George is in China now, buried there. Or maybe not. Maybe he was cremated, his ashes flung into Beijing smog—I’ll never know. But one thing is certain: this son of New England is not in America. Alice, the woman who married him in his 80s as he began his decline, severed contact the frigid day that she had him carried onto a jet for her long journey back to her native land. “The acupuncturists’ needles are longer in China,” she offered as her only explanation for the move, in what would be our final conversation. Within a few weeks, on January 15, 2010, he was dead—88 years to the day after his birth.
His relatives erected a memorial headstone in their family plot in Northeast Harbor, Maine, on Mount Desert Island. I’ve read that it’s a small cemetery in a forest near the harbor. Nothing lies below that slab but earth. I haven’t been there, but I’m sure his name faces the sea.
George’s ancestors were among the first Puritans to arrive on these shores. When I met him in his small apartment near Madison Avenue in Manhattan my first day on the job, I laughed to see an imposing black plaque on the wall above his bed. “Here lies George Peabody (1795-1869)” the archaic typeface declared—a replica, I soon learned, of the gravestone of his relative buried in Salem, Massachusetts. The cemetery borders on his birthplace, the former town of Danvers; its citizens had renamed part of the town Peabody in his honor years before his death.
From the George Peabody I’d come to know, I learned that his ancestor was born into very modest circumstances but made a fortune, founding a bank for international monetary exchange that was the precursor of J.P. Morgan. “He gave all of his money away—more than eight million—and built housing for the poor in London,” he said. I listened intently, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that I was awe-struck as the story unfolded. “When he died, he was so beloved that Queen Victoria sent his remains to America on one of her ships—after he had been interred for a month at Westminster Abbey. The body was handed over to Admiral Farragut in Maine, and a second funeral was held.”
His tone was nonchalant, but it seemed that George felt it was important to let me, a stranger, know about his family history. I was twenty-three, raised in the city’s “outer borough” of Queens, New York, and still unemployed two years after my college graduation, which took place just as the city was beginning to go bankrupt. This man was like no one I had ever met. For the next several years, until I found a full-time job, I worked a few days a week as George’s administrative assistant, typing his PhD-thesis-in-progress on power in organizations and his correspondence with friends, business associates and colleagues worldwide. I answered the phone in the rare moments he stepped away and brewed the tea we sipped, working on opposite sides of his big, cluttered desk.
A gulf could have stretched between us—this hearty, sandy-haired man of 52, born two years before my father, this ordained Episcopal priest who had been director of leadership training for the church, who had traveled to ghettos across America with community organizer Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals, seeing what he could learn. This handsome, worldly man with a trans-Atlantic accent like Cary Grant’s whom I’d mistaken for British when we first spoke on the phone (my first exposure to Boston Brahmin inflections). This man who visited my husband, Bill, and me several times in our newlyweds’ ground-floor, alley-facing Bronx apartment and sat with us on the shag rug in his jeans and blazer, drinking three-dollar-a-bottle Spanish wine. This man of impossibly distinguished lineage who once posed in front of a park’s long list of visitor restrictions, smiling for our camera while he “flipped the bird.” Knowing that George relished his rebellious streak, I wasn’t surprised when he asked for a print of the snapshot. I almost expected it to appear in his bathroom, next to the framed New Yorker cartoon of a dowager complaining to her husband, “Now that they’ve cracked the genetic code, I expect everyone will want to be a Peabody!”
My brother Bob spent endless hours researching our family roots using the Ellis Island website, but could find no record of anyone preceding our maternal and paternal grandparents. All were born in the undeveloped Mezzogiorno and, in the early years of the 20th century, joined millions of other southern Italians fleeing for a new life in America.
My paternal grandfather Salvatore Rotondi arrived here as a married 28-year-old, but died of pneumonia less than two decades later when my father Dalio (“Dan”) was an infant. My grandmother Assunta, also an emigrant from the Benevento province near Naples, attempted to manage their Bronx lumber and coal business by herself during the Depression, while caring for her daughter and six sons. Before too long, cancer took her life. My father, the youngest child, was sent upstate to Sparkill, New York, to be raised at the St. Agnes Home and School run by Dominican nuns.
