AGNES NEWTON KEITH, a graduate of the University of California, first went to live in North Borneo as the bride of Harry Keith, an English zoologist who teas serving as Conservator of Forests and It Wild Life. Her happy adventures in the jungle and in Sandukan, the tiny capital, she described in her first book, Land Below the Wind, which won the Atlantic nonfiction prize of 1939. Mr. and Mrs. Keith and their young son George were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and four and a half years later, after convalescing from that experience, she wrote her second book. Three Came Home. The Keiths were called back to North Borneo directly after the war to assist in the reconstruction; in her forthcoming volume, While Man Returns, of which this is a chapter, Mrs. Keith tells of the third phase of their life in the hast.
by AGNES NEWTON KEITH
As the only American in Sandakan, North Borneo, I was naturally consulted as an authority on the habits and ways of American sailors, pending the arrival of the U.S.S. St. Paul, Flagship of the Seventh Task Fleet, with a complement of a thousand men, in Sandakan.
The idea of a thousand American gobs in Sandakan haunted the responsible authorities. A dozen gobs here would make news, a thousand would make history.
“How shall we entertain them? What will they want to eat and drink?” I asked Harry. “I do hope they don’t break things!”
“The U.S. Navy has the best food in the world, and the sailors are probably better fed than we are,”said Harry.
“How discouraging! But we must find something to give them. What is typically American? Do you think they’d like ice cream sodas?”
“No! You can’t bring American sailors to the South Pacific and feed them ice cream sodas!”
“Which do you think they’d rather have, coffee or tea?”
“Don’t try English coffee. They get plenty of good Java on board ship, and I never heard of asking a sailor to tea. The Navy is dry — better give them beer.”
We settled for beer, Coca-Cola, tinned biscuits and cheese, to be distributed by a volunteer canteen force in the hope of localizing damages, and then w e waited anxiously for the day. The prestige of a nation rises or falls on the behavior of its visiting navy.
There is a place in the garden from which you look down on the pastel blue bay framed by the silvery trunks and shimmering foliage of the albizzia trees, and on this exact halcyon blue spot the St. Paul finally anchored. In perspective she seemed to bridge the bay, lying from shore to shore, and as I looked down at one of the greatest ships afloat in all her majesty, I could not help but be proud.
“Isn’t she wonderful, Harry! Sometimes I don’t seem to have any patriotic feelings at all, but then something like that ship happens, and I feel frightfully American!”
“Too bad she couldn’t have happened in 1941!”
Sailing with the St. Paul was ihe Vice-Admiral of the Pacific Fleet, Russell Berkey, a friend of a friend of ours, a relationship which in the East makes you closer than kin. By midafternoon we had met the Admiral, discovered the friendship, and he and his party came up to the house. The Admiral was known as the Count, and he did things with a flourish, no matter whose bottle he was opening. He possessed a display of ribbons which he never wore, and medals which he didn’t remember, and had friends whom he never forgot, and because he was a man to begin with, being an Admiral came easy to him.
It was three o’clock and very hot and for lack of other occupation we served tea. Harry and I had tea, Steve and John had Coca-Cola, Frank and Roy had rye, and the Admiral had Scotch on the rocks and pretzels. It was six-thirty and still hot, and we went to a cocktail party. The Count had Scotch on the rocks and cocktails, kissed the hands of the eldest ladies, and left them asking him when he would return. We went on board for dinner, and while the Count opened his air mail from Guam, rattled off orders for his ship, organized his party, and whipped out some new motion picture films, we had dinner with, of course, ice cream, and partook in the strange practice of the American Navy of being dry when afloat.
We returned to the shore to the Club, and here the ship’s band played such music as Sandakan doesn’t know, and the best party I have ever seen in our town progressed from good to hilarious — such a parly as could never have taken place in the segregated club for Europeans only in pre-war Sandakan, Filipina, Chinese, Indian, native, and European women danced alike with all who came; the Count danced a rumba, and a samba, and a conga with as many different nationalities; I danced a rumba without knowing how; even Harry danced something; and for once in its custom-bound social life Sandakan had carefree, color-blind fun.
