It doesn’t have a title yet – but this is another snippet of the letters between two cousins, in the late 1930s. Yes, this will have to do with WWII, and the two woman correspondents are the granddaughters of characters in previous novels.

Letter, dated 24 April 1938, Postmarked Ipoh, Perak – Federated Malay States

Dearest Vennie: We have finally arrived at Tommy’s plantation, after hopscotching by railway, airplane, steamship, railway again, and automobile, until we reached the lovely little town of Ipoh on the River Kinta – all in very jungly and mountainous landscape, and not the least like the ‘great grey green greasy Limpopo, all set about with fever trees!’ We stayed the night at the station hotel, as we arrived very late in the afternoon and we were both exhausted beyond words. I honestly would not have been the least surprised to complete this long journey in a rickshaw! (We rode in one in Manila – a carriage pulled by a carabao – that is, a tame water-buffalo!) Tommy’s household apparently did not get the telegram sent from Singapore alerting them to our arrival. Well, never mind, said Tommy – I’ll telephone in the morning and Chandeep Singh will send the auto for us. (This Chandeep Singh is Tommy’s butler/driver/right-hand manager.)


I wrote to you from Hawaii, before we departed – so I hope that you received my letter, sent via airmail! In case it has gone astray, I had a full account in it, about how Tommy met up with the famous champion Olympic swimmer, Mr. Duke Kahanamoku, who was quite the resident celebrity where we stayed. During our week-long stay at the Royal Hawaiian, Mr. Kahanamoku made fast friends with Tommy – and even favored him with a long session in the water, tutoring him on the technique of riding those long boards at the crest of the waves. Tommy said it was enormously good fun, rather like riding a horse in a steeplechase at full gallop, although he barely had gotten the hang of standing up on the board before we had to move on. My husband has the unerring ability to make friends with so many people, and especially relishes the companionship of those who are expert at so many things. Mr. Kahanamoku was fit as the athlete he was in previous decades, comely and dark brown. I would have thought him a Mexican, on seeing him at first glance, like one of the Becker ranch vaqueros.

Anyway, at the end of our week-long stay, we boarded the Clipper for the long flight to Manila … oh, there were stops at a several miniscule islands scattered at convenient intervals across the Pacific, but we did not linger any significant length of time at them. We stayed a week at the completely luxurious and modern Manila Hotel on Rizal Park, recovering from the rigors (hah!) of the journey from Hawaii. While we were there, an old friend of Daddy’s treated us to a splendid dinner at the Army & Navy Club. Do you remember Daddy mentioning his old friend and pal, Chester, who thought his best bet for a college education was to take an appointment at a military academy? Like Daddy, Chester was the grandson of one of the old original settlers in Fredericksburg. Indeed, Daddy insists that Chester’s grandfather had once courted Great-Grandma Magda in the early days, but she decided to marry Great-Grandfather Becker instead. Still, according to all the family stories, they remained friends, and the Beckers and the Nimitzes were always on the best of terms thereafter. Well, anyway, Daddy’s friend Chester had just finished a tour as the commander of a cruiser in the Asiatic Fleet. Are you impressed? I was, terribly. I expect Daddy sent him a telegram – which caught him as he was heading back to the United States to take over some fearfully responsible duty, something called “The Bureau of Navigation.” Neither Tommy nor I could divine exactly what this meant. Apparently, Chester has spent the last couple of years with the Asiatic Fleet showing off the flag to the obstreperous Japs. Well, someone has to do it, although Tommy reposes enormous confidence in the Royal Navy when it comes to this tiresome obligation. Well, another thing which we must agree to disagree upon, the abilities of the British VS the American navies.

It was quite an enjoyable evening, though. I felt quite at home with Chester, almost as if Daddy had been with us – grave and blond and handsome. He reminisced to us about being a boy in his grandfather’s house, and the doings of Fredericksburg – where his grandfather was simply the most awful man for pranks and tall-tale-telling (or so said Daddy!), with the old Verein-Kirche in the middle of Main Street, his grandfather’s hotel and ballroom all tricked out like a steamboat grounded, and the little Sunday houses for the families from the outlaying properties who came to do business on Saturday and church on Sunday, and marvelous barbeques for any celebration. I would have felt most homesick, hearing him talk about this all, and Tommy nodding with the deepest interest and asking him to tell us more. My husband has done it again, charming the most unlikely people by taking such an intense interest in their doings. We went to see many of the sights of Manila – the hotel had a view over the vast bay where the Navy has moorage and that was simply the most spectacular scene.

Then, on to Singapore, which was really more of the same, only with British accents. This was where we went by steamer. Really, it was quite relaxing. Tommy presented me with a guide to the Malay language, which he says that I will simply have to learn as essential to my new life. I whiled away those days on the puttering passenger steamer, studying the pages of Fraser & Neaves’ Short Malay Handbook in Roman Characters. Tommy says that I will absolutely have to be able to cope in Malay, with the servants and plantation employees. Well – I could swing it in Spanish when I was growing up on the Ranch – now, hard could this be?

Depressingly hard, as it might be after a week or so wrestling with the vocabulary and pronunciation in that little red-covered handbook, although Mr. Song the Chinese cook speaks very passible English. So much for the use of the cooking book that I was given as a wedding present from Ivy. I do not have any use for recipes at all, as Mr. Song does all the cooking and resents very much any interference with his methods and the organization of his kitchen.

Sigh. I am getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Longcot Plantation is named after some grim and moldy stately pile in England, which, if you ask me, would be embarrassed at sharing a name with a plain wooden cottage with a tin roof, even though it sprawls in every direction and boasts a splendid garden and a very green lawn, kept carefully mown by the syce. (More about the resident servants later – Vennie, I now live in a veritable League of Nations when it comes to nationalities!) Tommy’s grandfather had some sentimental connection to the original Longcot House, I guess. But picture a simple wooden sprawl, with deep verandahs all the way around, and large stretches of windows covered sketchily by louvered shutters, if at all. It seems that the whole purpose of walls here is so that they may be as open to admit as much of the wandering and hopefully cooler air as is possible. Of course, mosquitoes and other flying insects are simply ubiquitous – we all sleep under clouds of mosquito netting. Nothing must be done to impede the fresh air, morning and night. It is hot here, which I admit – and humid. You would simply not believe the amount of condensation sweated off a glass filled with plain water and ice, after five minutes! Picture that structure surrounded by tall trees of a jungly-nature, beds of fabulously flowering shrubs, and a sweep of green lawn … it is so green, so lush, so burgeoning with tropical life … honestly, the Hill Country seems to be a barren desert by comparison. (Save in spring, when the wildflowers overwhelm …)

At any rate, when we arrived, all the household staff and the local workers were lined up at the edge of the gravel drive to receive us, as if we were royalty on tour of some splendid pile or enterprise. Honestly, can you imagine anything more personally embarrassing to me, everyone bobbing curtseys and bows, and calling me ‘Mem Peg’ and greeting me as if they were swearing eternal devotion to us and our bloodline? Chandeep Singh practically did; it seems that he served with Tommy’s father in some Indian regiment and followed him after the war to Malaya. Tommy has known Chandeep Singh for all of his own life and regards him as a kind of honorary uncle. Vennie … this whole thing is more complicated than I thought, upon marriage to Tommy. And you are the only one whom I may confide in. I will write you again, in more detail about our dear little house and the conundrums that I find there.

Love, Peggy

PS – how might one be certain of being pregnant? Since you are a nurse and have knowledge of these awkward things. Let me know, soonest.         

The Daughter Unit was a little over two years old when we went to live in Greece, and almost kindergarten age when we left, and during that period we lived in a second-floor apartment in suburban Athens and hardly ever watched television. (I had a television set, but it was 110v, and Greece was a 220v country, and anyway, I was almost never at home in the evenings, the exception being when we went to our neighbors to watch Jewel in the Crown when it aired with subtitles on Greek TV.) This was at a time before wide-spread adoption of video players, before cable, way before streaming video. It was, in bald point of fact, rather like the three to five broadcast channels available when I was growing up. So, no, I didn’t miss TV much, and nor did the Daughter Unit, because we had books.

