by Gregory Blass
Even now I can't recall the precise moment my parents told me we were going to live
in Afghanistan for two years. Looking back, I'm sure I didn't fully appreciate just
what this meant - in terms of the passage of real time or distance.
Only five at the time, I do recall much of the fuss surrounding our departure.
The uncomfortable feel of the very sensible, stiff leather shoes my mother bought
for me before leaving; then trying the same shoe in the next three sizes as she
and the salesman speculated about the growth of my feet and likelihood of finding
good shoes in Kabul.
Very clear is the memory of watching my brother, dressed in his best clothes,
fall out from a speeding red wagon into a muddy puddle on the street - only
moments before a reporter and photographer arrived to interview us for the
local newspaper. I remember the smell of my grandmother as she hugged me goodbye
at the airport, and the sound of the voice of the cheerful woman who sat beside
us on the airplane. In later years, my mother told me that the woman was drunk
before the in-flight meal was served and passed out until we landed at Heathrow.
I just thought she was a happy person.
My memory of our arrival in Afghanistan was a disconnected jumble of the sounds
and sensations that will stick in the mind of a five-year-old. There was the
uneven whine and strain of jet engines finding their way along an unseen flight
path between mountains to an airfield somewhere below, standing in line amidst
a sea of knees for what seemed forever, the jumble of voices in a language that
sounded like someone constantly clearing their throat. But with the rapid-fire
thump-wump thump-wump thump-wump of the customs agent's stamp in our passports,
I knew our journey had at last come to an end. No matter which country you
travel to, passport stamps speak the same language.
Forty years later, I now have two daughters of my own - one fourteen and one
almost eight - whom my wife and I have yet to take further abroad than Canada.
I can't help but compare my parents' decision to bring their family halfway
around the globe to the choices my wife and I have made that have settled our
family into a very safe and frustratingly busy American suburban life. My
mother and father chose to uproot my siblings and me from what was becoming
that same western lifestyle and take us halfway around the world on this venture.
As my own children have grown, I've become increasingly proud of my mother
and father for making the journey my mother describes in the pages that follow,
and grateful to them for including me in the life-changing endeavor of two years
in Afghanistan. The world in the sixties was a much larger place than it is
now, and at the time, the urgency to see all the different peoples of the world
as one community must have felt as great as it does today.
I'm particularly grateful to have had that experience at such a young age.
Somehow I think that we see the world very clearly when we are young, before
we cloud our vision of events with all the stuff we pack into our heads as adults.
As a six-year-old, I did understand that it was only the accident of birth
that placed me atop my bicycle riding past the boys collecting the dried manure
left in the street for fuel, and not barefoot beside them. I also understood
that it is the same heart-pounding excitement that both sets of boys feel
holding onto a kite made from five cents' worth of tissue paper and spit.
Looking back, I can remember having more freedom as a six-year-old in
mid-sixties Kabul than we gave our older daughter in Arlington, Massachusetts,
when she was twelve. Riding my bike after school to my friends' homes alone
was fine - just as long as they lived on the same side of the river that
divides Kabul. I guess having to remind a kid to watch out for traffic wasn't
such a worry for a parent. On my journeys, I was just as likely to have to
watch out for oncoming camels, donkeys, or carts pulled by horses as the cars
driven by unlicensed drivers. All that and working my way between the road
apples left by the many animals.
My older brother Chris had a real knack for making friends with the sons
of visiting dignitaries. The Egyptian ambassador's son was one of these boys.
This youngster led us on a thrilling adventure placing cherry bombs under the
tires of parked cars in the street below his Kabul apartment balcony. When we
returned to the safety of his balcony to await the result of our mischief,
this ten-year-old from Egypt introduced us, two wide-eyed American boys, to
the Beatles by playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" at top volume through his
doorway into the Kabul street air. He topped off this lesson in western culture
with a performance of air guitar on his tennis racket. He was far too
cosmopolitan - and much more sure of himself than two brothers from Scotch
Plains, New Jersey, could ever be. We just couldn't keep up with this guy.
I had to hide my secret relief behind a veil of disappointment when all of
our cherry bombs failed to explode.
For many years, I held a memory of visiting a local naan shop in Kabul with my
father. I vividly remembered the earthen building and the crowd hungry for the
afternoon's bread to be baked and sold for their evening meal. I felt safe,
hooking my fingers in at the top of the pants pocket of the man standing beside
me. For forty years I assumed it was my father Walter because of how safe I
felt while the crowd pressed in around us. Clutching at his trousers I knew I
wouldn't lose him and I had no fear. In reading through these letters, I've
come to realize I was with Bhaktari, the young Afghan man hired to help in our
household, on the back of whose bicycle I had ridden to the shop.
The day we left for Kabul forty years ago, there wasn't a single kid, and maybe
less than a handful of adults, on my street in Scotch Plains that had heard of
Afghanistan - let alone able to place it on a map. Today on my street in
Arlington, Massachusetts, that situation is very different. Even the home of
my mother's youth, tiny Peaks Island, Maine, has sent a soldier to Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, "boots on the ground" has become many American small-town
residents' only firsthand experience with Afghanistan.
In reading my mother's letters it is clear to me that both Janice and Walter
came away from their experiences in Afghanistan with much more than they arrived
with. Our time in Kabul not only became the opportunity for my parents to
create and follow their own dream, but paved the way for us children to
formulate and pursue our own dreams - no matter how far-fetched they may have
seemed. Truly speaking, my family's life is defined by our time in Kabul.
The short time we spent there went a long way in launching us three children
into the adults we have become.
Kabul has now become a household word. What was home for two years now appears
daily in the world headlines. Granted, life in Kabul was a world apart from the
way it is today. The mid-sixties was a different time for the region, as it was
for our own nation. The letters in the pages that follow tell a timeless as
well as a timely story. By giving ourselves to new life experience, we do grow
and change. I can attest to this. My life was irrevocably altered, as were the
lives of my siblings and parents.
It is a universal truth that despite our common human threads, or because of
them, when people from different parts of this earth come together, they
inevitably learn from one another. Reading Janice's letters will give you her
rendering of this melding experience forty years ago: a glimpse into what one
woman's journey felt like as it happened - a woman who didn't know where this
endeavor would lead her, let alone what it would leave with her in the years