For two days following, in the steaming town at the foot of the hills where the faces in shops are foreign and voices speak strange tongues, where the essence of day is heat and odors of rancid oils, and the fragrance of night is frankincense, Sandakan became Little America. The brilliant colors of native groups, the harsh blue and dead black and white of Chinese costumes, were washed off the si reels w il h t he flood of sailor w hile; t he shops were filled with gum-chew ing, grinning, freckled souvenir seekers, the football field inundated with players and spectators, and only the movies were deserted, for Sandakan pictures had been seen long before by the Navy.
Every Chinese taxi bulged with leggy forms and cocky faces, every bicycle was pedaled madly by last-moving white legs, the fourteen miles of road from the bay to the jungle’s edge were a long while naval parade, and a steady stream of coasting bicycles whizzed down the sleep hill into Sandakan, driving private motorcars from the road.
The sailors’ ideas of money values were fantastic, and the fact that they were not cheated was charity on the part of the locals. One U.S. dollar was worth three Borneo ones, and with every purchase the sailors would pour out an uncounted palmful of Borneo currency and let the shopkeeper make change. When the salesman counted out his due and handed the surplus back, the sailors suffered from shock; they had never been in a town like this before, they said! What was wrong with it? They were used to being cheated! But American sailors were so rare a sight in Sandakan that nobody knew enough yel to cheat them.
The canteen was perpetually crowded and a great success. The American boys might have been accustomed to better food than wo could give them, but they were overcome by the fact that we gave them anything. They helped wash the dishes in the canteen, talking steadily with everyone, especially those who knew the Slates.
They said, Gosh! We didn’t know English folks were like this! My mother cooks like that, too!
My sister looks like you! My dad says that himself! They said, Thank you, for everything, and when refreshments ran short they just sat and talked, while gratitude shone in their faces. The beer went down like water; cheese and biscuits were eaten at the tables, folded into sandwiches and chewed on the streets, and carried back to the ship in tins, We’11 never forget Sandakan! they said. We sure want to come again! And Sandakan wanted them, too.
ON the last morning of the ship’s stay the school children were invited out to the ship and they lined up all morning waiting for launches. George felt that he had a private interest in the ship, being half American himself, and when he and the dozen British children Went out with special friends they had made from the boat, he was looking forward to a wonderful time. He was away several hours, and when he arrived home just before the ship’s sailing hour, I looked for a display of admiration, wonder, and pride. Instead his expression was sultry.
“Well, dear, what did you think of the ship?”
“Oh, she was all right, I guess.”
“Did you see all the big guns? Aren’t they wonderful?”
“ Oh, good enough! ”
“Did you see the ice cream machine?”
“Oh, who wants to see an ice cream machine!”
“Didn’t you like the ship’s crew?”
“ They’re all right, I guess.”
“George, what is the matter?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing! Only I don’t see why that little Basil should have an American sailor hat! He’s only an English boy—he’s not half American like me!”
“Tell me about it, George.”
“After they look us all over the boat, Basil asked the sailor if he could have one of his sailor hats, and he gave him one. And I wanted one too, only you always tell me I mustn’t ask people for things. So I didn’t ask, and nobody gave me one. Now Basil’s got a sailor hat and I haven’t, and I’m half American!”
The fault was mine, I saw that plainly, and no way to remedy it. I saw a long future ahead of me iu which Basil wore his sailor hat, while George, cut to the heart, wore none, and I, the stupid moral force which said “Don’t ask for things,”had occasioned this hatless stale.
“Well, never mind, dear, in a few weeks you’ll forget it all. But I am sorry you didn’t get one.”
“It was all your fault, Mum, and now I will never ha ve an American sailor hat!” He was trying hard not to cry.
“Basil will probably lose his sailor hat,” I said hopefully. “Gome along, dear, let’s walk up to the hilltop and wave good-by to the ship.”
The St. Paul sailed out of Sandakan Bay with never a fuss or a fight, with honor to all sides and good feeling from all, and with everybody happy with one exception — George, with a broken heart.
Basil did not lose his sailor hat. Instead he looked indescribably cute in it, and attracted everybody’s attention, and for weeks all the home folks said “How very cunning!” and all the visitors said “Who is the darling youngster who wears the American sailor hat?” Every place George went, to meet the boat, to meet the plane, to say good-by to the boat, the plane, Basil went in his sailor hat. Basil got the spotlight and took the bow — and George hung back like a crippled child, feeling that not to have an American sailor hat was the equivalent of a clubfoot, or a glass eye, or wire braces on your teeth.
I hoped he would forget it after a few days, and I began to think by his actions he had. But I was wrong, he was only biding his time. Several weeks later when I was having a bath in a very great hurry, George came and stood outside my bathroom door, and shouted at me with glee.
“Hey, Ma! Ma! Basil doesn’t want his sailor hat any more! So I’ve traded him for it!”
“What did you trade him?” suspiciously.
“Oh— I just traded him that old mechanical clown that jumps over the horse, and the toy telephone, and a few things he liked!”
But I knew that this was not nearly, nearly, nearly enough! I knew that to equal that sailor hat George would have to give all he had in the toy line. There must have been coercion someplace. I shouted back through the bathroom door:—
“Well, you will have to trade if back to him tomorrow morning, because I know he won’t want to lose that hat when he thinks it over. Anyway, his mol her will want him to trade il back. And besides, I have told you not to trade with him. He’s three years younger than you, and it isn’t fair.”
“Oh, Ma! He wanted to trade! Honest he did. Anyway I’ve got the hat, and I’m going to keep it! Blease say I can, Ma!”
“Well, if he still wants the trade to stand tomorrow morning, then it’s okay. But if he wants to trade back, you will have to. And I’m sure that he will want his hat back!”
Then I opened the bathroom door and there was George with the hat cocked over his eye, looking instead of the frightfully cute, awfully sweet little cinema laddie playing sailor with a big gob hat the way Basil looked — looking instead like a very young, very tough, very adolescent but genuine youngest gob in the U.S. Navy — and drunk with triumph and glee. I looked at him, and my heart hurt me for some future day when he would wear a uniform in all seriousness.
I sighed. “Well — I do hope you can keep it, dear. But don’t set your heart on it, because I’m certain Basil will want it back.”
The telephone rang. I answered, I listened. My telephone voice spoke.
“Yes, yes, I know he did. . . . Well, I’m sorry Basil is crying and feels upset. ... I have already told George that he must trade it back tomorrow. . . . No, I don’t know what happened. I was taking a bath. . . . Yes, I agree that Basil is too young to trade with George. . . . Yes, Basil did look cute in it —oh, much cuter than George! George just looks tough in it. . . . Yes, I knew you wouldn’t want him to trade it, dear. . . . Yes, all right, they can change back in the morning.”
I turned from the telephone. There was George with the hat on his head, and streaming down his cheeks were tears. To have made the trade, to have won, to have had the hat on his head — and then to lose! I could remember moments like this one all the way back through my own life, and nothing has ever made me forget their pain.
“I’m sorry, George,” was all I could say.
“I won’t! I won’t give it back to him! The silly little— He traded it! I have a right to this hat, and he hasn’t. He’s only an English boy!” And then he broke, “Oh, Mum, I want—I want a sailor hat, Mum — and I’ll never have one now!”
It wasn’t the first time that blood had flashed in my eye and inspiration suffused my brain to comfort my son’s hurt. “ Write to the Admiral! ” I said.
It took two days for George to write that letter, with all the things he, and we, felt he ought to say.
Harry: “If you’re asking for hats, better ask for one with gold braid on it!”
George: “Aw, I don’t want one of those! I like the gob hats better! ”
I: “Don’t forget to tell him that you hope he comes here again.”
The letter was mailed, and the waiting ensued. Every night now the Admiral was included in George’s prayers, and the hat was covered by the open clause, “Please God, get me a gob hat — somehow!” Every mail day George questioned anxiously, “Did my sailor hat come?”
Only once did his steadfast vision falter. One night he said to me, with a hint of future maturity, “You know, Ma, I’m so anxious to get that hat! Only maybe after I get it —maybe it won’t make so much difference!”
The American Navy has never been put to a severer test than during those weeks of waiting. Finally, at 4 p.M. on a Friday, three weeks after George had mailed his letter, an air-mail folder arrived, and in it was a sailor hat from the Admiral.
That was a very important day for George; on that day the American principles of democracy and valor were vindicated forever in his heart. And the fact that the sailor hat now lies upside down on the shelf as a catchall for round, polished stones, sea shells, old clock springs, shiny nails, and glass marbles makes the memory of that day none the less valiant.