Friday, April 9th, 1937
The Hotel St. Francis
San Francisco, California
Leaving the hotel, alone, felt like an escape from prison.
"Taxi, sir — ?" from a uniformed doorman; as I stood, blinking, on the carpeted top step of the entry-way.
"No, thank you." I smiled at him briefly, and automatically.
Before me was a confusion of bulky taxicabs at the curb, Fords and Packards and De Sotos, with uniformed drivers and doormen loading and unloading luggage, and well-dressed passengers; the air was heavy with exhaust fumes.
But across the street, close by, was a patch of green; a park, or a square of some kind. It didn't take me long, to decide what part of San Francisco I wanted to see, first.
It was, as it turned out, Union Square; although it did not look to my eyes, much like the Union Square in Manhattan, with which I was familiar. It was a large space, a whole city block at least, with pleasant green lawns and shrubbery, and broad walkways lined by low box hedges — and with palm trees! In the center of the square was a tall column, with some kind of winged victory statue on top; commemorating what, I did not know.
I'd been three days aboard trains; which were essentially, long, cramped, narrow tubes, swaying and clattering and filled with cigaret smoke, or worse. Even with my own sleeping compartment, it was an ordeal. This green, quiet place felt like heaven, by way of contrast, to me.
I sat on one of the benches, just to breathe for a moment. I was almost alone; the square was virtually deserted. And that, I had to confess to myself, felt good, too. That, and the comparative quiet.
I thought about how I'd come to be here.
I still felt bewildered, desperately bewildered, by all that had happened. Just seven days earlier — no, eight, I thought, counting back the days — I'd been at school, halfway through Spring term, looking forward to nothing more than warmer weather, and, eventually, a long summer. With as much of it spent with Jack as we could arrange, of course.
I touched my chest; feeling the reassurance of Jack's letter, in my pocket, through the cloth. Above me, gulls wheeled and soared freely, in the open sky; and large, gray-white clouds sailed in the fresh, cool breeze.
Eight days ago, Father had driven — been driven, in one of the Bank's cars — to my school, unannounced. As the driver waited in the car, Father had me called from class. We'd talked, alone, in the Headmaster's office.
"I don't understand," I remember saying; feeling as though the earth had opened up beneath my feet.
"The circumstances are quite unusual; but it all makes perfect sense, actually." He'd leaned back a little where he stood, against the edge of the Headmaster's desk, and looked down at me; with a certain intensity. "Of course, all of this is to be kept strictly confidential; it must not be repeated to anyone."
I made the mental reservation, that I did not include Jack in that promise.
"Good," he'd said; "good." He'd crossed his arms, and the intensity of his look increased, if anything. He'd continued.
"Now, you must know, of course, that the overall political situation in the Far East — in China, that is — is becoming more unstable by the month. The Japanese Government — or their Army, at any rate — seems intent on acquiring more influence in Chinese territory all the time, through increasing numbers of military 'Incidents'." He'd made a wry face, at the word.
"Yes, sir," from me, again. Father knew I read newspapers closely — although we both follow European news with special interest; since we had spent time, there.
"What is somewhat less well-known, is that the Bank has certain, substantial interests in some prominent banks in China; as well as in the Dutch East Indies, and to a lesser extent in Hong Kong. In some cases, these are equity interests; we own parts of those banks. In other cases, we have counter-party exposure to deposits in correspondent banks. Deposits which we, essentially, have undertaken to partially guarantee. This," he went on, with a dry expression, "represents a certain degree of risk."
"I understand, sir." Although I didn't understand the mechanics of it, at all.
He'd paused, then, for another long look at me; and I'd looked back up at him, all handsome, impeccably dressed, forceful, and completely sure of himself, as always. His expression shifted, minutely.
"Senior Management, and the Board, have asked me to undertake certain — private conversations — with officials of some of those other banks. Private conversations that are to be of a very candid, and delicate, nature."
I didn't say anything.
He'd shrugged, slightly. "I have been through something like this, before; four years ago, in Zurich, during the world gold-standard crisis. The form of these meetings will be the same; there will be no written agenda; no transcripts will be made. There will not even be any notes taken, in the room; everything depends upon the absolute candor of the participants — and upon there being no immediate written record, which could be subpoenaed, or otherwise fall into the wrong hands. The personal trust between the participants is absolutely crucial."
And then he'd paused for along moment, looking down at me, before continuing.
"And that," he'd said at last, "is where you come in."
As it turned out, I'd borrowed not one, but two guide books from the front desk; a Baedeker's, with its distinctive red cover, and a Murray's, with a blue cover.
The shift had changed while Father and I were having breakfast; the desk clerk on duty when I left the hotel was a new one. But judging by the eager enthusiasm with which he'd pressed the books on me, word of my tip — my bribe, really — had gotten around. I half-expected him to volunteer to guide me around town, personally.
Well, I thought to myself, a little wryly; I suppose I'll have to find a reason to leave another large tip, at some point, before we check out; just to cement my reputation. It would be one way of leaving something of myself behind in the States, anyway.
