Sunday, March 1, 2009

Diplomatic Immunity

It was 1968 and all the news we heard from the States was bad. Civilization as my parents imagined it was coming unglued. Then one afternoon I came home from school and found my mother wearing a Kimono.

I was in fifth grade at the Alliance Academy, a school for missionaries’ children in Quito. We lived in a small, two-story apartment on Brazil Street. My mother was descending our staircase like the Empress Dowager.

“Mom?” I inquired. “
What are you wearing?”

“It’s a Kimono!” She exclaimed. “Mrs. Sato came to tea, and she just gave it to me. She brought it from Tokyo as a personal gift—isn’t it beautiful?” [1]

“Yeah, but you’re not going to . . . wear it around, are you?”

“Well, I thought maybe for special occasions . . .”

“Like what? Halloween?!”

Then I discovered a certain price had been paid for that Kimono she was prancing around in. It was
me. My mother had offered my personal services for the entire weekend to Mrs. Sato as a playmate for her son, Paul.

Paul Sato was the smartest kid in my class. He was also the smallest and most exotic and didn’t really have any friends. Paul had transferred from a fancy school in London and spoke English with a supercilious British accent. He came to school wearing creased blue dress trousers and shiny cordovan loafers, a starched white shirt and a gray cashmere sweater. He was driven around by a uniformed chauffeur in a Mercedes-Benz sedan with dark tinted windows and diplomatic license plates. His father was the Ambassador from Japan.

Of course I complained to my mother about her giving me up to the Satos like that, without my consent, in exchange for a Kimono. But in truth, I wasn't that upset about it. I secretly admired Paul. He was a lot of things I wanted to be someday. Like rich.

On Saturday morning at ten o’clock, the Mercedes pulled up in front of our duplex. Paul was in the back. I got in and we sped away to the Quito Tennis and Golf Club on the slopes of Mt. Pichincha. It was a glorious sunny Andean day. We swam in the pool for awhile. Then Paul changed into his pressed white tennis uniform and tried to teach me how to swing a racket. We ate shrimp cocktail for lunch.

We lounged around the club until late afternoon, then walked outside and found the chauffeur waiting for us. He drove us through the streets of Quito at dusk, up
Doce de Octubre, and finally pulled in through iron gates to the Ambassador’s residence. It was a baroque mansion surrounded by formal gardens and fish ponds.

We left our shoes in the doorway as Paul took me inside. The house had many rooms with high ceilings and crystal chandeliers and fireplaces. Beautiful oil paintings hung on the walls. The furniture was elegant and spare. Bouquets of cut flowers adorned the tables. There were servants about. Unlike my house, everything seemed orderly and quiet.

Dinner was served at a long table—long enough to have fit all the boys in the fifth grade if Mrs. Sato had wanted to give away that many Kimonos. Ambassador Sato was seated at one end, Mrs. Sato at the other. Paul sat on one side, equidistant from each parent, and I sat beside Paul’s sister Joyce, across from him.

A Japanese chef in the kitchen whipped up a multi-course meal, beautifully presented and ferried in on silver platters by an Ecuadorian butler in a white tuxedo. I was given cutlery and the Satos ate with chopsticks. The food was marvelous, plentiful, and unfamiliar. In dealing with it, I took an approach that would later become famous as Bill Clinton’s policy on gays in the military: I didn’t ask what it was, and nobody told me. I just ate it.

After dinner, we retired to a parlor with eucalyptus logs blazing in a fireplace. Everything in the room was symmetrical, including the Satos’ dogs—twin collies named Coto and Paxi. They sat obediently together on a Persian rug, their white heads converging in a sort of cone like the snowy volcano for which they were jointly named.

Back in America, the cities were burning. In Vietnam, there were teenagers in uniforms slogging around in swamps and killing each other over long-lost causes. But at the Satos’ house that night, all was serene. The world was an ordered and peaceful place.
* * *
Mr. T. was the Director of the Alliance Academy and he ran the school in much the same way Pinochet ran Chile; it was an authoritarian regime. One of Mr. T.'s main henchmen was Mr. H., the athletic director.

If you were short, frail, slow, or fat; if you were maladroit at throwing, catching, shooting a basket, turning a somersault or standing on your head; if you had to take gym class anyway and Mr. H. was your teacher, then
May God Have Mercy Upon Your Soul.

Mr. H. hailed from a small town in Kentucky. An accomplished athlete in his own right, he coached all the boys’ varsity sports teams and taught PE class at every level. He was also a control freak in the extreme--religiously obsessed with discipline and blind obedience to authority, especially his own. His idea of motivating students was to scream at them on a regular basis.

On the first day of gym class in seventh grade, Mr. H. lined us all up and had us stand silently at attention. He paced up and down the line, inspecting us like the drill sergeant he probably wished he was. Then he stopped and stared at us for awhile; he wore sunglasses so we couldn’t see his eyes.

“Boys,” he began. “Is there anyone here . . . who does not know . . .
WHAT A JOCKSTRAP IS?!” Mr H.'s voice echoed like thunder from the ceiling of the gym.

We shook in our sneakers. Nobody made a sound. And then, one small, brave boy—and only one—raised his hand. It was Paul Sato.

Mr. H. loomed over Paul. “
SATO!” he shouted. “Do you mean to tell me . . . THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT A JOCKSTRAP IS? HUH?!"

Paul quivered and shook his head rapidly from side to side.


In a tiny voice, Paul spoke. “No, sir. I do not know.”

Mr. H. turned away from Paul and addressed the entire troop of and twelve- and thirteen-year-old conscripts. “Boys, it looks like Sato here has a problem! He does not know what a jockstrap is! Now, is there anyone
ELSE who has the same problem?”

No one dared raise a hand. We nervously laughed at Paul, but inside, we shared his deep humiliation.

Mr. H. turned back on Paul and leaned down, inches from his face this time. “So, Sato, I have an assignment for you. By the time you come back to my class on Thursday, I want you to
KNOW WHAT A JOCKSTRAP IS . . . and I want you to HAVE ONE ON! Is that clear, Sato?”

I felt terrible for Paul. After all, he wasn’t really one of us; he wasn’t a missionaries’ kid. In hindsight, I think Mr. H. was out of his jurisdiction and Paul should have claimed diplomatic immunity.

That evening after supper, the telephone rang. My mother answered it and started speaking in a Japanese accent. She had this odd habit, whenever she talked to foreigners, of subtly mirroring their phonetic quirks. She was aware that she did this; she said she thought it made people feel more comfortable. We thought it was hilarious.

“Aahh! Mrs. Sa-to! How-nice-to-heah-from-you,” she chopped.

Conversation ensued. Mrs. Sato was saying something on her end. Then Mom looked quizzical.

“A joke?” she said.

Mrs. Sato had called to tell her a joke! How charming. (So, a rabbi, a priest, and a Sumo wrestler go into a bar . . . ) But then Mom said, “Aahh. Ooohh. A
joh-ku su-to ra-pu?” She enunciated this strange word a couple of times. Joh-ku su-to ra-pu . . . Then a light bulb went off in my head.

“Mom! She’s saying ‘jockstrap’! It’s for Paul—in gym class!”

Mom suddenly got it, too, but tried in vain to enlighten Mrs. Sato. After awhile, she said, “Mrs. Sato, you know I was planning to buy one for Jeffrey, too. Why don’t the two of us go together?”

And so they did. The next morning, the blue Mercedes with diplomatic plates pulled up at our apartment again. This time, Mrs. Sato was in the back. The driver opened the door for mom. She got in and off they went—the missionary and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to Ecuador—shopping for jockstraps.
* * *
Paul and I returned to that gym class elastically attired. We wore the jockstraps all year as required, but we didn’t much like them. We had the same problem with the garments as we had with our mothers: A little too much protection and support, not quite enough freedom. (And then, well . . . at that point in time they were still much bigger than we were.)

Ambassador Sato was reassigned the following year and the Satos left Ecuador. The rest of us eventually grew up and left, too. So did Mr. H.

I’ve often wondered what happened to Paul Sato. He was a talented and resilient fellow. He had so much going for him. I like to think he’s had a great life.

As for Mr. H., I heard several years ago that he had returned to Ecuador on a pilgrimage, a mellowed and chastened man. He wandered around the Alliance Academy like a ghost, then showed up at the evening service of English Fellowship Church where the missionaries go. He asked to speak.

He stood with tears in his eyes and said he was sorry for the way he had treated all those kids at the Academy. “Please forgive me,” he said. But by then there was nobody left who remembered him. The kids were all gone. Paul Sato was a grown man, oceans away, unreachable and immune to a tyrant’s late remorse.

* * *
[1] Around the same time, Mrs. Sato also gave my mother a Japanese doll, which I inherited. The doll appears in the photo illustration for this story.