A riotous tale of Blue's childhood as the son of a gentleman spy named Skipper. When the Company and his wife give him trouble, Skipper packs his kids and the dog into a car and disappears. He's 62, the kids aren't even teenagers, and the family is leaving from Beirut, Lebanon in 1970. This story is about families and the lies that keep them together and the truths that break them apart. Skipper navigates a kidnapping and a search by the CIA to end up in Spain's Costa del Sol, surrounded by gangsters and drunks. He sets in motion a way of being that will keep Blue forever looking for exits. Escape is always possible, teaches Skipper, as long as you don't get too stuck wherever you are.
A Very Small Part of a Long Story about my Father
He was bitten three times by rattlesnakes, including once when he went to pick up a baseball in the outfield. “Back then, kids, the baseball diamond was next to the town hall, and leftfield was in the swamps.” He didn’t walk a million miles to school; he had to sail a small skiff across the bay every morning instead. He was adopted when his parents died and that’s why my middle name was “Foster,” a tribute to his own foster parents, and why my sister has four names including “Orr” from the family that adopted him.
One day in the woods, he found two lost hunters, soaked and bedraggled, and took them home to a hot meal made by his foster mother. The grateful men left business cards, and took the train to New York. “Frank should give us a call whenever he leaves the woods to come to the big city,” said one of the men according to Skipper, who did leave the big woods when he graduated from university in Gainesville. And the first thing he did was go to see Mr. Lane, one of the wet and tired men he’d rescued in the forest and brought home to coffee and fireplace. “Well, Frank, I’m going into business with my pal Bryant to make ladies undergarments and I don’t think that’s exciting enough for a young man like you, so why don’t you call Winterbottom and let’s see if he’ll get you a job,” said Mr. Lane, whose company would become the ladies’ undergarment giant Lane-Bryant. Mr. Winterbottom, the other lost hunter Skipper rescued, did get him a job, and Frank during the great economic crash of 1929 found himself making fine cash as a teletype operator at night while he attended Columbia University. “A lot of people lost their money, all of their money, kids, until they didn’t have a dime in their pockets, but I was sending telegrams all around the world, mostly with bad news, so I was pretty well off and feeling pretty good about the future when my entire life changed in one elevator ride.”
Skipper was living at the International House on Riverside Drive and paying for his rent at that famous center for well-off students by manning the elevator once or twice a week. Mr. Winterbottom walked in one night, muttering to himself, stressed. Skipper re-introduced himself as the boy who’d found Winterbottom and Lane lost in the woods and almost late for their train.
“What in the devil’s name are you doing running this elevator?” asked Winterbottom.
“Making a little extra money and paying the rent if I’m not sending telegrams about the end of the world or teaching dancing at night.”
“Are you a good dancer?”
“I teach at a studio a pal of mine set up. His name is Arthur Murray, you might have seen the sign –”
“You’re a dancing teacher too? How about that. Can you play this golf thing, too?”
“Well, Sir, I was the Southeastern Conference champion two years in a row for the University of Florida.”
“Stop this elevator,” demanded Winterbottom, and the cage lurched to a stop under Skipper’s command.
“You play tennis, too?”
“Yes, Sir, I was also the Southeastern Conference champion for –”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Winterbottom. “I’ve just come back from Japan. Do you know anything about Japan?”
“Well, Sir, I know the capital is Tokyo –”
“What’s your name, Son?”
“John Francis Harris.” Skipper could tell that the name didn’t hit Winterbottom quite right, and guessed correctly that there should be a more firmly heroic handle to attach to a dancer who played championship golf and tennis and was champing at the bit to charge into his future, so Skipper firmly added, “But I go by Frank.”
“Well, Frank, those Japanese need somebody to represent us in Japan, because we’re putting in a cable so we can talk directly to them, and they warned me that I’d better send somebody over who was a good dancer and good golfer and good tennis player because they value social acumen more than they do a nose for business. So Frank Harris, I’m transferring you to Japan, effective tomorrow. You do work for me, don’t you?”
“Yes Sir, teletype operator –”
“You’re transferred to Japan, Frank. See my secretary in the morning, first thing.” Winterbottom stuck out his hand and while Skipper was still shaking it Winterbottom said: "Sixth floor, Frank.”