Despite the losses and deprivations of his childhood, my father embodied optimism and good cheer. At five foot, eight inches, he wasn’t a tall man, but he had the posture and bearing of someone raised by ego-bolstering parents who assured their child, “You can accomplish anything!” The reality was that no one had taken a personal interest in my father’s future. None of his older brothers and sister earned a college degree—which he ultimately managed to achieve, becoming a teacher of industrial arts, English to the foreign-born at night, and, in his fifties, a special education teacher in Harlem.
I like to picture him in one of his favorite places, trolling a beach, eyes focused downward, stopping to lift up stones and shells for closer scrutiny. “Wunderbar!” he often enthused, a German word he picked up somewhere. When his bulging canvas bag began to overflow, he smiled over his treasure, which he would use for one of his arts and crafts projects.
I also link George with the sea. I picture him in a loose navy-blue sweater on the sailboat he owned with one of his three brothers, explaining to me and Bill, the wobbly novices, about wind currents and nautical maps, the sun glinting off his tortoise shell glasses. This was a new role for me to absorb—George as confident, relaxed captain and commander. That one-time experience of sailing the Connecticut coast, sleeping onboard was, to me, as exotic and linked to social class as the images stamped in my mind of immigrants bedded down on city fire escapes in summer. My maternal grandparents, who headed to Carmine Street in Little Italy after their processing at Ellis Island, might have been among them.
My father lay in the hospital bed, consumed by the pneumonia that would finally release him from Alzheimer’s disease, twelve years after his initial diagnosis at age 70. By the end, his eyes still held a flicker of recognition for my mother who visited every afternoon, staying into the evening, constantly monitoring his every need. But I don’t think he knew who I was—his eyes, once so lively, were a void. And with this knowledge, I fell into my own void: the girl who reminded everyone of her father.
I had to climb out, make my own mental home movies: dad not even attempting to modulate his jubilation when he won a game of Scrabble. Dad talking to everyone, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses who would ring our doorbell, invariably just as we were all about to leave together– he couldn’t resist stopping for a spirited theological discussion. Dad unafraid to pursue a conversation into a debate over current events or a heated defense of exploited workers or blacks in America. Dad and my mother getting into a long argument about the “rightness” of marrying someone who wasn’t of your race. The impassioned tone shocked my 11-year-old self because the subject was purely hypothetical for both.
When I flew for the day to Washington, D.C., where George had moved decades earlier, I knew it would be the last time I’d see him and that the experience would be wrenching. Our friendship had been nurtured over the years through steady phone calls, his annual Thanksgiving visits to family in New York, and get-togethers when I occasionally traveled to D.C. for a conference.
Like my other close friends, George had a lively sense of humor that kept us connected. I’ve since learned that he was a descendant of John Endicott, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and, according to historians, a “zealous Puritan.” Endicott disapproved of “immodest dress in women” and long hair for men and banished those with unorthodox religious views. He also managed to have a few Quakers hanged. I wonder what he would have thought of George, a minister with not exactly an irreverent streak, but a quick laugh when it came to religion-as-synonymous-with-stuffiness. With sixteen years of Roman Catholic education under my belt, I could always prompt a reaction by reciting the Baltimore Catechism like a speeded-up automaton or recalling Johnathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” required sophomore reading at The Mary Louis Academy.
Alice, who had put an end to George’s lifelong bachelorhood, answered the door at their apartment in the Watergate complex. After passing through the spacious lobby with its glittering chandelier, I felt I’d stumbled into the wrong place. The clean, orderly home I remembered had been obliterated; magazines, newspapers, framed art and documents and papers of all kinds covered the surface of every chair, table, desk, even the floor. The counter of the gloomy galley kitchen—some light bulbs must have burned out—was littered with rotting apple cores.
