It was 1935 and another new school for me. I was in the fifth grade, the youngest in the class. Big challenge for as much as I loved having friends, I was shy. The first day, the teacher introduced me to the class as one of the new girls. There was another. She was tall, rather plump, and had frizzy red hair. Betty B.
“Let’s be friends,” she said and she took my hand. It was as simple as that. And we were. Best Friends Forever. She was different from any other girl I had ever known. Her father had been an officer in the navy and he was now retired and trying to sell insurance in our small town. Betty had grown up mostly in China. She’d had a Chinese amah (nanny) and had traveled the world. She’d even seen a real volcano. I was in awe.
The following week, I got a second-best friend. David. He came by every day to walk me to school. He insisted on carrying my books and protected me from all the other boys. During recess we played a game called “jail.” (A game my great granddaughter says she plays during recess.) It consists of the boys chasing the girls, catching them, putting them in jail, only to have the girls escape and be caught all over again. David always caught me, and I always escaped. I had mixed feelings about him, on the one hand, pleased that he liked me, on the other embarrassed that he fussed over me. Oh, the agony of growing up.
But Betty was my best friend and what interested me the most were her toys. Betty didn’t have dolls and dollhouses like I did. She had a set of Chinese torture methods, little bamboo carvings of the death of a thousand cuts, the blinding with burning rice (something done primarily to unfaithful women by their husbands, Betty told me), and one that was a tall cage where the man’s head stuck out the top but his feet couldn’t touch the floor. A long slow death. And this was considered fun? She had an Imperial Family set of dolls. You didn’t change their clothes, just their heads. One set of heads had beautiful crowns; another set was ordinary for every day. There was a little box that held a Japanese doll. In the box were seven little sections each holding a wig, one for each day of the week. She also had the surgical kit from the last ship her father had commanded. The scalpel was dull, but real. We spent hours playing hospital, bandaging my dolls’ arms and legs, pretending to give shots with needle-less syringes.
Betty’s parents (while they lived in China) saw their children only when they were ready for bed at night. Betty told about how she and her brother had supper in the nursery. After being bathed and put into a nightgown, Betty was paraded into the living room where her parents were dressed for the evening, her father in his navy whites, her mother in a long gown. Betty missed her mother, but she loved the freedom her parents gave her. Most days, the amah took Betty to her home and let her play with her children. Betty loved that.
But our favorite activity was to go into Betty’s brother’s room and check out his things. Phil was much older and gone most of the time, attending the local college. From his ceiling hung beautiful Chinese kites of silk and fine paper. He had two ship models, each about four feet in length. One was a Chinese junk, the other an American naval ship, a copy of the one his father had commanded. You could open the little doors and arrange furniture in the rooms. They were exquisite. But the most interesting was his photo album. Phil was an adolescent when they lived in China and knew all the ways to sneak out of the compound. His pictures were taken in the town square—the public executions. I still get chills when I think of one. The knife blade is a grey blur as it slices through the upper right corner of the photo. The man’s head is resting against his chest. Lots of nightmares for me.
We moved and I lost David was replaced by other boys. Betty and I corresponded by letter. Eventually Betty’s father was called back into service. Her mother died and in 1941, Betty was evacuated from Manila with nowhere to go. We had her come to us for the summer. I remember her talking about a war that was coming. “Oh,” I said. “We don’t want war.” She looked at me and said, “What do you know about the world in your smug little Wisconsin.” Obviously very little. Betty’s father ended up in Washington D.C. and was able to establish a home for her. Over the years I lost her, but in my memory she is as alive as ever, red hair, torture toys, and all.