I opened the Baedeker's — which had been left by some English tourist, I guessed — and began to leaf through it; skimming, as I went.
San Francisco, a working class city … Shipping, a major industry, along with finance; and coffee-roasting, and printing …
Coffee-roasting, I wondered?
Colorful neighborhoods; Chinatown, Japantown further West; North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf, predominantly Italian in character …
And of course, my mind wandered. Of course, the scene with Father replayed itself in my mind; I was stuck in it, as a phonograph needle gets stuck in the same groove, playing the same bit of music over and over again.
Father had told me that I would be acting as his Confidential Secretary, for the duration of the tip. Semi-officially, at any rate.
I'd just looked up at him, a little stunned; I couldn't think of anything to say.
"We have found, in meetings of this nature, that it is essential to have at least two sets of recollections, two viewpoints, upon which to draw. Your primary responsibility will be to listen to the proceedings; remembering everything you can; not just the substantive details, but also the ephemera, the attitudes, gestures, your impressions of the other attendees, their states of mind, their truthfulness. After each session, you and I will both retire, and write up thorough notes; and then we will compare them. I will report back to Management, and the Board, using those notes."
"And that's all?" It just slipped out; I couldn't believe he was serious.
"No, actually. I will be drafting interim reports for Management, as we go along. You will help with encoding those reports, in Company code, for secure transmission. You will also help decode any replies they may make to me."
He'd paused, then, for a moment, to look at me closely.
"This is an extremely important task, son; as I said, we've found, through experience, that having two witnesses, two sets of memories, far more than doubles the accuracy of the end report. And the end report is essential to the understanding our Firms reach. Very large sums of money are depending on the outcome of these discussions."
A long pause, as I blinked. Then —
"Father … " I'd tried to find the words. "I'm completely unqualified for this! I know nothing at all about banking, except what little I've heard you say, over the years. And … I'm underage! I'm in secondary school!"
"Your lack of experience cannot be helped; but in any case, it isn't material to the task. You are intelligent, and perceptive; and you have an excellent memory. You will serve perfectly well."
"Father — " I'd dared to interrupt; and he'd held up a hand, to forestall me.
"Rhys." He'd looked at me, directly, for a moment. "Yes, it is true, that on the face of it, you seem an unlikely candidate to serve as my Confidential Secretary; you are young. But you have one qualification which makes you absolutely irreplaceable, under the circumstances; you are my son." He'd paused, for a long moment. "You are my son; and that means your discretion can be relied upon, absolutely. And that, in turn, means that our partners in these discussions will feel free to speak as candidly as possible. As will I. And that is essential." Another pause, from him. "In fact, I am quite certain that we will not be the only father-son pairing in these discussions. Banking in the Far East tends to be closely held in families."
A long, and rather fraught silence, then. Again, I couldn't think what to say.
"Besides," he'd gone on, eventually; in a slightly different tone. "You will help me to make a good impression, at the negotiating table."
"You will. Our discussions will largely be held with my counterparts in Chinese and Japanese banks. Reverence for, and obedience to, one's father is a cardinal virtue in the Confucian value-system; it is much admired." He'd looked down at me, straight-faced. "I'm sure you can pull it off; at least for the duration of the meetings."
He'd said it with his characteristic, dry humor. Under the circumstances, I'd failed to laugh.
I winced, as I surfaced from the memory; and I tried, all over again, to push it away.
The guidebooks went back into my book-bag, temporarily. And then, I pulled out my camera; opening up the leather case, and feeling its familiar weight in my fingers, checking the lens-settings, the exposure-counter, by habit.
It was a fine Leica; and it was my prize possession, I'd bought it myself, in Manhattan, the previous summer.
Well, not quite by myself; Jack had been with me. And as usual, we'd worked as a team; Jack, outgoing, charming, chatting with the store owner, fascinated by the workings of the camera — I'd known all that already, of course — and me, quieter, organized, collecting the accessories I'd wanted, with the help of a store clerk and the list I'd prepared in advance —
We are lovers, Jack and I; but we are also a team; we have been, from the beginning. We complement each other's strengths; we help make up for each other's weaknesses. It is how we fit together.
And in this instance, the teamwork evinced itself by the camera store owner being so charmed and impressed by Jack, that he included the protective leather camera-case for my Leica free of charge; which surprised me not a bit. And then, it was evinced by my gently dissuading Jack from buying, on impulse, a much more expensive and much less capable camera which he didn't really want, and would have bitterly regretted buying, in a day. We purchased a more suitable camera for him, instead.
We are a team.
I looked down at my Leica, smiling to myself, at the memory of that day, just for a moment; then I took off the lens cap, and I stood up, hoisting my book-bag onto my shoulder.
Well; I couldn't have known, back then, how important having this camera would be.
