Thursday, February 14, 2008

The USO Show, Part IV

[Reminder: Some of my posts, including this one, are memoirs of my abusive childhood. In this post I'm relating events that happened in January 1958, in Taiwan, when I was 8 and a half. The links to the right can be used to follow backward through the memoirs, or to restrict viewing to other kinds of posts.]

So. I was seated at the post-show banquet with headliner Ms. Whiting (or whoever she was) and my parents. I followed prior instructions and kept quiet as much as possible, and just tried to enjoy the adults' banter. That ended when my Mother told me to eat my potato salad.

I didn't want any potato salad. I don't remember why. Maybe I didn't like the way it looked. Maybe I didn't like the way it smelled. Maybe I was trying to save room for dessert. Anyway, I balked. "Do I HAVE to?" My Mother's knee-jerk reaction was the, "Do what I say, we're in public," reaction.

Margaret Whiting defended me by making fun of the situation. She basically asked the question, when would there ever be a dinner special enough that I could eat what I want? The show and banquet were supposed to be fun. The message was essentially, "Lighten up, Mrs. Major Browning." (I remember her calling my Mother that.) My Mother backed down.

After that I wanted Ms. Whiting to be my new Mother. So when dinner was over and all were standing around smoozing over drinks, I hung around her. As soon as she had a moment's break I asked her if I could talk to her in private. She asked what it was about, and I whispered to her that it was about my parents.

She gave me a knowing look, and then she announced to the others that she would be right back and she led me outside the tent.

We couldn't have been out there for more than ten minutes but we covered a lot of ground. I told her my parents abused me and she said, "Your Father? He doesn't seem the type." I told her he used to beat me but now just yells and that the worst was from my Mother. I told her about the rapes. She said, "Oh, yes, I noticed something bad in her eyes."

She told me she had been abused too. She said she couldn't take me away from my parents because it wouldn't work. She would just land in prison. She said if she reported it, my parents would probably retaliate against me before the authorities would act.

I was in tears after hearing all this. No one had ever laid out the barriers to getting help so clearly before.

But she said she might be able to help with advice. She questioned me about how my parents talked about me. I told her they called me idiot and basket-case and freak all the time. She asked me what I liked doing. I told her I liked music and math, but since surgery I wasn't able to do music anymore. She said, probably the music won't work, but I'm sure that if you worked hard on the math they'd eventually be amazed and they would back off some.

She came up with a trick to play on my parents to get me started off as a math genius in their eyes, and quickly rehearsed it with me. My line was simple. I just had to say "39" at the proper moment.

Before we rejoined the party, she offered special advice on dealing with my Mother. She said that she looked like people she had known before that had "an evil eye.'" Her face changed from right to left as she went from kind to mean. Ms. Whiting told me that I should try whistling or humming a tune my Mother wouldn't know and move from her right side to her left and back again, and one side should elicit the kind face, the other should elicit the mean face.

Then we returned to the party and she brought me by the hand to where my parents were standing and announced, "Hey, everyone, I've just been talking to this kid outside and he's is a mathematical genius!"

My parents laughed. My Father said, "That's no genius, that's my son."

Whiting said, "Well, he may be your son, but he's a whiz. I'll prove it to you.I'll give him a puzzle, and I'll bet while all of you are scratching your heads over it, he can solve it in a blink of the eye!"

[Above: Numb3rs establishes the genius of Charlie Eppes simply by briefly showing this formula that you don't understand in the opening credits of every show.]

The puzzle was a word puzzle having to do with ages. I don't recall the exact puzzle but it could have gone like this: "I'm twelve years older than my brother. In 15 years I'll be twice as old as my brother was 15 years ago. Think hard. How old am I?"

"Think hard" was my cue. The idea was to blurt out "39" even while she was asking the question, so no one would get it before I did.

Needless to say, part of the fun was that she was older than 39. But no one thought that I would have come up with the joke. They assumed she did.

My parents were suspicious, but Ms. Whiting did a great job of acting, denying any coaching.

By the time my parents got around to asking me if I was coached, during the drive back to Taipei, I was able to present an elaborate explanation of how I had solved the puzzle, because i'd had enough time to work it out on my own by then. I just let them think I had done the reasoning on the fly.

They were floored by it.

After we got back to Taipei, my Father spent a couple of days and nights with my Mother and I, and then returned to the Mountain. The next 5 or 6 weeks I was alone with my Mother in the Chinese house.

Oh, by the way, my parents and everyone else who was at the banquet who ate the potato salad fell violently sick in the evening after. It was tainted.

No comments: