Some Houses Live In Our Memory Forever, Part Ii

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Last week I started to tell you about the very first home Lolly and I ever shared. We still both remember it well, even though we just celebrated our 51st wedding anniversary.

I also mentioned the apartment we lived in while we were trying to find that first home. We stayed in the apartment for about five months. It was OK, I guess, but it was probably a good thing we stayed there first because I needed a little basic training in living on what was called the “local economy.”

Unlike other Americans, Lolly and I were entirely on our own. We had to find, furnish, and pay for a place to live.

And we had to do it in a city where nearly 4 million of the 5 million residents lived in hand-built mud huts. And I do not mean nice, solid, adobe-brick houses either. I mean bend over, grab a handful of mud, and slap it on top of the blob of mud you just plopped down on the ground. Grab another handful of mud, plop it on. Continue until you have a wall of sorts. Make four walls, but don’t ever lean on them. Cover them with whatever. Live — minus everything.

That my British sweetheart and I were going to be married was a given. What we were going to live in, sit on, or sleep on, was a question. But love — as they say — will find a way. And so it did.

My job included off-loading a lot of materials for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was doing road building and other construction in Pakistan. They were also charged with the task of supplying furniture for the few married Americans in the country. The upshot of that was that the civilian head of the Corps of Engineers warehouse, someone I dealt with every day, found out I was getting married and told me, “Tom, just make a list and you’ve got it.” What a great guy! And what a tremendous relief!

There’s something to be said for having friends, Johnny.

We didn’t ask for much furniture for our first apartment because it didn’t take much. It was the Pakistani version of a mother-in-law place, built upstairs over the palatial home of a retired Indian Army colonel, a nice enough place in its own way, but something that took a little getting used to.

Try a concrete bathtub finished in terrazzo, but no hot water. A concrete kitchen range that ran on kerosene, but had no oven. A nice bedroom, but no door. And a nice combination of verandah and living room with a view of the garden below, but wide open because it had no windows. The view included a huge tree right outside our wide-open verandah — both a plus and a minus.

The plus was the beauty of the tree and the shade. The minus came in the form of flying foxes. What’s a flying fox? If you’re thinking of a cute, soft, red-furred little animal with a damp nose and a pair of fuzzy red wings, forget it.

The scientific name for flying fox is P. vampyrus — or vampire bat. They usually come with a wingspan of five feet, but the ones in that tree, I found out, were Indian flying foxes with the scientific name P. giganteus, whose wingspan was even larger.

Can you picture one of those things zooming past your open “living room-cum-veranda”? Just five feet from your nose? Here comes Dracula, headed for a limb to hang from. Ugh-h-h-h!

Needing a solution, I ordered plastic storm windows from Sears and closed off the verandah. Ever seen plastic storm windows a la 1960? They were little boxes of thin plastic that you tacked over a window screen. There was no such thing as window screens in Karachi, so I made some frames. The result wasn’t much to brag about, but we were happy to have them. They did the job of keeping vampire bats out of the living room and they shut out the outside air, which was good because we didn’t find another place until October and the apartment had no heat except for a carry-around kerosene space heater supplied by my Corps of Engineers buddy.

However, we had no complaints. None at all. Why? For two very good reasons: Each other — and the view from our verandah.

What? We liked watching Dracula and buddies flying by?

No. And we weren’t crazy about the retired Indian colonel sitting around down there in the garden reading verses out loud in Persian either. Nor did we care for the screams of one of the female servants downstairs who came out into the high-walled, steel-gated garden one day and discovered that her 3-year-old daughter had been kidnapped and taken off to the slave markets up north near the Khyber Pass. Poor kid was never found.

Yes, slave markets. In 1960. And I was as shocked as you are.

What else kept us from complaining? One thing was a “hutment area” with 300 of the mud huts I described earlier.

The other was what we called the “patty cake factory“ where bullock carts filled to overflowing with reeking, sloshing, bullock manure were dumped for hutment dwellers to pat into manure tortillas used for fuel, there being no wood. They sold them for 2 cents each.

Try watching half-starved people working to stay alive.

Ah, but you should have seen the place we moved into after that one. A Muslim friend found it for us, one of four apartments in a two-story quadruplex.

Ours was upstairs, right. The other three housed two Pakistani colonels, a major, and their families.

We had a living room half the size of the house we have now, a large den, two bedrooms, bath, and kitchen, complete with concrete kerosene-fired range. And no vampire bats, though we did have a swarm of locusts once — outside though.

The bathroom had room for a hot water heater, which my buddy supplied, so we had hot water, which I must say was nice in 100-degree summers.

He also put an air conditioner in the den, which kept it cool, and the rest of the house stayed cool with the help of large ceiling fans, something I had never seen except in Western movies, but which are quite common now.

No TV, of course. There were no stations. We had radio though, and once a day for 30 minutes we could pick up some regular music.

And we had tons of furniture. And water, though it had to be brought by truck, dumped into a ground tank, and pumped to a tank up on the roof.

And windows, hard to come by in a nation where wood to make doors and window frames had to be imported.

And we had the one thing that humans cannot live without. We had love. In unlimited amounts. And a son after a while, born in the Seventh-day Adventist hospital and baptized in Saint Peter’s Cathedral right there in Muslim Karachi.

And plenty to eat. And time to be together.

And friends. Good friends, God bless them all.

Who needs more than that?

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