Jack and I had made a pact, to write a few lines to each other, just a few, every day; whether we could send and receive mail, or not. Obviously, I wouldn't be sending any mail from the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on board ship … but we would write one another, and send the letters in batches, when we could.
I was going to share the 'adventure', as he put it, with Jack; we would share it. And with the aid of my camera, I could show him where I was, what I was seeing; almost day by day. The boat — our liner — had a darkroom, and a developing service, as all modern liners do; the photos I took of San Francisco today, I'd mail back to Jack from Honolulu, our first stop on the way to Shanghai.
I used my light-meter to help decide my shutter speed and aperture setting; and then I carefully lined up a few shots of the exterior of the St. Francis Hotel.
Having this camera, and using it; having this way of sharing my days, with Jack, was an inexpressible comfort to me, just then. It was so, so a comfort.
Back in the Headmaster's office, with Father, I'd still felt like I was in a dream. I couldn't believe it was all actually happening; but it was. Inexorably.
" … what about school — ?" I'd asked, at one point; a little helplessly.
"I've spoken to your Headmaster," he'd replied, simply. "We agreed that the Term is far advanced; and he told me that you are doing very well, indeed. He actually said that your Classical Greek is better than his."
Father, I could tell, was impressed; although he tried not to show it. He is not from the school that believes in lavishing unnecessary praise.
"He has promoted you to the Sixth Form, effective at once. He will give you a list of suggested reading, though, and he recommends that you complete it during our trip."
Which led to the question I'd been dreading to ask.
"Father … how long will we be away?"
A brief pause from him; and I had the impression, he was watching me closely, for my reaction.
"That has not yet been determined." He leaned back against the Headmaster's desk a little more, holding the edge with his hands, now. "Our boat sails from San Francisco on the Tenth; it is three weeks on, twenty days, actually, to Shanghai from there. We may be in Shanghai for as little as six to eight weeks; but of course, we may be longer." He cleared his throat, neutrally. "There is, of course, the possibility that Management will direct me to travel to Hong Kong, or Batavia, or both; which would delay our return. A great deal depends on the outcome of our talks."
My feeling of unreality grew, if possible.
"Father … will I be back, here, in time for the next Term, in September — ?"
He'd looked down at me, keeping his face under careful control; I could tell.
"I hope so, son. I'll do what I can to get you back by September, should worst come to worst, and we are delayed … but of course, I cannot make that a firm promise." He'd cleared his throat, again, neutrally. "It is in the nature of assignments such as these, to take unexpected turns … "
* * *
I walked on, briskly, for three solid hours; first down to Market Street; and then uphill, up many hills, it felt like, taking photos along the way.
And I was, at the same time, almost unspeakably glad for the exercise; the feelings in my legs, the pounding of my heart, my breathing assuming a welcome, familiar rhythm.
Back home, back at school, Jack and I are both athletic — to the extent that our relatively smaller statures allow. We both run, on our cross-country team; we wrestle, in our flyweight class; and we row, in season. Not being able to exercise, aboard the train, had been torturous; the pleasant fatigue I was beginning to feel now was a deep relief.
I ended my trek in the neighborhood of North Beach, at a sidewalk table belonging to a beautiful little Italian bistro, with a plate of wonderful, simple pasta before me, for lunch.
As it turned out, it was a very Italian restaurant, indeed; the owner, who served me, didn't understand a great deal of English; and when my pasta came out, along with the milk I'd ordered, I'd been given a squat glass of red wine to go with it, apparently automatically. The concept of 'drinking age', I guessed, didn't much apply to the local culture.
It was over that glass of wine that I'd lingered, after lunch, to start my letter to Jack.
Friday, April 9th, 1937
La Trattoria Trapani
San Francisco, California
Greetings back at you, from San Francisco; to echo the opening of your wonderful letter.
You were, incidentally, exactly right about how I'd be feeling, today, this morning; you know what I mean. But hearing from you was an enormous comfort, it has cheered me, more than I can express.
I was immediately torn, as I wrote those first words.
As Jack had written in his letter, life at school is like living in a fishbowl. I had to assume other eyes would read this letter; I had to choose my words, very carefully. Certainly all of our friends would want to know what I'd had to say, at the very least.
Letters, in any event, have a way of going astray.
But just at that moment, just at that second, I was seized by an almost overwhelming desire to write him, with all the honesty and love with which he'd just written me; I so wanted to, I ached to. I'd been turning over the lines of his letter in my mind, the entire time I'd been walking; I realized, I'd been sub-consciously composing my side of that conversation —
And it was completely impossible. It could ruin us both; no matter how I ached to write him, honestly.
I sat there, still, at the little table for some minutes; torn.
And then, the idea hit; it came like a sunrise illuminating a dark landscape; and it made me smile, it actually made me smile.
I re-read the opening lines of my letter; and I uncapped my fountain pen, and I went on.
More on that, later. Or earlier, as the case may be.
I smiled again, as I wrote the words. By the time he read them, he'd know exactly what they meant; and our friends would not.
