Thursday, April 8, 2010

A History of Things

When I went to Berlin with the U.S. Army in the fall of 1962 I was assigned to the 78th USASOU (United States Army Special Operations Unit) to listen in on the phone calls of East German Communist Party officials. I was one of some 40,000 spies active in Berlin at the time. A heady experience and one that provides a steady stream of good-old-days memories.

I’m going to tell you about one of those memories that has nothing to do with spying.

Because Berlin was at that time still an occupied city and the armies of France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States were ever present, the orphanages were filled with the castaway kids of relationships with German women. Our unit had adopted one of those orphanages as a way of countering some of the callousness of the lack of concern for those children.

Each month, the orphanage held a birthday party for all the children with birthdays in that month. My first experience was at one of those birthday parties.

I walked into a large room, glanced around, and saw there was a kid eyeing me from afar. It didn’t take long before he walked across to me, climbed up on my lap and said, “My name is Hajo. What’s yours?”

“Alan,” I said.

“Alan," he repeated. "That’s a nice name.”

I was hooked. Totally hooked. Couldn’t believe what had come down on me in less than a minute.

I went back every week, usually with friends who had also made some kind of connection with one or more of the kids. We took them ice skating in the winter, out for ice cream in the summer. It was the highlight of the week for us, and we threw ourselves into it, innocent and naïve of the consequences.

There were consequences. If we missed a week, we were told the kids would cry. Sometimes they’d act out. We had raised expectations and were clueless about the fire we were playing with.

Hajo is short for Hans Joachim. He was the most beautiful child I think I have ever seen. What they called a Negermischling. A “Negro half-breed.” Giant eyes straight out of a Margaret Keane painting. Fearless in his declaration that he was my special friend and nobody else’s. The kid’s instinct for finding a daddy was overpowering and it led to some serious heartbreak.

By the time we got a lecture from the staff about not getting too close to these kids if we didn’t intend to follow through, whatever that was supposed to mean to a bunch of 23-year-old GIs who had yet to launch lives and careers, it was too late.

After almost a year, I saw the writing on the wall. I was not going to be able to adopt this kid, and I was even going to leave Berlin at some point. Better make a clean break, people were telling me. Against all my instincts, I listened to their advice.

At first, I thought I might ease off and come to visit less often. I’d skip a week, sometimes even two. Each time I got word Hajo was crying himself to sleep. One time he found the courage to ask, “Magst Du mich nicht mehr?” “Don’t you like me anymore?” What could I say? “Of course I still like you. It’s just that I can’t come to see you from now on. But I’ll write you and always be your friend.”

I heard the words as this five-year-old must have heard them and felt a sense of betrayal I’ve never felt before or since. The memory of it still burns a half century later.

I didn’t write him. I asked about him all the time and was told he had become quite despondent. I kept hoping I would hear somebody else had come in and taken my place. He was, after all, just a small child, and would bounce back. Right?

Hajo today, if he is alive, is about 52-years old. Very possibly a grandfather. If I had been able to adopt him, I might have great-grandchildren today. Of all the roads not taken, this is one that stayed with me in dreams the longest. I spent countless hours making excuses for myself. The people in charge should have headed this off. I should have sought advice before getting attached. Should have stayed with him till the end of my stay and not been so foolish as to kill the time we might have gotten even closer. Should have found a way to make the connection continue. Should have, could have. Didn’t.

Fifteen years later, while living in Santa Cruz, gay men were beginning to adopt children, and when the State of California made it possible I began to pursue the idea. I reflected long and hard on my motivations, whether I was simply trying to right a past wrong or whether I was now finally ready to be a father. If my job had not turned to dust, pushing me into graduate school and a whole new career, who knows what I might have done. It just wasn’t in the cards. For the second time.

Once back in graduate school I began a twelve-year relationship with a Vietnamese man. The relationship was doomed from the start, but it took a decade for me to figure that out. I was too wrapped up in getting my doctoral degree to see what I was up against. I chose to let it run its course.

We talked occasionally, he and I, about adopting a child. We even went so far as to imagine going to Vietnam for one, since he was already eighteen when he became a boat person, and his sense of connection to Vietnam and its misery was still strong.

But we didn’t stay together. And that idea, too, came and went, only to show up in what-might-have-been moments in the wee hours of the morning.

Every now and again those memories are ignited. Movies will do it. Dumbarton Bridge hit hard. A low budget movie about an alcoholic black soldier whose life is overturned when his Vietnamese daughter suddenly shows up on his doorstep. A Chinese-American friend of mine, a single gay man, flew to Vietnam some years ago and adopted a Vietnamese child.

And just the other day I came across this article on Germany’s newly appointed health minister. I posted a blog on him – the post before last, titled Philipp Rösler – and explained my interest in him on the basis of years of working with cross-cultural identity issues and on frustration with having to watch others do health care reasonably well when the U.S. does it so badly.

But those were not the real reasons for my interest. It’s as if Philipp Rösler broke a dam and the memories are flooding out and the imagination, the might-have-beens, are washing over me.

It wasn’t his Vietnamese face. It was reading that his father had studied in America, had gotten so disgusted by what we had done in Vietnam that he needed to throw himself bodily into the events of the day. He went to Vietnam and adopted a child.

How proud he must be. How good it must feel, looking back on that hippie impulse, if that’s what it was.

People with greater sophistication than I have may be offended by this, but my contact with Germany goes back a long way, back to the time when war memories were strong and German racism was still active. Native speakers of German with African features were something to comment on. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, Caucasian speakers of Japanese like me still make people stop and stare (this topic comes home to me from several directions at once), and so do black and Asian speakers of German. But those are things one gets past quickly.

The racial features of that little five-year-old with the big eyes and the black curly hair who stole my heart in 1963, and this Vietnamese fellow who speaks the German my family spoke – they, too, were from Hannover – they were hooks for capturing attention at first. Now they are reminders of how many turns in the road I did not take.

Philipp Rösler is a doctor. A man with a good education. Highly articulate. Good looking. The attention on him is positive. Just the kind of attention I would hope a kid of mine, adopted from Vietnam, might be experiencing, were he a real person.

I have been reading with total fascination into Rösler’s history. His rapid rise in government has people talking about him as a wunderkind. YouTube videos of him taking his seat in Parliament. He’s a little nervous. Feeling his way. I found feelings rising up in me like those of a parent watching their kid at a piano recital. I want him to do well.

At dinner last night, Taku and I were recalling my favorite play by my friend Sharmon. It’s called A History of Things That Never Happened. A delightful fantasy tale of reconstructed memory. And a notion I keep coming back to. A way to have your cake and eat it too. Turns out you can, if you try, add to your repertoire of happy memories. Fate forces you to take only one turn in the road, but it does not prevent you from walking the other paths from time to time, when the spirit moves you.

Recently, I came across a video of Philipp addressing a party meeting in which he was joking about having to come to terms with the media. He is no longer a curiosity in government, a smart kid who says and does everything right. No longer that tentative new member of the Bundestag. He is now fair game and facing serious political opposition to his efforts as health minister. He’s moving on up.

I like what I see of his politics. I like what I see of him. His family. His twin girls.

He’s part of my life now. Part of my history.

A history of things that never happened.

I’ve adopted him. And I’m watching him from afar.

I don’t expect ever to meet him. That would strike me as a bit too weird, somehow, and I’m not at risk of confusing imagination and reality. This is my history. Not his.

But if he ever needs anything from me, all he needs to do is ask.

1 comment:

Dwight said...

I love this one. It brings up my own roads-not-taken and further encourages (as if it needed encouraging) a rich fantasy life.