Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cairo Coincidence

My mother's father was a pacifist, opposed to violence.

But somehow, during World War II, he ended up in the US Navy. Was it the spirit of the time that moved him? Patriotism? Or perhaps a need to prove himself, having married my grandmother, whose father was a prominent navy captain who had been decorated—and run Guam—during World War I?

My great aunt might know, but the rest of my family can only hazard guesses. After all, none of us were born yet.

My grandfather died in 2000—right after I returned from my first trip to Southeast Asia, and my mother, aunt, uncle and I conceived and planned MariesWorldTour that same night. In the months after, my grandmother opened up and told stories about my grandpa all the time. Stories we'd never heard before, and one we'd heard often enough.

During World War II, my grandfather had enlisted and been sent overseas. He couldn't say where. He had a desk job, suitable for someone with his University of Chicago degree.

He'd ended up in Cairo. And coincidentally, he'd run into my great grandfather there, who had also been confidentially sent to Cairo.

I have no visual in my head of where they would have lived, or of what naval offices would have looked like then. My only frame of reference is the British officers club in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.

I'd walk among the crumbling mansions of Zamalek last year, looking up at the sand-stained walls, and wonder. Did they meet there? In that art deco lobby? Or in the square square building with the roll-down awnings over each window? Or maybe in one of the grand Victorians, now mostly embassies?

Parts of Zamalek are shaded. Some of it even has unbroken sidewalks. "You can always walk on sidewalks by embassies," the real estate agent had told me early on. "The embassies maintain their sidewalks."

But maybe Zamalek had no embassies back then, no officers' headquarters. Maybe I was in the totally wrong part of town, and the only time the meeting of my ancestors occurred in Zamalek was now, in my imagination, easily stirred by the once-grand, decaying architecture around me.


Anonymous said...

I do know a little more about how Marie's grandfather (my father) wound up in the US Navy. John wasn't actually a Quaker -- he grew up a Methodist, very active in Methodist Youth activities (on their first date, he took Eleanor to the Epworth League.) But, he was a pacifist.
However, once the Americans entered the war and the push to militarize quickly was underway, the draft was breathing down his neck. It was clear that even with a wife and son, he would soon be drafted. Apparently, his mother Leora thought he should file as a conscientious objector, but he and Eleanor were concerned that he couldn't make it stick. And as Eleanor (my mom) said to me when she told me the story, Hitler was so clearly evil, and the stories and rumors coming out of Europe were so awful, it was hard to make a case to refuse to fight. So, John enlisted in the Navy, and was surprised that they made him an officer (but, he had a college education, and they desperately needed officers.)
John's father-in-law, a Naval reserve officer, was by then a Captain, with the big office. When he arrived in Cairo, John heard someone mention Capt. Hammer, and wondered, "Could it possibly be my father-in-law?" So, he hunted down Capt. Hammer's office, found the door open and walked in.
"My God, it's John!!" was the welcome he got from his father-in-law, which became a tag-line, repeated whenever my grandfather greeted my father.
None of which helps you figure out where in Cairo the US Navy was quartered, but writing this and keeping the family story alive was a more satisfying use of 15 minutes than actually doing my job while I'm at work ;-)

Marc Siry said...

Great post & reply! This sort of stuff fascinates me... the way the story of a family is molded by history.

Marie Javins said...

I think it might be part of this valentine to Cairo that I want to write in response to that Egypt book I read.

But it's going to take a while to get it right. And then I'm not sure what to do with it. Maybe I can work on it in that writing class I am warily enrolled in.