My Dad, the Knight and Minstrel
A Father's Day reflection, short story, interview & mini-biography, July 1955
If you were to believe the storybooks or the stork, there's only one true narrative of parenthood:
Every kid wants two parents. One mom and one dad. Two dads or two moms. No child wants to believe they don't have what other children have, and kids are taught in tales that two parents are expected, normal, and that's the fairytale beginning one should hope for...
I learned the truth, by age 5.
The storybooks are wrong to say you need the fair king and queen as parents, or that you always need two. They're even wrong to say one is the 'wicked stepmother' or the 'evil wizard.' What kids really need are parents who can be the best parents they can be. And that sometimes means they don't fit within the happy bedtime story...
My fair kingdom was split into two lands when my sister, the younger princess, was born. The King and Queen each took separate castles nearby, so we could still visit one another, and every holiday, we'd celebrate what was now past and what we yearned to have again. At least, I did. My sister followed our regal mother in her ideas and ways— while I followed the King.
Now, what the storybooks won't tell you is how (many times) the kings and queens will not be perfect. Hopefully, they will try to do their best. Many times they will make mistakes. My dad is not a perfect king, but he has always been a knight and a minstrel in my corner...
CHAPTER 1: My Father the Knight, and the "Fast Feeling"
When I was little, I would have nightmares. Many children have nightmares, this is nothing to be unexpected. However when I woke from mine, they wouldn't stop. The feelings from the nightmare would tumble, racing through my mind in a riot of colors and sound, intense sensation. Racing thoughts. Fearful thoughts that would not stop. Thoughts of the future, the family.
Any princess, scared of what was happening between her parents, would have no words for the curse she fell under. Panic. An attack. A panic attack.
Like Sleeping Beauty, she'd want to awaken from her spell. So she called her dad. At any hour of the night. In her mother's castle, he would always answer when the princess called. The Queen did not mind, after a tiring day of gathering gold coins.
And so my dad began to teach me— at an age I still believed in magic— the power of Fear and the mind. Yes, at the age of 6 to 7 summers, I had a father teaching me about the 'ego' and how 'fear is the mind-killer' (hopefully many of you get the Dune 1965 reference).
As a child, afraid of dragons and goblins named after my elementary school teachers, this became a gift from my father. My way to realize that my fears could be banished, that I could think 'happy thoughts' like Peter Pan to accept what I was feeling and to no longer be a 'codfish' drowning in my anxiety.
My father would begin, each night when'd I'd call after a nightmare, by asking the princess very specific questions. Questions about a "fast feeling" that she couldn't explain on her own, but which made her very afraid.
"What color is the feeling? Is it a bright blue? A deep orange? A sickly green?"
"If you were to touch it, what texture would it be? Sharp? Prickly? Or smooth?"
"Where do you feel the feeling inside you? Is it in your stomach? In your heart?"
"Does the feeling come in waves or bursts? Is it like a slithering snake or a roaring lion?"
And guess what, folks?
Just like Neo, when I confronted my fear of reality and the turmoiling 'matrix' between the tired Queen and King, when I really looked at my fears, the "fast feeling" disappeared.
Because I had to embrace the feeling to answer the King's questions, and that took away Fear's power over the princess. Fear can only be fueled if you run from it, but a wise King taught his princess how to confront her fears head-on, rather than to cower in a tower.
CHAPTER 2: The Minstrel, and Grand Adventures
With the kingdom now spilt into two, sometimes there was uncertainty regarding the homeland for the princesses when spending time with the King. For about five annuals of their lives, the King found refuge with his daughters three hours away in the home of his brother, the Duke, and his Duchess— the princesses' uncle and aunt— and their three children— the princesses' cousins.
Every Friday, the King would gather his princesses from their Royal Academy in his carriage and he'd drive them down the highways of carriages into the hills towards his brother's manor for the weekend. The journey, long and tiring, could become almost unbearable to his princesses when the ice fairies would stop to work and the carriage windows wouldn't roll down all the way.
