as close as they could. I was never certain, given the Indian reverence for animal life, that this put him in any favor with the natives, but it did save the trees and the people used the furs and the meat from the foxes Dad managed to hit. We cried when we saw them shot, though they were a bit ugly.

Besides the crows, flying foxes, and stray dogs, common problems in the compound were snakes, lizards, scorpions (most of us tangled with a scorpion at least once), spiders, ants and other insects and bugs. There were several types of dangerous snakes: cobras, vipers and pythons were the ones we feared the most. Dad was called to shoot several snakes that were in the rafters of the students' boarding houses. Once he shot a snake in the ceiling of our bedroom; that was scary. Several of the snakes he shot were close to six feet long. Dad was a pretty good shot but no one could compare with the missionary lady at Devorakonda. Her reputation as a dead eye was widespread. She had been trained by the Canadian Royal Mounties during the war and had learned to shoot in that job. The snakes were hauled off for their skins and meat. We were fascinated by snake charmers who could get cobras to sway to their music, but we were terrified of snakes around our home and yard, especially at night when we depended on lanterns and couldn't see much of what was around us.

A verandah circled the bungalow and made a good play area for the younger children, who would ride tricycles around it endlessly. The verandah kept the inner rooms cooler. The kitchen was separate from the main house, also helping to keep things cool. All cooking was done by Saul, an excellent cook who made absolutely delicious curries. Houseboys would help him serve the meals. We used to love the feeling of being able to just ring the table bell and have the houseboy get what we wanted.

We owned an old phonograph but had few records. When we returned to India this last time, Dad bought two new record albums: Peter and the Wolf and The Nutcracker Suite. We played these over and over, along with In a Monastery Garden and a Fritz Kreisler rendition of a violin concerto.

Gwen, Joanne, Margy, Loey and me at Mahabubnagar

In back of the bungalow, we had a sizable garden which was tended by an elderly man. His eyesight was very poor. Our parents got him some glasses, and he felt it was a miracle that he could see again. They also got him some warm blankets and clothes, as he constantly felt cold. Paul would go out and help in the garden for no pay; his willingness to work drew great admiration among the local Indians. My favorite fruit in the garden was a tree-ripened papaya, with mangoes coming in close second. The bananas (plantains) were rather different from those in the States--smaller, firmer, greener in color. The mangoes were sweeter and larger than those in the U.S. They are the national fruit of India and there are over 100 varieties in different sizes, shapes and colors. They are rich in Vitamins A, C and D and thus are often put in drinks for health.

Every year the church had a Harvest Festival that was very unique. All members of the church brought a gift for the church to thank God for blessing them. The point was to give some of the harvest bounty back to God. People brought such things as chickens, grain, rugs, fruit, cloth, saris, vegetables, and sweets. One person even brought a cow. Mom and Dad would worry when someone gave more than they could afford. We children had to make something for the sale. I baked some bread and rolls and embroidered napkins. All the goods were auctioned off and the money used for the church expenses.

Memorable Train Trips

Since we had many trips back and forth from the mission stations to Kodai School, we became accustomed to train travel. Once when we were heading home for our two-month break, the train came to an unexpected halt. Looking out the window, we could see people walking excitedly along the tracks, all headed in one direction. Dad asked what the commotion was about and was told that Gandhi and a group of followers were lying down on the tracks to halt trains in a peaceful protest. While some of us stayed with the suitcases, the others went down to see Gandhi. Dad was excited about this event, but I did not comprehend the significance of what I was seeing. Later in college, I remembered this incident and wrote a long paper on Gandhi's tactics of peaceful demonstration and nonviolent confrontation.

On one of our trips back to Mahabubnagar, our train had to pass through an area flooded by a typhoon. The train inched along, with men in front of it feeling for the rails with their feet. The water came up to the first step into the car. Outside one could see water snakes, ducks, dogs, cattle and other animals trying to find safety. The door of our rail car was open and we sat on the steps, hanging our toes in the water, until the words "Water Moccasin" were sounded. We all pulled our feet up quickly and few went back to that activity.

The muddy water swept away thatched roofs of houses, toppled the earthen walls, and took the contents of the houses to places unknown. People scrambled to get to higher ground to save themselves. Finally the train stopped in a location where people could walk on a little dry ground right next to the rail. Each of us grabbed our suitcases. We also hired one or two coolies to carry the heavier footlockers. Then we went single-file back to the nearest village; at one point we had to walk carefully over a bridge with many of its cross-tiles missing. Fortunately it was not too far, as carrying our luggage was very tiring. At the village we were told to go to the home of an English missionary family for lodging. They were gracious and put us up until the trains could go again. We learned that the flood had done major damage to the area and taken many lives. Finally the water receded, repairs were made on the rails, and we could head home. Mother greeted us with tears; she had not gotten any word from us and, having heard about the devastating floods, had given us up for dead. She was already planning our funerals.

On one occasion Dad was late getting into Madras, where Gwen, Margy and I were to meet him. We were three girls alone with our luggage. What to do? I had Gwen and Margy bring their luggage to a corner of the station near the spot where Dad would look for our train and also near to a toilet. I can recall being very anxious when any of us left to use the bathroom--scared that our luggage would be stolen or, even worse, that one of my sisters would be kidnapped. Fortunately Dad showed up after a short wait. He was equally relieved when he saw us. Since none of us three had any money, it was a good thing he showed up. I had been mulling over how I would beg the stationmaster to be allowed to get on the train to Mahbubnagar and have our parents bail us out at our destination.

Dad had just come from a burial service for Mrs. Kasper and her younger son Julius, who had drowned in the waters of the Krishna River. What was more frightening was that Mom, Lois (about 5 months old) and Joanne had been with the Kaspers on a visit to a medical clinic when the car they were in fell off of a car ferry and went down into the river. Amazingly, Mom was able to grab Lois as the car was going down into the waters and pull her out of the car. Although she was not a swimmer, she then fought her way up to the surface of the water, where waiting hands pulled her and Lois up on the barge to safety. Joanne escaped from the car a bit later and was rescued by fishermen in a boat nearby. After that time the Indians in our mission station called Lois "Mosesama" since God had rescued her from the waters, like baby Moses. No wonder Dad was late.

(To be continued)