The Salinas Valley is long and narrow, and it lies between two mountain ranges in Northern California. The Salinas River twists and turns through the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.
I remember the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley. They were light and sunny and lovely, and they invited you to climb into their warm foothills. The Santa Lucias stood darkly against the sky to the west, and they were unfriendly and dangerous. I always loved the East and feared the West, but I don’t know why. Maybe it was because the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans, and the night approached from the Santa Lucias.
The floor of the Salinas Valley was wide and flat. After a rainy winter, the valley was carpeted with spring flowers of all colours: bright blue and white, burning orange, red, and mustard yellow. In the shade of the oak trees, green plants grew and gave a good smell. In June the grasses on the hills turned gold and yellow and red. The soil in the valley was deep and rich, but in the foothills it was poor and thin.
There were good years, when the rainfall was plentiful, but there were also very bad years. The water came in a thirty-year cycle. There would be five or six wet, wonderful years followed by six or seven good years. Then came the dry years when the earth dried and cracked and the streams stopped. The grass was scarce, the cattle grew thin, and a hot, dry wind blew dust down the valley. Then the farmers and the ranchers hated the Salinas Valley. Some families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. During the dry years, the people forgot about the rich years, and when the wet years returned, they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.
The first people who lived in the Salinas Valley were the Indians. They lived on insects, nuts, and shellfish. Then came the soldiers and priests sent by the King of Spain. They explored the land greedily for gold and souls. They made maps and named everything they saw. Buena Vista was a beautiful view, Laguna Seca was a dry lake, and Salinas was white like salt.
After that came the Americans, even greedier because there were more of them. They occupied the valley land first, then moved into the foothills. Soon there were wooden farmhouses and growing families wherever there was water. The farmers planted square fields of corn and wheat, and long lines of trees to protect the topsoil from the wind. The trails between the farms became roads. Stores and workshops opened along the roads, and little towns grew up around them – Bradley, King City, Greenfield.
And this is the way the Salinas Valley was when my grandfather brought his wife and settled in the foothills east of King City. I must depend on stories, old photographs, and memories to tell you the story of the Hamiltons.
Young Samuel Hamilton and his wife came from the north of Ireland in around 1870. He was the son of small farmers, not rich but not poor. They were well-educated and well-read, and they were related to great families as well as humble ones.
I do not know why Samuel left that green land. He was not a political man, so he surely was not a rebel. He was perfectly honest, so it was not the police. In my family, they whispered that he loved a woman who was not his wife.
Anson was the eldest of six children who would some day divide a fortune of fifteen million dollars, and he reached the age of reason – is it seven? – at the beginning of the century when daring young women were already gliding along Fifth Avenue in electric "mobiles". In those days he and his brother had an English governess who spoke the language very clearly and crisply and well, so that the two boys grew to speak as she did - their words and sentences were all crisp and clear. They didn’t talk exactly like English children but got an accent that is peculiar to fashionable people in the city of New York.
In the summer the six children were moved from the house in New York to a big estate in northern Connecticut. It was not a fashionable locality – Anson’s father was a man somewhat superior to his class, which composed New York society, which was snobbish and vulgar, and he wanted his sons to learn habits of concentration and have sound constitutions and grow up into right-living and successful men. He and his wife kept an eye on them as well as they were able until the two older boys went away to school, but in huge establishments this is difficult – it was much simpler in the series of small and medium-sized houses in which my own youth was spent – I was never far out of the reach of my mother’s voice, of the sense of her presence, her approval or disapproval.
Anson’s first sense of his superiority came to him when he realized the respect that was paid to him in the Connecticut village. The parents of the boys he played with always inquired after his father and mother, and were excited when their own children were asked to play with him in his parents’ house. He accepted this as the natural state of things, and a sort of impatience with all groups of which he was not the center – in money, in position, in authority – remained with him for the rest of his life. He didn’t want to struggle with other boys for precedence – he expected it to be given him freely, and when it wasn’t he withdrew into his family. His family was enough for him.
At eighteen, Anson was tall and thick-set, with a clear complexion and a healthy color from the ordered life had led in school. His hair was yellow and grew in a funny way on his head, his nose was beaked – these two things kept him from being handsome – but he had a confident charm, and the upper-class men who passed him on the street knew without being told that he was a rich boy and had gone to one of the best schools. Nevertheless, his very superiority kept him from being success in college – the independence was mistaken for egotism, and the refusal to accept the Yale standards with the proper awe seemed to belittle all those who had. So, long before he graduated, he began to shift the center of his life to New York.
