Profile #1: Don and the “Bwō Cháng”

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶One thematic idea that has occurred to me was to write a series of “profiles” about people who have deeply affected me during my life, for good or ill and sometimes both. Both good and ill aptly describes the person who will be the first subject of a profile here: Donald L.  I hope you readers will find the portrait below edifying or amusing or, again, both.

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¶Don L. was in the same “flight” as I during our basic training at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio. Don was about the same height and build as I, a slender six feet, but he had black, slightly curly hair; while mine was sandy brown with only a cowlick to disturb the front. I wouldn’t have imagined him a cologne model, but he was at least as good-looking as I; anyway, I doubt that any young lady would have declined if he asked her to dance with him or to go out on a date. There was an intensity in him that I didn’t catch onto at first; it wasn’t as primary a feature then as it would become a couple of years later. There were about sixty of us airmen in the flight, and I had minimal contact with Don during that time; he was at one end of the barracks and I at the other. I can recall only three incidents in which he compelled my interest.
¶The first was on base orientation day, when one of our two training sergeants, S/Sgt. D. marched us to some of the facilities we might wish or need to visit: the chapel, the cleaners, the Airmen’s Club, and the bookstore. While we were in the bookstore, Don bought a German language self-study book. A few minutes later, as we stood in formation out in front of the bookstore, Sgt. D. chewed him out for buying the book; I wasn’t sure why, although I surmised it might be because WWII had ended only thirteen years previously. Then there was the conning possibility: the very next year, newspapers reported a scandal at Lackland AFB in which airmen and airwomen had been treated as “pigeons”, i.e. subjects for fleecing by some on-base businesses. However, Sgt. D. wasn’t above fleecing either; he conned us trainees out of fifty cents each to buy some super-duper shoe polish — polish that never appeared, not for me anyway.
¶The second occasion for my noticing Don in a direct way was while we happened to be walking from the cleaners on base back to the barracks. We chatted off-handedly, and he confided to me that he was a Germanophile—fond of German culture, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Thomas Mann, and even Adolf Hitler. At the time, the only one of those names I recognized was Adolph Hitler. During our conversation on the Lackland road, I argued weakly with Don about the Nazis because I was ignorant about all the other Germanic figures that entranced him; but before our acquaintance was but a memory I would learn much about them from Don and my own reading.
¶The third event that brought Don closer within my orbit was when Don and I were sent to a building on the base where we and perhaps a hundred other airmen were told we were “the cream of the crop” and were to be tested to determine our language-learning abilities. Based on the results of our tests, some of us would be sent to Yale University to study Chinese, and the rest would go to Syracuse University to study Russian. The week after that, Don and I were told to go to yet another building, where we and other selected airmen spent at least a week being taught some basic Mandarin Chinese and tested. When we were finished, we received our orders to report to Yale University’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages to begin our intensive study, in November 1958. I was somewhat disappointed because I had imagined that if I went to Syracuse I would get an assignment in Europe—Parisian cafés, Pamplona bull-runs, etc. China was a very dark place, almost invisible, in mid-20th century American minds. It wasn’t until Nixon and Kissinger visited Mao Tse-Tung in 1972, that China’s colorful culture appeared in American TV, newspapers and magazines.

2a

A 1958-59 seminar at Yale’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages. This group is part of Don’s and my class,
but neither of us appear in the photo.

