Father and Son With a Taste for Adventure
IT was 3 o'clock in the morning, parked in the Mount of Olives, that I discovered just how determinedly asleep Angus could be if he so decided. It was not the most convenient time for him to demonstrate this capacity because I needed his help in dealing with two young Palestinians who were attempting to persuade me, through the front window of the car, to make a donation to the funds of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
It was a small incident on a big journey, during which I and Angus, father and son, discovered as much about ourselves as the lands we visited.
That we were there at all was the result of a casual promise I had made to Angus one day when he was very young and suffering from a bout of boredom.
"One day we'll go on an expedition," I had said, "just you and I - an adventure, somewhere exciting."
I meant it, in the sense that it would be something I would love to do - to have time with him without the impingement of other demands - but in leaving the date indeterminate I was subconsciously excluding the likelihood of it ever happening. For me the whole conversation was forgotten before teatime.
I should have known better. For Angus it was already fact; by his teatime he had fought crocodiles in Brazil, macheted through equatorial rainforest, and sledded halfway to the pole.
He nursed my promise right through his teens, and then on graduating he reminded me of it and suggested that now was a good time for the adventure.
I swallowed hard. How was I to find several weeks for an "adventure" when I couldn't even find 10 minutes to tie back the clematis over the front door? And what about the family, the loss of income, the risks?
I stalled for as long as I could, but I knew deep down that honor was at stake. I would have to go. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
Looking at an atlas with adventure in mind was in itself a new experience. We would travel by car and boat; there was no adventure in a jumbo jet. But where? It was Angus's choice. I waited apprehensively. He chose the Valley of the Kings.
Egypt. I looked at the globe and the childhood explorer stirred in me. The pharaohs, pyramids, the Nile, bulrushes, and Moses. And on the way, the gilded mosques of Istanbul, the burnt rocks of the Jordanian desert. Could we manage the lost city of Petra, or even a detour to Greece and ancient Delphi?
These lauded and chronicled marvels of man were the jewels that sparkled in our minds. We would see them all, touch them, photograph them, talk of them to others when we got home. And we did - but the real discoveries and rewards were quite different. They came from living and sleeping and eating in an area 6 feet by 4 feet; from being isolated by language, facing problems and danger without the support of wife or peers; from being dependent on ourselves and on each other.
Initially our "adventure" had the ambience of a holiday. The novelty of having our house on our back took us through the friendly, familiar countryside of Britain, and anticipation smoothed our passage across the North Sea. But then the strictures of small-car life and the dilemmas of foreign travel roughened the road. That is when the traits of character that I firmly believed belonged only to others suddenly identified themselves in me.
How many times had I said to the children: "Put it away where you found it," or "Have you left the bathroom tidy?' The implication was that children were always making a mess and parents always tidy. I believed it. Until one night after a hazardous drive through the mountains of Yugoslavia I was searching in vain for a flashlight and Angus said, with certainty:
"In the corner, left-hand side, under the maps of Turkey."
"Oh," I said.
"If you could try and put things back where you found them...." He carried on peeling an orange.
I looked at him blankly, considered pulling rank, saying something trite like, "Don't forget who you're talking to," but settled for silence. He was right, of course. There were no prerogatives attached to being Angus's father. The Russian soldiers with submachine guns who questioned us in Czechoslovakia had already made that perfectly clear.
Little things were coming to light, weaknesses and strengths that in everyday life might never be noticed. They were easy to recognize but much harder to accept, and yet they had to be if harmony were to reign - 24 square feet is just too small an area in which to fight. So pride was the one to take the hammering, and disagreement was laid low by the eloquence of silence.
We turned right at Taksim-platz in Istanbul because Angus had a gut feeling that if we wanted to get into Asia that's the way we should go. I came to trust his gut feelings - anyhow I couldn't find my way out of a parking lot without directions. On the other hand, when we suddenly hit the rush-hour traffic of Berlin, Angus surrendered the wheel, and I accepted without comment his admission that the melee and confusion was too much.
Asia continued the lessons of self-revelation. It brought fear. Not the private fear of the child, of the dark, of animals, nor the personal fear of the adult, of losing a job, of being unable to provide, but immediate and shared fears that were threatening and without promise of peaceful resolution.
One of several instances was the night we were camped in the mountains close to the Syrian border and woke in the small hours of the morning to find our car surrounded by dark, turbaned men with scarves across their mouths. That was when our status, pride, and self-assurance were desquamated in short order; that was when father saw son and son saw father.
But only a few hours later we shared moments of great joy: brewing early morning coffee on the ramparts of a desert fort last occupied by the Crusaders; watching a newly-kindled sun brush the night's chill from the endless sand and settle down to another day of eternity; talking to a monk in the awesome solitude of a mountain monastery. These are the experiences we talked about then and still talk about now: They're the ones that brought mutual enlightenment.
Interestingly, the single occasion of embittered disagreement between us was over the most trivial of matters and under circumstances of no danger. We were on our return journey, within the safe boundaries of Switzerland. Snow had started to fall in the early morning, and by late afternoon the roads were almost impassable. During the blizzard we took a wrong turn and found ourselves climbing the side of a mountain that should not have been there. We were tired and disgruntled at the delay, and we each fe lt the other was to blame. When a little mountain guest house appeared through the flying snow, I stopped the car.
"We'd better ask here," I suggested.
"All right," said Angus, though asking the way was not something he liked to do.
We both sat there.
"Well," I said, looking straight ahead.
"Well," he replied.
"It's your turn," I said.
"I asked last time - in Yugoslavia."
We sat there, hunched defiantly, 10 yards from the solution to our problem. The admonition I had trotted out on countless occasions of childhood disputes flashed through my mind.
"Does it really matter?" I used to say with exasperation.
Just then it did. We laugh about it now, but in retrospect it was salutary. Pettiness so often sows the seeds of confrontation.
How did we settle it? I can't remember and, if I did, it would have to remain a secret. You understand? That's what our adventure did for us - brought us closer together, developed mutual respect, made us the best of friends.