But then, the minstrel King would always buy ice cream at the staging-posts along the way, and he'd tell stories that would fascinate and teach his daughters— especially the eldest— the Power of Adventure...
"Dad, tell us the story again!" I asked.
"Yes!" In my mind, his stories were better than the books we got from the local library. His stories were real. I could almost taste the places he described, smell the people, hear the excitement. And I loved to ask questions.
"How many times have I told it already?" he asked me.
"I don't care. Tell me again." I glanced at my sister— her pacifier in her mouth, her kushilee snuggled against her cheek in her car seat. Her eyes blinked sleepily, but I could tell she was listening. Her eyes opened wider and she wiggled with her blanket.
"Okay," he sighed. "Where do I usually begin...?"
"You were 14 years old," I reminded, eagerly. "Your father got you a job on a ship, a freighter!"
The prince turned toward the San Francisco pier as the freighter's horn blared, and waved at his family as he felt the ship's dock roll beneath him. It was early July, 1955. The Sunnyvale was departing with its cargo, and as a young deckhand, the prince was determined to pull his weight.
He'd been given the 12-4 watch. From 12pm to 4pm, he'd labor as a deckhand, and from 12am to 4am, he'd be on the flying bridge— the highest level of the ship— as lookout.
As the Sunnyvale left the dock behind, the prince lost all sight of his family. One of the mates approached him soon after, as they neared the Golden Gate Bridge. It was during his first watch on board. As a special favor to the prince's father, the prince was given the opportunity to manually steer the 300 foot freighter under the state's gulf bridge.
"Really, Dad? You really steered a ship under the Golden Gate Bridge when you were 14?!" I always asked.
His lip twitched, but he always answered, "Yes, dear, I did. Though they did ask me first, if I'd steered a ship before."
And since the age of six, I've always imagined what it would've been like if my father had crashed into the posts of the Golden Gate Bridge way back then...
For three weeks, the prince melded well with the other crew members aboard the Sunnyvale. He was included in their ribald jokes and worldly tips, and his watch, while lonesome, let him practice his accordion— which he'd brought in a large suitcase— beneath the majesty of the sky. At night, alone on the ocean with no lights around for miles, the stars seemed to shimmer with the solitude and questions that'd arise.
The freighter's first stop took less than a day, landing in the port of Los Angeles.
Their second stop took about a week out at sea before they docked in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Their third stop was in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. For another week, they sailed the South China Seas. First south to Iloilo, another Philippine province and island in the Sulu Sea, and finally to the island of Cebu.
"Now," the King paused, taking a moment to explain, "you have to understand that it'd been almost a month since I'd last spoken to my family. There were no telephones back then, and I was starting to feel pretty bad that I hadn't sent any letters back to my parents."
"Were they worried about you?" I asked.
"Well, I figured my mother was. And I'd promised I'd write to her. So I decided to finally find some postcards to send back...
As the Sunnyvale docked in Cebu City, the prince noticed the stalls lining the wharf, selling their wares. Several looked to have postcards, Coca-Colas and other souvenirs— and so the prince left his ship to purchase some cards for his mother.
Before he left, the prince was careful to inspect the blackboard at the top of the freighter's gangway. Only about a foot by a foot, the board was blank. When the board was blank, it meant the ship was not due to sail until the next day.
Hurrying towards the shopkeepers, the prince became disappointed to realize none of the postcards matched what he was looking for. He was searching for a card that'd show where he currently was. Instead, he saw cards of women and other faraway places— but none of where he was at.
As the prince walked further and further into the town, he noticed a sign advertising a movie theater and its showing: Francis, The Talking Mule, Joins The Navy.
It was a double-bill, or double-feature with two showings, but what caught the prince's eye were the large letters advertising "Air-Conditioned."