The next day Winterbottom’s secretary gave him a letter of credit for five thousand dollars as well as a train ticket to San Francisco, where he would embark by oceanliner to Japan. At 23 years old, Frank Harris was Radio Corporation of America’s representative in Japan. Dancer, golfer, tennis player, he soon parlayed his teenage skills with boats (he sailed to school each day, remember) into races in Yokohama and a membership in the yacht clubs. He learned Japanese and he learned the Japanese people; and undoubtedly the story I have just related about a hick’s rise from the woods was his introduction as much as any business card. As he whipped everyone in golf and tennis and boating, or seduced them with his resemblance to Fred Astaire on the dance floor, the story of his emergence from the swamps of Florida was the perfect American profile. Throw in good taste in haberdashery and cuisine and an incandescent, constant smile, and you have the makings of Skipper’s future. But the galvanizing agent was his willingness to mimic your concerns.
There is more to relate in his meteoric self-creation, in this same style as I have just done from Florida to Japan, but I offer this tiny proof from my own childhood to show his talent for fitting in. Millions of things about him embarrassed me on a daily basis, his fantastic extroversion and bushy eyebrows and whistling walk, his willingness to stop anywhere and engage in conversation, etc., the running out of gas on small Turkish roads, etc. But nothing galled me more than seeing him in public wearing flips flops and white socks, with the socks pulled tight around the big toe as the V of the flip flops wedged into his toes. White crew socks past the ankle, spotless, crammed into flip flops, in a style he’d picked up in Yokohama or Hong Kong. You didn’t make fun of Skipper unless he made fun of himself first, but somewhere he cottoned onto my dislike about the flip flops and white socks and challenged me: “You think this looks silly? Millions of Japanese dress like this every day. You going to call millions of Japanese silly? Well, you go right ahead and do that, and see where it gets you, Bub.” He never abandoned the combination, and I would find myself in my teenage years looking at him from the knee upwards, avoiding eye contact with the bizarre footwear, pretending his feet didn’t exist.
And then he acquired a wife, a socialite named Pego, who gave him two girls, Jyl and Lyn, of whom he created the moniker for the yacht that later dominated the Hong Kong harbor, the Pegylyn. But Lyn was hardly born before the Japanese raided Shanghai and rounded up the Americans as war choked the world. “I was in a hospital getting my appendix out when the Navy boys came in and asked if they could give me a ride out before the enemy showed up, but here you can see the scar from that appendix operation –” and like LBJ in front of the national news media he would pull up his shirt and show my softball team his long white scar “— and that’s why we always have boys from the Navy at our house in Thanksgiving because I was grateful to them checking up on me, but you know, kids, I knew if I stayed in that hospital things would be interesting.” So four years in a concentration camp eating fish heads and fish tails followed, leading to his pearly teeth so straight and sharp today, and the most important thing he did in the prisoner of war camp was direct the doors to be removed from the toilets because of the long lines at the john that demoralized the prisoners: “You make a man do his number two in public and you’ll be surprised how quickly he does it, instead of sitting in there like he’s in a library,” said Skipper, and here of course there would be a dozen pointed questions from the softballers about bathrooms without doors, all happily answered by Skipper, topics of conversation that simply seemed secret in the safety of 1967. But there was more: Skipper and Pego and Jyl and Lyn raised dogs, alsations and poodles, that won awards and were used for breeding for the best families, and there were the dolphins jumping into the Pegylyn and revolutions in Pakistan and India and somewhere along the way Skipper became a scout for Hilton Hotels and buzzed between Asian cities advising where to put the world’s best hotels, paying bribes when needed and telling his detailed stories to the CIA whenever they called his office to ask if he’d noticed anything in his travels.
And here the yarn would fade into mystery. He would shed no more light, but even in the disguises the bulges of his secrets showed. Skipper was more than the tall tales he told.
He was a hatchet man, a string-puller and cleaner, a natty social butterfly whose orders were as heavy as any demand from a mob boss. But this did not feature in his tales to the softball team. He did not say what brought him to Karachi, Pakistan, or to Greece and Portugal, into the company of killers disguised as dictators or kings. He never really explained what attracted him to the young secretary with the lovely bosom typing 183 words per minute at the American embassy in Karachi, and he never admitted the pain Pego and Jyl and Lyn might be put through if he suddenly abandoned the family he was always destined to create, a proof that something concrete would come from his teenage dreams to escape the swamps and become somebody substantial, somebody who might glow long into the future rather than be dimmed by the shadows of his swampy past.
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This is an extremely short section of a book called "Skipper" that is now about 20% complete. I will have a new audio version ready soon and will get it to everyone who listened to the first version of 3 chapters. The new version is more than twice as long. Thanks for all the encouragements!
This picture was taken by a newspaperman when Skipper arrived in NYC after his internment in POW camps. Date of the photo is December 1, 1943. Skipper is the dapper fellow on the left.