¶Since Don’s last name and my own began with the same letter, we were assigned the same dorm room along with another airman named Dale L., an airman from Pittsburgh. I didn’t like this Dale fellow at all; but the causes of our disconnect don’t fall within the purview of this profile, so I will ignore him.
¶Don and I, however, developed a strange kind of “odd-couple” relationship, sometimes a bit antagonistic but often almost brotherly. We walked around town together occasionally, but mostly had discovering conversations in our room. He related to me his fascination with Thomas Mann, suggesting that I read in particular Mann’s short story “Tonio Kröger”. He also bought an LP album of selections from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. Those I could appreciate, but I still found his admiration for Hitler disgusting. For whatever reason—and it was not sexual—a strong affinity was developing between us, although at Yale it was still in its embryonic stage.
¶At this point, I need to introduce a Chinese term that plays a major role in my relationship with Don over the next five years: that term is “bwō cháng” (transliterated using the Yale romanization; in Wade-Giles, it is “pwō ch’áng”; in Pinyin, it is “pō cháng”). The phrase translates as “wave length”. Our class was introduced to “bwō cháng” near the end of our first eight months, when we concentrated on military terminology.
¶ Don was among those who stayed another few months (four, I believe) to learn more Chinese characters; I and several others received our “diplomas” after eight months. (I had contracted chicken pox shortly after Christmas and spent a week or two in the dispensary, so I left Yale a “straight-B” student.)
¶My initial orders indicated I was to go to the Philippines; but by the time I reached San Diego a few months later—after a brief detour to Fort Meade, Maryland, to learn the technical aspects of my assignment—I learned that, no, I was to fly in one of those old twin-engine DC-7’s to Okinawa.
¶I was assigned to the Group HQ on Kadena AFB. My duties, as I soon discovered, had little to do with the Chinese language. I was told that, because there was a surplus of Chinese linguists and no translators were needed at the group level, I was to perform clerical tasks. Initially, that meant stuffing paper burn bags with secret documents, toting them out to an incinerator, and burning them. I was disgusted by the whole bureaucratic mess and wrote a letter of protest, which got some higher-up’s attention only months later. After a few months, I was engaged in cryptanalysis work, receiving reports from the field and trying to extract usable intelligence from them.
¶But back to Don. I really thought I would never see him again, for I assumed his assignment would take him to Taiwan or South Korea. One day, however, he showed up at Kadena, although his base was a field station at the other end of the island. I can’t recall whether he first appeared in my barracks room or at the base library, where I spent a lot of my free time reading.
¶The barracks room visit, I recall, was unfortunately timed, because, although it was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, I was on my bunk near the end of a marathon sleep after a long night of wine-drinking and seeing three movies in the nearby town, Koza. I could hear one of my roommates explaining to Don how I had been asleep a long, long time. But I was still too drowsy to want to get up, so I just let Don go on his way.
¶Later, I went up to where Don was stationed, and we went to see a movie about Franz Liszt—“Song Without End” (1960)—at the station’s movie house. Liszt, as most classical music fans know, became Wagner’s father-in-law.
¶But the most memorable incident happened the day I was sitting at a table in the Kadena library reading a book. All at once I subconsciously sensed a presence nearby, and then a hand clapped me on the shoulder. A warmth extended from my shoulder all over my back: it was the strangest feeling I had ever experienced, but I have felt it several times sense when I hugged certain women, and a kind of coolness when I have hugged others. I turned and there was Don standing just behind me. Later, when I read Bertrand Russell’s account of his first meeting Joseph Conrad, I felt confirmed in my belief that two persons of the same gender can have strong affinity without its being sex-based or even inducing physical warmth. It was primarily an intellectual/spiritual connection.
¶Don and I met only a few times on the island, but, unfortunately, I don’t recall the substance of most of our conversations there, just a couple of Don’s remarks. Once, when I had brought up the subject of our odd affinity, he acknowledged it and dubbed it the “bwō ch’áng”. I liked the analogy. Another time, he said to me, “Litton, sometimes when I think about you, I positively blush.” Although I felt slightly flattered by that comment, I didn’t ask him why; it had a certain aura of potential homosexuality about it, and I knew I wasn’t designed that way, nor did I believe Don was. It might, in fact, have been love, but I didn’t think Don was aware of the difference between philia and eros; while I had been in DeMolay, where brotherly affection was cultivated.
¶While on Okinawa I bought an LP album of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, with Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When I listened to it, in stereo, I was entranced. At least as far as Wagner was concerned, Don had influenced me positively about German culture.
¶After I had returned home and been discharged from the air force, I spent a semester at SMU and didn’t do well grade-wise. While at SMU, I read “Tonio Kröger” and the rest of Thomas Mann’s short stories as well as his novel Buddenbrooks. I wrote to Don, who had returned to his home in Seattle, asking if he could host me a brief while as I searched for a job there. After checking it out with his mother and grandfather, he sent me a positive reply. How recklessly carefree that train ride to Seattle now seems to me! I don’t mean the ride itself, but the risking myself into the unknown with very minimal resources and uncertain prospects. Maturing certainly drains one’s capacity for adventure.
