Thursday, June 24, 2010

Chapter three - Belgium

All over Brussels, spray painted on bridges, walls and overpasses were slogans proclaiming, "U S = Nazis" or "Yankee go home." They were all written in English to be sure Americans could read them. Being a child in a foreign country and seeing this was very devastating. It just added to the acuteness of my feeling rejected.

I am not sure that my parents were aware of how much I was taking in. How aware I was of the unwantedness of Americans in Belgium. We drove around the city day after day and my parents never mentioned the graffiti slogans. I was afraid to point them out for fear of being criticized or being negative. But we all saw them. They were big and crude and painted where anyone traveling in the city would have to notice them. It was so different from the security and protection I needed and wanted. The kind I got from my Grandpa and Uncle John and Aunt Elaine.

The presence of NATO did have it's negative effects. There were always of foreigners in Brussels. Now I was one of them and I picked up the negative feelings. I took it personally. Seeing all this hatred displayed do openly made me very afraid. I wanted support from my parents, but they were the ones that brought me here. They were the ones that wrenched me from my home. Anywhere in the U.S. would have still been O.K. I would still have been an American in my own Country. Here I was an intruder, unwelcome and unwanted. It seemed to me wherever I looked, and by what I felt, that my parents couldn't see how sensitive and aware I was. I had few defenses, I was still open, not hardened to experience as they were.

There was one lucky break in my schooling. The school I went to, unlike most of them in Belgium, was co-educational. Also, in most of the Belgian schools, the children had to wear school uniforms. White shirt and blue shorts for boys, white blouse and blue skirt for girls. I was pleased that my father had not sent me to one of those schools. It made life a lot more fun.

I did the best I could to fit in. But that was not always easy. Black or brown leather briefcases with two buckles on the front were de rigeur with the students. I had to have one! But no, what did I get, a cloth one in a bright red and black checkered pattern.

I was always horrified by these seemingly minor things. They brought attention to me, made be noticed. And usually being noticed meant that I would be teased. At minimum I was always confronted by questions as to why I was different. But I didn't want to be different. I wanted to blend into the crowd.

At lunch it was the same. I always took mine in a brown paper bad. All the other little kids brought theirs in little plastic containers. When they saw me standing there with my paper bag they would say, "look at this dumb American. He doesn't even know how to keep his food fresh.

"Boy his family must be poor. They have to use paper bags."

"Too bad his parents aren't Belgian, then he'd be better taken care of."

It was almost more than I could stand.

The worst problem I had though, centered on the fact that I was circumcised and little Belgian boys are not. So every time I went to the little boys room, I drew a crowd. The little Belgian boys could not figure out why my parents would have allowed me to be mutilated like this.

"What did your parents do to you?"

"Did they do this to you, or are you deformed?"

"Give us a closer look."

They all had to get a good look to see. Once again I was the center of attention.

As soon as I would walk in the restroom, they would gather round and jostle for position. No one wanted to miss the sight of this mutilated American boy. They even had fights about who would be in the front line while I went.

They pointed, they giggled, they laughed at the boy with no foreskin.

"Look at this kid with no foreskin, isn't he strange?"

"Look at what they did to him!"

"Why did they do it?"

"Looks half naked to me!"

"Where did the end go."

I was so devastated by all this that I wished I were invisible, and if not able to do that. Just disappear all together. But I didn't become suicidal till later.

Eventually I couldn't even go without locking myself in a stall. Later I could not go at all if there was anyone else in the restroom.

I walked home from school many evenings, crying all the way. Sobbing as I walked, head down, along the gray cobblestone streets. At home my parents just didn't seem to get the picture. They just thought that whatever was going on could be handled by strength of character and a little prayer. They were busy with their French lessons. How do you talk to God about your penis? Could you get your foreskin back by praying?

I gave up on the idea of learning. I just daydreamed and watched the antics of the other persona non grata in my class, a gypsie girl. She was a discipline problem and had been kept back a grade or two, so she was older. What did she do for me? She exposed herself.

When the teacher would be busy explaining something on the blackboard and the other kids were duly attentive, she would lay down on the floor, in the middle of the isle, lift up her skirt and pull down her panties. I loved it. It was real, it was fun, and it was rebellious. Once I returned the favor by showing her the erection she caused. But she was embarrassed and didn't want to look. She was the only person in the world I didn't mind showing my penis to.

When maria would get caught doing something bad, since we were friends, I would be in trouble, too! The teacher thought I was leading her on, that I was encouraging her bad character. So she would be put in one corner of the room and I in the other. I could never defend myself since I didn't always understand what was going on. And I couldn't talk real well in French.

So I was the bad apple. The one to point the finger at. The one kid that was different. Without common sense, manners, or morals. I was guilty of a lot of things I didn't know about. Couldn't understand or talk about. I was just guilty as charged. Tried and punished by the one man jury, the teacher.

My teachers gave up on me. Believe me, they thought they were justified. But I was the one really being hurt. Not them. I was lonely, frightened and scarred. I felt terrible, standing in front of the class, taking verbal abuse by the hour. Sometimes the teacher drew three circles on the board, one for my nose and one for each of my hands. I had to press my nose against one circle and keep my hands in the other two. I felt like Christ crucified with his back to the crowd. I took it dutifully because I didn't know any better. Like someone resigned to it. Used to it. I took it dispassionately like an imbecile. Like they wanted me too.

The whole class had fun at my expense. The teacher could get away with it because I was an outsider. I was the intruder, the one they had as captive. Even the principal came into the room and gave little lectures to the class on what good children the little Belgians were compared to me. I had to take it all. I was the one American they could get their hands on. They took it all out on me.

Every day I would walk the cobblestone streets to and from school with my checkered briefcase and sometimes a couple francs with which to buy some candy. Candy was one of my few consolations that year. It was the one thing that was consistently good, when I could get some.

When I had a few francs I would deliberate as to which candy store I would stop at. And then I would spend long moments looking through the glass at the counter deciding. This was the only power I had. The only decision I could really control. Oh, those sweet moments of decision. And then the tasting and enjoyment.

As I walked and sucked my candy I would watch the old men that walked the street. They, too, looked dejected and downtrodden. I identified with them. And it was really hard for me to watch as they would rummage through the garbage for old rinds of fruit, meat fat, and moldy bread. I thought that someday I would be one of them.

There was usually a drizzle, either going or coming home from school. I didn't mind walking in it, since it correspond with my mood. In the morning if it didn't rain the merchants would be out scrubbing the dog poop from the sidewalks. In the evening they would often be sitting under the canopies of their respective little shops, soaking up the last warm rays of the afternoon. Every day I would pass them on my way home, a little wiser, a little sadder.

Just as my life was hard at school, it was also hard and home. My Dad was a real slave driver. He was also a perfectionist, and I haven't seen a perfect kid yet. But I was supposed to be one. He usually kept me in all evening trying to force me to do enough homework so I would catch up with the rest of the class. I was punihsed if I didn't keep up, and I seldom did. So I would be grounded in this little, musty Belgian apartment, with my notebooks and my failures. And almost nothing I did was good enough for my father, even if the teacher thought it was. He punished me and told me to work harder.

My dad would always compare me to my little brother who was doing so well. I tried to explain to him that David was in the first grade, learning the same new stuff as the little Belgians. He had a better chance, he was behind a could of grades like I was. So my younger brother just made me look worse because he was doing just fine, even exemplary. If he could, I could, that's what my dad thought.

Maybe be was right, but I didn't know what to do.

In desperation, as I was failing, he hired a tutor. He hired a tall blond, gorgeous young woman. I guess he didn't know what a distraction she would be for me. He wasn't real aware of my nature I guess. I can still remeber her fondly to this day. She really was a beautiful creature, and she really did want to help me! She was kind and sensitive to my misfortune. But while she tried to get me to concentrate on my studies I was concentrating on her. She was everything I wanted.

I thought about how nice it would be to have someone like her around all the time to be with me. To help me, to make me feel important. During the hour she was with me I was number one on the agenda, this didn't happen anywhere else in my life. She had a soft sweet French accent and as I listened to her voice I would drift off to dreamland. I would be alone with her on some far away enchanted isle. Just her and me. Alone. But dreaming got me nowhere. I still failed! I was hauled off to special conferences with my teacher. Taken for little chats with the school principal. I did not hesitate to show my profound indifference and was rewarded accordingly. Even whippings at home did not deter my deepening indifference. My deepening despair was created by the lack of understanding all around me. Adults that should have known better. Maybe they had their own little neurotic agendas and couldn't see me through them. The only freedoms I had were to rebel, and show indifference. I learned them well.

