That excerpt elicited a stinging memory of my own going back to about 1966 when I was just 8 or 9 years old. Our family had recently moved to Turkey, where my dad, a master sergeant in the Air Force, had found a really neat second story flat for us to live in until a place in base housing came open. Much to my boyish bliss, the flat overlooked a canal in Yalova, which back then was just a sleepy Turkish town on the Asian side of the Marmara Sea. From what I’ve seen online, these days, Yalova is anything but sleepy, and probably rates full-blown city status.
For the exploratory little kid that I was, living across the street from a waterway chock full of frogs, newts, snakes, turtles, tadpoles, fish and ducks was a wonderful thing. Sliding down the slightly sloping 6-foot walls made of large smooth stones to the slim mucky banks of the canal; I spent hours crouching among its reeds checking out the multitude of creatures teeming there.
Water life and the wonders of nature being one thing, my experience with Turkish humanity in Yalova was a mixed bag at best. I found out that the adults were okay, but I soon learned that the boys around my age were a community to be very wary of.
Before finding out about the menace of Turkish kids, the very first week I was in country I went for a ramble up the canal. In a patch of woods the locals used for grazing goats and sheep I found the perfect stick. Sounds weird right? Finding a perfect stick? Well, it WAS perfect. Straight and true, about 6 feet long, it had a heavy knob on one end, and still had all of its bark. I decided it was a wonderful stick and that it must be mine. I took it home and carved rings in the bark over its entire length, making it even more wonderful and quite visually appealing.
When I had it just the way I wanted it I proudly carried that stick like a shepherd does his staff, high in my right hand letting the bottom end spear the ground with every other step. I experimented with it. I figured out how to use it to vault over small creeks and large puddles by taking a few running steps, planting it in the middle of the water and then pushing against it to achieve an extra few feet in the air. That stick and I were inseparable.
One day, I was further from home than I had ever wandered before. I still wonder that my parents allowed me to do that. I spent hours unsupervised, by myself, exploring my surroundings, always pushing further and further away from home. I’m glad they gave me that kind of leeway, but thinking back as a parent I don’t think I would have given myself nearly that much latitude. Still, I’m glad they did.
But, during this particular “walk about,” as the Aussies call it, a group of 6 or 7 Turkish lads about my age and older suddenly appeared. They surrounded me and began aggressively talking among themselves and to me in Turkish. I felt like a trapped rat. I tried to appear fearless and self-assured, but it wasn’t working. I was scared and I’m sure they could tell.
One of the bigger boys walked up to me and looked at my stick. He reached out for it and I snatched it back. Then another boy made a grab for it, but I jerked it away from him too. I didn’t know if they just wanted to examine it or what, but I suspected that once they had it that I’d never get it back.
Suddenly, three of them grappled at once for the slender length of wonder wood. I yelled, “NO! It’s MINE!” and held on to it for dear life. I lost my footing when a larger fellow grabbed it with all his might and yanked it hard and me off my feet. Even on the ground though, I continued to hang doggedly on with all my strength. I wrapped both my arms around it hugging it tightly to my prostrate body. I was being pulled bodily through the dirt and grass as two of the boys at the same time continued their quest to savagely wrest my walking stick from what had become my death grip on it.
At last, a deeply loud adult male voice interrupted the hooting and hollering of the Turkish kids, which caused them to let go of me. Slowly, I stood up still clutching my precious stick. Brushing off my clothes I sniffled and tried not to cry, and felt pretty good when I realized that I wouldn’t.
I looked with great relief and gratitude at the older Turkish man who seemed to appear from nowhere. He was grizzled with short gray hair and two days worth of gray stubble on his darkly worn face with, of course, a big gray moustache under a large aquiline nose and sad baggy eyes. He wore equally baggy old-fashioned clothes common to the older generation of Turks at the time, topped off with a soft flat cap, the kind with the small brim in front.
I couldn’t understand my rescuer but he really laid into that pack of bullies. He gestured at me like a teacher might point at a map in geography class and he went on like that for a good minute or two. The boys began to skulk away and he gave them one last dressing down as they disappeared around a grove of trees even as several looked sullenly back at me over their shoulders.
The good Samaritan Turkish man spoke a few encouraging words directly to me, at least I think they were, then slapped me on the back and with a shooing gesture bade me to head back the way I had come. I thanked him in some of the only Turkish I yet knew, “teşekkür ederim effendi!”
He beamed at me and waved me on, almost clucking as he did so. I think he wanted me to get away so that the boys wouldn’t be able to circle back and finish their “work.”
After that, I never really trusted any Turkish boys thinking that perhaps they had to first grow up into adult size before they could be safely approached. I decided it was better to stay away from them, especially if they were in groups. When they were in ones and twos they were fine, but in clusters they seemed to develop a mob mentality. Subconsciously, after that, I think I developed an affinity for grownup Turks, associating them all with that guy who had come to my rescue. Soon, that affinity, imagined or not, would come into play when I received my first haircut in-country from one.
Not long after being mobbed and rescued over my self-made walking stick, a friend of my Dad’s who was also in the Air Force, I believe his name was Mr. Curtis, recommended a local Turkish barbershop that he always visited. The shop wasn’t far from Mr. Curtis’ house, which wasn’t far from our place. In fact, he said the barbershop was walking distance, just across a nearby bridge that spanned the canal down the way from us.
