It was summer, 1935. I was nine years old. Vacationing in the quaint mountain village of Busteni, I was enjoying a happy season of games, picnics on grassy meadows, and carefree laughter.
One afternoon I went to my room to read a book. Sitting in a chair, I suddenly felt dizzy. I lay down on the bed, but even from this position the room seemed to be spinning. I cried weakly for help, but no one came. At last, summoning all my strength, I struggled to the door, leaning against the wall for support. There, I called again. This time I was heard.
A doctor was hastily summoned. A large, loud-voiced, overconfident lady, she was evidently determined to prove that I had appendicitis. (Prod. “Does it hurt here?” Prod again. “How about here?”) Minutes of this diagnostic predetermination made me hurt all over. Finally, deciding, perhaps, that it would be no use operating on my entire abdomen, she gave up.
I came near dying in that little village. As it was, though I survived, the happy world I had known for the first nine years of my life died for me with this illness. Back home in Teleajen, all I remember “clearly” are long stretches of delirium: Dad reading to me from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and the drunken fits of Huck’s father, returning to mind at night in terrifying garb.
“I don’t want to be a drunkard!” I cried, wrestling with my own delirium. “I don’t want to be a drunkard!”
At last I came to associate any unusual mental state with delirium. The very soul-expansion which, until this time, had visited me so normally at night now filled me with a nameless dread.
Because of this fear, I now began making a conscious effort to adjust to the norms of others. For the better part of a decade, insecurity and self-doubt left me anxious to prove to myself that I was not, in some indefinable way, abnormal and inferior.
Dr. Stroyei, a pediatrician in Bucharest, finally diagnosed my illness as colitis. He forbade me all dairy products, and put me on a bland diet of soft-cooked foods that almost robbed me of my interest in eating. When I’d recovered sufficiently, my parents decided, on Dr. Stroyei’s recommendation, to send me to the salubrious climate of Switzerland. Dr. Winthrop Haynes, my godfather, recommended a small Swiss-English boarding school where his own sons had studied for a time, in Chesières, a mountain village in French Switzerland. The school was named, perhaps a trifle pretentiously, L’Avenir (“The Future”).
My own future here, eighteen long months of it, was somewhat bleak. Only nine years old when I arrived, never before away from my family, and ignorant of French (the language commonly spoken at L’Avenir), I was homesick much of the time. Throughout my stay, moreover, I was afflicted with a series of fairly serious illnesses stemming from the colitis. Mostly it was my kidneys; I had to live for days at a time on zwieback (a kind of dried bread) and Vichy water.
L’Avenir was owned and run by a kindly couple, Mr. and Mrs. John Hampshire. Mr. Hampshire was English; his wife, whom we children knew affectionately as Tante Béa (Aunt Beatrice), was French-Swiss. The students themselves were a mixed bag of Swiss, English, American (me), Italian, and French.
Unhappy though I was, my stay there did have its compensations. The scenery, for one thing, was stunningly beautiful. Across the valley from us loomed the famous Alp, Les Dents du Midi. In winter we skied daily. In warmer weather, frequent walks led us through flowered pastures and quiet, discreet woods — all very properly Swiss. I still recall the herds of cows passing our chalet school in the early mornings, with dangling bells ringing melodiously.
Gradually, too, as I learned to speak French, adjustment became easier for me. The teachers, able to communicate with me now, grew quite fond of me. (Grownups were touched, generally, because I treated them like people.) Even our frosty German teacher, to whom I’d seemed merely stupid as long as I couldn’t speak French, eventually thawed. Teaching her German class in the French language, which I didn’t know, she had remarked, “Donald, tu ne sais pas comme tu es bête! (Donald, you don’t know how stupid you are!)” In reporting this interchange in a letter to my parents, I concluded, “I stuck my tongue out at her!”
My long illness coincided with the growing political malady of Europe. In Vienna, where Mother and I stopped on our way to Switzerland, we were warned by friends not to criticize Nazi Germany except in places that were safe, and then only in whispers. Austria had not yet been annexed to Germany, but one saw Nazi officers everywhere, marching about, challenging people with their Nazi salute and shouting sternly, “Heil Hitler!” (“Hi,” I would reply, waving a nonchalant hand.) Storm clouds were gathering. In the bluster of bullies everywhere one saw the arrogance of men newly justified in their own eyes. And, growing in the hearts of peace-loving people everywhere, there was fear.
One of the students at L’Avenir was an Italian boy, larger by a head than most of us, and a braggart. Guido tried to ingratiate himself with us by laughing loudly at everything, and at nothing. But he was a bully, and nobody liked him. He was also — naturally enough, considering his own insensitivity — an ardent supporter of Italy’s dictator, Mussolini. We were never allowed to forget his country’s “glorious” conquest of poor, backward Abyssinia.
Little cogs in a big wheel! But it took those little cogs to make the wheel turn. Individual bullies, each one insignificant in himself, were banding together on the stage of history and imagined in their swelling ranks that fate had given them the power to change the world. For them it was a heady hour. Such, indeed, is the influence of mass hysteria that, ere long, many others, too, formerly peace-loving, were striding about behaving like petty dictators.
An Austrian friend of ours in Teleajen, pleasant enough when he first came there, caught the bully fever. From then on, normal conversation with him was impossible; all he ever spouted was a succession of proud boasts. “We Germans,” it seemed, would soon be marching in to subjugate everyone and his dog.
