The much of my working life involved traveling abroad — by actual account 80 trips overseas and work in 65 countries in every part of the globe. At least for my early travels, I was keen on bringing back artifacts that reflected something of the culture and art of the countries. As the house filled up, however, the collecting desire diminished. Here is a selection from my holdings, several featured because of a story behind their acquisition.
Memorable as my first piece, the Indonesian statue of the elephant god, Ganesha, is an outstanding piece of Balinese wood sculpture. Meticulous carved completely by hand on a dark hardwood, it reflects a craftsmanship virtually lost during ensuing years. In 1969 I had wandered down the beach from my Denpasar hotel when approached by a young man in ragged clothing. He offered me this marvelous statue in exchange for my shirt — a shock. Because I had packed lightly for the side trip to Bali and had no spare, I gave him as much money as I had in my pocket.
In 1970, now employed by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I made a solo study mission to Asia to review U.S. military training programs. While in South Korea I was attracted to this pitcher and chalice. To me their graceful lines bespoke the artistic genius of the people. Told that the pair had been handcrafted from copper shell casings left from the Korean War, the Biblical prophet Isaiah’s dictum about “beating swords into plowshares” came to mind and I bought them.
During the Indochina War, I made three trips to the countries embroiled in the conflict. A souvenir sought by many, military and civilian, who came to Vietnam was a large ceramic pachyderm known to the illuminati as a “buf-e” — “big ugly f…… elephant.” I resisted their attractions until 1974 when a Saigon “buf-e flogger” (merchant) displayed a new design fashioned after the three headed elephant symbol of Laos. I bought two that since have graced our dining room.
In 1974 as a way of assessing how well the Agency for International Development (USAID) was implementing important changes the Congress had made in assistance policies, I was part of a investigative team that visited Central and South America. At that time concentrating on wood carvings, a head of Don Quixote, well conceived and executed, caught my eye in a shop in Colombia. It too has a permanent place in our dining room.
The next artifact, a Cambodian silver box, carries a tragic story with it. In 1975 just a matter of days before the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into the capitol of Phnom Penh, Sisowath Sirik Matak, a royal prince and assistant prime minister, gave it to me when solo I went to meet with him about the crisis. He was realistically pessimistic about the future but refused to leave Cambodia ahead of the enemy, writing the U.S. Ambassador: “But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.” Just days later he was shot with other officials in front of the National Postal Building. I never look at the box without thinking of his bravery.
That example might be contrasted with the fate of Nguyen Van Thieu, the last president of South Vietnam. I was attached to a 1975 delegation of House and Senate members asked by the White House to go to Indochina in an attempt to spark an emergency appropriation for the war effort. While in Saigon the delegation met with Thieu in the Presidential Palace where he presented each of us with the lacquered, inlaid vase shown here. When new funding failed and Communist forces were at the gates of Saigon, Thieu was whisked away to Taiwan by the CIA and later moved to Massachusetts. He died of natural causes in Boston in 2001.
Later in 1975 I led a Congressional staff mission to Africa reviewing USAID and Peace Corp programs. One high point was our visit to Ghana where we met with the U.S. Ambassador, Shirley Temple, the former child film star and a charming, bright personality. She was very forthright with us on problems of the Peace Corp in Ghana. While in Accra my eye caught an “Ashante stool,” a seat carved from a single piece of wood upon which Ghanian gentry are said to sit. For the past 43 years this stool has graced our foyer where it has proved handy for pulling on boots or, more commonly, depositing the days’ mail.
The final artifact is a blue and white pen holder from China. I bought it in Beijing as part of the first delegation of House and Senate staff members invited to the People’s Republic. We arrived just in time to be part of the deadliest earthquake of the 20th Century at Tangshan on July 26, 1976, one that killed anywhere from 240,000 to half a million Chinese. As a result of damage in Beijing 100 miles away, our itinerary was drastically altered and we saw parts of China no American officials had yet visited. As I look at the pen holder the memories return of that tremendous shaking.
Eight items, eight memories of travels taken. Each piece has earned a place in our home where they make a presence and bring the past into the present.
Note: I have provided a more complete description of the Great Tangshan Earthquake and its effects recorded on this blog, March 24, 2017.