Token yank. I arrived in Kenya at the beginning of August 1966. There was no school for me to go to; the month of August was summer holiday at the British-style boarding school my parents had me enrolled in. My dad had to work, and my mom was not yet ready to try driving on the left and negotiating roundabouts. Acting on advice from people he worked with, my dad offered to drop me off at the Nairobi YMCA, which had an Olympic-size swimming pool. I was dubious, but didn't have a better option, so I gave it a go. To my surprise the kids hanging out at the pool were friendly and took me right in. This did not square with my experience of the cool kids and bullies (especially bullies) who hung out at swimming pools in Marianna and Asheville, and I loved it. They were a rowdy international bunch, and I was their token American. There were Brits of all nationalities, plus Danes, Italians, Germans, Turks, Indians and a few I could never figure out. No Kenyans or other Africans. That didn't seem odd to me; at that point I hadn't experienced anything but racial segregation. At my school I'd find myself in a racial minority, but kids mostly socialized within their own color. I mostly didn't socialize at school, so that kinda passed me by. But this was before school, in a sort of month out of time. I was loving Kenya. The magic of the place called to me and I responded. I felt alive. Drinking and dope had not yet begun to shut me down. I was excited to be in this strange new country, keen to dig in and find out all about it.
My gang. For the first time ever I was one of the guys, down at that YMCA. I finally fit in. I found a gang who accepted me, who weren't bigoted southern hicks. We didn't have room for intolerance. We were all un-Black people in a brand new very Black republic; this was not quite three years post-Uhuru. Suddenly finding myself in a racial minority was an eye opener. It was a little scary. We swam, chased each other around the pool playing tag, cannonballed each other off the high dive, shot snooker in the game room, and smoked. Everyone smoked. Sportsman, Embassy, B&H, State Express 555s, Balkan Sobranies if you were trying to show off. Back in Asheville cigarettes were 25¢ a pack, and I started smoking early. Mom smoked, and I would collect her butts. After a party there were lots of butts. I tore them open and put the tobacco into a pipe I bought in a pawn shop, the same one where my dad got my sax. In Kenya cigarettes were fags, faggots, i.e. burning sticks. Hey man, can I bum a fag? I'd never even heard the other use of that word. I'd been called a homo back in the US because I was an unathletic wuss, so I did know that one.
Sunburn. I was the thin-skinned son of a ginger dad out in the equatorial sun, but I did OK with sunburn; grin and bear it. But halfway through the month I got self-conscious about my baggy American swim trunks so I replaced them with a proper swimming cozzie like the other blokes were wearing, something closer to speedos. That left three inches of thigh formerly covered suddenly bare, and I was no longer being careful about sun exposure. I burned, then blistered, then broke all the blisters doing a can opener to splash my chums, then burned the raw new skin under the blisters. I had scars on my thighs for a few years but I survived.
Gambling sickness. I had a chilling brush with addiction in those early days in Kenya. Electric slot machines were all over the place: bars, restaurants, hole-in-the-wall dukas, even gas stations. I never paid any attention to them. Until one day, I was hanging out in coffee bar with some of the guys, and on a whim I dropped a coin in one. As bad luck would have it, I hit a little jackpot, 8 or 10 to 1. Suddenly I was riveted. I lost all my winnings and quite a bit more. Maybe twenty Kenyan shillings, roughly $3, a big chunk of my allowance. The whole thing gave me a horrible sick feeling in my gut. Now I can see that was Leela warning me off by letting me feel the sickness of gambling addiction full on after my one little exposure. That was enough, thank you wisdom. Since then I've blown maybe twenty bucks on lottery tickets in my life, that's it. I got off real easy this time. I was not always so lucky in Seattle. Not to mention my deep past.
Duka. In September I entered a different kind of duka, the Duke of York School, aka Duka, a British-style boarding school now known as Lenana School. I was a day bug: I didn't board. There was no school busing so my dad had to drive me there every day including Saturday (half day) and then go pick me up after. That was a lot of driving. Duka was not in Nairobi back then, though it is now. It was just north of the village (now suburb) of Karen, named after the Out of Africa author, who had her unsuccessful coffee plantation there. The driving worked in my favor for keeping my stay at Duka as short as possible, which quickly became a priority. The transition from US to British secondary education was bewildering, to say the least. I was first form instead of tenth grade. Instead of six periods with the same six classes every day I had maybe twenty classes, with a different schedule every day. Some classes were MWF, some T/R, and some just once a week. Like RK, for instance: religious knowledge, an Anglican catechism class. I was fascinated, drawn to the creeds, litanies, and other holy mumbo jumbo. It all seemed more poetic and mysterious than the orders of worship in the Southern Methodism I was rebelling against. But it wasn't just that. The ritual called to me; it had a faint echo of the ring of truth to it. I got so intrigued I snuck into chapel and stole a copy of the Book of Common Prayer to study at leisure. Was that a sin? When I finally got rid of my books, that was one of the last.
PT. PT meant physical training, the British version of Phys Ed. We did calisthenics and played football (soccer), rugby, and cricket. But mostly footy. I was abysmal at all of them, and particularly bewildered by cricket (WTF?!), but nobody expected the new yank day bug to be any good and they were all good sports about it. I was a good sport too. I was struggling with the strangeness of it all, and bewildered, but I was diving in and getting a lot out of it too.
Custard sauce. There were things I really liked about the Duke of York, like singing the national anthem at assembly:
We all sang in Kiswahili, one of the many classes on my weekly rota, and there were lots of verses. I also liked my burgundy wool blazer with the Rose of York embroidered on the pocket. Not so much the daily wear: gray pleated shorts with a button fly that took me forever, gray shirt, gray knee socks with the garters festooned with burgundy tassels that had to be placed just so. And oh yes the food. As a day bug I only ate lunch there, but it was a delicious substantial meal. The prefect ruled the table, but he was a kind and generous ruler, just passing things and letting us serve ourselves. Dessert was my favorite, and my favorite desserts came with custard sauce. Custard sauce came in a pitcher to be poured over a pastry dessert and I was crazy about it. That recipe is the real thing. I'm pretty sure what I ate at Duka was an instant version. I base that opinion on experimentation. I made some real custard sauce using a similar recipe, and I also made some instant cornstarch-based custard sauce with artificial flavorings. The instant sauce won the nostalgia contest by tasting the most like Duka's version. There was excellent chocolate custard sauce for chocolate pastries. That no doubt helped me acquire a taste for chocolate.
Change of venue. I had begun exploring the world of booze that fall, but it hadn't shut me down yet; I hadn't started my detour. That didn't happen until later, when pot entered the picture. So even though it was stressful, I was also having a good time exploring the strange new world of British academics. But a new school opened that fall, a brand new USCS. It sounded so appealing to go back to a more familiar kind of school, plus I was eager to be around girls. I started wheedling my parents about it. They were not that hard to convince; my dad was really tired of all the driving. So events conspired to cut short my stay at the Duke of York. I probably would've settled in by the end of my second term and done just fine, but other adventures awaited. I was about to be given a motorcycle.