Heaps and heaps of books; my parents took the opportunity of the Daughter Unit being a military dependent and entitled to have her personal items shipped to Greece gratis to include almost all of the kid-lit that Mom had accumulated for my brothers and sister and I. (Mom and Dad were in the process of moving into a travel trailer parked on the building site of their eventual retirement home, and so took every opportunity to down-size what they didn’t need or want. Like … that part of the personal library.) Off that shipment went to Athens, augmented with new books that I bought through an English mail-order service which offered lovely catalogs aimed mostly at expatriates whiling away the decades in locations devoid of English-language bookstores, and a children’s bookstore in what passed for a mall in Voula or Vouliagmeni, which featured Greek, English and I think German and French-language books. It was a small place, barely one twenty-foot square room in size, with each wall dedicated to a language. I am pretty certain that I bought the Daughter Unit’s favorite comic book series there; the Asterix and Obelix books.

Asterix and Obelix; the series was translated from the French original and available everywhere in Europe; an epic and pun-laden series of books about the heroes; Asterix the canny warrior, his sidekick, the hefty menhir-deliveryman Obelix, and all the residents of the lone Gaulish village holding out against the Roman invaders, thanks to a magical potion brewed up by the Druid Getafix. Asterix and Obelix lived to beat up or out-wile the Romans, have adventures in far exotic lands, and to eat wild boar, presumably nicely roasted, crunchy and with appropriate sauces at a feast to follow their triumphant return. The illustrations were colorful and even surprisingly accurate when it came to Roman art and architecture, and the adventures were easy to follow. They became my daughter’s favorite bedtime story material, mostly because she could follow along. Not for her bland and simplistic materiel like Dr. Seuss; no, not when there were Romans and indomitable Gauls. (True Fact: in the midst of our road-trip through Europe in the autumn of 1985, when I told her that we were about to cross over from Germany into France, which used to be called ‘Gaul’ she perked up and asked if we were going to meet any Indominable Gauls.)

During that wandering journey, she encountered other fans of Asterix; a German teenager in Baden-Baden, who alternated with the Daughter Unit in naming all the cast of reoccurring characters – Getafix the Druid, Vitalstatistix the chieftain, Cacofonix the Bard, Fullyautomatix the blacksmith, Geriatrix the tribe’s senior citizen, and Asterix’s canine pet Dogmatix. In a small town on the edge of the Morvan national park in central France, we walked by a community billboard where there were pictures posted of a recent parade – for Bastille Day, perhaps? Among them was a home-made float on a towed trailer, and an assortment of children and teenagers dressed as characters from the series on the float. The Daughter Unit, of course, recognized them right away. All across Europe, she spotted the series on sale (the covers are very distinctive) and asked for the issues that she hadn’t seen, and of course I had to confess that … I couldn’t buy her those particular volumes, since they were in Italian or French.

And that, my friends – is how the Daughter Unit learned to read. From the English translations of a French comic book series.

Letter – dated 2 April, 1938, Postmarked from Galveston, Texas

Dear Peg; I hope this letter catches up with you, before you and Tommy board the China Clipper for Hawaii. I enclose the clipping from the SA Light newspaper of the wedding. Your Granny Jane cut it out and sent it to me, because of the picture of us, all lined up on the church step outside, with the sun in our eyes and waiting for the photographer to do his duty. It was very impressive, since the editor put it at the very top of the weddings and society pages; your Granny Jane wrote in her note to me. Honestly, as newsprint goes, I think we all look very nice, although Ivy was complaining to me under her breath about how her feet hurt, and I know that Tommy was pinching your behind and saying that now he had the right to do so as a lawfully-married man! Well, really – Ivy is so vain about her tiny feet, so of course she will cram them into shoes a half-size too small. And yes, we both warned her about this.

I was so sorry that I could not see you off on your honeymoon journey, but I simply had to return to Galveston on the afternoon train, so as not to miss any more of my nursing classes than absolutely necessary. I had dispensation, at the pleading of all our kin, especially the Galveston branch to be your bridesmaid, since I don’t know when we will see each other again. I know that we vowed to each other  that year when we were fifteen and summering at the Becker ranch that we would be bridesmaid to each other, but if I marry a handsome doctor-surgeon and you are away on Tommy’s rubber plantation in Malaya and cannot come Home, then I release you from that vow to reciprocate. I shall have to make an effort to make up for what I have missed in the two weeks that I was away from Galveston, but I should let you know that I do not regret this in the least.

