China Remembered

by James Nelson

Parents turn the most trying times into times of wonder and enjoyment. I was born in China, as was one of my brothers. My earliest memories are of China. I remember standing in our yard watching fishermen ply their boats along the Han River, even though far away, I could see the cormorants they used for fishing. A distant sound sent the fishermen scurrying from the river. Then a plane, brown with red circles on it wings, flew overhead. Suddenly clumps of dust, followed by a dull noise, came from across the river. A world war was near at hand.

An airfield at Fancheng was being bombed; my dad called me inside. The time would soon come when we would have to leave China. Getting out was not easy; it meant a lot of preparation by both Dad and Mother to find a way to get out. A train was available; we needed a ride to get to the train. My next memory was the car ride. After asking Dad if we three boys were baptized, a priest — dressed in black robes and wearing a large black hat that made him look larger than he was — offered a ride to the railroad station. He cranked his car, which started with a roar, and we were off. Six miles later, the axle broke; we rode rickshaws back to Siangyang.

We finally found another train that would take us to Canton. To me, riding the train was fun. When you flushed the toilet, you could see through the opening what seemed like miles of racing tracks. The train was filled with strange smells and strange people. The greatest fun was when the train backed into a tunnel and stopped. Years later, I realized that we were riding a refugee train that was "hard class" — wooden seats, open windows that let in flies and smoke from the engine, and no diner. We carried food and water. But, to me it was adventure. I later found out that we backed into tunnels to avoid Japanese planes.

A trip that was to have taken a day stretched into two days before we stopped at Changsa for refueling. Our food and water must have been gone. Father disappeared but returned shortly with a pillowcase full of temple oranges. That was to be our food and water until we arrived at Canton the next day. We stayed at a hotel — where I am sure each of us boys got baths — until we could make the next leg of our journey to Hong Kong. At afternoon tea time, refugees sat on the hotel balcony to watch the bombings in Canton.

In Hong Kong, my parents found a bungalow in which to live — a rather large house on Cheung Chao, an island in Hong Kong harbor. There we lived for several weeks. It was there I learned to swim. Swimming was fun, unless jellyfish kept you out of the water. There were contests for children, and I won a ribbon for placing second in a race. I don't think either Father or Mother smiled when I replied, after being asked how many raced. "Two," I said. Much later I learned that four families, three with children, shared that bungalow — the only housing available.

Eventually, we found a place to live in Baguio in the Philippine Islands. After several weeks in a screened cottage, my mother and we brothers moved to a bungalow on Trinidad Road, where we would live for eighteen months while my father returned to China. The mission hospital needed him. I heard he was "going over the 'hump'," and to me that meant a camel. A neighbor pointed out the Himalayas on a map and explained that the "hump" was the mountains. "Why that way?" I asked. "Because the Japanese are here, and it's the only way in." Soon after we came to Trinidad Road, my father left.

The hospital to which my father returned would change forever during the ensuing months. The mission was overrun three times twice by Japanese armies and once retaken by the Chinese. The house in which we lived was bombed. One room had walls, and there my father lived. The hospital itself was bombed during another raid. When the Japanese retook Siangyang, they burned the city. If my father was to rejoin his family, he would have to escape again; this time he would be on his own.

By bicycle at first and then by donkey, he set out on the thousand plus miles to Shanghai. His major worry was not soldiers but bandits, who scoured the land between the armies. Eventually, he went by foot and crossed one river in a wheelbarrow covered by farm produce. I never found out why, but I suspect bandits. My father lived on "wan fu," water left over from washing rice, and raw eggs. Finally, he secured train passage to Shanghai and a boat to Manila. Eighteen months after he had left, he was reunited with us in Baguio. He played tennis the next afternoon and cracked a rib — his only injury during his return to China and his escape.

By now it was early in 1941 and the Department of State encouraged civilians to leave the Philippines. In March we left Manila aboard the SS President Cleveland for the ten-day voyage to the United States — Manila to Hong Kong to Shanghai to Kobe to Honolulu and onward. On the last day of the journey my father woke my two brothers and me early to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the lights of the shore as we passed under the bridge toward the San Francisco dock. "We are home, boys," he said. To me, and probably to my younger brothers, "home" was back in Baguio and Siangyang.

I have often wondered why my father went back to China that last time. In retrospect, I realize that the mission station was doomed, especially when in a war zone. Getting out the second time was much more difficult than the first time. I am sure that the mission and the hospital gave my father purpose and meaning. He felt compelled, I am sure, to go and probably saw no danger or anything that he could not overcome for that matter. He sensed that the hospital was where God wanted him to be. It was his calling.

I have since learned of two incidents that show my father's character during that time in Siangyang. A Muslim owned a cow and lived by selling milk. Japanese soldiers commandeered that cow for their provender. Dad intervened with the highest Japanese officer he could find. The Muslim kept his cow and could continue to sell his milk.

At the same time, my father's associate, Dr. Ho, was slated for internment or execution by the Japanese. Father placed Dr. Ho in a bed, covered him with a sheet, and marked his room, "Isolation." He swore Dr. Ho had left the hospital and that the patient in isolation had a disease so contagious it could infect the whole regiment. Through his intervention, my father allowed one milkman and one physician to ply their trades for another day. How much longer is impossible to say or know.

Yet, the question of why my father returned to Siangyang remains unanswered. For rash and foolhardy reasons, some might say. The typical actions of a stubborn Swede, others might say. I prefer to believe that my father had the same urgent calling that compelled Paul to go via Malta to Rome in chains. He heeded what he perceived to be the call of God.

James Nelson lives in Jefferson City, Missouri, and is employed by the Missouri State Library System.

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