So off we went for a trim. The three of us walked languidly from our flat, first turning right along the canal toward the bridge that we would have to cross about 100 yards up the street. I hopped up on top of the 3-foot-wide canal wall while my father and his buddy chatted and walked a few feet below me.
I greatly enjoyed our little walk. I can’t remember if it was spring or summer, but a lot of rain had fallen over the weeks and the result of all that precipitation was life, and lots of it. I think all 9-year-old boys must instinctively be naturalists. I know I certainly was, because I was drawn to nature and nature is drawn to water. So, naturally, guess where I was drawn to? You get one guess as long as it’s “to water!”
The shallow drainage ditches along most of the streets were full of runoff, and everywhere deep puddles, more like small ponds, were profusely alive with wriggling life, both above and immersed in the water. Insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, you name it, it was there, but the most conspicuous creatures of all were the hundreds of toads.
I was thrilled to see every tiny pool and ditch abound with large toads, dark grayish green on top and lighter on the bottom; and all of them absolutely absorbed in breeding. Many were lifeless females, mated to death by over-amorous males. These deceased mommy toads floated and bloated in the still water, their long rear legs outstretched in death, their blanched bodies decomposing and snarled up in long tangles of their own ropy strings of toad eggs. I suppose such an image could be considered poetically ironic to some.
Along with the hundreds of adult amphibians preoccupied with the various phases of the toad reproductive process, seemingly millions of tadpoles in various stages of development also held my rapt attention at every turn. I had never seen anything like this toad and tadpole extravaganza. I was like a curious young pup on its first walk in the great outdoors, my attention being turned this way-and-that, all the while being pulled away from each new enthralling sight by the ambling adults just ahead of me.
Alas, we arrived at the barbershop. It had two or three chairs and at least a couple of different barbers. My dad was in a different chair off to my left while I was in the last chair on the right. Mr. Curtis didn’t get a haircut and just sat and continued a lively laughing conversation with my father as he had his ears figuratively shortened while I was about to have mine done literally. From the time I climbed up into my chair I was pretty much ignored by them, just as most adults generally disregard little kids.
Down at my end of the shop the Turkish fellow cutting my hair seemed like a pleasant enough guy. He didn’t speak much English, and in spite of my youth he treated me with the same flair that all barbers over there treat their customers. Soon, he had a pair of scissors clicking away as he snipped and snapped them continuously around my head.
Before I go into what happened next, I’ll tell you about my right ear. It was deformed—at least it was back then. You see, on the top backside of it a 1/8th inch point of cartilage stuck out, kind of giving my ear a little horn. I was used to it, but I’m sure it was quite unsightly.
Anyway, I had never worried about my ears, or parts of them, being cut off by a reckless barber before, but perhaps I should have. Because next thing I knew, right after a snip and then a final fleshy snap of his click-clacking scissors I felt a sharp searing pain at the top of my right misshapen ear.
I could see my face and that of the barber in the mirror to my front. As if looking at someone else, I saw my eyes widen in shock. I could also see that the barber was silently horrified and panicked at what he had just done. Quickly, he grabbed some cotton from his barber stuff and tried to staunch the wound.
Oddly detached and yet fascinated by what had happened to me, I watched rivulets of blood begin to flow down the side of my face and neck despite the furtive efforts of the barber come surgeon, or should I say butcher? All the while he worked on repairing his bloody handiwork he continually drew air over his teeth, making a hissing sound without ever once actually uttering a word. I sensed he was embarrassed and that he felt utterly horrible, so I decided to keep my terrible pain to myself and just suck it up. I felt bad for the guy.
Still staring into the mirror I realized that I could no longer actually really see anything because huge salty tears had involuntarily formed in my eyes and clouded my vision. I felt them gather and drain continuously down both cheeks, but with my arms trapped beneath the sheet I could do nothing about wiping them away. Eventually, the barber noticed them and wiped them away for me too, just as he did the blood. When he saw the flow of silent tears his remorseful intake of air over and through his teeth redoubled, as if the noise he made was a form of apology. I accepted it as such and just as wordlessly forgave him.
The surreal thing is that my father and Mr. Curtis continued to chat away together across the room, seemingly in their own universe as far as I was concerned. They were completely oblivious to the bit of drama happening between me and my barber just a few feet away. I remained mutely stoic in my agony never saying a word, never whimpering or even wincing.
If that Turk had ever entertained the idea that Americans are soft and spoiled I think my 9-year-old display of silent self-possession dispelled him of that notion. After a few minutes of tightly squeezing my wounded ear he managed to stop the blood from flowing. He continued to carefully cut my hair after placing some salve and a small Band-Aid over the top of the raw sliced edge.
I tried to hide the injury from my father and Mr. Curtis, and managed to do exactly that, but eventually Mr. Curtis noticed the Band-Aid and figured it out. I’m not sure if my dad paid for that haircut or not, but that wasn’t my business to worry about anyway. My parents tell me now that Mr. Curtis went back to the barber and gave him holy hell. I do know that I don’t ever remember going back there for another trim. Regardless, I owe him, because he managed to snip off that unsightly plug of cartilage that I probably would have eventually tried to carve off on my own anyway.