In the twilight of his bedroom, the nightstand cluttered with pill bottles and sick room paraphernalia, George was being fed by an aide. He couldn’t speak, but his still-bright blue eyes followed me as I crossed the threshold and approached his bed. I was certain that he knew me, that behind those eyes was not just awareness but intelligence. I found myself adopting the chatty cheerfulness of the broken-hearted. When I reminisced about a poetry reading of mine that he had loyally attended despite the stormy weather years earlier, quoting an amusing comment he’d made, George chortled, though weakly, at just the right moment. I felt encouraged until I wondered if his mental awareness made his physical breakdown that much more terrible to bear.
When my father saw children beyond the window of the nursing home that last year, his eyes would fill with tears. There was no way to understand why. Was he moved by the recognition of their innocence? Was he returning to himself as a boy, hiking miles to the local public school in winter, wearing ill-fitting shoes? I could only guess. In the deckle-edged photos taken during his older brothers’ and sister’s occasional visits, he wears a newsboy’s cap, tweedy pants that are too large for him and a big grin.
Fergus Anckorn, born in England in 1919, was taken prisoner by the Japanese when he was 23, an enlistee in the 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. A talented magician, he seemed to be a man who had managed to conjure his own survival. Bill and I met Fergus on a two-hour train ride from Bath to London in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. He had spent three years in a Burma camp during the war—the war my father fought as a corporal in the 16th Armored Division that rumbled through Eastern Europe, and that George battled as a Navy officer at Iwo Jima. Fergus was a slave laborer on the infamous “Death Railway” being built as a supply route between Burma and Thailand, a project made famous through The Bridge On the River Kwai. He survived artillery shelling, a massacre at the Alexandra British Military Hospital (he covered his head with his bloodied sheet and played dead), and then, life in the prison camp.
There Fergus endured near-starvation and beatings as he attempted, using his severely injured leg and right arm, to drag logs inch by inch through unrelenting jungle. Always, he said, he kept the image of his fiancée Lucille before him, and used his magician’s sleight-of-hand to keep the camp commandant entertained. Fergus’s mother called him “Smiler,” and it is probably his belief in the impossible that kept him going when so many of his mates died.
A very articulate survivor, Fergus had prepared well for the interview he’d given to a TV reporter just hours before boarding the train. From his valise, he showed us war-time letters, photos and a postcard for his mother with a message hidden in shorthand that she decoded—he later became a teacher of shorthand and other business subjects.
“Keep smiling,” Fergus said, as he stepped off the train at Paddington Station. Bill and I were shaken. After a few years had passed and I couldn’t forget him, I wondered how we could have let Fergus vanish from our lives. The two hours spent in the company of this extraordinary man had upended my assumptions about human nature. I kept hearing his words, “But I hate no one. It was just the war.” Although I didn’t have an address for Fergus, I decided I had to track him down.
And then, I got very lucky: Hunter College, my employer, hosted a conference for international humanitarian workers who were addressed by Great Britain’s Lord Owen. Through a co-worker involved with the conference, I wrote to Lord Owen, describing our encounter with Fergus years earlier. In the envelope, I enclosed a letter to him in care of the Magic Circle of Magicians, remembering that Fergus was a proud member. Lord Owen informed me that he was forwarding the letter to the “Centre for the Magic Art” at its London headquarters. “I have been assured that this will reach Mr. Anckorn; my office having spoken to someone who was due to meet him that very evening,” he wrote. I was astonished, and grateful, for the coincidence of timing.
Fergus replied within days, and we have stayed in touch since, at first through air-mailed letters and later via email. A few years ago I connected with his daughter, Deborah Cortey. “Here’s her email address,” he wrote. “Just curious why you want it.” I don’t recall how I danced my way out of that. I knew I couldn’t say, “I need to know if anything has happened when your replies stop”—as they did for a long period just when my father’s Alzheimer’s disease was worsening and I feared the worst for Fergus, too.
Psychologists call it “anticipatory grief,” this mourning before a loved one has died. My grief began the day of dad’s diagnosis. Because he wasn’t raised in a family but an institution, there were few stories of his childhood. I had only the man I knew who was slipping away from me, grasping for words that, more and more, eluded him.
