Well. Just when you think you've got it all pegged, you take your second-grader to interview your father about his childhood and realize you don't know squat.
My dad tells a lot of stories about his very long and interesting life. Some are true, some are probably not, and most are a little of both, I suspect. I've heard them all--or so I thought. Tonight I heard some new ones. Or old ones. Depends on how you look at it.
My dad was born and raised in an Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He was born in 1927 and immigrated to the U.S., alone and penniless, in 1947, just before his country disappeared in the 1948 war that resulted in the birth of the nation of Israel. During his childhood, Palestine was a British protectorate, and Jerusalem was a cultural, religious, and strategic crossroads. His father was a police officer. They lived in a stone house without indoor plumbing, next to the Valley of the Hyenas (called that for good reason, and the source of a whole lot of truly hair-raising stories all by itself). There was a mud brick oven in the front yard and an outhouse around the side. Lest you think any of this is exaggerated, I saw the house myself, first in 1976, when his parents were still living there, and again in 1990, when I was working in Israel. I even used the outhouse. There was still no indoor plumbing in 1976--or 1990.
If you have ever been to Jerusalem, or know much about it, you know that it is unique, in that it is one city, divided into several sections, each with its own language, culture, and religion. The first school my father ever went to was a Rabbinical school for Jewish boys. He learned to read and write Hebrew and studied the Torah. He was the only Arab boy, and the target of ridicule and name-calling, until one of the Jewish boys stood up for him and refused to allow him to be bullied. They became fast friends. The boy's name was Ezer Weisman, and he grew up to be the president of Israel. In 1976, when my parents took us to visit our grandparents for the first and last time, Israeli security refused us entry into the country, until my father suggested that the security chief call Mr. Weisman (who I think was then Defense Minister for Israel). And--talk about a small country--the security chief did. He returned a short while later, very apologetic, to inform us that Mr. Weisman was ill and could not come to meet us, but that he sent his regards, and then we were escorted to a limo and driven to our hotel. True story. I was there, and I remember.
My father left the Rabbinical school when his father was transfered to another town. The reason he was transfered is a story in itself. At that time, the British Authority had decided that too many Jews were immigrating to Palestine and ordered the police to arrest any Jewish immigrants and deport them. One evening, my grandfather was on patrol near the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. He saw a young couple swim from a Greek ship offshore a few hundred yards to the shore. They were Jewish immigrants trying to sneak into the country. They were very young, and scared, and they had nothing except the wet clothes they were wearing. Instead of arresting them, my grandfather took them home with him. My grandparents fed them and gave them dry clothes (my grandmother's spare dress and my grandfather's spare suit) and sent them to bed. In the morning, my father, who was eight years old, and my grandfather took them on horseback to the local Jewish organization that helped new arrivals. But my grandfather was spotted by another police officer, who reported him. He was demoted two ranks and sent to another village.
My father then attended a French Jesuit school. He learned to read and write French and studied the Bible. He became a devotee of Jules Verne and told everyone who would listen that humans would reach the moon in his lifetime. They all laughed at him. He didn't get to stay there long, though. His grandmother discovered that, while he was fluent in Hebrew and French, he had never learned to read or write Arabic, his native language. And so he was sent to an Arabic school, where he learned to read and write Arabic and studied the Koran. Along the way, he learned also English (he doesn't remember where or how) and spent a lot of time with an old Oxford professor who admired his intellect and encouraged him to consider leaving Palestine to seek an education and a better life.
One night in 1946, Jewish Zionists (they were the terrorists back then) blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British military command and part of the British government of Palestine. My father was living less than two miles away and saw the explosion from the front yard. 91 people were killed--including many wealthy American Jews, which is ironic. The police were sent out to round up those responsible, among them a young Jewish Zionist named Menachem Begin. My grandfather was alone when he found Begin, hiding behind a pile of rocks. He was small and pathetic-looking, and my grandfather, who had his gun trained on Begin, could not bring himself to pull the trigger. As his fellow officers approached, my grandfather looked at Begin and said quietly, "Run." Whether my grandfather made the right decision depends entirely on your political position. His superiors, however, were most displeased, and he was once again demoted, this time to act as the police department's blacksmith, shoeing horses. Begin ran off and went on to help found the State of Israel, and later to serve as Prime Minister.
My father decided there was no future for him in Palestine. He left in 1947, alone, with no money, on a leaky boat that nearly sank off the shores of New York. My father, who never learned to swim, was petrified. To this day, he hates boats. He made his way to California, eventually earning both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in engineering from UC Berkeley and USC. He was granted U.S. citizenship through an act of Congress, and shortly thereafter was drafted and sent to serve overseas during the Korean war. He went on to work in nuclear weapons development; it's hard to sort out the truth about his role, since much of it is classified, but from what he has told me, he was pretty deeply involved.
Eventually, he met and married my mother and settled in San Diego, where he became a successful real estate investor. He raised five children. His parents went on living in the little stone house in Abu Dis with no plumbing and no phone until their deaths in the 1980's. (My grandfather came to visit once. It was the only time he ever left Jerusalem. He was 72 years old, and when the plane landed, he knelt in his long white robes and kissed the ground. But he was a courageous man. He tried everything he was offered and kissed everyone who came through the door. He couldn't tell me any stories, though; he didn't speak English, and I don't speak Arabic.) My father lives in a lovely house in La Jolla, complete with indoor plumbing, and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He wears jeans and polo shirts and sneakers. He turned 80 in August. He won't be around to tell his stories to my grandchildren. I guess I'll have to do it for him.