He was at home in New York – there was his own house with "the kind of servants you can’t get any more" – and his own family, and the correct manly world of the men’s clubs. His aspirations were conventional enough – they included even the decent girl he would some day marry.
He and I first met in the late summer of 1917 when he was out of Yale, and, like the rest of us, was swept up into the hysteria of the war.
Samuel P.Langley was respected physicist, as well as an early pioneer in aviation. He was born August 22, 1834, in Roxbury, Massachusetts, near Boston. He became interested in experimental science early in his life, building a telescope as a boy with his brother and making astronomical observations. His formal education ended with his graduation from the Boston High School in 1851.
He worked in an architectural office in Boston and at Harvard College, and in 1864 and 1865 he visited observatories and research centers in Europe with his brother. In 1866 he became an assistant professor of mathematics at the United States Naval Academy, where he had charge of a small observatory. The next year he became professor of physics and astronomy at the Western University of Pennsylvania. In 1889 he was elected secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum and center for research in Washington, DC. He held this position until his death.
Langley began studies on heavier-than-air flight in Pennsylvania; and he continued these studies at the Smithsonian Institution. After studying the source of power in bird flight, he constructed steam-powered models which flew successfully and attracted considerable attention. The Smithsonian awarded him $50,000 for the construction of a full-size passenger-carrying machine, or aerodrome, as Langley called it. A quarter-size model, equipped with a water-cooled gasoline engine was flown successfully, but the full-size machine, catapulted from a houseboat on the Potomac River October 8, 1903, and again on December 8, failed both times. Discouraged by newspaper criticism, public misunderstanding, and lack of funds for further experiments, Langley discontinued his work in aeronautics.
In 1914, eight years after Langley's death, several changes were made in his "aerodrome" machine, and it was flown at Hammondsport, N.Y., by Glenn H.Curtiss. The United States Navy honored Langley by naming its first aircraft carrier after him. An Air Force Base in Virginia is also named after him.
Mrs. Bell invited Aaron Houston, a famous British artist, to paint her younger daughter’s portrait. Aaron wanted to make a few drawings before he started a portrait. On the Thursday evening the drawing was finished. Not a word had been said because the girls were shy to speak in Aaron’s presence and he had gone on working in silence. “There,” said he, “I don’t think that it will be any better if I go on for another hour. I hope you will like it. There, Miss Susan”, and he sent it across the table with his fingers.
Susan’s face got red, she was embarrassed. She took the drawing and said, “Oh, it’s beautiful”. The superb originality of the drawing captivated her. A young girl was represented sitting at a table in a room filled with fresh air and the soft light of a summer day. The greenery of an old overgrown garden could be seen through the window. In front of her on the white tablecloth there was her book. The eyes of the girl looked out at you, dark grey, mysterious, sad, languorous, yet strangely intent. What was the girl thinking about? Who was the girl thinking about? The drawing was more than a portrait. It fact, the artist tackled a far bigger job than that of reproducing a definite person in portraiture and in performing which he imparted another and bigger content.
Susan’s face revealed her feelings. She turned to her mother and said, “Isn’t it beautifully done, mother?” and then her elder sister and her mother got up to look at it, and both admitted that it was beautifully done but Susan felt there was doubt in her mother’s voice.
“We thank you very much,” said Susan after a long pause.
“Oh, it’s nothing”, said he, not quite liking the word “we”.
On the following day he returned from his work to Saratoga about noon. He had never done this before, and therefore no one expected that he would be seen in the house before the evening. On this occasion, however, he went straight there, and by chance both the widow and her elder daughter were out. Susan was there alone in charge of the house.
He walked in and opened the sitting-room door. There she sat, with her knitting and a book forgotten on the table behind her, and Aaron’s drawing, on her lap. She was looking at it closely as he entered.
“Oh, Mr. Dunn,” she said, getting up and holding the picture behind her dress.
“Miss Susan, I have come here to tell your mother that I must start for New York this afternoon and be there for six weeks, or perhaps, longer.”
“Mother is out,” she said. “I am sorry.”
“Is she?” said Aaron.
“And Hetta too. Dear me! And you will want dinner. I’ll go and see about it.”
