Archive for November, 2012

Valpo Summer of ’57

I really don’t need to describe the dusty yellow (Sante Fe yellow) bus that lumbered precariously over the narrow, unpaved road leading from Valparaiso, through the hills, to Vina Del Mar, for you’ve seen it countless times in the movies—the, by this time proverbial, yellow (Sante Fe yellow) school bus, , the smaller one, that was routinely imported to various third world countries to service rural areas, ones that had last seen duty transporting school children in the rural school districts in the US of A.  And yes it was filled with peasants and some of the smaller members of their livestock, i.e., chickens in cages, pigs constrained by ropes around their necks. Such was the bus we found ourselves on that hot dusty July 4th. The three of us were on shore leave from the USS Albany  anchored just outside of the Valparaiso harbor,  which wasn’t deep enough to accommodate its draught. We had a midnight curfew.

After dining in one of Valparaiso’s finer steak houses, two of my gang of NROTC midshipmen, more than a little drunk on the exquisite, local red wine, decided they, never having been with a woman, wanted to go a-whoring, for isn’t that the first thing sailors do upon hitting the shore in every port city they happen to visit in the world? But we were college men, so they felt above the seamy, run of the mill whorehouses in Valparaiso itself. They wanted better than that just so long as it wasn’t too pricey. They made enquiries of the locals in the restaurant bar, and determined that the better houses of ill repute locally were in Vina Del Mar, a small residential suburb located 6 miles along the coast north of the city. Though there was a train connecting the two cities, its schedule wasn’t to my compatriots liking, so they opted for the bus ride with me tagging along for the experience.

Vina Del Mar, back then, was a picturesque, Italianesque town replete with cobblestone streets and gas lamps on every corner with few automobiles and lots of horse-drawn carriages. We eventually found our way into the decidedly middle class suburbs that nestled at the base of the large hill where the Valparaiso Cricket Club was located.  Some one had given one of us an address scribbled on a scrap of wrinkled paper. We handed it to the driver as we piled into his carriage. The house was a two storied brick affair, with a large, well-lighted porch and generous front door. It didn’t look at all like I imagined a whorehouse would look.

It seems that some enterprising souls, having learned that the fleet was in town (some 8,000 sailors), got together and converted one of their larger homes into a brothel of sorts, where the prostitutes were all “amateurs”, i.e., they didn’t normally earn a living in the sex trade, but they couldn’t turn down the opportunity to make thousands of dollars a night for  two weeks using their bodies. And my buddies couldn’t turn down an opportunity to oblige them. As for me, having never been with a woman either, I differed from my buddies in that I didn’t want my first time to be with some stranger, with whom I shared no particular attachment, in a foreign country, one who neither spoke or understood English, a Catholic one who wouldn’t consent to using condoms because the Pope had forbidden it.

The thought of possibly fathering and abandoning a child to God only knows what kind of life just didn’t sit well with me. So while my two venturesome, but irresponsible, buddies went upstairs where the women all were, I stayed downstairs and chatted with the madam. She taught me how to count in Spanish from 11 and on—I already knew how to count from 1 to 10.  During my lesson, she told me all about the train that would eventually take us back to Valpo that night. One of my buddies had given me his last $20 bill (US) to keep for him because he was fearful it might get stolen by one of the girls. The other buddy didn’t trust me to keep his money safe, so he put his cash (Chilean) in his shoe before disappearing for his tryst. Later, on our way back to the train station in a horse drawn carriage, they discussed their “first times” with each other.

As to whether the one buddy had had sex with his shoes on, or the one shoe anyway, when asked, he couldn’t remember. He was so drunk at the time, he didn’t know if they’d had sex or not. I suspect he did have sex, abortive or no, because when he went to fetch our train fare (in pesos) from his shoe, the only thing he found in it was his socked foot. All we had was that $20 bill. Our cab driver couldn’t deal with it, so we stiffed him his fare and fled on foot, leaving him screaming bad things after us.

It was late and the last train back to Valpo for the night was standing in the station about to depart. We absolutely had to take it, but the ticket agent had gone home early, so we got on the train without tickets, expecting to be able to buy them en route the way you can on an American commuter train.   All we had was that lousy $20 bill which was useless, because the exchange rate was like 1000:1. It’d be like handing a conductor a $20,000 bill and expecting him/her to make change for 3 fifteen centavos tickets. Fortunately no conductor ever showed up to punch our nonexistent tickets, so we rode free.