"By now," the King paused again, trying to explain the significance to his daughters, "we were pretty close to the equator, and so—"
"What's 'equator?" I asked, and I saw my sister scrunching up her fists to protest me interrupting the story.
"It means we were close to the line that cuts the world in half. The top half and bottom half of our world have many different temperatures, but near the middle, it gets really hot. The island was very hot, and humid. It was nearing the end of July, the height of the summer season, when I saw that movie theater..."
The prince gladly paid the 11 cents for his ticket and entered the theater. (Remember, this was 1955!)
To this day, the prince doesn't remember much of the plot behind the double-feature. He remembers it was comedic, absurdly patriotic, and it starred Donald O'Connor and a live donkey in the black-and-white picture. What he most greatly remembers is the cold air blasting through the over-worked fans— cooler than the dust-clogged, tropical air outside— and that he stayed for the full-length of the feature.
More than three hours later, he walked back to the pier and the Sunnyvale. His heart stopped.
The prince looked up and down the wharf. Then he did so again.
The 300 foot freighter was gone.
The prince stepped onto the pier where the ship had been docked, and had to resist the urge to look under the planks.
The ship had to be there! Where else could it be? he thought.
A port official had stood nearby and the prince cautiously asked him the question.
"Sir, do you know where the Sunnyvale has gone?" He felt stupid, asking.
The official narrowed his eyes down at the young prince. "No. It departed a while ago."
The prince gulped. "To where?"
"It's next destination, I suppose."
Instantly the prince froze. The warnings of his shipmates rang through his head.
Cebu was a violent place in 1955. The prince had been warned, multiple times, never to be alone at night. Anyone caught out alone would be found, by morning, as a corpse with even his shoes missing. The prince didn't believe those rumors had been exaggerated.
And he was very aware he had only a few pesos left in his pocket. His papers, identification, and belongings were aboard the Sunnyvale. Now far out at sea.
And that's when the prince remembered another warning: "Do not go to the police, because they'll just lock you up if you don't have your papers."
And finally, the prince realized the dire straits he was in.
He was in the Philippines, illegally. Without his papers, the police would have every right to lock him up if they found him. That is, if he survived the night. It was late afternoon, and the prince knew he had only a few hours until dark.
The port official grumbled, and it was only then the prince realized he still stood before the man.
"There's an agent's office in town," the official said. "They might provide you with some more information."
At every port, there was an agent's office which oversaw the unloading of goods from their company's freighter as well as the loading of new cargo. The prince perked up at that, and with the spending of a few of his pesos, he hired a vehicle to take him downtown to the embassy. That vehicle was a horse-drawn carriage.
"Was it really, Dad?" I asked.
The King smiled. "Yes. I was facing backwards, the back was open, and the driver was up in front. It was a dirt road, and there were no cars. A horse pulled us through the port into town."
"Was it fun?" I asked eagerly, imagining Cinderella's carriage and all the fairytales I'd read and watched at home.
The King chuckled. "Not really. It was hot and I didn't know if the agent's office could help me..."
When the carriage pulled up alongside the embassy, all of the prince's hopes were dashed.
The building was boarded up. Large, brown planks covered every window, nailed into place. Doors were locked and bars had been placed out in front. It looked absolutely deserted.
What was he to do now? he wondered.
With no other option coming to mind, the prince paid a few more of his pesos to the driver and asked to be taken back to port. It was now very late in the afternoon.
When he arrived, the prince felt a moment's hope as he caught sight of another ship anchored out on the bay. A sister ship. Its tall red smokestack, with a big white letter 'K,' was a welcome sight.
Quickly, he paid a water taxi— a small boat with a single, in-board motor— to take him out there. He asked the taxi to wait as he boarded the ship from the same Klaveness shipping line.
But as soon as he was brought to the first mate, he received devastating news.
"Please," he asked, after explaining his story and how he came to be separated from his ship, "can I work aboard this ship until we birth the same harbor as the Sunnyvale?"