¶Don met me at the train station, and we rode a bus to his grandfather’s house, a two-story structure in a block of houses set on a hill. His mother greeted me warmly, telling me that Don had informed her that I was of the same socio-economic class as they, although she didn’t express it so academically. If I recall aright, I didn’t meet his grandfather immediately and can only dredge up a vague vision of seeing him sitting in a chair in a back bedroom; perhaps he was handicapped and couldn’t move elsewhere; I don’t know. That night, I did meet Don’s sister, who also resided there; she was nearly his own age, but whether older or younger I never inquired.
¶One night, Don and I walked to a lake within the city, where we tossed some stones and talked a little about his fascination with Nazism. I asked him why he admired a racist philosophy. His replied actually shocked me: “Litton, you don’t know how much fun it is to hate!” I also asked him why he drank so much beer.
“Do you realize you are going to die?” he asked.
“I know it.”
“I know you know it, Litton, but do you realize it?”
I had never thought about the death question very deeply, and I sensed that I hadn’t enough self-awareness yet to respond, so I just let his question remain unanswered.
¶On a more positive note, one day while we were engaged in a conversation concerning some subject I cannot recall, Don remarked, “I think about these things, Litton, but you will do something about them.” I have since regretted my failure to follow that up by asking him to be more specific.
¶Don was working as a page at the public library. As soon as the next business day (probably a Monday) came, I took the bus downtown to look for a job, carrying a hefty sack lunch which Don’s mother foisted on me. When I told her I could pay for my own lunch, she replied with words I would hear from her a couple of times afterwards: “It just doesn’t add up in dollars and cents.” Seattle’s employment market was a good deal thinner than Dallas’ at that time, so I felt lucky to have found a job within the first couple of days of my search; it was a stockman’s position at a hobby-and-craft wholesale business. The owner, a cordial and honest man in his thirties, told me the day he hired me that he was reluctant to hire anyone right then because he might have to lay me off, and he hated doing that, but he took me on with no guarantees.
¶In fact, a few weeks later, he did let me go, although not personally. However, that was not as unfortunate as the fact that he also let another young man go, and that youth was to have been my roommate in an apartment on which we had just paid a deposit. The apartment owner gruffly declined to refund our deposit. So, I wished my erstwhile “roommate” good luck and went to Don’s house to tell him the bad news: I couldn’t afford to stay any longer.
¶I had already checked on the train fare prices. “If you can loan me ten dollars, I can return to Dallas,” I said, as we stood by the bus stop. “If not, then I’m off to San Francisco.” He pulled a ten out of his billfold. When I bent down to pick up my military-issued duffel bag, the handle broke. Was that a bad omen? I wondered. Occasionally since that day, I have fantasized how my life might have turned out differently if Don had not had the ten to loan me or if I had not asked for it.
¶After I had returned to Dallas and to SMU, Don and I resumed our correspondence. But I am a very wordy letter-writer, and Don was brief in the extreme as well as hypercritical. One time, I wrote him a letter using many of the 300 Chinese characters I had learned at Yale. I also included a satirical cartoon depicting a man in a Nazi uniform, holding a swagger stick and looking over a fellow who was sitting in front of an easel and drawing on it. (I was majoring in art at the time.) A cartoon “balloon” above the Nazi’s head contained the letters “Click, click!” (Don had some kind of nervous tic that occasionally caused him to utter clicking noises.) In a separate section of the drawing’s page, I conceded that my artistic ability was not in commendable condition and I perhaps should give up the effort. In his reply letter, Don wrote that I should give up writing in Chinese, too.
¶I haven’t related all the instances of Don’s hypercriticism, but there were several. Finally, after I had sent him a copy of a very brief story I had entered in a short story contest sponsored by SMU’s student literary magazine, he replied by panning my story for its inadequate characterization and anti-intellectualism. He concluded with one of the most cliché-burdened sentences I have ever seen: “For poor writing, your story takes the cake palms down. Hope you can get it back before the judges see it.” In a fit of angry exasperation, I wrote back saying, in part, “I’m tired of your vapid little notes to me.”
¶And that was the end of one of the most interesting relationships of my life. I have softened over the years and now wonder how Don’s own life turned out. He had told me he was going to return to the university he had attended before joining the air force, and probably major in Chinese. Apparently he lost interest in German. Hope he finished and benefited from that education.
¶One question Don asked me while I was a guest in his grandfather’s house—another one of those questions and remarks directed at me throughout my life which I did not respond to—was, “What do you want from me?” I did not answer, and now I wish that I had, for the answer was what I was all about at the time: “I want to discover what the bwō cháng is, but it seems to have faded away before I could find out.”

Finis

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