What I Learned by Kathleen McCurdy

Independence, changes, romance

It was early January of 1959 when I boarded the plane in Santiago, leaving Chile and my childhood behind. I was 15 ½ years old and felt pretty mature and ready, I thought, for whatever life had in store for me. When the plane landed in Los Angeles the next day, my aunt and uncle were waiting, and first thing on their agenda was to buy me new clothes. I didn’t realize how different I looked to them, but what girl doesn’t love shopping! Then it was time to head off to the boarding academy I had chosen. It was near San Diego, and close enough to Mexico that I calculated there might be some Spanish-speaking students on campus. I was assigned to room with a girl much larger than me (I was usually the tallest girl on campus in Chile). She was a little nervous having to room with a PK (preacher’s kid), but did her best to help me adjust and fit in. I soon made friends with several Spanish girls—only to find out they weren’t allowed to speak Spanish, except in their rooms. The girls’ dean said it was because they were there to learn English, but I thought this was discriminatory. No one had forbidden me to speak English in Chile!

Since this was second semester, the student body already knew each other and I was the obvious new kid. Apparently they found me very different, if not downright strange. According to some, I even had a Spanish accent. Most had never heard of Chile and knew nothing about it. “Is it real chilly in Chile?” was a common question. There were so many things to learn: How to go through line at the cafeteria, for instance. In Chile we were assigned to and served at table, and we ate what was set before us. Here, everything involved a choice: what to eat, where to sit, who to talk to. Other than my roommate, I didn’t know anyone so I sat wherever there was a place and tried to make friends. One day, the boys at the table I chose started acting strange. They would say some words I’d never heard before, and couldn’t understand. Then they would look at each other and giggle. I suspected they were talking dirty, so I picked up my tray and moved to another table. Those boys’ faces turned red, and thereafter they gave me a wide berth.

The Academy had accepted me, but getting enrolled was another matter. The staff wanted me to start with the ninth grade, and refused to accept my Chilean credits. They also thought I would need to take some extra English classes, but I was able to convince them to give me a test for grades 9th, 10th and 11th which I passed without a problem. So I enrolled in U.S. government, religion, and English IV, which consisted of Speech and Journalism. I also joined the choir and took piano and violin lessons. I was given the job of helping in the kitchen, mainly buttering the toast for 200 students, but by the end of the schoolyear I was the breakfast cook. The speech and journalism class put on a play and I was given the part of an old maid aunt who wanted to accompany her niece and boyfriend as they tried to elope. People said I played the part very well, but I’m not sure it was a compliment. At one point in the story I had lost my “false teeth” and had to talk as if I didn’t have any….

During the summer months I stayed on, working in the kitchen and spent the rest of my time seriously practicing the piano. My roommate had spoken highly of a young man working near her in the school bookbindery, and thought I should meet him. Before school let out, we had become acquainted and discovered we had a lot in common. He played trombone in the band and sang in the choir. And he composed music which he liked to have me play. He understood Spanish, having grown up right across the line from Mexico. He was a little older than the other students and was of a serious bent. Though shy, he managed to find the courage to invite me to the junior-senior banquet and we became an item. He also was working off his tuition during the summer months, but he worked the night shift at the bindery, so we only saw each other on weekends.

Shorthand, physics, and beating the system

US education seemed pretty easy, compared to what I’d had before. So I decided to wrap it up and go on to college. I took shorthand partly because I thought it would be useful for taking notes in college, and partly because of my interest in codes and alphabets. But it mainly served to let me know I would never be a secretary. I did receive a passing grade, and could now decipher my mother’s shorthand addendums to her letters. But my college notes would all be in longhand.

I had always been interested in physics but had avoided taking algebra, so they sent me to talk to the teacher. He didn’t see how I could take physics without having studied algebra, but I explained that I wasn’t here for the grade or the credit; I just wanted to learn all I could about physics. He had been a classmate of my dad’s and maybe felt sorry for this poor young MK (missionary’s kid); anyway, he let me take the class. Most all of the quizzes dealt with formulas and higher math, so I failed them of course. But I understood the material presented in the class, and got an A+ in lab work, so in the end he gave me a D for the year and I was happy.

Besides piano, violin and choir, I played the cello in the school orchestra, sang in the special choir, and added organ lessons to my busy schedule. My boyfriend was now a Senior, and so were most of my friends. But without the “proper” credits, I was in limbo. When the college recruiters came around, I went to talk to one. It turned out that he had gone to school with my dad, and wanted to help me. I explained my situation and he said he had a solution. “Go ahead and fill out the enrollment form and give it to me,” he said. “I will give it provisory acceptance. Then, when you get to the college next fall, come to my office and I’ll give you the GED exam. Even if you don’t pass, you can still enroll in our preparatory school.” I was overjoyed! I’d been accepted into college!

More music and reading, travels, compassion

I really got serious with my studies of music now, and started calling myself a senior. I even tried my hand at composing. I wrote a piece I called a Rhapsody for the piano, which won me second place in the school amateur hour that year (first place went to a faculty kid). I had been collecting phonograph records of the classics for some time. Now I began to collect piano music by the best composers, and learning to play as much of it as I could.