Aaron began to swear that he could not possibly eat any dinner.
“But you must have something, Mr. Dunn“ she said.
“Miss Susan,” said he, “I’ve been here nearly two months.”
“Yes, sir,” Susan said, hardly knowing what she was saying.
“I’m going away now, and it seems to be such a long time before I’ll come back.” And then he paused, looking into her eyes, to see what he could read there. She leant against the table; but her eyes were turned to the ground, and he could hardly see them.
“Will you help me?” he said. She was keeping silent. “Miss Susan,” he continued, “I am not very good at saying things like this, but will you marry me? I love you dearly with all my heart. I never saw anyone so beautiful, so nice, so good.” And then he stopped. He didn’t ask for any love in return. He simply declared his feelings, leaning against the door. Susan remained silent. Aaron ran out of the room.
There were seven or eight of us in the line, waiting to pay the cashier for our lunches. We were all in a hurry because that’s the way of the American business-day lunch. At the front of the line there was a pretty woman with a small boy of about eight. He was a cute little fellow wearing black jeans, white sneakers and a blue pullover sweater. A shock of dark hair fell over his eyes. He looked very much like his mother. The boy had a charming face with chiseled features but he was depressed.
As the woman fumbled in her purse, looking for money to pay her check, the kid noticed a display of candy bars beside the cash register and immediately wanted one.
“You can’t have any candy”, said his mother. “You had a pie with your lunch”. She took out her handkerchief, then put it back and went on fumbling in her purse.
“But I want some candy”, said the kid. His tone was surprisingly insistent. Almost aggressive.
The mother continued her search for money in her purse, and the kid continued to whine about the candy. Then he began to stamp his feet and shout.
The rest of us in line were beginning to get fidgety. We bunched a little closer together and several folks began mumbling under their breath. “Ought to snatch him bald”, said one man quietly.
The kid by now was reaching for the candy display in open opposition to his mother. She grabbed his arm and pulled it away, but not before he clutched a Snickers bar in his hand.
“Put it back”, she said.
“No!” shouted the child. It was an arrogant “No!”
The line bunched even more closely together, and the man who had suggested snatching the kid bald appeared ready to do so himself. So much for the kid’s shock of dark hair, I thought.
But the mother moved suddenly and with purpose. She paid the cashier, took back her change and dropped it into her purse. Then with one quick motion, she grabbed hold of the child’s pullover sweater and lifted him off the floor. The moment his sneakers came back to earth, she turned his back toward her and began flailing him. A look of disbelief came across the kid’s face. His eyes filled with tears. He tried to break away but that made his mother flail him again.
When she had finished administering the punishment, she turned the child around and pointed a finger squarely in his sobbing face. With a voice strong and certain, she said, “The next time I tell you do something, young man, will you do it?” The child looked at the floor. Meekly and sincerely, he replied, “Yes, ma’am.”
The mother turned to go. The child returned the Snickers bar without further hesitation and marched dutifully out behind her.
The people in a line broke into spontaneous applause.
“Did the kid deserve the punishment he had? What would I do if I were his mother? She may have been absolutely right for all I know. I have no children. I have no right to argue with the mother” I thought. “There is nothing I can do but wait. Perhaps the best way to get an idea of normal behavior of children is to get married and raise a few”.
It was a funny thing, a surprising thing, that brought Grandad back to me. It was algebra.
I collided with algebra in my first year at secondary school, and it sent me reeling. The very word itself seemed sinister, a word from black magic. Algebracadabra. Algebra messed up one of those divisions between things that help you make sense of the world and keep it tidy. Letters make words; figures make numbers. They had no business getting tangled up together. Those as and bs and xs and ys with little numbers floating next to their heads, those brackets and hooks and symbols, all trying to conceal an answer, not give you one. I'd sit there in my own little darkness watching it dawn on the faces of my classmates. Their hands would go up – “Miss! Miss!” – and mine never did. The homework reduced me to tears.
“I don’t see the point of it,” I wailed. “I don’t know what it’s for!”
Grandad, as it turned out, liked algebra, did know what it was for. But he sat opposite me and didn’t say anything for a while. Considering my problem in that careful, expressionless way of his.
Eventually he said, “Why do you do PE at school?”
“PE. Why do they make you do it?”
“Because they hate us?” I suggested.
“And the other reason?”
“To keep us fit, I suppose.”
“Physically fit, yes.” He reached across the table and put the first two fingers of each hand on the sides of my head. “There is also mental fitness, isn’t there?”
“I can explain to you why algebra is useful. But that is not what algebra is really for.” He moved his fingers gently on my temples. “It’s to keep what is in here healthy. PE for the head. And the great thing is you can do it sitting down. Now, let us use these little puzzles here to take our brains for a jog.”
And it worked. Not that I ever enjoyed algebra. But I did come to see that it was possible to enjoy it. Grandad taught me that the alien signs and symbols of algebraic equations were not just marks on paper. They were not flat. There were three-dimensional, and you could approach them from different directions, look at them from different angles, stand them on their heads. You could take them apart and put them together in a variety of shapes, like Lego. I stopped being afraid of them.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but those homework sessions were a breakthrough in more ways than one. If Grandad had been living behind an invisible door, then algebra turned out to be the key that opened it and let me in. And what I found wasn’t the barren tumbleweed landscape that I’d imagined. It was not like that at all.
I’d known for a long time that he was fond of puzzles. When I was younger he used to send me letters with lots of the words replaced by pictures or numbers. They always ended 02U, which meant Love to you, because zero was ‘love’ in tennis. He was often disappointed when I couldn’t work them out. Or couldn’t be bothered to. Now I discovered that Grandad’s world was full of mirages and mazes, or mirrors and misleading signs. He was fascinated by riddles and codes and conundrums and labyrinths, by the origin of place names, by grammar, by slang, by jokes – although he never laughed at them – by anything that might mean something else. He lived in a world that was slippery, changeable, fluid.
Mу life is the same as millions of others'. I'm a wife and mother to two great kids. I work as a sales advisor and spend my weekends pottering about in the kitchen or garden. But eight years ago, my "normal", Liverpool-centred life changed forever.
I've always donated money to various charities. But rather than just giving money, I also wanted to help people face to face, so I decided to look for a project abroad. On the Internet I read about an Indian organization called the Rural Development Society. I knew very little about India, but I discovered that people in Tamil Nadu, the poorest state in Southern India, were in dire need of help.
I talked it through with my husband Paul, but I don’t think he expected me to go through with it.
Still, I sent a letter offering my services and within a few weeks received a reply from Manhoran, the chief of Ananandal village. In broken English, he explained how excited they were to think that someone would want to come to help them. My decision was made.
My husband was not enthusiastic about my going there, but he also knew how important it was to me. And, though my sons said they'd miss their mum, they knew it'd only be for a few months.
I booked a flight and wrote to Chief Manhoran that I was coming.
Nothing could have prepared me for my arrival at Chennai airport. The noise, the heat and the bustle was totally alien – as were the surroundings. I got to work straight away teaching at the small local school funded by the Rural Development Society, for six days a week.
Day-to-day life was a total culture shock. With no electricity or running water, everything was exceedingly basic. But despite the shockingly simple life, not for one moment did I regret going. The kindness of the villagers was all-encompassing. In return for me showing them respect for their culture, they gave me their all. My Hindi was awful, but we communicated with smiles, laughter and hugs.
From arriving in a desolate village full of strangers, they'd become my friends. I started to look at the place with the utmost affection. And despite looking forward to my trip back to Liverpool, it felt like home.
I started teaching the village children the alphabet under the tree by the hut. Every day more and more children turned up. It was soon impossible for me to manage on my own. I found a local teacher and we started to share evening classes. We settled into a routine, splitting them into groups of older and younger children – named my Little and Big Darlings.
The day before the end of my three-month stay, I was overwhelmed when 2,000 villagers begged me to stay and continue with the school. There was no way I could remain there – I missed my husband and children. But I promised to be back.
My husband was incredibly proud of how far we'd come, but never felt the urge to visit Ananandal. He and our sons prefer to stay at home and help raise money for the school over here.
Since then the school has got bigger and bigger and now we have 500 pupils. The best thing is that the school recently came second in the annual exams of the whole of Southern India. I've thought about going to live there, but my life, my job and family are in England so I'm happy just visiting.
When I'm back in Liverpool people say how proud I must be of myself. To a certain extent I am. But I'm more proud of my Little and Big Darlings who come to school every day with a smile, desperate to learn. They're the inspiration, not me.