It was such a nice time, seeing everyone again and spending time with Ivy, and Daddy, and Granny Jane and Granny Sophie and all, although I did endure the talk from Daddy about how serious was I really, regarding pursuing this training as a nurse, yet one more time! Well, as I haven’t had a handsome and dashing Englishman like Tommy fall absolutely head-over-heels in love with me over one week and the next, I suppose I shall have to go ahead with this nursing qualification. One has to do something, if the inclination or opportunity for marriage doesn’t present itself at once, and I would rather not settle for waiting on tables. Did you know that Granny Sophie did, way back in the day before she met Grandpa Fred? Can you imagine, Granny Sophie, waiting tables? Honestly, the mind simply shudders in disbelief. I’d think this was one of Daddy’s stories, but I asked Granny Sophie about it once, and she said that she had, and then changed the subject almost at once.

She is such a dear, worrying about me, studying in Galveston. Granny was there for the great hurricane in 1900 and was very much against me going to the nursing college there, telling me once and again how horrible it was to endure the hurricane, and most especially afterwards, when most of the city was wrecked. Well, I said, ‘Granny – if it happens again, then I am a nurse and I can do good, and anyway, they raised up everything on the island to fifteen or twenty feet, so it’s not as if we’ll all be swept away, and left knee-deep among bodies when the storm surge finishes.’ And she looked at me very sternly after I said this, and said, ‘Vinnie, don’t be frivolous. I went among bodies in the morgue, afterwards, looking for a dear friend; can you imagine how sickening that was?’ and I replied, ‘Well, I have had to help lay out the bodies of patients who died when I was on shift in the hospital, and no, I was not frivolous and didn’t find it sickening at all.’ Just feeling a bit sad for their friends and loved ones, and if they had been in dreadful pain, then they were relieved of it all. Our dean of nurses says that we should think of this as a kind of sacrament. I didn’t say this last to Granny Sophie, I think she was shocked enough when she lamented that society is now so horribly changed from when she was a girl, and I said, ‘Oh, thank heavens for that, Gran – it must have been positively medieval, back then!’

I really have to begin the habit of biting my tongue when I feel a barbed retort coming on … except that I have had to do so much of it while in training and on the ward that the excess comes foaming out like the fizz from an uncorked bottle of champagne. Anyway, enough about me. You simply must write to me about what you see on your way out east. It’s so exciting that you and Tommy are traveling by airplane! The China Clipper to Hawaii, Manila and points east! You simply must write down every detail that you can, although I fear that the mysterious and exotic east will be somewhat of a let-down after reading ‘Terry and the Pirates’ in the comic pages! You simply must tell me, though, if you encounter any two-fisted ruffian adventurers, a blonde adventuress singing ‘St. Louis Blues’, a wicked pirate queen, or a pair of Chinese gentlemen – one a huge mute and the other a small, English-mangling shrimp.

All my love to you and Tommy,

Your devoted cuz,

Vinnie     

Well, now that Luna City #9 is all but done, and That Fateful Lightning is about half-done, what better time to be distracted by another book … and this will be the start. I don’t know if it will be entirely told in letters, as that is quite limiting – but there will be some bits told that way. But it all starts with a newspaper announcement…

Wedding Announcement

From The San Antonio Light – Sunday, May 22, 1938

Becker – Morehouse

Miss Margaret Susan Becker, of this city, was married on Sunday to Thomas St. John Morehouse, in a ceremony at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church performed by the Rector, the Rev. A.R. McKinstry. The bride, 20, is the daughter of Charles and Evelyn Ingram Becker of this city. A reception following the ceremony was held for family, friends and guests at the home of the bride’s paternal grandfather, the notable Western artist, Samuel H. Becker, and his wife, Mrs. Jane Becker. Mr. Morehouse, 28, is the son of the late Major Chadwick Morehouse and Violet Seaton, the present Mrs. Stanley Chalmers, of Brisbane, Australia. The groom is a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and currently employed by Guthrie & Co. of Malaya. The happy couple will make their home in Ipoh and Singapore, following a honeymoon traveling in Hawaii, Australia and the Far East.

The bride was attended by her sister, Ivy, and cousins Venetia and Charlotte Stoneman, the daughters of Charles H. Stoneman of Deming, New Mexico. She wore a gown of ivory satin adorned with an overlay of Venise lace, and carried a bouquet of white roses, orange blossoms and pale pink carnations, while her attendants wore pale pink gowns with garlands of pink rosebuds in their hair.

12. June 2020 · Comments Off on A Modern Classic · Categories: Uncategorized

As I was working on stuff, I followed a couple of links, and found a performance of Morten Lauridson’s Lux AEturna