Early in my career as a Pan Am stewardess, I transferred in 1968 from the Miami base to San Francisco. I wanted to experience the incredible Pacific flying that the base had to offer. Never having been to Asia before, I remember my first trip to Hong Kong.
As was typical of the Pan Am family, my colleagues were eager to share with me some of the amazing adventures and experiences passed down among previous crew members over the generations. One of these was a trip deep into the bowels of Hong Kong, miles away from the teeming tourists and visiting U.S. soldiers on R&R from the Vietnam War. It wasn't even accessible to taxis.
This day we were on a journey to meet a famous Chinese fortune teller who was well known to Pan Am crews. As we walked miles away from the center of Hong Kong, we encountered no other white people. Soon the local Chinese people began to point out the way, because there would be no other reason for us to be there than to see this fortune teller. Not knowing what to expect, I was nevertheless very excited because this felt like nothing I had experienced before.
When we arrived at our destination, this gracious elderly Chinese man invited us to sit in his living room, and one-by-one, we sat with him at his desk while he asked us about our birthdays and spent about ½ hour with each of us measuring the lines in our hands. I went first, feeling curious but anxious at the same time. What in the world was he going to tell me? Did I even want to know what he might say?
His opening sentence stunned me: "the first major trauma in your life happened when your father died when you were eight years old." In fact, I remember very little else about what he said, because my mind couldn't take in the fact that my hand was somehow marked with the event that had forever changed my life.
My father's death when I was eight years old had marked every part of me on the inside, but I was astounded that somehow it showed on the outside. Readers who have experienced the loss of a parent at a young age will know exactly what I'm talking about.
James Abram Garfield Davey -- my Daddy -- was the idealized center of my family. Born in 1887, he was named after President James Abram Garfield, the assassinated friend of my grandfather's. Old enough to be my grandfather, my father was a man of his time. He, like all his brothers, were Teddy Roosevelt type of men -- strong-willed, expansive, and exuberant -- the product of a strict patriarchal system.
Growing up, I knew that none of my friends had a father like mine. But then, that wasn't really about his age. He was the undisputed head of our household, providing a sense of protection and stability through the strength of his personality and character. We all adored him: he was like the sun and the moon and the stars -- the light of our lives. And most of all, he was hilarious, possessing a sense of irony and comic timing that was part Mark Twain, part Will Rogers.
When I write about my father, I suspect there's a temptation for readers to wonder if I'm just viewing him through the idealized fog of a heartbroken eight-year-old's memory. And while I acknowledge this as a real possibility, the facts of who he was and what he accomplished in his remarkable life are beyond dispute. As he himself always said, "when it comes time for me to croak, I'll have no complaints because I've lived enough life for three men."
As a way of introducing my father, I will quote his brother Martin Davey's unpublished autobiography (1941):
Jim was the one with the rich sense of humor. It was Jim who always kept things lively around our home. He was an exceedingly generous person... and was intensely loyal to the family interests... He was so full of roguish good nature that when he laughed his face would light up with a great radiance... and his laughter was so hearty that it was contagious.
This particular passage always brings tears to my eyes because it captures perfectly the essence of the father I remember so fondly. I can still "hear" that incredible laugh. My father, like his own father, was unique in that he seemed to posses an ability to bend the world to meet his wishes. However, he did it with great good humor and an abiding love for his fellow man. His basic values were those same simple beliefs of his father before him, yet he lived an entirely different kind of life.
Creative by nature, my father never seemed to doubt that an idea would succeed. He possessed the ability to put original ideas into action, make a lot of money almost as an afterthought, and thoroughly enjoy himself while doing it. However, like his father, he was inept at handling finances. Money was not very important to him, except when he ran out of it, and then he would create a new idea.
My entire life I have been searching for clues as to just who my father was. It's as if I'm trying to fit together pieces of the giant puzzle that represents the mature relationship between father and daughter that we never got to enjoy. As a child, after my father's death, I would go over and over my memories of him at night before sleep, cataloguing them as well as I could, intuiting that memories fade. Ken Burns, the brilliant documentary film maker, lost his mother to cancer at the age of 9, and claims he has "devoted his life to bringing dead people alive." I've always loved doing the same thing.
My brother, sister, and I have always been stymied about what to say when people ask what our father did for a living. I'm always tempted to say, "Do you have a few hours?" I feel that my response sounds preposterous, like an exaggeration or even a downright lie. Usually I don't even try to explain.
Now, in this book, I have the opportunity to tell his stories, to bring his remarkable life alive again through photographs and newspaper clippings. I'll tell you about his unbelievably extensive world travels in search of never-before-seen trees, which he called "big tree hunting," in the 1920's; about his first ever automated safari from Capetown to Cairo; how, using the knowledge he learned from my grandfather, he saved all the trees in Central Park in 1928; how he invented the world's first luxury RV; how he was in the circle of the world's most famous explorers; how he witnessed the decision between his brother-in-law at that time, George Putnam and Dorothy Binney Putnam, to divorce because of George's relationship with Amelia Earhart; and so many more.
I can see how this catalogue of achievements can seem to be an idealized recreation of a man's life. But let me tell you some of the stories and you can decide for yourself.
To be continued....