Well, old man; I hope you meant it, when you said you wanted to know what I was doing, what I was seeing, and experiencing. Because I do want to share all of this with you, as best I can. Which means, this might be a very long letter!
I'm writing this at a little sidewalk table, of an Italian restaurant-café in the North Beach neighborhood. It's a tiny place, with more tables outside than inside; it's all very beautiful, with dark woodwork, and dark-green café-curtains, and a beautiful, gleaming, copper espresso-machine at the bar. It reminds me, strongly, of cafés in Geneva, or Paris; I never would have expected to find such a place, here!
North Beach, it turns out, is a real, working-class Italian neighborhood, largely inhabited by fishermen who work the local waters; and the restaurant-owner's grasp of English is a little shaky, so I inflicted my (somewhat less than perfect) Italian on him.
Jack, I wish you could have seen it! The owner — he insisted I call him 'Giuseppe', by the way; so I tried calling him 'Mister Giuseppe', and he then told me to call him 'Uncle Giuseppe', instead, and he, in turn, began calling me, 'Nephew Rhys' — he knew at once I wasn't even remotely Italian, of course; he simply appreciated my making the effort. And he could hardly do enough for me, after that, I have barely (so far) escaped an extra dessert, and an extra glass of wine.
We talked for some time. And I think you would have been proud of me, Jack; I tried not to be my usual shy self, I worked at it; and I did reasonably well. Perhaps — I hope — some of you, has rubbed off, on me.
I haven't time or space enough to recount the full conversation, such as it was. But Uncle Giuseppe was originally from the Naples region, and has been in the States for sixteen years; he has a cousin who works at a restaurant in Geneva (!); he's fond of the President, he has a framed portrait of FDR on the wall behind the bar. (I assured him I felt the same way, which is what led to my narrow deliverance from some extra Zuppa Englese, which is a rum-cake. And the first portion of which was, incidentally, utterly delicious.)
He is also, as it turns out, less than fond of Signor Mussolini; when I mentioned the name, he used some words I'd heard from some of my Italian classmates, back in Switzerland, and he spat into the gutter. It was impressive! And then, he did it again, talking about the Black Shirts, and Abyssinia.
But I noticed, each time, he kept his voice low; and he was aware of who might be nearby, to hear. Which is depressing; if it can be like that for him here, in the United States, what must it be like, for those living in Italy, itself — ? Or in Spain, for that matter, with German and Italian forces fighting for Franco — ?
Forgive me; I probably shouldn't have mentioned it. We talk politics too much, as it is. But it was good to find another anti-Fascist!
Anyway, Jack; I took some photos of the place, and of Uncle Giuseppe himself; and you'll have them soon enough. I'll mail them, along with the next letter, from Honolulu, Hawaii.
I'll have other San Francisco photos for you, too; I haven't even mentioned my other travels this morning, but I took many pictures, along the way.
Jack, we must, we absolutely must, explore this city, together! It is a wonder; and almost impossible to describe, to adequately photograph.
I've barely scratched the surface, of this place; but I can already tell — I think — that if anyone truly wanted to Light Out For the Territory, as Mr. Twain did, this might be the the Territory to head for.
This was a coded reference, and I knew Jack would pick up on it, right away.
One of our constant worries was, where to go, where to plan on escaping, should we ever be found out; should our parents ever try to separate us, — or worse …
But I didn't want to think about that, just then; I wanted to enjoy writing to Jack, knowing he'd be reading my words, in just a few days.
I went on.
Of course, it isn't all wondrous.
I first went to Market Street, the city's defining street, I gather; and to my eyes, it was just — a street. A very broad one, admittedly; but to me, the only truly remarkable thing about it, is, that it hosts two streetcar lines, running side-by-side, close, in each direction. The streetcars are large, green, they run very fast, and they have wire cow-catcher type contraptions on their fronts. I assume they're needed. With all the people getting on and off the inner streetcar-line, it's a wonder they don't generate a daily casualty-count.
The waterfront area, too, was something of a disappointment. It is totally given over to shipping, of course; piers, and warehouses, which completely wall off the water, and the ships in dock. All one can see are the smokestacks — and the heavy, dirty smoke coming out of them — and the cargo masts, of the freighters, poking up above the rooftops. Still, I suppose it makes sense; if one is loading or unloading cargo, one doesn't want a stray member of the public — like me — wandering by, and picking up a barrel of whisky, say. (Not that I could stand the stuff.)
And, I'm sorry to say, while wandering the Barbary Coast area — which is the waterfront, after all, they call it the International Settlement — I didn't see a sign of Clark Gable, or Jeanette MacDonald, or even Spencer Tracy in a priest's collar. Nor, any of the sinful delights that surrounded them.
By sheer coincidence, we'd seen the motion picture 'San Francisco' together, the previous summer, in New York. I would never have dreamed I'd actually be in San Francisco for real, so soon …
I shook my head, to rid myself of the thought.
But I did climb the hills, old man; and the hills of San Francisco are wonders.