George took pleasure regaling us with family stories, usually in a tone of affectionate amusement. “My mother was given a Degas for a wedding present but too much bosom showed, in her opinion, so she gave the painting to the rummage sale of her favorite charity,” he once told me, enjoying the sight of my shock. The one time we visited him at the Peabody summer retreat in Northeast Harbor, I was struck by the scene when we arrived, which remains as vivid to me as a photo: George sitting at an oversized desk, engrossed in his writing, while directly behind him, sailboats race on a cove’s sparkling waters. The sprawling white clapboard home had been built in 1924 by his father, the Reverend Malcom Endicott Peabody, and remained as it was then, with original claw-foot bathtubs and plumbing. Curtains hung fifty years earlier were “perfectly good,” he said with a grin, quoting his mother. His Brooks Brothers shirt, as always, was faded and its cuffs frayed. To the Peabodys, extravagance was not a virtue.
My father found discards and made art from what others would call junk, using only his imagination, never a pattern or guide. A printing company’s used plates sparked his Metal Period—all kinds of animal and human figures, including dueling knights, suddenly began to populate our tables, the dining room sideboard and a desk top. It never bothered him, or me, that typeface and photos appeared on the reverse side of these creations, a seeming flaw that we felt actually added to their character. I never knew where he found the hollow metal tubes that he used to construct a slew of xylophones, which he taught himself to play in a rudimentary way. When a local paint store went out of business, its wallpaper sample books that he found piled up on the sidewalk became a mother lode of inspiration for collage. A lumberyard’s cast-off scraps of circles, rectangles and irregular shapes led to his mature Wood Period, which produced an abstract, life-sized sculpture that I called “The Three Musicians.” It was strongly reminiscent of Picasso’s painting of that title, but his modesty didn’t allow him to accept the comparison.
The war with Japan was over, but the prisoners didn’t know that and were forced to stand twenty minutes before a firing squad. After suffering this final act of cruelty, they were released. Fergus weighed seventy-four pounds. “My stomach shrunk permanently,” he told us. “I can’t handle eating a big meal.”
My father always ate with gusto, relishing every bite and often exclaiming his appreciation. I imagine that some people who grew up in an orphanage during the Depression might develop a taste for the finest food later in life if they have the means. But my dad’s tastes remained simple and he satisfied easily, accepting my mother’s burned steaks and soggy canned vegetables without complaint, even with good humor. As Alzheimer’s began to stake a greater claim on him, I noticed that he ate quickly without pause or looking up, as if each meal would be his last. It seemed he was paying homage to hunger, head bowed almost to his plate, not raising his eyes until hunger left him. Then he would look up and smile, a small boy relieved.
When George found a lobster in a trap that he hadn’t set himself, he took it, replacing the crustacean in the wire cage with a bottle of good Scotch. “That’s the time-honored tradition here,” he said. While I couldn’t offer lobster, there is nothing I relished more than cooking a multi-course feast for George, who considered my “ethnic” fare a luxury—one he was happy to accept. I felt proud that any Puritan leanings he had toward frugal meals didn’t stand a chance against my invitations, and I took great satisfaction in that. Invariably, I’d invite as many friends as my table could accommodate because I wanted them to experience him, to know for themselves the depth and originality of his thinking and perhaps to show him off a bit. George was as engaging as any guest on today’s Charlie Rose show discussing politics, history and current events, but he never took center stage. Instead, he had the ability to draw people out and listened very closely—a skill he may have developed as a priest. In all the years of our friendship, I never saw him wear a collar.
To cook for my father from scratch was my gift to help erase his past deprivations. I planned elaborate menus: wild mushroom soup, chicken Marsala, pasta with fresh basil and tomatoes, baked asparagus Parmesan, fruit pies whose dough I rolled out, cut into strips and arranged in a lattice top, peach or blueberry bubbling through.
