Michael Bishop


A Year of No Certain Historicity
A memoir by Michael Bishop

      In either 1961 or '62, Lee Bishop [my father] received orders to report to a SAC base in Andalusia, Spain, thirty miles from Seville.  I had taken a year or two of Spanish at Nathan Hale [High School], and Lee asked Mom and Charles [my stepfather] to allow me to spend my senior year at a dependent school in Santa Clara, the USAF housing enclave south of Seville.  When they agreed, I accepted Dad's invitation to join him and Scottie in Spain.  This acceptance effectively cut my last tie to Tulsa, for, during my absence, Charles applied for a hardship assignment to Turner AFB in Albany, Georgia, to be near his arthritic mother.
      I flew to Spain early in the summer of 1962, going from Tulsa to LaGuardia Airport in New York and from LaGuardia to Lisbon, Portugal.  In Lisbon, I sat in an unfinished-feeling airport for several hours, then boarded a dilapidated two-prop aircraft along with a pair of nuns, some business people, and a few others.  My acne had flared owing to lost sleep, untimely meals, and trip-related distress.  Also, my Iberian Airlines buzz bomb from Lisbon hit dozens of air pockets on its way to Spain.  (Flight Into Danger?  I was on it.)  A copilot — he did not look like a steward — exited the cockpit soon after takeoff, disappeared into the restroom, and stayed there until we landed at the airfield at San Pablo, the support center for American military personnel near Seville.
      Spain, when I staggered down the movable stairs from the aircraft, opened out into a dusty plain dotted with orange trees or sinuous olive trees.  Driving into Seville, where Dad and Scottie had a second-story apartment at 15 Leoncillos, I saw more trees, a Cruz del Campo brewery, and the tower of the city's cathedral, La Giralda.  My bedroom had a balcony facing a bar, or bodega; the bar's security grate clattered up or down at openings and closings.  A blind man with a white-tipped cane stood out front hawking lottery tickets: "Loteria!  Loteria para hoy!"  Carts, motor scooters, and buses putted or rumbled past, and radio-toting young men roved the cobblestones singing "Besame Mucho" or "Speedy Gonzales".  How would I ever get any sleep here or feel anything other than an interloper?
      I had known Scottie, Dad's second wife, since meeting her one summer in 1953 or '54 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Her real name was Elizabeth, or Betty, but most people called her Scottie because she hailed from Scotland and spoke with an engaging burr.  She had dark hair, fair skin, and a square jaw that tightened when she perceived an affront.  Once, I reminded her that she should wear a scarf into church for the christening of some Spanish friends.  Scottie lit into me for patronizing her and refused to go.  "Solomon and son," she called Dad and me, an epithet that she meant as a slur even though I had a vague sense that Solomon connoted wisdom.  Scottie, however, warped that expression into a withering curse.
      Clearly, Scottie faced an untenable situation.  She could not speak Spanish and had no interest in learning more than a few words: please, thank you, hello, and goodbye.  Living on the local economy, she had no one to talk to while Dad worked at the base and I attended school.  Our young Spanish maid did work that might otherwise have kept her busy and reminded her of how poorly she handled the language.  Bored, she read and smoked, imagining new betrayals and watering resentments rather than relationships.  Dad simply exasperated her.  Although she nursed me through an early bout of gastroenteritis, I must have seemed to her another clueless male and so an enemy.
      One evening, Scottie prepared sausages by boiling them as the directions on their packaging dictated.  On our plates, however, they resisted cutting.  Stupidly, I noted that her failure to remove them from their plastic casings accounted for their uncuttability.  Sausages flew, crockery bounced, china struck the walls and shattered.  This outburst over, Scottie barricaded herself in her and Dad's room.
      I left the building and angled through the back-alley mazes of Seville until I reached la Calle de Sierpes (the Street of the Serpents).  I hiked this street toward the Hotel Cristina, the bullring, and the Guadalquivir River, then crossed a bridge into an area where many new highrises clustered.  Eventually, on an isolated arc of road around this complex, heading back to the bridge, I came upon a big parked truck.  As I passed it, a door above me opened and the driver shouted something at me.  I panicked and broke into a run along the embankment.  Behind me, the man laughed and cursed.  He had wanted only a light for his cigarette.  Shame scalded me, but I continued to run.  I hoped, inanely, that the darkness had kept him from identifying me as an American.
      Not until late did I get back to 15 Leoncillos.  Dad lay dozing in a chair.  I crawled into bed but could not sleep.  The sausage-casing incident and my craven behavior beyond the Guadalquivir recurred again and again in my head.  Then I heard footsteps and a creaking of hinges.  Feigning sleep, I saw that Scottie had come to check on me, to reassure herself that I had returned from my walkabout.  She resented anyone's taking her for stupid, for she had a sharper intelligence than Dad and a pessimistic sensibility that nonetheless longed for brightness and passion.
      When I read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Scottie read it too (a break from Shell Scott, Hercule Poirot, and Nero Wolfe) and railed against its pointlessness and nihilism.  She loathed the characters' footloose lack of commitment or direction, no matter what the damn First World War had done to them.  If you liked bleak books, she said, try William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, a tragedy in which real people struggled to connect.  And such beautiful writing, especially about women.  Hemingway knew nothing about women except what his balls told him.
      In that year overseas, I ceased to see the world as a boy.  I did not cease to behave as a boy, for first love often made a fool of me and I had no more sophistication than a puppy.  But I began to feel the complexity of existence, from life as well as from books, and to forge a variety of relationships — son, stepson, teammate, protege, sweetheart — with a self-reliance once beyond me.  I saw members of the Guardia Civil walking the sidewalks with machine guns; teenagers soused on legally bought alcohol; penitents stumbling under cumbersome roods; condoms for sale despite the power of the church; the flimflammery and bustle of trade and carousal in the streets.
      The teachers at Santa Clara, many of them itinerants with a yen for world travel, had less impact on me than did my peers, but Mary MacDonald, who taught senior English, and the Chases, a married couple with a tony apartment in Seville, linger in memory.  Patricia Chase, a social studies teacher, designated Fridays for free reading and set before us a table of colorful paperbacks.  You had five minutes to select a book and could exchange it once for another; thereafter you had to live with your choice.  I found Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence one Friday and reserved it for our next session.  That option always stood, but I seldom used it because rummaging for a book gave me an adrenalin rush.
      Mrs. Chase and her husband, who taught sophomore English, encouraged my writing.  They once invited me to their apartment to discuss a story I had shown them about a feral child in a rubble-strewn tenement.  This story undoubtedly displayed less promise than the Chases let on, but they loved good writing and had eclectic tastes.  (My yearbook, Taurus '63, depicts the elven-looking Raymond reading enthusiastically from a copy of The Martian Chronicles.)  They also had an astonishing record collection, featuring not only classical music but the voices of well-known writers reading their own work.  They played for me a Caedmon recording of Dylan Thomas reciting, in tones like silken thunder, his poem "Lament".  This experience galvanized me.  I have loved Thomas's poetry ever since.
      The Chases also played music for me, classical music, but I could not say if Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, or Spike Jones had composed it.  They asked if I liked any music other than rock 'n' roll.  I cited a cast recording of Meredith Wilson's The Music Man and an album of movie themes by the pianists Ferrante and Teicher which Mom and I enjoyed in Tulsa.  Later, much later, I understood how revealing of my ignorance this response had been and how graciously the Chases had moved our talk on to other topics.
      I wrote in Spain but seldom brought anything but classroom assignments to completion.  Too much to see and do: teen-center parties, movie dates, the beckoning labyrinth of Seville.  Toward the end of the school year, however, I edited, typed, mimeographed, and collated our literary magazine, El Toreador, which contained a dreary existentialist suicide tale of my own.  I also supervised the writing of the senior class will.  My classmates knew of my writerly ambitions, and one, long since lost to me, scrawled in my annual a request for a signed copy of my first book.
      Flying home from Spain was less taxing than my flight over, but I left my first real girlfriend behind and felt exiled from a landscape of belonging unlike any I had known since Mulvane, Kansas.  But I had with me a paperback of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and this laugh-out-loud funny war satire kept me occupied most of the trip home.  I finally landed in Albany, Georgia, where Mom and Charles had moved during my absence, and the homesickness I now experienced focused not on Tulsa or Mulvane but instead on Spain and my still feverish memories of it.

From "Military Brat: A Memoir", Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series
Published by Gale Research, © 1997.
Reprinted with permission from the author

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