There are some people and places that are truly unforgettable. This is Debbie Adam’s essay essay about a special time, place and person in her life.
Author’s note: This essay was written in August 2000. Even though my style has matured, it remains one of my favorite pieces. After it was published online, Mary Edwards Wertsch wrote: Debbie, I just read your beautiful and moving essay about Mr. Loo and his importance to your life as a tiny girl in Taiwan. I hope everyone who reads this will follow that link and read it. When you write, “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world,” it speaks to all of us. That lovely phrase could be a banner raised above our collective childhoods. In fact, if you ever expand your essay and publish it elsewhere, I recommend that as the title.
Dad, a 28 year old freshly minted Captain in The United States Air Force came home one day and announced that we would be moving to a place near China, Taipei, Taiwan.
“Where is this place?” I asked him.
And in a moment that lasted all of a second, but the memory will live on forever, he exclaimed, “Why Missy if you go outside in the backyard and dig a hole straight through the earth you would just about be in China! It’s a land of magic, just FULL of enchanted people!”
After many vaccinations for typhus, tuberculosis and cholera, we were packed and loudly grinding our way across the Pacific in a propeller driven airplane.
There was no First Class, no heat, nor cabin pressure and we hopped our way across like a milk train, landing in Hawaii and Guam. We moved into a small home in the Little American City in Taipei. It was built of gray limestone painted with a yellow trim, it sat on a corner surrounded by a bamboo fence and inside there was rattan matting on the floor that would leave the most intricate designs on my legs after sitting for a time.
My bedroom was down a short hallway on the right and my parents further down to the left, at the end of the hall was the bathroom. I was warned repeatedly to only drink the water from the water bottles, to never EVER drink the water out of the sink or I would get the worst tummy ache even DIE if I did!
Our first night there began with great adventure. Bright flashes of light and the acrid smell of gunpowder filled my room. I had never smelled or heard gunfire before and soon after the first several volleys I heard grappling and crashing about in my father’s bedroom. I was running through the dark, where I could see and my father flew by me in blue boxer shorts and t-shirt his firearm raised above his head wild eyed and screaming!
While he defended hearth and home I hid in the clothes hamper. It came to be that there was a custom in the neighborhood at that time to welcome new neighbors by lining the fence with firecrackers and setting them off. (They are SO lucky they didn’t get shot)
Soon our new home was full of friendly neighbors bringing in plenty of beer and a hibachi pot. To my wonder they set it in the middle of the living room floor and cooked up some wonderful sukiyaki. I drifted off to sleep while trying to talk, not knowing there would be so much more to come.
The Japanese occupied Taiwan throughout much of The Forties and did many things to improve the island building great roads. In the The Fifties and the early Sixties the Chinese Government moved onto the island and in other words it was the rich who had the power to move into the government offices. My father was stationed there by as part of a ‘listening post’ to keep tabs on the Communist Chinese Government.
They would gather information on the movement of the Red Army in China and had three or four minutes to relay this information to Washington DC. At this time he flew the C-47 Gooney Bird and made monthly trips to Contact Airport for some R&R in Hong Kong.
There he and his flight crew would be warmly greeted by the Hotel and all the Heineken Beer they could drink, which was truly an import and a real luxury of the time.
It wasn’t long before Dad heard from the General’s Aide about a man from Shanghai who had paid someone off to help him escape to Taiwan. Mr Loo was a cook and was looking for a position while he searched for his son in the Taiwanese Army.
He moved into a small room with a cot off the laundry room by the kitchen and had few belongings. The first day I met him the phone rang and rushing over to answer he shouted quickly and all too loudly, “Wey? Wey?”
Of course in my whole little life I had never heard the phone answered in such a manner and every time he would answer the phone I would just collapsed into a pile of little girl giggles!
He was up early every morning leaving a pair of freshly shined shoes outside my father’s door and asking me what I wanted for breakfast. He would cook me whatever I wanted which was usually pancakes with a light dusting of powdered sugar. (It wasn’t until I returned to the US that I learned about syrup on pancakes).
Later on we would set out for the street markets where he would shout and haggle, smell and sniff with a great flourish and style, the fruits and vegetables and finally choose only the best shrimp or pork for the meals he would prepare.
These tasty delights he would carry home on his shoulders in a contraption I’d never seen. It was a bar with two rattan baskets hanging from the ends, perched just so as if he was wearing it. Most of what I liked about being with him was looking through his eyes at all I saw . . . sharing whispers that were funny, but we’d soon forget. Surely in my little girl heart it was as though we would never part and though I’ll never capture what he meant to me in pen, I’m going to hope for the best.
