By Jay Jamison
My father, Wallace Jamison, led a remarkable life. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, to missionary parents in 1918, he didn’t set foot onto the land of his citizenship until he was ready for college in 1936. Before coming to America, he had spent the summer with his parents in Germany. What a time to be in Germany! Hitler and the Nazis were in power and the Berlin Olympics were going on.
The family made their way from Bavaria north to Hamburg, where my father boarded a steamship bound for America. When I think of the so-called snowflake kids going off to college today, I think of my father, boarding a ship alone. He was a missionary kid. I’m sure his accommodations were not first class.
We have a family history about ships leaving harbor. My father’s parents (my grandparents) sailed from New York on a Greek ocean liner in 1915, bound for their new adventure as missionaries to Egypt. World War I was raging, but the United States had not yet entered the conflict. However, the ship was not American; it was a Greek-flagged vessel. and as soon as they left American territorial waters, a bomb exploded in the hold and the ship began to sink. It was women and children first, so my grandfather stood at the rail and watched my grandmother, in a lifeboat, descend into the waters of the open Atlantic. Neither of them knew if they’d ever see the other again. They both met up in New York City after being rescued at sea, and immediately booked passage on another ship bound for Egypt. That story couldn’t have been far from my dad’s mind as his ship stood out to sea from Hamburg.
Upon arrival in the United States, he was both a citizen and a foreigner at the same time. He had received an excellent classical education at the now famous Schutz American School in Alexandria, but he knew little else about the country he was to call home, including American popular culture. At an awkward time in his life (young adulthood) he had to learn everything about America not printed in the history books, including a new language we now know as slang. “That’s just swell!” was an expression used by young adults in those days. Such a remark was incomprehensible to my dad. Only later did the lexicographers expand “swell” to mean fashionable, stylish or first rate in dictionaries.
Dad knew nothing about baseball, American football or other sports crazes. He became acquainted with them later. I’ve often thought about the possibility of my dad’s encounter with perimeter sentries when he served in the Navy during World War II. The challenge question might have been, “Who’s Joe DiMaggio?” or, “Who manages the Brooklyn Dodgers?” At the time, Dad wouldn’t have had a clue.
He did know trans-linguistic puns. Puns are considered by some to be the lowest form of humor, but not to my father. In conversation at our dinner table, he’d say something indecipherable to us kids, and then he’d say something like, “Don’t you see, this word means ‘blah, blah, blah’ in Greek and even though they sound alike, it is another word meaning ‘blah, blah, blah’ in Hebrew.” Then, he’d laugh at his own joke. I’d stare at my potatoes, asking God why I couldn’t be in a normal family.
When I grew up, we became friends, my dad and me. He died in 2010 — too young — at age 92. August 1 is his birthday. Happy birthday, Dad.