Upon leaving New Guinea for furlough, it became clear that neither of us kids were ready for re-entry into the full-swing, 80’s, North American, upwardly mobile, yuppy experience. The materialism we encountered was striking: we knew nothing of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Guess watches, Izod shirts, or Polo cologne. In fact, neither of us were certain of our shoe or clothing size. In general, we’d spent the previous years sorting through what was available for what might fit, not for what we preferred–whether in used clothing boxes or at the local merchant in the city. On our way back to the U.S. on furlough, we had a layover in Brisbane, Australia, and spent some time getting acclimated to western stores, crossing streets, ordering food, etc. I recall walking in a department store and going up to a clerk and saying “I think I wear a size 10.” She just stood there looking at me dumbly. I repeated myself. She then asked what it was I would like to see. “Whatever you have in my size, please.” She laughed and said, “But honey, we have everything in your size.” I was overwhelmed.
I remember one of the few times we had to special order a customized item (at least as a kid, this is how I thought of it). We’d each had complete physicals prior to leaving the United States, and had received the requisite vaccinations and medications for our protection against tropical communicable diseases. The shots were not fun, but as it turned out, the anti-malarial medicine was much worse. Chloroquine tablets had to be consumed weekly in order for a beneficial level to build up in the bloodstream. One might not imagine that swallowing a small pill each Sunday was a big deal, but it was incredibly bitter and rarely could one of us get it down without gagging uncontrollably. Worse yet was the fact that this bitterness took days to leave; everything consumed for the following half week was tainted with the odor and taste of chloroquine. To add insult to injury, the chloroquine didn’t prevent us from getting malaria. It only supposedly made our frequent bouts with the disease less life-threatening.
Along with the nasty taste were some extraordinary side effects: scar tissue turned a deep purple color (making any disfigurations all the more noticable), and our vision gradually became impaired. Within six months of our physicals and beginning the chloroquine, we went from having 20/20 vision to needed glasses. Like most kids who aren’t aware they need glasses, I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I knew is that whereas I’d been in the ‘gifted’ classes in the United States, suddenly I was stupid. I sat in my fourth grade class unable to read the chalk board (actually, unable to even tell there was writing on the chalk board). I covered for my visual impairment poorly, without consciously being aware that I was doing it, until one day the teacher asked me to read something she’d written on the board. I sat there dumb. She thought I was being impertinent and demanded I read it. I told her I couldn’t. In what seemed to be a typical British form of pedagogy, she began openly mocking me in the classroom. When I told her I couldn’t even see what was on the board, she whipped my desk up to the front of the room, and had me sit there with my desk flush up against the blackboard, asking me to read at her convenience. I was humiliated!
Mom and dad took both of us kids to the eye doctor and were immediately surprised to find out that we’d both had severe visual changes over the last 6 months. It became clear that not only did we need glasses, mom and dad’s prescriptions had also changed. And while we were able to secure a prescription for glasses there in the capital city, there was no optometrist shop to actually procure the lenses and frames. With such a large sudden expense (all four of us requiring glasses immediately), it was clear we couldn’t all fly to Brisbane to see the eye doctor. It was determined that dad would go and choose glasses for each of us (including mom). My poor father recalls a very stressful afternoon with an Australian store clerk as she tried on various frames and he tried to imagine what each of us might look like in them. I ended up as a 10 year old with an adult-size set of frames. Needless to say, the results were less than desirable.