The first mate was already shaking his head. In a kind, but exceedingly firm tone, the first mate explained that the prince was now in the country illegally according to Philippine law. If he were to be found aboard their ship, they could get in serious trouble. The prince would have to leave. Right now.
The prince had no choice. He re-boarded the water taxi and was brought back to shore. He paid the taxi-man with the last few pesos in his pocket.
Now the prince had no identification and no money.
"Where you scared, Dad?"
The King paused, and was silent for just long enough that the two princesses began to squirm in their seats.
The eldest princess thought it was surely impossible. The heroes in her storybooks were never scared!
"Of course I was," the King finally said.
The eldest princess' jaw dropped, and she looked sideways at her sister in the car seat. Her blue eyes were wide, too.
"I knew I had to think of something," he went on. "I couldn't just stop. I'd have to sleep in an alley that night, if I did. That was very dangerous."
"Would they have really taken your shoes?" I asked.
The King nodded. "And anything else they could take. It was that poor. There were no streetlights back then. It would be pitch black at night."
With her limited frame of reference, the eldest princess imagined a homeless man— like the many she'd seen in the city— lying in an alley. But without any shoes. And he was dead. He was also the Prince.
By now over an hour had passed, and the prince could feel the encroaching darkness upon his neck.
He looked frantically up and down the pier— trying not to attract the suspicious eyes of port officials— and finally spotted a familiar flag on a ship more than a half mile down the harbor. An American flag.
An American ship, he thought. They will have to help me!
Briskly, the prince walked down the long stretch to the cargo freighter docked on foreign shores. Dusk was growing quite near. But the hope that'd begun to rise was suddenly flooded with fear, as the prince spotted the two guards at the top of the ship's gangway.
The guards were there to inspect the sailors' papers as they came and went aboard the ship. Specifically, their identification papers. Papers the prince did not have.
But what other choice was there? he wondered.
The prince took a deep breath, released the air in a confident swagger, and strolled nonchalantly up the gangway as if he had every right to do so. As he drew nearer to the guards, he felt a trickle of nervous sweat drip down his neck. He could see the guards talking to each other. One on each side of the gangway, the prince realized he'd have to walk right between the two of them.
And he did just that.
Without pausing, the prince strolled between the two guards and they never broke a sentence.
As he continued down the deck, the prince braced himself for the shouts. He was sure, any minute, he'd hear the guards yelling for him to get back here! He forced his steps to stay slow, normal, when all he wanted was to run.
Finally he turned the corner of a cabin— and collapsed, relieved, against the metal wall. He was out of sight from the guards. His adrenaline deserted him, leaving his legs wobbly.
Voices murmured and laughed overhead, and the prince found some stairs to take him to the deck one level above him. There he spotted three sailors lounging on deck chairs and relaxing while their ship was in port.
"Hello!" he called. "Could I speak with the captain?"
The three officers straightened in their seats and one stood. "The captain is ashore. I'm the first mate. What do you want?"
Once again, the prince told his story. Only this time he kept his fingers crossed.
The prince didn't hear everything the first mate said back to him. The prince only saw the shaking of the man's head, and heard the words, "You need to leave."
The first mate then walked off, unwilling to remain on the deck. The other two shipmates returned to their conversation, and the prince was left alone. Expected to leave. Instead he walked over to the metal railing of the ship. For just one moment more, he wanted to stay. To stay where it was safe... before he'd be forced back out there again. Into the full darkness, which had just set with the last cruel wink of the sun.
The King paused, and his hands tightened on the carriage's steering wheel.
"I remember gripping the railing," he said softly, "and looking out at the dark ocean." And the eldest princess, all of a sudden hushed her questions, hearing the magnitude she couldn't quite grasp in his words. The younger princess quieted in her carseat.
"I remember the railing was cold," he said. "I gripped it very tightly. And I thought to myself, 'It's cold. Just like my future...'"