This man’s chief weakness was only, I think, that he lacked a sense of humor. I’ve never known a bully to possess one. I don’t mean they can’t laugh at people; that they do readily enough. It’s that they can’t laugh with others. Humor certainly was conspicuous by its absence among those who succumbed to the disease of Naziism.
I even wonder whether the evolution of tyranny isn’t reducible to some kind of law, in which humorlessness plays an essential role. First in the line of converts to tyranny, it seems, come the true bullies — the sadists, the mentally crippled and vengeful, the criminal. Then, as the spirit of arrogance spreads, well-meaning but essentially humorless people enter to swell the tide. Finally come the well-meaning, but stupid. At this point, anyone with any true values has little choice but to flee, go underground, or maintain a resolute silence in the face of general insanity. Or — he can laugh.
One evening in Germany a famous comedian appeared on stage before a large audience. Clicking his heels together, he raised a straight right arm high above his head. Several people in the audience leapt to their feet and returned the Nazi salute.
“That,” said the comedian, “is how high my dog jumped yesterday.”
This man knew the probable consequences of his brave gesture, but his sense of humor in the face of those probabilities revealed that indomitable spirit in human nature before which tyranny must ever succumb in the end.
In the summer of 1936 we traveled through Germany on our way to America. A stranger sharing Bob’s train compartment was arrested at the German border by the Gestapo. Perhaps he was Jewish. Or perhaps, like thousands of others, he was merely trying to flee despotism. But, young as we were at the time, we knew the likely outcome of his arrest: imprisonment, and then death.
In Bucharest I had a governess for a time who, like our friend in Teleajen, was an Austrian Nazi. Also like him, she was quite devoid of any sense of humor. Miss Annie assured us constantly, whenever our parents weren’t there to hear her, that Japan would never lose in any war against America, having never lost one in its long history. The German people, moreover, in league with the Japanese and the Italians, were destined to rule the whole world. It seemed peculiarly fitting to us when it was discovered that Miss Annie was a kleptomaniac. She was dismissed.
Whenever we traveled through Germany, however, all the people we met were exceedingly kind and hospitable, eager to help us in every way they could. Were these people Nazis? Some, I suppose, must have been; the worst bully, after all, is still a child of God, and cannot but reflect something of the Divine Goodness. But I think most of them were simply normal, good people caught up in the flood of a national tragedy. We loved them almost the more, I think, for the sadness of their plight. What country, after all, is in a position to be able to say honestly, “Our people would never sink to such depths”?
The plight of Europe affected me deeply. Why, I wondered, can people not learn to live together in harmony? What is it in human nature that courts, that seems almost to demand, tragedy?
Perhaps my gloomy reflections were aggravated by my own unhappiness. One day I was standing alone on the balcony of our chalet school. Mr. Hampshire came out to find me weeping silently.
“What’s the matter?” he inquired gently.
“I’m homesick!” I sobbed.
Kindly, he wrote that day to my parents. Soon it was decided that I should return home.
During my stay in Switzerland Dad had been transferred to Bucharest. Our new residence was on the outskirts of the city, at Strada Capitan Dimitriade No. 10. Here I got six months’ respite before resuming my formal education. It was during this period that Miss Annie tutored me.
My health through this winter of 1936 – 37 was still precarious. Occasionally the pain was intense, though I remember now, more clearly than the pain, the tears in Mother’s eyes as she suffered with me in her love.
Sometimes, when I was well enough, I played football (soccer, we call it in America) on an empty lot with the neighborhood children. One of these was a boy from a slum area across Boulevard Busteni. His family were so poor they couldn’t even afford window panes, but covered up the openings in winter with newspapers. I took intense pity on him, invited him frequently to my home, and gave him freely of my toys. I was his friend. He, I assumed, was my friend.
One day he and a few of the boys in our own neighborhood taught me a hard lesson. Dissembling camaraderie, they invited me to join them in the nearby courtyard of one boy’s home. The gate was closed quietly behind me; someone locked it. Then, to my surprise, they backed me against a fence and began to kick a football at me, trying to hit me with it. Obviously, they were working up the courage for an attack.
I stood my ground and quietly waited, struck the football aside whenever it came too near, and affected an attitude of indifference. Minutes passed. At last the boys changed their minds about the merits of this afternoon’s entertainment. The gate was opened, and I was allowed to walk out unscathed.
Though physically unhurt, I thought my heart would break. Back home, I wept inconsolably. Why, I asked Mother through tears, had my “dearest” friend, and my other good companions, so betrayed my love for them? It was small comfort to reflect that war hysteria had by now made Rumanians suspicious of all foreigners.
Painful though this experience was, it proved an excellent lesson. From it I learned that it isn’t enough to give to others, even with love. If one would not beggar them in their own eyes, one must make it possible for them in some way also to reciprocate.
My absence in Switzerland, which had relieved Bob of the restraining presence of an older brother, had left him by no means languishing in his new freedom. Gleefully in fact, from then on, he insisted that every important event in our family must have occurred “while you were in Switzerland.”
My absence from home had had its effect on me, too. Whether I liked it or not, I now was a little less dependent on the home for which I had so recently been pining. God was weaning me from dependence on earthly security. My illness; my consequent absence, in that condition, in a distant land; my growing sense of aloneness: these were, I think, meant only to help me realize that my true home is not here, on earth, but in God.
Indeed, this is, for all men, an eternal truth: God is our reality. Ineluctably we are led, quickly or slowly, by one path or another, towards this divine understanding.
In this thought I am reminded of a brother disciple who once asked our Guru, “Will I ever leave the spiritual path?”
“How could you?” the Master answered. “Everyone in the world is on the spiritual path.”