As a teenager battling my mother who hated to cook, I bought my own knives and gadgets to prepare these meals. Strangely, the sturdy Army-issue fork from my father’s mess kit remained throughout the years in a kitchen drawer with our everyday silverware.
“Dad was in Europe during the Occupation,” my brother Bob told me when I phoned him to jar his memory, hoping to uncover missing parts of our father’s past. “He said that the troops would eat outdoors, afterwards scraping the remains from their meals into a garbage can. The German civilians were starving, and dad told me he never forgot the sight of people fighting one another over the scraps.”
George protested a proposal to build the World War II Memorial on the Washington, D.C. mall. I’m not sure why—he was fading then. I had begun to notice changes on those occasions when I was in Washington. A few times he became lost while driving, once heading in the wrong direction down a one-way street, and sometimes forgetting to make our dinner reservations. Then he had a bad fall, followed by surgery that his doctors declared a success but from which he never recovered completely. He grew more tentative on the phone, reaching for words, his once-hearty voice eventually diminishing to a whisper. Alzheimer’s was ruled out, but no diagnosis could explain his continuing decline. By then, Alice, a Watergate neighbor and friend, had given up her own co-op and moved into George’s apartment. On my final visit, despite the mess, I noticed on the wall an award for his World War II service that I’d never seen and a newspaper clipping about a recent ceremony honoring him.
Dad talked about the war only when Bob badgered him for information. The Army decided that he should be trained as a medic, and my father speculated, half-joking, that they must have known he could stitch—leather belts and handbags that he designed himself. Bob had a more plausible theory: “Dad had poor eyesight, a big liability for the infantry. But on the plus side, he had a year of college, which wasn’t typical of draftees at the time.” (We both knew that my father had received a scholarship to attend Fordham University. But working two jobs to pay for meals and rent at a rooming house—one job was night shift elevator operator—he would fall asleep in class. Ultimately, he couldn’t maintain the B average required to keep the scholarship.) My father was sent to Denver to receive extra training at Fitzsimons Army Hospital, where wounded men returning from the front were treated. He’d usually mention a particular medics’ lesson when tending to my bloodied knee or other childhood wound, but never described what he saw in service.
Before the start of George’s memorial at St. James Church in New York City three months after his death, one of his surviving brothers mock-scanned the pews for the missing widow, saying, “Are you here, Alice?” In the Gothic Revival splendor of the 19th-century church, we prayed psalms and sang hymns. A young man and woman who had met George in his capacity as a management consultant talked about his influence on their lives. Nieces and nephews fondly remembered their uncle during several “Reflections” built into the program. Some people with famous-looking faces whom I couldn’t quite place told witty stories about the young George’s lust for life. I heard about debutante parties on a friend’s yacht and something about a red sports car.
“He had such a spirit of fun,” someone said and, in the silence of my thoughts, I agreed, recalling one of his many tales. One day, out for a pleasure cruise with a group of friends following behind, he invented a meaningless but portentous-sounding phrase, “The tomatoes are ripe,” and relayed it by radio to the other boat. To his delight, they interpreted the words as secret code for the launch of a spy mission.
Political intrigue swirled in his circle: George’s former brother-in-law, Desmond FitzGerald, a deputy director of the CIA under President Kennedy, had headed a task force to overthrow Fidel Castro (during the war, he was a liaison to the Chinese 6th Army in its campaign to take Burma back from the Japanese, perhaps helping to free Fergus). At one time, George was in contact with people on Block Island who provided a top-secret safe house for Daniel Berrigan, the anti-war Catholic priest fleeing a three-year prison sentence for destroying draft files. Given that history, cloak-and-dagger jokes seemed to come naturally.
During the memorial, as others continued to reminisce, I recalled an escapade of George at 15. “I was traveling with my family in Scotland for the Highland games, feeling bored,” he had told me. “So I hitchhiked to Southampton and hid on a ship bound for America, but then got cold feet when I realized it would be a very tough swim from the boat to shore.” He hitchhiked back to Scotland, where he located his family at a stadium, watching that day’s competition. “Oh, so you’re back, George,” his older sister Marietta said off-handedly as he slipped into the seats beside them. (Marietta would go on to represent the U.S. on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and serve as chief aide to her close friend, Adlai Stevenson, during his run for president. She would also become the mother of Frances FitzGerald, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author, and the model Penelope Tree.)
