International adventures: FIFTH and SIXTH GRADE

What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy

Cultures, physiology, industry

As my parents made plans for their long-awaited furlough, they also had to think about the new school year. They hesitated, until all the slots were filled at the German school I had hoped to attend, and all that was left was the public school which at that time was still gender-segregated. It was strange to be going to an all-girls school, but being only 11, I didn’t mind. There were some strange practices, such as the teacher checking the girls’ underwear every Monday. I’m not sure if this was a matter of hygiene or to verify their sexual maturity. In any case, where all the other girls were called up to her desk and expected to raise their skirts in front of the teacher, she never called on me, for which I was glad. It seemed so very undignified.

During recess the girls played dodge-ball. I was never good with a ball (or any sports, for that matter). I couldn’t throw straight and I couldn’t catch. But I was skinny, which made me a difficult target, and I had a better than average spatial sense and was fairly good at anticipating human reactions, so I became good at this one game. So that, and a song one of the girls sang for us during a talent hour, was all that I recall learning in the fifth grade. Two months later we were finally on our way to the United States and I was very excited!

This was going to be a long trip with several stopovers having to do with Dad’s responsibilities. I was never sure if Dad’s real motive was his desire to preach in all those places, or the need to economize by taking a cheaper airline (puddle-jumpers, we called them), or maybe it was his great love for adventure and exploration. Wherever we went, he always hurried around to see as many sights as possible within the confines of his duties and finances. I doubt that he ever considered the long-term effect of all this, but for me it was a wonderful education.

Our first destination was Buenos Aires, Argentina, and as we boarded the plane in Santiago, I was filled with excitement and the anticipation of getting to know a new country. I also looked forward to seeing my one remaining grandma at the end of the trip. But once we were airborne, the butterflies in my stomach began to settle into my lower abdomen and I began experiencing painful cramps of an unknown origin that gradually became the focus of my attention. I didn’t think it was motion sickness, as my parents suggested, because even in the Golfo de Penas a couple of years earlier I had kept my breakfast down.

Finally we landed in Argentina, collected our baggage and boarded a taxi to the downtown area. That’s when Dad discovered that the hotel where he had made reservations was at the other end of a pedestrians-only street, so we had to carry our bags and walk for several blocks. By the time we reached the hotel I had a pretty good idea of what was wrong with me. After a quick check in the bathroom, I proudly announced that I had become a woman—I was having my first period! But when told that I could NOT go swimming in famous Copacabana Beach at our next stop in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I was not so happy to have left my childhood behind.

While in Buenos Aires, we went on a tour of the Publishing House where many of the church’s books and magazines are printed. In those days it was still done by linotype and the binding was done by hand. What really caught my interest was the souvenir I was given—a tiny piece of lead type about ¼ inch square engraved with the Lord’s Prayer. You needed a magnifying glass to read it!

Foreign language, earth sciences

In Rio de Janeiro we stayed at the church-run hospital (guest room) and ate at the cafeteria. But someone also took us to see the huge statue of Christ, and we rode the sky gondola across the bay to Sugarloaf Mountain. Of course, listening to Portuguese was a new experience but being similar to Spanish, I could usually understand some of what was said. I noticed that every afternoon, right about the time the heat and humidity became unbearable, almost like clockwork there would be a thunderstorm and heavy rain. It seemed to last about 40 minutes and then, as if turning off a faucet, it would stop and leave everyone cooler and much relieved.

Our next stop was Belén, a bustling city on the shores of the Amazon River where it reaches the Atlantic, and also straddles the Equator. Even though we arrived after dark, it was unbearably hot and humid. As soon as we alighted from the plane, we wanted to hurry back on—but our seats had already been sold. Anyway, Dad was scheduled to preach the next morning. I noticed that the church’s walls did not reach the roof but were open so that a slight breeze could blow through, along with birds, bugs and lizards.

When church was finally over (I felt that I had melted into a miserable puddle on the wooden bench), we headed back to the house where we were staying. The doors and windows were closed and heavy quilts hung at the windows to keep out the sun, but they also kept out any fresh air that might have brought relief. As we miserably tried to take a nap after lunch, the phone rang and then Dad announced that seats were available on the flight out that evening (our tickets were for Monday). So would we like to switch to the Saturday evening flight? Would we! What a relief! I’ve been in Panama more than once, and to Cuba and Trinidad, and other places in Central and South America but I have never experienced such awful heat as we did that day in Belén, Brazil.

After a short stop in Trinidad for refueling, we landed at last in Miami. The first thing that caught my attention as we entered the airport terminal, was the gumball machines, some of which had little plastic balls with tiny treasures inside. Mom had given me a few U.S. coins before we left home, so now I fished one out of my pocket and inserted it in the vending machine. I still have the little whistle that came out, safely preserved in my treasure box of tiny things. But I was in for many more surprises.

Technology, sociology, and patience

When the taxi dropped us off at our hotel, I dutifully grabbed a couple of suitcases to haul up to our room. But as I walked across the hotel lobby, I heard what sounded like a radio playing. I glanced over at the lounge and saw for the first time … a TV! The program was “I Love Lucy”! Enthralled, I stopped where I was and stared. Not till the program ended did I realize that Dad had finished hauling up the suitcases and then returned to see for himself that magical box. Indeed, much had changed since 1947 when we had left the United States for Chile.