During all this time I never gave up on reading, and continued to frequent the school library. Biographies were my favorite books: Benjamin Franklin, Louisa Mae Alcott, Thomas Edison, and one that made a strong impression on me, Madame Currie. I also read books on healthful living. My boyfriend was a vegan I learned, when during the summer I had prepared his midnight lunches. I was a lifelong vegetarian, but had never heard of veganism. Naturally, I became interested in learning how to cook without using milk and eggs, as well as other healthful habits. At first I hated soy milk, but gradually became accustomed to it. Later, my children were raised this way.

Just before the school year ended, my father sent me the money to buy a ticket to visit northern Argentina where my parents now lived. I had to plan my trip, purchase the tickets, also buy a list of things they needed me to bring, pack it all, and so forth. Being responsible for a thousand dollars was pretty heady stuff for a sixteen-year-old! I really wanted to go via Chile, but Dad said no. This was June of 1960, just a few weeks after the mega earthquake—the largest ever recorded—and there were still aftershocks. So my flight plan was from Los Angeles to Caracas, Venezuela, and on to Asuncion, Paraguay, where my folks would meet me.

Ah, but there was a short stop in Cuba, and this was right after the Castro revolution and the Communist take-over. I thought: This is my only chance to set foot in Cuba! So I got off the plane and hurried into the terminal, hoping to find a souvenir or at least a postcard. But it was late in the day and the terminal was devoid of people. A couple of men came in after me and headed down the hallway. I could hear voices down that way so I thought maybe they knew where to go. I followed a while, hoping that the 45-minute layover still held. Suddenly, the men started running back. It was their voices I had been hearing and they must have been just as lost as me. Suddenly they ducked through a side door that lead onto the runway. I followed them, really worried now and fearing that as an American I might never get off the island. I reached the plane just as they started to shut the door. Whew!

We arrived at Caracas around 10 a.m. There was a five-hour layover here and it was very warm. I explored the airport terminal but it offered little protection from the heat. Then I had an idea: The city was 40 minutes away and I might never have another chance to visit it, and there was a line of cabs waiting to take me there. I had $20 USD left, which I’d probably have to hand over to Dad. Why not spend it and cool off in the breeze? The cab driver was very nice and drove me all around town, showing the major points of interest, and then took me back to catch my next flight. Another night flying over the jungles of Brazil, and then we landed in Asuncion and spent a couple of days getting acquainted with that city. When Mom and Dad were finished with their business, we climbed aboard an old Catalina hydroplane at the dock on the Paraguay River. That was a new experience! Taking off from the water in a much smaller plane (you could actually open the window!), we followed the river for a couple of hours and landed in Corrientes, Argentina, on the Parana River.

Mom was expecting my little brother, so I was happy to help with the cooking, cleaning and shopping. And with a view of going to college in the Fall, I practiced several hours on the piano each day. But not every day, for we drove up to the northern province of Misiones, where my sister was attending boarding school, and then on to the border where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil come together at the Iguazu Falls. I had seen Niagara Falls as a child, but these falls were over a mile long! There were pathways so one could walk in and out behind the falls, and we also took a small motorboat to the very edge where the water drops off.

One day, Dad said he had to attend some meetings on the west side of Argentina, and would I like to go along. Always ready for another adventure, we took a barge across the river and then boarded a train that took us across some of the most desolate and inhospitable terrain I’ve ever seen. It was miles and miles of swamp, called the Gran Chaco, with all kinds of wild and domestic animals lying dead and rotting across the expanse. Compared to the lush jungles of Misiones, this was awful! When we finally reached the other side, the land began to dry out and become proper grassland. Here, we alighted from the train and spent the weekend with a small group of church members among whom were some converts prepared for baptism.

I noticed that the teenage daughter of our hosts was a deaf-mute girl. I felt sorry for her because in this remote area there were no facilities for helping people with such a handicap. She could not read or write, and her parents seemed content to just let her help with household chores. She was obviously glad to spend time with me, and I searched my mind for things that we could do, since conversation wasn’t possible. I had a tiny set of plastic dominos that I kept in my purse. With gestures, I was able to show her how to match the numbers of dots on the blocks, and soon she had mastered the game. She was elated, so we played dominos the whole weekend. When we left, I gave her the set and hoped she’d find someone to play with her.

Back on the train, we finally arrived at our destination, which was Tucuman at the foothills of the Andes Mountains. After the meetings ended, we headed back to Corrientes. My “summer” was almost over thought it really was winter in the southern hemisphere. The banana tree in Mom’s back yard was loaded with bananas which had to be picked before they would ripen enough to eat. Every afternoon like clockwork, the sky would darken, there was thunder and lightning, then about forty minutes of heavy downpour. The suffocating heat would be tempered and the temperature would drop.

Now I packed my bags and once again my parents accompanied me back on the Catalina to Asuncion (the nearest large airport). I was about to make the transition into the jet age, changing from the old DC-6 to a Boing 707! It made one short fueling stop in La Paz, Bolivia and then straight across the Pacific back to Los Angeles. What had taken three or four days going down, was now accomplished in a day and a half!

As I bid my parents and sisters farewell, I wondered if I might be married the next time I saw them. I had celebrated my 17th birthday just a few days before, and one time Dad had said he expected that I would to be married by the time I was 18. Only God knew the future.