Eventually, the words from the two shipmates, who were still speaking behind him, filtered through the prince's chilling thoughts.
It was obvious to the prince that the two men thought he was a runaway, and they were taking the opportunity to lecture him while he was still within earshot. The mates talked about stowaways, and how worried the parents must be. The prince had just about decided he'd heard enough, when one of the mates suddenly said, very loudly, "Now if I had been left behind by my ship..."
And the prince instantly stilled. He listened very closely.
"... I wouldn't even tell any of the ship's crew that I was on board. I would just find a nice, soft pile of rope to bed down for the night. If I did tell anyone, they'd have no choice but to follow the law and kick me off, or they could get in trouble. And I wouldn't worry about the Agent's office being all boarded up. They're always closed on Sundays."
It was Sunday! The prince hadn't even realized, with his first month at sea blending the weekdays together. The prince took a few moments more, gathering his courage and gratitude, and slowly walked away from the railing to find that soft patch of rope.
As he turned the corner, he suddenly heard rapid footsteps behind him.
He turned around. It was the second mate, the one who had spoken the suggestion in the conversation.
"It is true?" the mate asked. "You really don't have any money?"
The prince nodded, and the second mate peeled off a few pesos from a clip in his pocket. He handed them to the prince.
"There is a cabin you can actually stay in," the mate said. "It's used for guests, which we don't have at the moment. I'll take you there."
"That man was nice!" the eldest princess exclaimed. She wished she could go back in time to thank the man who'd helped her dad.
"He was," the King agreed. "He took me to the cabin, which was about 20 by 20 feet. It had two beds and washstands, which to me, seemed like a luxury right then. I thanked the second mate and was so grateful to finally take off my clothes."
"But then he came back, didn't he, Dad?" I interjected.
He chucked. "You remember the story better than I do."
Wearily, the prince pulled off his shoes with a pleased sigh. His shirt was next to follow, and he was about to unbutton his pants to climb into bed—
When a knock sounded at the door.
Nervously, the prince approached and opened it to see the second mate. The man was glancing around, to-and-fro, and his next words made the prince almost angry.
"Uh, you really shouldn't stay here. Just in case. There's someplace else you can stay."
The prince had to work very hard not to snap at the second mate. The man was helping him, but he'd just undressed and the bed looked so inviting. He was sooo tired. The prince just wanted to sleep. Instead, he sucked it up and didn't say a word, putting his clothes back on and following the mate behind the cabin.
There, a pile of rope awaited him.
The rope was not soft. Thick, coarse, and fibrous, it scratched against the prince's skin as he tried to make himself comfortable. And then he discovered the mosquitoes.
Loud. They were very loud. And VERY big. Almost two to three times the size of Californian mosquitoes.
The prince tried to pull down his sleeves, to pull up his collar. But the mosquitoes crept up his pants. They found every spare inch of skin. And they bit. And bit. The prince could feel each bite. He knew it was going to be a looong night, and bitter resentment was settling in...
A light brightened the inside of the cabin. It startled the prince, and he froze for a moment as he heard voices entering the room. When he couldn't contain his curiosity any longer, the prince carefully stood and peered through the window at the back of the cabin.
It was the two guards from the gangway.
If he had stayed in there, he would have been caught.
Suddenly, the prince didn't seem to mind the mosquitoes so much. At least, until the morning.
"That was close!" I was nearly on the edge of my seat with excitement. This story was just as fun as my storybooks. And slightly scary, too. It made me want to know what would happen next!
I glanced at my sister. Her eyes were shining with excitement, too.
"It was." The King nodded, and thought back. "I was very lucky the universe was helping me."
"What happened the next morning?" I demanded eagerly. I was not interested in hearing about the 'universe' or any of the 'spiritual stuff' the adults seemed to enjoy talking about. I wanted more adventure!