After a few days of shopping for a used car, we headed west across the southern states, all the way to California, arriving just in time to celebrate Grandma’s birthday. Soon we met aunts and uncles and of course cousins, some of which were close to my age. A couple of weeks later, I turned 12 and Grandma gave me what I wanted most, my first wrist watch. After a few weeks of rest and a trip to Disneyland which had opened just the week before, we started our “returning missionary” trip. That meant taking in all the church camp meetings where Dad could give his report and Mom could put on her Mapuche Indian costume. The itinerary started in northern California, then to Oregon, eastern Washington, and then east through several more states. Now and then we would take a day or two to visit other relatives along the way. Invariably, they would say “I remember when you were just this tall.” Sure, when I was four, but now I was 12 and looked 20 (according to Dad), and then without fail, Dad would announce that I would wash the dishes after dinner. I hated it, but at least I could escape all the adult talk and the “remember when’s”.

Grandma accompanied us on the West Coast part of the trip. But her “cute little four-year-old” had turned into a sulking pre-teen which she no longer cared for, so she sat between my sister and me in the back seat of the car to keep us from fighting. Finally, she took the bus back home and we headed East. Now Dad no longer stopped at motels, but simply pulled off the road and he and I slept on the grass in our sleeping bags, while Mom, sister and baby slept in the car. It was summer after all, and though Rest Areas hadn’t been invented yet, neither were we worried about highway crimes we hear about now. But I remember one moment of panic while we were still in California. One of the first real freeways was built around San Francisco, and Dad was having trouble negotiating the clover-leaf. Around and around we went, as he studied the best way to make an exit into Oakland. Frankly, it was scary!

Choir, lunch, boys

Our goal was Washington DC, where Dad planned to take a quarter of post-graduate work at the Seminary. For the only time in my life, we lived in a 2nd floor walk-up apartment, and I was enrolled in the large church school for sixth grade. The fact that the classes were all in English was no problem. In fact, I found them to be much easier than expected, considering I’d had only two months of fifth and school had always been in Spanish. Filling in workbooks, learning ten spelling words (which I could read once before the test and get 100%), and the longer recesses made me think that education here was a farce. Even in art class, the teacher handed out preformed simple ceramic objects and all we had to do was choose one, paint it, and then hand it back in to be baked. But we never saw the kiln nor the other coats of shellac or whatever it was that they acquired. Even though I chose the most ornate one I could find, the little chest that was handed back made me feel cheated. I would have rather learned something!

Soon I was incorporated into the school choir and we learned a beautiful anthem to perform at the largest church I had ever been in. I noticed that many of the girls my age dressed up in fancy clothes and high heels for church, so I asked for some “heels”. But I quit wearing them after returning to Chile, where everyone was much shorter than I. When Mother’s birthday rolled around, I wanted to bake her a cake. I asked the neighbor lady downstairs if she could help me, but she said to just buy a mix and the instructions would be on the box. So that is what I did. Everything was so easy, here!

Another new experience was carrying a lunch to school. At home in South America, schools let out for two hours at noon and everybody went home for hot lunch and a “siesta”. Here, we had sandwiches and juice. Then we played on the cement playground until time to resume classes. When my cousin had asked if I had a boyfriend, I had answered with a disgusted “no”. But now I began to look at the boys in a new light. Most, in my class, were beneath me. But there was one quiet young fellow who seemed interesting. He sat near me and sometimes helped me when I didn’t understand some of the material. Just something to think about.

When Dad’s course was finished, we headed west again to spend the holidays in California. One of the relatives had rented a mountain resort and we had a grand family reunion. But guess who got to wash up all the dishes for the weekend…. At least my cousin offered to dry them. And I whispered to her that I had a friend who was a boy. She seemed much relieved to hear that I wasn’t such a “square” after all.

Central America, youth camp, botany

Our return to the mission field was fast approaching. Dad had sold our car and our piano to help pay for the trip north. Now, an uncle had donated a nice big Chevy carryall, forerunner to the van. It had several more seats than a car and could accommodate the little folding organ that Grandma donated. Then we went to one last camp meeting at which Dad bought a magnetic tape recorder! I could hardly wait to try it out. Once we were back home and had moved into our new house, I found a daily classical music program on the radio and began recording everything. Then I would listen to the tapes over and over again. To this day, there are pieces of music that I expect to be interrupted–when the tape ran out.

When we flew out of L.A. airport, our first stop was Mexico City. I think Dad had some meetings there, and our hosts took us to see Mount Popocatépetl (this was before it became dangerously active), the pyramid at Teotihuacán, and other ancient places. We also went to experience the “floating city” sector of Mexico, where if you jump in the street, you can feel the ground vibrate underfoot. From there we flew south stopping at airports in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, before landing in Panamá for the weekend. It was hot there, and we had to sleep under mosquito nets, but after Dad’s sermon we were taken to see the famous canal and watched a ship going through the locks. Then it was off to Colombia and Ecuador, where we had a couple of hours’ wait and could purchase a few souvenirs. Then on to Lima, Peru, and back home to Chile.

Ah, yes. This time the airline presented me with a certificate honoring the fact that I had crossed over the Equator! So, even though we had left a wintery January in California, we had arrived to balmy days of summer and I was sent off to summer camp near Villarrica. I was impressed when one of the camp counselors took us on a hike in which he named every single plant along the way. Ever after that, I have tried to learn the names of wild flowers, fern and mushrooms that I come across. On another hike, a blond, blue-eyed young camper caught up with me. He helped me through fences and up hills, and before the hike was over he had proposed marriage to me. I suspect he was 17, but I was only 13 so I told him I didn’t plan to marry a Chilean. However, that was one promise that eventually I failed to keep.