One day while watching Mr Loo cook I took great note of the fact that he could drink the water out of the sink. Oh indeed I was astounded ! Mr Loo was definitely enchanted!
Dad had recently purloined a radio from a helicopter and gave it to Mr Loo who began to spend his evenings in his room listening to the Communist broadcasts, hoping to hear news of his son. Sometimes I would try to come in and listen too, shooing me out of the room, he was afraid that if he was caught listening to these broadcasts, they would throw him in jail.
Standing rejected at the door one night I made a point of telling Dad about my amazing conclusion about Mr Loo and his immunity to the poison water! Threatened with losing his daughter’s undying affections Dad rushed to the bathroom, seized his toothbrush and returned to the kitchen.
He thrust it victoriously under the running water in the sink and furiously brushed his teeth until his mouth foamed bubbling proudly that he too was able to fearlessly face the death by tummy ache!
Because there was a variety of cultures Mr Loo spoke primarily Mandarin and this is the language my father says I spoke though I only recall a few phrases. Mr Loo’s most frequently used phrase around me was, “Oh no Missy, please don’t do!”
When I heard that I knew I was doing something terribly wrong. One day I had decided that the little keys that came attached to the tin cans to open them was a magical key that opened walls from the electrical outlets where all sorts of wonderful people lived in my imagination.
It was fortunate for me that we were on alternating current by that time, but I did hear him yell just before the terrific shock. Watching the clothes tumble merrily around in the dryer window one boring day, it occurred to me that this might be a lot of fun for my younger sister to experience. Luckily she was too heavy for the drum to turn but it did cause the fuse to burn out and a great deal of smoke which brought Mr Loo to our rescue declaring, “Oh no Missy, please don’t do!”
Time for Kindergarten and I was sent to a Catholic School. Preparations began for the Sacrament of First Communion and the girls who were to be the Bride of Christ, wore the most beautiful pink dresses with lacy shawls, I had ever seen. I was unaware that I was Methodist and not Catholic and arrived at the breakfast table one morning dress in my own pink jumper. After some constarnation from Mr. Loo I was dispatched to my room to put on my uniform. Carefully folding my jumper into three folds and then rolling it military style like I had watched Dad, I snuck the jumper into the metal lunch box I carried to school.
It wasn’t long before I was sitting in the church pew biting back tears feeling terribly left out during Communion. A few days later still angry about the whole matter I thought to myself , rather than waiting for the peddy cab to show up and take me home I would ride the bus like everyone else.
It wasn’t long before I realized that in my stubbornness I had made a terrible mistake and I was hopelessly lost on a city bus. I saw a man I knew was a religious, whether he was Buddhist, Priest, or a Shinto I’ll never know. He reminded me of Mr. Loo and that was more than good enough for me.
I meekly joined this stranger while I waited for someone to find me. Meanwhile back at home the peddy cab had arrived without me and the driver, who the more excited he became the faster he talked, surmised that Missy, had been kidnapped by someone in the Chinese Government as some kind of plot against the spying US Government!
I have no idea how fast that message was relayed to Washington DC, but half of the US Air Force was out searching for me and it was Dad who found me waiting on the steps of the shrine—temple—church The only picture I have of Mr Loo is of him standing proudly behind me in my pretty pink ‘Communion Dress.’ He had seen my intangible wish and made it a cornerstone of reality.
A hero is a man who does what he can and his greatest power was his simple patience with me.
Mr Loo always wore Khaki trousers and a crisp white dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves. He always smelled of fresh ginger and garlic and whatever he thought I would feel. I watched one day as he drew beautiful pictures on paper. I asked him what he was drawing and setting me on his knee, he explained he was writing letters to whoever he could think of about his son.
His son had been drafted into the Army when he was only fifteen and that was Mr Loo’s reason for coming to Taiwan—to find his son and get him released from the Army.
Indignant that Mr Loo was suffering so, I marched through the kitchen, reached up on the counter, grabbed a spoon and banged out the back door. He watched me digging furiously for a while through the window then opened the door and asked me what I was doing.
“Why Daddy says,” I sobbed, “if I dig a hole right through the earth there will be China and your son can come home!”
With a grateful bow he shut the screen door and left me to my futile task.
I don’t know if Mr Loo was ever united with his son and my father can find no records of Mr Loo’s full name.
Who else but I could have understood the words he used, his sense of humor, each of these things I know and cherish as if they were my own. Who knew him as well as I did? And who could have loved him as I did? It is said, ‘Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Others stay for awhile, and we’re never the same.
Maryanne Radmacher-Hershey wrote, “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”
There I learned that the greatest treasures are not those visible to the eye but found by the heart.
And even though Mr. Loo and I shall never be again as we were, it was enough.