The prince couldn't open his eyes. Or his hands. They were so puffy, swollen. The joints in his hands had grown to three times their normal size. He literally couldn't curl or clench his fingers, and his lips felt like fat sausages.
At first light, the prince walked the deck to ward off the pain. The voice of the second mate made him turn a couple hours later.
"Ahh, Jesus," the mate exclaimed, sympathetically. "Those buggers got you good, didn't they? Come on. I know exactly what you need."
The second mate led the prince into the mess hall where the tantalizing smells of a full American breakfast made his mouth drool. The prince hadn't eaten for a full day. The buffet offered fluffy pancakes, bacon and ham, scrambled eggs, and coffee!
That's where the second mate headed first. He poured the prince a large cup of brown sludge— sludge, because the coffee had been percolating for days and was now blacker than black— and told the prince to drink it. The prince had never tried coffee before, but he didn't want to refuse the nice man who was helping him. So he tried it.
And nearly puked.
But the second mate convinced him to finish the whole cup, and a miracle occurred.
"What miracle, Dad?" I wanted to know.
"The swelling went completely away."
"Coffee has a chemical called caffeine, and that black coffee, with zero sugar or cream, had a lot of pure caffeine. It made the itchy venom from the mosquitoes go away by narrowing my blood vessels and reducing the puffy swelling."
With a wish of good luck and a wave after breakfast, the second mate escorted the prince off the American freighter. His tummy now full of food and hope, the prince spent some of the mate's pesos to take a carriage back to the Agent's office.
It was a completely different place. No more boards or bars. The shuttered windows were open, and the prince could hear people talking and dozens of typewriters clacking inside. A regular, working business.
He met with an agent from the Klaveness shipping line, who asked him several questions to verify his identity— including what was his home address and his mother's maiden name? After answering them all correctly, the agent took the prince under his wing.
The questioning had taken several hours, and the agent now brought the prince with him to his manor outside of town. It was a rich man's place with land, in a poor country where the agent lived as an Englishmen with his servants.
The prince first took a shower in the manor.
Then a liveried servant announced the meal and he was brought to a grand dining hall and formal English luncheon. Covered dishes were brought by a half a dozen servants, and the prince had to frantically recall his mother's hard-won etiquette and rules of cutlery. Start from the outside, in. Don't mash your potatoes, cut them.
Once he'd finished his meal, the prince was taken to a small airport by the agent. The agent handed him a ticket, and all alone, the prince boarded a small, two-engine propeller plane. Fit for only 8-12 people, the plane had no nose-wheel, and only two main wheels and a small tail-wheel.
The prince arrived in Manila, where another agent took him to a youth hostel for the night. The next day, the prince was taken to the consulate where he received a temporary passport— a slip of paper— before he boarded a larger plane on Philippine Airlines that did have a nose-wheel. (No jets, since they hadn't been invented yet!)
It was a fantastic flight to Hong Kong. When the prince landed, he was met by a Chinese boy holding a sign that said "Mr. Sears." The boy handed the prince a white envelope with a letter inside that told the prince to follow him. The boy led the prince to the Seamen's Mission hotel where the prince stayed for the next 2-3 days while he waited for the Sunnyvale to arrive in port...
"Wait, you got there before your ship?" I asked, bewildered.
The King smiled. "Yes. My adventure— while terrifyingly long for me— had actually been short enough that my ship hadn't yet reached its next port. I had to wait in Hong Kong for the Sunnyvale to catch-up to me."
"Wow, Dad." I breathed. And I wondered, with envy, if I would ever have such adventures. "It all really happened?"
The King's eyes caught his daughter's in the rearview mirror reflection. "I still have the temporary passport," he finished with a grin.
About the author
In every lifetime, I've been a writer: a humble scribe learning her craft, a sorceress learning her words, a venturing philosopher. I'm a full-time tutor in the Bay Area, and I'm currently trying to publish a full length Cinderella novel!
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions