PERSPECTIVE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

My husband and his mother, 1941

Ten years ago this week my mother-in-law passed away at the age of 96.  That’s a good run by anyone’s standards but given her life story, it was truly extraordinary.  I’ve been thinking about her a lot this summer as we have wended our way through the coronavirus pandemic.  At times it was easy to get discouraged, between social distancing, isolation from family and not being able to eat the raspberry granola pancakes at our favorite restaurant.  But whenever I would begin to feel just the teensiest bit sorry for myself I would think of all that she endured and realize what a dope I was for being ungrateful.   Some may have read my previous posts about her, or read our book, In the Enemy’s Camp, but for those of you who are unfamiliar the following is a recap.

 

          Internee shanties 

Kathleen Chapman Watson was born in the Philippines to a British mother and an American father.  She enjoyed a wonderful childhood that she spoke about fondly for the rest of her days.  At age 22 she married Daniel Watson, a Scot who was based in Manila working for a Glasgow import/export company.  They expanded their family in 1937 with a son, Richard, and in 1941 with my husband, Alan.  They believed their life to be perfect.  Then in December 1941 the Japanese attacked Manila.  By January, all men who possessed Allied citizenship were taken to an internment camp at Santo Tomas University.  Kathleen and the boys stayed in their home but the Japanese slowly began to confiscate their possessions.  First it was their car, then furniture and finally, their house.  By August, her parents were sent to the U.S. in a prisoner exchange and she saw no choice but to join Danny in the camp.  All told, more than 3500 Allied citizens ended up in Santo Tomas, mostly businessmen and their families.  The overcrowding was stifling, both in terms of privacy and space.  Eventually many of the families, including Daniel and Kathleen,  built shanties outside the main dormitory building to gain some semblance of a home.

For more than three and one-half years they lived with the privations and vagaries of their Japanese captors.  By the end of their captivity they were allotted just 800 calories per day.  Danny had every tropical disease known to man and his 6’2″ frame was skeletal.  Kathleen suffered with malaria throughout their internment.  The news they received was spotty at best and most updates were based on unsubstantiated rumor.  Finally in September of 1944 they heard the rumblings of something unrefutable: American bomber planes.   By Christmas of that year they were still held captive, with increasing retribution and punishments by the Japanese.  The salvation they thought was imminent in September had still not materialized. Yet despite their disappointment, in the diary that Kathleen kept during their time in Santo Tomas, this is what she wrote on that Christmas Day:

Contrary to all expectations, Danny and I have agreed that is is the happiest Christmas we have ever experienced because our sense of appreciation has been so sharpened that every simple thing has appeared in a roseate hue.  This Christmas season, watered by the tears of desperation and despair, and enriched with a great hope for a new future in a brave new world, is a Christmas which we shall always remember.  

Her children were habitually hungry, she and her husband were weakened and sick, and she hadn’t seen her family in over three years. Still, her optimistic attitude shined through.  It was her defining characteristic until her dying day – she always found something cheerful on which to focus.  So, as I said at the beginning of this post, whenever I feel a little down with all that’s going on in the world I try to channel her buoyant outlook and remember that as bad as things are, I’m not living in a leaky shanty held captive by an invading army.  Sort of puts things in perspective.

2007 – Kathleen with her two great-grandsons 

Footnote: Kathleen’s optimism was rewarded in February 1945 when the First Cavalry burst through the gates of the camp and rescued the prisoners.  The family set sail for the United States in early April and by mid-May they were safely docked in Los Angeles.  Abandoning their plans to move to Scotland, they decided to settle in Pasadena, where they eventually started a business, worked hard, and lived the American dream.

What Are We Doing in the Shetland Islands?

by Bob Sparrow

Our ship departs sunny Norway and heads west into a cold and blustery North Sea to our next port of call, the village of Lerwich, which is the capital of Scotland’s Shetland Islands. Search as I may, I couldn’t find the Shetland Islands anywhere on my bucket list of places I had to see before I kicked the bucket, but here we are licking our Segway wounds and headed for, literally, places unknown. There are approximately 100 Shetland Islands, of which only 16 are inhabited. There is no deep-water port in Lerwich so we ‘parked’ our ship off shore and took ‘tenders’ into the city’s main harbor, in a fairly heavy rain.

I must say I really didn’t know what to expect on the Shetland Islands, other than maybe a few Shetland ponies, although I really wasn’t sure that there was any connection between the name of the islands and the ponies. There is. We visited a Shetland pony farm where we learned that these horses were bred to be small so they could fit into mineshafts in order to haul coal carts out of the mine. We also learned that they could live to be 50 years old. Sounds like a great life doesn’t it, hauling coal out of a mine for 50 years! We learned that Lerwich provides more fish than any other port in Scotland and we got to explore a 16th century castle. We also drove by two golf courses on the island where there is not a single tree or sand trap on either course, but the wind was blowing so hard that the flagsticks looked like they were going to snap in two.