It seems that the Chilean government had built this railroad line just for the benefit of the membership of the Valparaiso Cricket Club located in Vina Del Mar to spare them the chicken-festered bus ride to and from Valpo. It would be 6 years before another opportunity to be with a woman presented itself. Her name was Barbara, and she was Catholic too, just like the others from before, and so the condom was out, and yes, of course, we got pregnant, but by that time I was a Harvard man, so her folks didn’t get too bent out of shape that we HAD to get married. So we did, and 16 years, two girls, one house and one Dodge Dart later, she and I went our separate ways.


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What’s in a name?

Yeah, right. What?

And what is it with the Japanese to name one of its pseudo folk heroes “Godzilla,” , given how difficult it is for the Asian tongue to wrap itself around the ‘el’ sound. By now all Japanese children under a certain age must regard Godzirra as having the same mythic proportions as Santa Craus.

It’s hard to imagine one’s ancestors sitting around in the evening pondering given names for a soon to be born little blossom and coming up with Sigourney, or Uma, say. And what could possibly motivate a Mormon couple, or anyone for that matter to decide that ‘Mitt’ was a suitable name for a son? I’ve heard of ‘Mutt’ before, because that was the name of one of the characters in the old comic strip “Mutt & Jeff” , but it was always assumed that Mutt was a sort of nickname. And I’m totally comfortable with Matt, Mick, Mort, Mike, Mack, and even Mork, but ‘Mitt’? With a little googling I discovered that Mitt is a nickname for Milton, which was the name of Mitt’s father’s favorite cousin, but be that as it may, Mitt Romney’s full, legal name is Willard Mitt Romney, and not Willard Milton Romney. I don’t know. I don’t think I could ever get used to saying (or thinking) “President Mitt.”

Well, not to draw too fine a point on it, I’m a fine one for questioning that sometimes parents give their children unusual names, because my first name is ‘Wilmer.’ There’s a story that goes with that.  My mother’s father, whom she hated her whole life long, was named Wilbert Bryson Inman.  There were four children in her family—an older brother, named Wilbert, and 2 older sisters, Irene and Elizabeth. Apparently it was the custom of the time for children to name their children after a parent, grandparent, great grandparent, etc. Well, my narcissistic and domineering auntie Irene elaborated upon that custom by insisting that they (she and her siblings) name their children not only after a parent, etc., but after each other as well. My mother railed against this sisterly dictum and named her firstborn George Edward, after no one in particular. Irene was not pleased as she had named her first born, Norene, after herself, and my uncle Wilbert, with Irene’s insistence, had named his son Wilbert Jr, after himself. It’s not clear at this point in my life whether my cousin’s name is Wilbert, or Wilbert Junior, because he was always referred to as Wilbert Junior. This is not as farcical as it sounds, because I had a step father once, my very first, whose full legal name was Frank Junior Watson.

With the arrival of a second child, my mother settled on naming her Olive, after herself. Irene could scarcely find fault with that given that she’d done the same thing, not only once but twice, having named her second daughter, Charlene. The inter-sibling peer pressure must’ve gotten to my mom at some point, because when I showed up, she named me Wilmer, after her brother Wilbert and her father Wilbert, and since I was born along with a twin sister, it seemed only logical to name her Wilma. Irene seemed if not pleased at least satisfied that all was right with the universe. And then when my sister Janice was born, middle name Irene, Irene was ecstatic and seems to have left off pushing givens onto my poor mother. That is, she was “allowed” to name her last daughter Adrienne Louise, totally unique names in the Inman lineage. That’s how the Wilmer came about.

Now it is one thing for a person to be named something and a totally other thing as to what a person is actually called, something thoroughly explained in a poem by the White Knight in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.” I was always called Bruce, from the git go. Here is a picture of me and Wilma taken at age two months, and it’s clearly labeled “Bruce” in my own mother’s handwriting.

That “Wilmer” had been imposed on her (and me) by her oft manic sister Irene, must’ve stuck in my mom’s craw, as she NEVER addressed me as such, and the distaste she had for it eventually corrupted my own view of it, for I detest my first name almost as much as my mother did. Interestingly enough, whenever we visited my auntie Irene as a family, she insisted and persisted in always calling me Wilmer. At some point in my life she gave it up and started calling me by my real and proper name. This, probably when she realized we twins, along with my sister Janice Irene, were all illegitimate.

After that, Wilmer didn’t reenter my life for more than 70 years, until my employer, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where I’d been known as W. Bruce for over 45 years, one day decided that all employees would be known by their first name, middle initial and last name. And that’s how my badge is printed now. The security officers who must inspect and read every employee’s badge as they enter the site, have taken to calling me by their nickname for me, Wil, as I come to work every morning. Some how they just can’t bring themselves to call me “Wilmer” which probably means that my mother’s instincts were right on. I’ve reconciled myself to being called “Wil” at work, and find much consolation in knowing that it could’ve been worse, much worse—my mother could’ve named me Willard.

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