Sunday, June 21, 2009

I looked into her eyes, smiled,and said Shalom

I looked into her eyes, smiled,and said Shalom
(written in 1972 one year after returning from Israel)
by Tom Harris

It was about six o’clock in the morning and I was walking up an incline through the children's playground moving toward my apartment. I could see it was going to be a hot, dry, breezy day. The sun was peeking up above the horizon. There were no obstructions between me and the few stars that struggled to survive the glare of the sun and get a glimpse of the coming day. I thought about how wonderful the night had been and the wild hours preceding. I thought back a full year to when I was a senior in high school. I remembered thinking how big a man I was. I thought of girls as objects of sex, never thinking of communicating in a mutually beneficial fashion. I was always thinking of my own personal drives and desires. I realized the basis of some girl’s, remark about guys having only one thing on their minds, to get the girl into bed, or into the back seat of the car, or if courageous enough, to stay right in the front with the crackling, frostbitten speaker blasting against the fogged glass. I guess I was like that, living up to what I thought a man was supposed to be.

I walked toward my apartment that beautiful, early, morning, remembering a sunny, hot, clear afternoon only two weeks before. I had caught the smile of pretty, glowing, innocent Israeli girl of seventeen. I will never forget it. We both stopped in our tracks like stunned animals and then continued on with our daily routine.

I stopped to play on an old merry-go-round built from parts of an old tank and thought of the night before. It was the Jewish holiday of Purim, a fantastic holiday that in Israel is like a combined Halloween and New Year’s party. Everyone dressed up in costumes, vying for prizes to be awarded to the best outfits. My sister, who was going to school in the nearby city of Haifa, came to the Kibbutz where I was studying a half a day and working a half a day to earn my keep, to join in with the festivities. My sister and her girlfriend thought it would be real cute to dress me up in drag. I don’t know how they talked me into it. There I was, an ugly broad, with two of the biggest, sourest grapefruits stuffed into a massive bra. The festivities, which included dancing, drinking, eating,and singing, began about seven o’clock in the evening. The very first person I saw that night was the same Israeli girl I had seen a few weeks before. There I was with my long curly hair done up like a Clairol Cover Girl, with a long scarf and plenty of sticky make-up. I grinned with embarrassment.

My sister had answered all my questions about the Israeli girl. Her father was a war hero from the 1957 conflict, a navy admiral now retired and working on the kibbutz. She was an athlete, a starter on the regional women’s basketball team. She had a competitive spirit born from the shadows of war, death, and vicious pride. One of her brothers was a soldier fighting in the Suez Desert, another brother was killed a few years back being dragged by a horse on a rocky beach, an event remembered by her mother’s black clothing, serious stare, and questioning mind. The young Israeli girl had no enemies and was afraid of nothing. She was always beaming with pride as if the world were hers and no one would ever take it away.

It was getting late. I sat in a folding chair in the corner of the dance floor listening to the wild Israeli music, watching the lively dancing and intermittently glancing around hoping to catch a proud smile. My sister prodded me for hours, trying to get me to dance with my silent partner but I was shy, scared, and a lousy dancer. So I sat there, every once in a while dancing with my sister but mostly sipping paper cups of brandy. I wanted to ask her to dance but she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hebrew. How the hell was I going to ask her anything? At three o’clock in the morning the dancing was as lively as ever. It was wild! Everyone was tipsy, chanting war tunes, forming hand to hand circles and parading around the floor. I had stripped myself of my feminine attire and was definitely feeling my brandy when I was suddenly engulfed by the raging queue of dancers, throwing their arms and kicking their legs rhythmically yet somewhat Dionysian in manner. I danced for awhile and then went back to my chair in the corner.

At four in the morning I decided to ask the Israeli girl to dance. She nodded yes. She understood what I had said, I guess she learned the words from all the Americans who had asked her to dance in the previous hours. We danced for awhile, all the time smiling at each other with our eyes and lips. At four-thirty I took her hand and pulled her aside. The strength was in her grip. She led me outside into the warm, starry, quiet night. She led me from one end of the Kibbutz to the other, a long distance in reality but short in our time. I talked to her in English and and she spoke in Hebrew. She knew two English words, really and sure. I dramatically repeated the word really as a question and answered myself with a definite sure and she laughed. Our eyes met, we grasped hands, and we both smiled, deep, meaningful and with love. What seemed like hours were only fleeting seconds lasting a lifetime.

We noticed the rising of the sun and stood in silence enjoying the calm, eloquent, birth of a new day. She relaxed her hands and motioned that she had to leave, I gripped her strong hands, held them for a few seconds, looked into her eyes, smiled and said Shalom. I relaxed my grip and she walked away. I stood there watching until she was gone. My hands fell limp to my side. I took a deep breath, and turned in the direction of my apartment. It was six o’clock in the morning. I remember thinking to myself, that communication was more than spoken words and physical pleasure but a level of love and understanding that one can find by merely being oneself, living oneself, and giving oneself.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Headmaster, The Monster, and Me...