One of the most interesting stories about the history of the Shetland Islands occurred during World War II, when the Nazis invaded Norway.  Many of the heroic Norwegian sea captains became ‘bus drivers’ by using their fishing boats to take Norwegians away from the bombing to safety on the Shetland Islands.

For all its harsh landscape (there are only about six trees on all of the Shetland Islands) and windy and stormy weather, our tour guide, who had a great sense of humor, was extremely knowledgeable about the area, thus making it a uniquely enjoyable stop.

Our next day was fully at sea so my intention was to cut down on the eating and drinking for a day and get to the gym. I later realized that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions as I sat in front of a TV, had a few beers and I watched The Open golf tournament from Royal Birkdale, England. Hey, it’s vacation!

 

 

DASH, THE CANINE BOB HOPE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

dash-croppedWell…it’s been quite a week.  I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to discuss something – anything – other than the election.  Luckily, there are two events that have my attention – Veteran’s Day and Dash the Wonder Dog’s fourth birthday.  On the surface there wouldn’t seem to be any connection between those two events but this week I discovered that my beloved pet is the Bob Hope of dogs, ready to entertain the troops at a moment’s notice.  As you may recall, Dash began his working life last spring when he got a job at a local care center.  Each week he trots into the facility like he owns the joint and cuddles up with the residents.  He shamelessly begs for treats, which many of them readily provide.  He is especially fond of people who have poor hand-eye coordination because the floor around their bed or wheelchair is a veritable treasure trove of crumbs and shattered crackers.  Fortunately for Dash, such people are in plentiful supply, plus they have the added attraction of fawning over him as he roots around for their droppings.

pets-on-wheels

This week Dash was lucky enough to call on several men who were celebrating Veteran’s Day.  Most of them are former dog owners so they especially appreciate being able to pet and hold Dash.  I have observed that most of the veterans’ walls are adorned with photos of themselves in uniform, American flags, and commemorative awards and medals.  This week the center gave them special recognition at a Veteran’s Day celebration, replete with music from the ’40’s and a special memento plaque.  One of my favorite veterans is a 97-year-old man whose mental acuity puts me to shame.  The first time we visited I remarked on a photo of him in a WWII fighter plane.  “Oh yes”, he said, “I was 19 years old when I enlisted.  It was a good time to be 19 because I was too young to have the good sense to be scared“.  That said, he wheeled around and pulled a sheet of paper out of his drawer.  On it was a typed list of the FIFTY missions that he flew in Europe.  That is an extraordinary number of missions – the maximum allowed by the Air Force at the time.  He is still quite proud of his accomplishment, as well he should be.  Last week I noticed that he had the book “Killing the Rising Sun” on his bed.  There is a picture of General MacArthur on the cover so I mentioned to him that my husband and his family were rescued from a Japanese internment camp by Mac Arthur.  “Humph,” he said, “I think there’s only one word for MacArthur – pompous!”.  As I said, he’s as sharp as a tack.   We discovered last summer that this wonderful man and I share a birthday.  I can only hope that portends I will be as engaged and dynamic as he is at 97.

wwii-womenAlso residing in the care center is a retired four-star general and a man who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.  I love talking with these men, not only because they love being entertained by Dash, but because I have such unbridled admiration for their service and frankly, the dedication of their entire generation.  I read just enough sociology books to be boring at parties, and one recent phenomenon that worries me is the rise of the “cupcake” or “snowflake” generation – young people who are easily offended, shrink away from any opinion that differs from their own, and seek the constant reassurance of hearing “good job”.   I think about the “Greatest Generation” by comparison, whose work ethic and approach to life was forged by the Great Depression and World War II.  Most, like my own parents, didn’t have the money for college.  Their families “made do” during the Depression and when war broke out they volunteered and did whatever they could to contribute to the war effort.  That generation knew a lot of sacrifice and hard work.  They didn’t expect anything to be handed to them and learned how to face adversity with renewed resolve.  The World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1100 a day, and it is estimated that by the end of the decade almost all of them will all be gone.  We will be the worse for it.  So it was a privilege this week to wish the men in the care center a happy Veteran’s Day – we need to cherish them while we still have them.