Wait until you see them, Jack; they are steep, some of them, steep beyond belief; and very often, the streets will go straight up, too, with absolutely no concession to the slope. It's difficult enough for automobiles or trucks; I can't imagine how they managed, in the days of dray wagons and carriages.
Well, actually, there are some concessions to the slope, in the sidewalks. I've been up a number of streets, this morning, in which the sidewalk is comprised of stair-steps, cast into the cement. I am not exaggerating. And then, when the slope becomes too steep even for that — the paved street will disappear, replaced by wooden or concrete stairways, still marked with the street's proper name, winding upwards amidst trees and shrubbery and flowers, the way lined with beautiful, modest cottages …
You'll be getting some photographs of it all, soon enough; although I doubt I did the whole scene justice.
Most all of this splendor, Jack, was on Russian Hill; my favorite neighborhood, so far. It's extremely pleasant, and quiet; the buildings are for the most part multi-story apartments, of wood and stucco, I guess; with a certain similarity of design — they must all have been put up after the Earthquake and Fire. Large bay windows seem to be the common theme.
But the best thing about living on the heights, better than all the above is — you get to look down. Down, and outwards; there are vistas.
Such vistas; such views. I can't wait to show them to you; someday.
The views go for miles; of the steamships and docks, from above, of Alcatraz Penitentiary and the new Bay Bridge, of all of the Bay, really, and the green hills and mountains rising over the East Bay —
And then, looking West, one sees all of San Francisco, undulating hills covered with beautiful, low homes and buildings, and occasional green parks, hill after hill, marching towards the sea; and then, in the distance, the new Golden Gate Bridge we've read about, all topped and surmounted by the most enormous wall of blue-white fog flowing in from the Pacific Ocean …
I can't begin to describe it, adequately; not even remotely. But the beauty of the scene was heart-wrenching; far more intimate, and close, than the view of Paris from Sacre-Coeur. And far greener, and more natural.
And steeper, I suppose. Cliff-like.
Can I feel you laughing, as you read these words? That a boy who spent so much time in the Swiss Alps is impressed by mere hills?
Well, perhaps it is worthy of laughter. I guess I'm laughing some, at myself, as I write this.
But it is that beautiful, Jack, and we have to see it, together.
And one more thing to keep in mind, one more factor that adds to the beauty, for me, at least — it is almost, actually, warm, here! It feels like early summer, to my senses, at any rate; although the locals are walking around in overcoats, and furs, and mufflers. But I feel Spring, strongly; I wish I'd worn a lighter coat, actually.
And think about this, Jack; it doesn't snow, here. It doesn't freeze, here. It never freezes, here!
Quite an attractive Territory, to my mind …
* * *
After Father had left school, that day, I'd returned to class. I needed to pack up everything, all of my possessions, of course; and in spite of my instant promotion, I still had assignments I was expected to turn in, over the next few days; as I was informed.
Telling Jack was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.
The look on his face, when I'd told him …
But worse, we'd had no chance to talk through it all, no chance to exchange more than a few words — and those, at dinner, in front of our friends — until that night; when he came to visit me in my bed, after lights-out.
Bed-visiting is quite common at my school, incidentally. And if that sounds paradisiacal — it is not!
Or at least, not entirely; it is a practice set about with an almost tribal set of customs, fraught with contradictions and dangers and strict, unwritten rules.
One of which, is the rule of silence.
We'd satisfied each other, first; quickly, and with rather more kissing than custom allowed. And then, we'd held a council of war. A council whispered, almost breathed, into each other's ear, as we lay naked, embracing, the top sheet pulled up over our heads.
"We have to try it, Rhys!" he'd whispered. I could feel his breath on my skin. "We have to! You can get an overnight pass, for tomorrow night — since you're leaving, the Head won't object. And I'll call home tomorrow, to see if Mother and Father will give me a hearing. I know I can talk them into letting me go with you — !"
It was fantasy, of course; a teenage fantasy, born of what we both could see was inevitable.
Still. I've learned, never to underestimate Jack …
I'd tightened my arms around I'm; and I'd kissed him, quickly, before moving my lips to his ear.
"If they don't say no right off, they'll want to talk to you in person. You'll have to go home." I'd rubbed my cheek against his, and kissed him, briefly, again. "That means another night apart."
We only had three, left.
Down the row, some sheets were rustling, rhythmically. Someone's breathing was becoming ragged.
His lips moved to my ear.
"We have to try. You can do it, Rhys! You're good at getting your father to see things your way. We have to try!" He'd pulled back, then, and kissed me softly, on the lips; then his mouth was back at my ear. "Please — ?" he'd breathed, softly.
As if I could deny him anything he truly wanted.
"I'll try," I'd whispered. Holding him tight. Never wanting to let him go.
It hadn't gone well.
The first part was easy, enough; I'd told the Headmaster I needed to go home for a night, on family business; and he'd given me an overnight pass without hesitation or question.
"I do hope we'll be seeing you back in September," he'd said, shaking my hand as I left his office; and I'd flinched at the words.
I'd then taken the train into Manhattan; and a cab to our flat on Park Avenue, where Father was waiting. I'd done him the courtesy of letting him know I was coming, leaving a telephone message with his secretary, Miss Grinstead, earlier that day.
It hadn't gone well, at all.
I did my best to be persuasive; advancing the arguments Jack and I had agreed upon. How it would be an educational experience for the both of us. How we would share rooms, and accommodations; it wouldn't be an inconvenience. The fact that, my duties aside, I'd be free and at loose ends for much of my days; and it would be far safer for the two of us, Jack and I together, to explore foreign cities than it would be for myself, alone …
I'd thought that last argument was the best one.
Father was obdurate; and growing increasingly impatient, I could tell. As I'd feared.
Jack is right, that I have … some skill … in influencing Father's decisions; in subtly, and slowly, managing the outcome of certain events. Jack calls it, 'Dad Management', and he delights in seeing the results; the most memorable one being, two extra weeks with me at my grandparents' place in Newport last summer, due to a bit of information I'd carefully planted, at just the right moment —
But such an approach requires time, and indirection; the casual introduction of an idea, and then nurturing it until he thinks it's his own …
We had no time; and I had to approach the subject directly, and present the idea on my own behalf. With a calmness I did not feel.
My arguments were rejected.
They were rejected, actually, with a forcefulness that I did not understand. It seemed as though there was something he could not state openly, weighing on the decision.
I was desperate. I tried one last argument.
"Father … if there is any question about the Bank paying for Jack's passage, and expenses … well, of course, I would expect to pay all that, myself." I could; I had the funds, in my own name.
It was a mistake.
Father had sat up, very straight, and looked down at my coldly; more coldly that I could remember, ever before. He paused for a long moment, before speaking.
"Your suggestion is vulgar, and I am disappointed in you for making it. The idea of paying the way for a member of the Van Doern family is ludicrous, and might actually be taken by them as an insult."
He'd paused, for a breath.
"In any event, the notion that Anthony Van Doern would allow his youngest son to travel all the way to China in the custody of a man he has barely met, socially, is completely incredible."
I gaped at him, for a moment. Father had met Jack any number of times; Jack had been our houseguest, often enough. But Father had never given any indication that he knew the slightest thing about Jack's family, or Jack's place in it.
Another pause, as Father collected himself; and I could see his mouth tightening.
"It is inappropriate," he'd said, then, slowly, "for your friend to accompany us on this trip. The subject is closed."
He'd said the last, with finality.
I'd blinked, then, full of anger, and grief, and despair, and other emotions —
And then I'd felt my face smoothing into a mask; a composed, featureless mask. It was an automatic reaction, hard-learned in my earliest boarding-school days.
"Yes, Father," I'd said. Neutrally. Evenly. Colorlessly.
* * *
I made two stops, after leaving Uncle Giuseppe and his tiramisu. The first was by far the more enjoyable; it was the result of my lunchtime inspiration.
"Can I help you, son?"
"Yes, please; I'd like to send a telegram."
"Well, you've come to the right place," the clerk said, cheerfully; as he passed me the telegram pad, headed with the words 'Western Union', in bold letters.
I'd thought, briefly, of going back to the hotel, and trying to put through a call to Jack; the temptation, for a moment, was almost overwhelming. The idea of actually speaking to him, of hearing his voice —
And of course, it was impossible. The School had only one telephone line, in the Headmaster's office; personal calls to students were almost unheard-of, apart from family emergencies. Even if I'd managed to get a line through to Jack, half the school would be thinking he'd had a death in the family, inside an hour.
Besides, the Headmaster's secretary was known to listen in, on the extension.
A telegram was far preferable.
Sent normal priority, Jack would be reading it, about the time I was sailing, the next day.
The idea warmed me, deeply.
Oddly enough, although I've seen Father draft more telegrams than I could possibly remember, I had never actually sent one, myself. As I stood at the counter, printing out the text in block letters, I felt absurdly like an impostor; a schoolboy pretending to be an adult.
Perhaps that is why it took me four drafts, to get such a simple message, right.
RE YOUR LETTER OF APRIL 3RD. FORGIVEN. NEVER FORGOTTEN. DEEPLY APPRECIATED.
WISH YOU WERE HERE.
FONDEST MEMORIES O.C.
Oakley Commons, the O.C. in my wire, is a beautiful, grassy hillside, laced with walking paths, adjacent to our school.
It is also the place where Jack and I confessed our love for one another, two years ago. And I could already tell, referring to it was the closest we'd be able to come to saying 'I love you', for the weeks and months ahead of us.
* * *
My second stop was less pleasant; and it was not due to a spur-of-the-moment inspiration. I had begun arrangements for this errand, before leaving school.
I found myself sitting in a bank, oddly enough.
Not my father's bank. Not a bank which corresponded with Father's bank, either.
"May I see your passport?" asked the bank manager,
"Yes, sir." I took it from my pocket, opened it, and slid it towards him.
The manager was large, wide, white-haired, and seemed somewhat unhappy. We were in his private office, with only two potted palm trees and some very august-looking portraits, to serve as witnesses.
He peered at my passport very closely; then he looked up at me, directly, for some seconds; then, back at my passport. Finally, he put it down — not returning it to me — and opened a desk drawer. He extracted a printed form.
"May I ask you to provide two samples of your signature?" He turned the form around to face me, and indicated two spaces. "If you would sign here, and here — ?"
I read the form through, twice, carefully; it was a form for signature authentication only. I took my fountain-pen from my pocket, uncapped it, and signed my name, twice. The manager slid the form back towards himself; blotted my signatures; and pressed a button on his desk-console.
"Miss Evans? Would you bring the Williamson wire, please — ?"
A moment later, the door opened, and a middle-aged woman in sensible dress brought in a manila envelope, which she handed to the manager. The manager was opening the envelope, and extracting what looked like a large, glossy photograph, before she was out the door. He set down the photograph — I could see it was an oversized version of my own signature; transmitted by wire, I knew, at great expense — and he began carefully comparing it to the form I'd just signed.
I waited, patiently.
As I've said — I have some money, in my own name.
Shortly after my mother died, my grandparents — my mother's parents — settled a trust fund on me.
At sixteen, so many years later, I had access to only a small portion of that trust fund; and that, only with the consent of the Trust's Administrator.
But I knew my Administrator very well; I called him Uncle Robert. He was — is — a close friend of my grandparents; we'd spent some holidays together … When I was younger, he used to let me win, sometimes, at table-tennis. Recently, I'd begun letting him win, occasionally. He is a gentle and kind man.
I'd telephoned him from our Manhattan flat, the morning after my confrontation with Father; before leaving to get the train back to school.
And I'd set this all in motion.
It was necessary.
"Well," said the white-haired bank manager; after another, long, last look at my passport. "Everything seems to be in order."
He seemed obviously uncomfortable; and I felt a brief, mischievous twinge of satisfaction, at his discomfort. I suppressed it.
My real feelings, my true feelings, were — mixed, actually. 'Grim', perhaps, was the overall mood; but along with the grimness, I felt a kind of bleak resolve.
The manager extracted a set of keys from his pocket, and unlocked another desk drawer. He opened the drawer, and from it pulled two envelopes; one thick and bulky, one flat and wide. These he put on the desk in front of him; and then, moving slowly, he untied the string binding the flap of the bulky envelope, and withdrew the contents.
These proved to be six bundles of banknotes — United States currency, in rather high-denomination bills — each bundle wrapped in paper tape. He pushed them towards me, across the desk.
"Please count these, carefully; you'll be asked to sign a receipt."
"Yes, sir." And I did count it all out, with care; I am a banker's son, after all. "Yes, sir," I said, at last. "It's all here."
It was a very large sum. In the thousands of dollars.
"Very well," he said; sounding even less happy, if possible. He opened up the flat, wider envelope, and withdrew what looked like a leather-bound portfolio. He opened the cover of the portfolio, and examined the contents very carefully; and then, after some moments, he slid it across the desk towards me.
"And here," he said,with gravity, "is your Letter of Credit. If you would, please examine it closely?"
It was a letter, on elaborately watermarked and embossed paper, by which the Bank of California, of San Francisco, California, guaranteed the advance to one Rhys Lucien Williamson, of Connecticut and New York, of funds up to a certain value in United States dollars or the equivalent.
That value — which I'd set with Uncle Robert — was one half of all that portion of my trust fund which was under my control.
I only had control of a small portion of my trust fund, as I said. But it was, overall, a very generous trust fund; the number listed in my Letter of Credit was very large. It made the currency bundles in their paper tape wrappers seem inconsequential, by comparison.
I read the letter through, twice, very carefully; my heart pounding faster, now. Finally, I closed the cover and looked back up at the bank manager.
"This seems to be correct, sir."
"You understand how this works — ? You present your letter, with appropriate identification, to any bank with whom we correspond — the names and addresses of our correspondent banks in Shanghai and Hong Kong are included with your packet — and they will issue you money, or counter checks, or cashier's checks, for the amount you specify. We, in turn, will reimburse that bank; and your bank in New York will reimburse us. Eventually."
I didn't add that Father made a career out of developing, and maintaining, such bank-to-bank relationships. It was why I was here; it was the source of my troubles.
The bank manager looked at me for a long moment; then he sighed.
"I won't conceal from you, Mr. Williamson, that I am — troubled — by this transaction. I have personally, in my career, never dealt with such large sums of cash — cash, and its equivalents — on behalf of a minor. Much less, a minor who is unaccompanied by a parent or guardian." He paused, a moment. "I am uneasy that the Bank of California has exposure, in this instance."
"I'm traveling with my father, sir," I said. Mildly. "And you have my Trustee's signature. And there are good funds in my New York account."
He blinked, slightly, at 'Good Funds'; it is a banking term, as I knew from Father.
"I spoke with your Trustee, Mr. White, yesterday," he went on. Bluntly. "I put in a long-distance telephone call to him." The manager eyed me, for a moment. "He thinks rather highly, of your judgment and maturity. And he sends you his best."
"Thank you, sir."
Another pause, from him.
"And, he communicated the terms of your Trust, very clearly. Your grandparents wish you to have control of your own monies; up to your Trust's age limits." He sighed, again. "I am still troubled that you are here, unaccompanied."
"My father expects me to handle my own financial transactions, sir," I said; evenly.
Which was true; if incomplete. Father did not know about this particular transaction. Nor would he know of it.
"Your father," he said, wryly, "is an exceptionally trusting man."
I said nothing; returning his gaze steadily, for a few long seconds. At length, he exhaled, heavily.
"Very well." He reached into his desk drawer, and pulled out a form; it had been filled out, elaborately, in longhand, I could see. He pushed it over to me. "Here is the receipt; please review it carefully, before signing it."
As I took it up to read it, he also slid my Letter of Credit back into its envelope, and arranged the bundles of currency atop the other envelope. Finally, he returned my passport.
"Thank you, sir." I finished reading the receipt; and I signed it.
"Mr. Williamson — it is of course none of my business. But you are taking away with you a great deal of cash. May I suggest, you are welcome to leave it, along with your Letter of Credit, in one of our safe deposit boxes, until you sail — ?"
I looked up at him. "Father and I are sailing tomorrow, sir. I don't think you'll be open on a Saturday."
"No." He watched me put the bundles of banknotes into their bulky envelope. "I could provide you with a guard, to accompany you back to your hotel — "
I did think about it, briefly.
"No, thank you, sir. I am going straight back; I promise I'll deposit all this in the hotel safe, right away."
Another sigh, from him. "Very well." He stood up, ponderously; and then held out his hand. "Safe travels, then, Mr. Williamson. And I hope you'll forgive me, if I urge you to be careful, with all of this?" He indicated the envelopes on the desk. "Very large sums of money, I've found, often create far more problems than they solve."
"Thank you, sir," I said; taking his hand, and shaking it. Then, I surprised myself by going on. "To be honest, sir, I hope I don't need to spend any of it."
As I left the bank, walking quickly, I found my mood had changed.
The bleak resolve was still there, and still foremost; but alongside of it, I felt a certain grim satisfaction. And perhaps even, some comfort; stemming from what I carried, in my book bag.
"Yes, Father," I'd said at the end of our confrontation, back in New York; feeling my face smooth into an expressionless mask.
Jack has seen that mask, that reaction from me, twice; never aimed at him, of course. He calls it my 'Dangerous Face', and he says that it scares him; and he means it.
Father is not, and never could be, an enemy. He is nothing at all like our openly sadistic Mathematics instructor from last year, in whose dismissal I had played a certain, devious role …
No. No, I love my father very much; and I know he loves me.
I'd had three idle days on the train, to think things through; and to come to some conclusions.
One of them, was that Father was in the wrong; in this instance, at any rate.
The second conclusion, was that I had cause to be angry with him. Disappointed in him.
It is true, that Father could not have known the real state of affairs between Jack and I; he could not have known how cruel it would be, to separate us.
Still. To haul me away from school, to haul me out of the country, and halfway around the world, on three days' notice, without prior consultation of any sort, was — insensitive. Inconsiderate.
I'd used other words, stronger words, to myself; over the course of the train journey. But I'd settled on 'Insensitive', and 'Inconsiderate'. Stronger words generated counterproductive emotions.
I am not, I'd decided, in the end, after much thought — I am not a piece of luggage, to be taken out of storage and dusted off for a trip overseas. I am not a steamer-trunk, to be used when and as convenient.
I am a person; a person, with feelings, a person with a full life of his own — a life which did not, in fact, intersect much with Father's, these days, except during parts of school holidays.
I might be only sixteen, four years and more away from legal adulthood — but I am a person, with a life, and feelings, and deserving of some common respect.
And so, I had decided not to accept my situation passively. I had decided not to play the part of a helpless pawn.
I do not respect money, for its own sake.
In fact, I think it's fair to say that money, and the capitalist system, has almost destroyed the Western world. It has certainly caused misery, and hunger, and violent revolutions. Perhaps Communism will sweep everything away; perhaps it should.
But, for now anyway, money confers advantages.
Money, as our Physics teacher might put it, is Potential Energy. Money provides one with choices, and options. Money gives one the potential to travel; and the more money one has, the farther and faster one can go.
Legally, or otherwise.
The last time Father had taken me overseas — at short notice, and with no certain return date — I'd been gone seven years. A lifetime, for one so young. A lifetime, to me, now.
I would not let it happen again.
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