That anecdote, which Bill and I heard more than once, astonished me. I tried to imagine a similar unannounced adolescent escape from my family (first scenario change: they never went anywhere) without my mother making panicked calls to the police, sleeping by the telephone, and simultaneously organizing her own search party. I didn’t know if the chasm in behavior was due to George’s culture, so different from my Italian American background, or whether it hinged on wealth and class. I’ll leave that to the sociologists, but for me, the story highlighted the huge contrasts in our backgrounds. George felt like a peer and a friend—that alone was amazing to me—and our friendship was all the more unlikely because of our differences.
After the memorial service, I didn’t stay for the reception, realizing how difficult it would be to explain who I was and why I was there. We had just come together “In Thanksgiving for the Life of George Lee Peabody,” and though I felt some comfort knowing how much he was loved, I was still the outsider, adrift. As the church’s heavy doors shut behind me and I emerged from the darkness, blazing afternoon light seemed to stab my heart as if it were loss itself. I was both dazed and bereft. This was the same sensation that I had in London the summer we met Fergus. Bill and I had spent two hours underground in the Imperial War Museum, immersed in the somber tension of World War II and then—the sudden, disorienting brightness of present-day life on a city sidewalk.
At dad’s funeral Mass, my cousin Richard read my poem, “With These Words,” about how my father won my mother’s love by writing to her every day from the front as his convoy moved east across Europe. She had saved some of these letters, tying the brittle bundle with blue ribbon. When I decided to release the bow to read them for the first time, my heart pounded in trepidation. In recent years, his halting words had dwindled to silence.
Fergus stopped driving after his last accident—his car was totaled, but born to “cheat death,” in his words, he was uninjured and the hospital released him after just a few hours of tests. But his vertigo and unsteady gait—effects of wartime injuries catching up with him, he recently told me—have increased. He’s moved from his home in Kent to an apartment near his son Simon. But Fergus still makes his monthly trips to London by railroad and taxi to attend meetings of the Magic Circle. Once the youngest inductee at 18, he is now the oldest. “I use a motorized chair to get around,” he told me. “I’m a menace.”
Can I still learn more about my friend George through his famous ancestor? “When I could still drive to the Magic Circle meetings, I always passed the Peabody buildings,” Fergus recently remarked when I mentioned the name. “Of course I know him! What a great man.”
For Fergus, the individual known as “the father of modern philanthropy” is alive in the legacy he left for the working poor—blocks of apartments where they could escape the Dickensian conditions of the slums. Londoners have that tangible reminder, as well as Peabody Square with its statue erected in George’s honor. But for me, the connection was only that humorously positioned grave plaque that I remembered from the first day that George Lee Peabody came into my life. I needed to do some hunting.
The full title of an 1870 biography by Phebe Ann Hanaford gets to the heart of the matter: The Life of George Peabody; Containing a record of those princely acts of benevolence which entitle him to the esteem and gratitude of friends of education and the destitute, both in America, the land of his birth, and in England, the place of his death.
Having never married, the 19th-century George gave away his enormous fortune for the public good. In America, he established the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, an intellectual and arts center; the Peabody Academy of Sciences in Salem; a coeducational teacher-training school in Nashville; as well as public libraries, historical societies, and archaeological and zoological museums. Reading the effusive prose celebrating Peabody, who began his career as a grocer’s apprentice, I’m struck by the eyewitness accounts of his modest bearing, “his manner, that claimed no special attention or favors,” and his easygoing way of speaking with everyone he encountered. I immediately thought of George, who asked questions and listened intently, whether he was communicating with a sales assistant or one of my friends.
Helping others was part of the family heritage, maybe the American version of noblesse oblige. My friend George’s closest relatives, like himself, had been Episcopal priests. His grandfather, the Reverend Endicott Peabody, had founded the church-affiliated Groton School, renowned for its discipline and cold showers. It produced such alumni as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, senators, congressmen, corporate titans, and George himself, who, he complained– clearly still aggrieved–had received extra-tough treatment from his headmaster-grandfather. But earlier, the same Reverend Peabody had made history as the first Episcopal priest to serve the people of Tombstone, Arizona, visiting people in their homes and building a sizeable congregation in that rough mining town. George’s father, the Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Central New York, had been a missionary in the Philippines. But “duty” to those less fortunate went much deeper, I learned in my first days with George, when he dropped family stories before me like breadcrumbs I followed.
He was especially proud of his mother, Mary Parkman Peabody. In 1964 at age 72, urged by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, she attempted to be served with black and white friends at a racially segregated restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, aware that they would be arrested and jailed. “’We need some old people in this thing,”’ she declared as she was taken away. She was held for two days and gave interviews from her cell. George’s brother Endicott, then the governor of Massachusetts, called a press conference to praise his mother’s courageous stand. The event made national headlines, led to a book, Four for Freedom, and helped advance the civil rights cause in America.
When Bob was 11 and I was 8 years old, we took our first-ever family vacation—an extended weekend trip to the nation’s capital. My dad had become friends with a female teacher at his school whose church group was chartering a bus to Washington. Would we like to join them? Yes, we would. It was only years later that Bob and I realized how extraordinary that weekend was, for we were the only white people on the bus and in the downtown hotel where we stayed in that still-segregated city.
Sometimes I wonder if a man’s worth is too often measured by the volume of material on the Internet related to his life. I Google my father and find his date of birth and death, social security number, former address and bare-bones army induction facts. No articles, biographies, quotes, obituaries, memories are on record. And strangely, despite his famous name, I find nothing about my friend George except for obituary and memorial notices.
But Fergus has been “discovered” and is the subject of scores of magazine and newspaper articles, as well as two biographies: Surviving by Magic: The Remarkable Story of Fergus Anckorn, Magician and Survivor of the Thai-Burma Death Railway by Monty Parkin (May 2009) and Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW by Peter Fyans (2011). In 2015, he played a key role in the BBC documentary, “Britain’s Greatest Generation,” and appears prominently in its companion book. Right now, Fergus says, he is one of only two men alive from his regiment.
Bob calls to tell me something else about dad that I hadn’t known: “When moving through Germany in the last stages of the war, the retreating soldiers told civilians that the Americans coming in would be plundering, raping and killing. Dad said he came upon an elderly German couple who were terrified of this prospect and had tried to slit their own wrists. He stopped the blood and bandaged them.”
From one of Fergus’s earliest letters:
“I was stopped in the street yesterday by four young Japanese exchange students from a local school who were conducting some sort of survey, asking such questions as ‘Can you name two towns in Japan? Can you name any Japanese food? Have you ever been to Japan?’
So when they asked how I knew so much about Japan, I said to them—in Japanese—‘I was a POW of the Japanese during the war.’ Their mouths dropped, and they kept saying, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’
I said, ‘No—it’s a long time ago. You are my friends.’ I went into a shop and they found me and offered more copious apologies. I told them they were not born until forty years after these events, and I shook their hands and told them I was pleased to speak with them.”
In a 2002 letter to me, Fergus wrote: “When I was a p.o.w. I had four ambitions if I should survive. To learn Japanese, to see Japan, to use a compass properly for tracking through the jungle, and to learn to fly.” He has accomplished all these goals. Three years later, he emailed: “In June, I took my son to Singapore and Thailand…to all the spots where something happened to me. None of those places exist now! Chunkai camp was deep in the jungle then. Now shops, buses, taxis and tourists. I have not had one nightmare since the trip. Not bad after 63 years of them every night!”
Fergus was feted with other veterans at the Imperial War Museum in 2005, the 60th anniversary of VJ Day, the victory over Japan, “a big to-do,” he recounted, attended by Prince Philip, Lady Mountbatten, Dame Vera Lynn, et al. For several weeks, he gave non-stop interviews to TV stations and the press. “I have become quite famous,” he said, and though I couldn’t see his face, I knew he said it in his low-key way, a mixture of pride and slight embarrassment. On June 26, 2014, he was invited to Buckingham Palace for another reception honoring the few surviving Far East veterans.
He has visited schoolchildren in Japan, met his former guards at a ceremony there and given talks about his experiences all over England. Most recently he has become friends with Konishita, a former Japanese guard on the Burma railway. Fergus met him at a “celebration party of reconciliation” between Konishita and Fergus’s friend, also a Far East prisoner of war. “Konishita didn’t want to be conscripted as a soldier and hated it,” Fergus wrote.
When so much has been taken from him, how can he be so forgiving, I ask myself.
Almost daily, I’m reminded of bombings, beheadings, torture, slaughter in mosques, slaughter in a South Carolina church—and see hatred as an eternal presence, sometimes explosive, sometimes coiled quietly in a corner. But I’m also thinking of kindness. And the deeply human yearning for peace. And how three men lived their lives.
In 1869, George Peabody spoke in public for the last time at the National Peace Jubilee in Boston, a five-day musical festival celebrating the end of the Civil War. Later that year, he died in England. After his remains had drawn thousands of mourners to Westminster Abbey, they were moved to one of Queen Victoria’s stately warships, flag at half mast, for the voyage to America. “Humanity will note…her unaccustomed mission of peace and sad courtesy,” wrote a London Telegraph reporter. From France, Victor Hugo paid tribute in a letter published in the London Times: “Yes, America has reason to be proud of this great citizen of the world and great brother of all men,–George Peabody. Peabody has been a happy man who would suffer in all sufferings, a rich man who would feel the cold, hunger and thirst of the poor…On this earth there are men of hate and men of love: Peabody was one of the latter.”
I think the philanthropic George would have looked kindly on his namesake, who quietly worked for peace. Social inequities disturbed my friend, and that included the seemingly intractable “troubles” in Northern Ireland. He had traveled there often as a non-government-affiliated but well-connected peacemaker, meeting with both sides, trying to negotiate an acceptable plan. As I typed his letters to Ireland, he told me that he would never give up hope.
Once my father began an arts project, he worked obsessively, producing many versions. And then he gave away all of his creations—loom-knitted holiday wreaths and ornaments, hammered copper scenes of prancing deer, enamel pins and pendants, original string art. During several summers, he taught at a public day camp located in the classrooms and sticky-tar rooftop of a nearby public school. At the end of each day, there was usually a pile of left-over American cheese and peanut butter sandwiches, which my father brought home and tried to foist on our neighbors, to my embarrassment and Bob’s. “I just can’t bear to see good food thrown out,” he explained. By summer’s end, there were few takers. The birds ate well.
I see my father by the shore. And I see him astride his omnipresent “stitching horse,” an essential component of his leatherworking. The contraption stood several feet tall, had four wooden legs and a seat he would straddle for hours, sewing hides held by a clamp where a horse’s bit would be. He sat there stitching my mother’s stylish, extra-wide belts during their first years of marriage in an East Harlem apartment, and he sat there stitching my “flower child” purple suede vest and fringed shoulder bags that rarely left my body during my college years. He had built it himself as a young man—even the seat was thickly padded with genuine leather—and brought it along when moving into two other rental apartments and finally a house of my parents’ own in Queens.
The stitching horse was an object of both fascination and joy for me as a child. Fascination, because even at a young age, I could lose myself watching my dad plunge the needle into the tiny holes he had pre-punched into the leather, observing his concentration as he manipulated the skin and the outlines of the finished belt or bag began to emerge, all the while patiently answering my questions. And joy because, when my dad had completed his work, I had free reign to mount it and play cowgirl just as other, less-fortunate children, might ride on a much smaller, store-bought hobbyhorse. Many years later, when my father must have sensed he would no longer be doing leatherwork, he gave away his stitching horse to a talented young man he’d met who couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars needed to buy a new one.