As for Dash – we will celebrate his special day on Wednesday with treats and – if my husband isn’t looking – a cute little birthday hat.  I can’t believe how quickly the past four years have passed.  Our lives are forever changed by having this sweet and loving dog in our lives.  He makes us smile every day and his kisses, which he so lavishly dispenses, act as a salve to mend any cracks  in our hearts.  I have to say he really is a wonder dog.  Last week a nurse at the care center asked us to visit a new patient in the memory unit.  Dash crawled up on her bed and she stroked and cooed for five minutes.  When we left the nurse said it was the first time in three days that the woman had smiled.  In short, he makes everything – and everyone – better.  Maybe I should send him to Washington.

The Queen Mary – Luxury Liner, Troop Carrier . . . and Haunted

by Bob Sparrow

G&L2     In an effort to get our readers and myself into the ‘spirit’ of Halloween this week, I visited, what has been billed as, ‘one of the most haunted places in the world’ – the Queen Mary. Not the actual queen, although by the looks of her picture in the grand foyer, she could have haunted a house, but I’m speaking of the ship the RMS Queen Mary, now docked in the port of Long Beach. Two ‘Haunted Tours’ were offered, I took both of them, but first a little history of this grand ship (Don’t worry, I’ll make this the Reader’s Digest version).

      Commissioned in 1936 as a luxury liner, she was soon put to work as a troop carrier when World War II broke out. In fact, she still holds the record for the most people (troops) transported across the Atlantic in a single voyage – 16,683! She was painted gray to help avoid detection and was ironically called the ‘Gray Ghost’, long before any ghost stories about her emerged. Hitler actually had a bounty on her, offering over $2 million to any U-boat captain that could sink her. There were two reasons the mustachioed maniac never had to pay up, 1) the Queen Mary was actually quite fast and could outrun a German submarine, and 2) the code breaker, Enigma, helped identify the location of German U-boats.

qm troop carrier

Troop carrier

      After the war she went back to being a luxury liner and for a mere $1,400 you could cross the Atlantic on her. Doesn’t sound like much now, but the average income in the U.S. in the late 40s was right around $2,000 . . . a year! Which is why the ship’s manifest included such names as, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and Elizabeth Taylor.

      OK, let’s get to the spooky part. The first tour I took was called ‘Ghosts & Legends’ and was much like Disney’s ‘Haunted Mansion’; it was a walking tour that took a group of about 12 of us into the bowels of the ship, down narrow stairs and dark passageways with special effects along the way. We stopped at one of the two indoor pools where we could hear people splashing and playing – real water drops hit our face, despite the fact that the pool has been empty for decades. We continued further down in an elevator, but when we exited, the doors jammed behind us and we had no way to get back up. Just then, leaks began to appear in the ships ironclad walls and water came pouring in – we seemed doomed, but we escaped just in time as our guide lead us to a secret passageway to safety. This tour is definitely not for those afraid of the dark or the claustrophobic.

b340

Room B340

      The second tour I took was called ‘Haunted Encounters’, where a guide took us throughout the ship and related real ghost stories evoking such characters as the last captain of the ship, a ‘lady in white’, a young girl who still swims in the pool, a crew member who was crushed to death in the engine room by the closing of ‘Door 13’, as well as other various ‘shadow people’ and balls of light. One of the most intriguing stories was about Room B340, where a man was purportedly murdered, faucets turn on by themselves and bed sheets fly across the room. The room has provided so many paranormal experiences that it is no longer rented out, in fact, as the picture I took when in the room shows, it is completely bare of furniture.

      The tour ended with our guide telling us of several ‘ghost stories’ that he     experienced personally including seeing wet footprints by the pool that’s been dry for decades. I couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or he had to make up those stories so he could keep his job. Either way, the stories were very entertaining. The tour ended and we were left to wander the ship on our own to see if we could have any encounters of third kind.

foyer

Grand Foyer

      As I walked through the Grand Foyer and poked my head into the Grand Ballroom to get a peek, I was struck by how truly grand this ship is, even today. The art deco décor was so 40s that it seemed ‘in’ today. It truly must have been magnificent in its day.  My visit to the Queen Mary was complete, including a honest-to-goodness paranormal experience . . . or was it just a coincidental iPhone malfunction?

     Oh, the paranormal experience? I swear this is true; back when I was visiting room B340 I waited until everyone had cleared out of the room so I could take a picture of it with my phone. I took the shot you see here and then my phone vibrated and showed the ‘Ringer Silent’ and the symbol of the bell with a line through it (putting my phone on vibrate), then it vibrated again and the symbol ‘Ringer’ and the bell with no line through it; that happened three times in a row! Yes, vibrating frantically each time as it went on and off, and I never touched the vibrate on/off switch – honest!

 Have a Happy Halloween – may the ‘spirits’ be with you!