With cool disregard I flunked the third grade. As far as I was concerned it was not my fault. Forces of destruction were all around me. There was too much going against me. How was one little boy supposed to win and achieve against these odds. I don't know if it was to get rid of me, punish me, or what. But my father decided that I was going off to summer camp. This was absolutely against my wishes. But again, my wishes were not the determining factor.

My brother and I were put aboard a train in Brussels and sent away! We didn't know where we were being sent to, we couldn't even pronounce the name. But off we were. Away from home, away from our parents. Away from everything that was familiar to us. And even though what was familiar wasn't too great. The unknown was worse. What were these Belgians going to do to a couple of unwanted American kids? Left entirely in their hands, at their mercy. We soon found out. And my fears were soon justified.

The miles clicked away beneath us and our security went with them. I really missed being in my little apartment. It was the most secure thing I knew. I wanted to be back in it, sitting in the window counting trolley cars. I wanted my mom to be there. At least she could give me milk and cookies. But we weren't there. Where we were going, no one would care. No one would have a special interest in us. I knew we would need special care. I knew we were being sent to the wolves. It was a boys' camp by the ocean. A place to be taught, not a place to cry and wish you were home. Here we were victims of the Belgian culture, which was applied to us very harshly.

The first night in camp we embarrassed ourselves greatly. We were housed in a centuries old stone building several stories high. By some indiscretion we were not shown where the bathroom was. We had no idea. We were far away from home and scared. We were too afraid to ask, but we couldn't sleep because we both needed to go. We got up and slowly opened the door and peered down the hall. It was hard and scary. We didn't see any signs or directions so we retreated back into our room. We decided that our only option was to pee in the sink. I instructed my brother to pull a chair up to the sink so we could stand on it and be able to go in the sink.

My brother went first. Long and hard as it had been a long time since either of us had gone. Then it was my turn. I took my place on the chair, leaned over the sink and let go. It felt good to relax and empty my bladder. But just as it was began to froth in the sink the door opened and one of the caretakers walked in. Without even giving me a chance to finish, I was yanked down from my chair, thrown against the wall and given a harsh lecture. We were lectured on the incivility and lack of culture in our breed. Americans truly were uncultured. We were proving it. At the end of our lecture we were prodded down the hall and shown where the restroom was. But it was a little late. We were already branded. They would be looking for us. We knew it.

The very next morning troubles started for us again. This time it was from the communal showers. Word soon got around that our penises lacked foreskins. This was big news in a boys camp, where everyone else was uncircumcised. We were teased worse here than at school back home. There was no escape. We were at their mercy. But they had none.

David and I were chased, caught and our pants pulled down. We were held to the ground with our pants around our knees and made fun of. Our little difference was the talk of the camp. It was the major unsupervised game of the camp. Catch the two American boys and pull their pants down. We spent most of our time there being chased and teased. We were never left alone. We were forced to say and spell the names of our genitals in English so they could make fun of us that way too. These were cruel games played by older children on younger children. Based on being different.

It was very difficult for my parents to understand the depth of the pain we went through at the camp. The one thing they could see that was definitely wrong was that we were forced to drink beer at meals. In Belgium, alcohol is not something kept away from children. It is standard fair with meals. And David and I had caused some real scenes when we refused to drink it. But we made our parents promise not to send us to any more summer camps, they were just to terrible. Dad listened, but he had this idea that all problems were solvable and that if David and I just applied ourselves we could solve these little problems of ours.

Shortly after we returned from camp it was time to go on to Africa. Camp was now passed, summer was gone and we were soon packed and ready for our trip to the Belgian Congo. The heart of Africa. The dark continent. But I was ready. It couldn't be worse than this awful place. I was ready to go. We piled into a Sabina Airlines DC-8 for the long flight to Leopoldville. I was glad to leave Belgium. It had been a one year lesson in hell. I would pay the rest of my life for the experiences I had there.

end chapter  three

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