(Special thanks to Nancy Johnson for motivating me to share my stories by sharing her beautiful stories. )

Late June 1970:

The day was hot, smoggy, humid and bittersweet. To my left stood my girlfriend Donna waiting to see me off to visit some faraway lands. To my right were all my family members, Mom, Dad, Jeffrie, Riesa, Jon, Joel, Ann, Josh, and Grandma Sophie, waiting in anticipation of what was to come. Amid hugs and tears we headed off, the entire Harris clan minus one. To have our family together again meant a lot to me. Dad was never home. He travelled the world putting together agricultural projects in South America, East Africa and Eastern Europe. Now we had the chance to travel and learn as a family. First to London for a few days, then on to Switzerland where Dad's company was based. We moved into a beautiful Spanish Villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. The waves from Lake Geneva would wash up against the huge wall protecting the gorgeous landscaping looking out across the lake. At the bottom of the huge yard was a boat house with a small motorboat tucked away. A scene Monet would have painted beautifully.

At first I enjoyed being there. I wasn't very happy about going to high school again. I had just graduated high school a few weeks before. In Europe 13 grade levels was the standard. I tried to make the best of it. I joined the basketball team and the theatre group. I took a history class, a math class, an English class and French. I admittedly didn't really care much about all the work. I did the best I could under the circumstances.

College Du Leman contrasted sharply to Buena High back in California. The school was very strict and regimented. It was administered by a Headmaster right out of a classic English film. He didn't seem to care about fairness he just wanted things done his way. For some reason he picked on my brother Jon and me from the beginning. Perhaps we were just too laid back for his uptight demeanor. I remember one specific incident where he embarrassed my brother Jon and I in front of the class. It upset me and caused me to withdraw socially with an uncomfortable feeling that I was not wanted. I didn't know what to do.

Dad had to travel to Ethiopia, East Africa the site of the main project. He said he would be back soon. He wasn't. We waited and waited. The disappointment was unbearable. He moved us thousands of miles away from our home to be together as a family and now he was gone.

Late January 1971:
In my junior and senior year at Buena High I got involved in acting. I participated in a one-act play contest at LA City College and did very well. I decided to continue on with acting and auditioned for A Midsummer's Night Dream and was cast as the father Aegeus. The show was to go on after the holiday break. Jon and I went on a Ski trip in the Alps with some friends and had a great time but were late getting back. I just barely made it to the theatre to get my 'Old Man' make-up on. The headmaster was furious with me. I ignored him because I had to go over my lines while the transformation was being applied by the make-up specialists. I didn't look up the entire time. After nearly an hour of applying a beard, wig, and heavy make-up to my face, they swung me around to show me what I looked like in the mirror. The transformation by the student make-up crew didn't look like an old man at all but a monster right out of a 40's Frankenstein movie. I loved it. I jumped up, created a slight hunchback, put a little gravel in my voice and began looking people in the eye twisting my head back and forth, as a curious monster should do. The make-up and the hot lights were uncomfortable so I moved out to a stairway just outside the make-up room and stage left to cool off.

I could see gangs of small children playing outside in the snow. One of them saw me as the monster I had become and screamed. In full monster character I made a quick move to the glass door. The kids all screamed and ran back. Bravely they moved back to the door and one of them opened it. I took a quick monster step forward and scared them back again. We were having fun. The kids got braver and braver as they realized I was not a 'REAL' monster. They came to the door again, pushed it open and as I stepped forward to close the door a piercing, shattering, splintering noise shook the stairwell. Glass flew down 3 flights of stairs as blood dripped from my fingers. The kids were startled but fine. I froze for second and then came back inside to get a band-aid for my cut, slightly shaking. I sat back down in the make-up chair as the Headmaster sternly approached and began ranting, screaming and demeaning directly into my face. All the days of listening to him giving Jon and me a hard time came to a head and I loudly and clearly called him out. I remember saying that a good teacher works with kids. A good administration should be motivating not demeaning. I also said a few things I regret. I was angry with my Dad, I was lonely and simply unhappy. I let it loose on the headmaster as the students around me cheered and joined in with me. Luckily the show started and I could get away from him. I believe it was one of my best performances. I used that energy and got a great ovation at the end of the show. It was then that I decided now was the time to leave.....I need to be me again. I wanted to find myself. I wanted to discover.

I arranged to have a friend take me to the train station early in the morning. I left my Mom a note (I still feel very bad about that) on her door, took all the money I had earned at K-mart the summer before, purchased a Eurail Rail Pass good throughout Europe and headed to Italy.

I didn't want to be a monster, I just wanted to be me.

Next - Adventures in Italy...