The Washington Scene

By the time the liner reached New York on 6 August – the start of the Woodstock Festival – Julie was increasingly ill, drifting in and out of consciousness. We radioed ahead to arrange for an ambulance to meet the ship and take her into hospital but she refused to be left alone in New York.  Since she was determined to come down to Washington the fast inter-city train was the most comfortable way to do it.  Julie lay in a seat wedged in with cushions and I watched her and said something reassuring whenever she opened her eyes.   I must have put the children on the train and fed and amused them but I have no recollection of this.

As soon as we reached Union Station Julie was taken straight to Washington Hospital Center and the children and I went to Alban Towers near the Episcopalian cathedral.  It was one of those apartments which catered for the ever-transient population of Washington and had the bleak efficiency of official accommodation.   Someone brought food and I fed the children and got them into bed.  The oppressive August heat turned into a thunderstorm which flashed and banged around us as I improvised a story.  Tired perhaps by the stress of the day they fell asleep despite the noise.

Then the phone rang.  It was the surgeon to say that Julie had acute peritonitis and he would have to operate at once.  He said, “I cannot guarantee the outcome, Mr Hensley, and need your permission to go ahead”.   I gave it, making the obvious calculation that the risk of failure was better than the certainty, and made him promise to ring me as soon as the operation was done.

I sat down in a chair with the phone beside me and began the worst night of my life.  The embassy had left me with the traditional bottle of whisky and though I have never drunk whisky before or since I went through half the bottle before midnight. I sipped and thought and sipped again, tried reading and gave it up, sipped and looked at the clock every five minutes while the phone beside me stayed obstinately silent.  By eleven my dread was hardening into certainty – surely an appendix operation did not take four hours, why did they not tell me what had happened?

Sometime after midnight the phone came to life. I lifted the receiver at the first ring and heard the surgeon’s voice saying, “Mr Hensley, you are a very lucky man”.   The reluctance of the elderly doctor on the France to operate had been unexpectedly beneficial.  Although Julie’s appendix had burst two or more days earlier the heavy doses of antibiotics administered on the ship had restricted the circulation of the infection which might otherwise have been fatal.  “Your wife,” said this blessed surgeon, “should make a full recovery.”  The whisky which had left me unaffected all night suddenly came to life and I babbled questions at him until he finally said that he had come straight from the theatre, was still in his blood-covered apron and needed to clean up. I apologised, went to bed and slept.

On the night of her operation, like me uncertain of her survival, Julie had sent for a priest and said that, to spare the children a funeral in unfamiliar surroundings, she wanted to convert to Catholicism. The next morning the chaplain returned to say cheerfully that her conversion had lacked conviction and he would raise no difficulty if she wished to reconsider.  She did, saying to me that if there was a true church she believed it was the Roman but she was more comfortable as an Anglican.  I rather agreed and together we gradually evolved a kind of Angolicism, sharing services if not the theology.

The drama of our arrival was not quite over.  An agency found a woman to look after the children while I was at the hospital or starting on my introductory calls on official Washington.  She went mad, not as you might looking after four active children but genuinely insane.  I returned from a hospital visit to find her talking of throwing the children over the third-storey balcony on to the street below and grappling with Gerald to do so.  I seized her in time and after a struggle got her across the room and out the door, leaning with my back against it until she ceased pounding on it and went away.  After that kind women in the embassy took turns in child care, Julie was released from the hospital and life began to return to normal.

The house we moved into was on Seven Locks Road in Maryland, on the outskirts of Bethesda almost in rural Potomac.  It was a two-storey house of four bedrooms which was designed for family life.  There was a large basement or playroom, more accurately described by Americans as a rumpus room, and the land backed on to a patch of original woodland shared with the neighbours. No house was fenced, not even the lawns dotted with azaleas which rolled down to the street, and after London the children could roam free.  It was the sort of neighbourhood which abounded with children of all the right ages and ours quickly matched up with friends.     

I had taken it rather daringly when on a short visit to Washington from the Caribbean, knowing that the New Zealand embassy would be my next posting.  It was later a matter of mirth at the CIA that I had leased it unwittingly from their man who was station chief in Saigon.  The lease was daring not because of this but because Julie had never seen the house until she moved in as a convalescent.   Hitherto we had been inner-city dwellers but this better suited the children and their schooling and indeed, despite the long drive to the embassy or the shops, suited us all for two years.    

After an elaborate series of tests including an interview with a London psychologist Sarah had been accepted at the Sidwell Friends School, an upmarket Quaker establishment which taught the children of successive presidents and was said to be the best school in Washington. The fees, though, also turned out to be the best in Washington and more than my salary could afford.  When I said as tactfully as I could that Sarah would not be accepting their offer of a place the school replied haughtily that those accepted by Sidwell went there.  It then revealed an ingenious scholarship scheme. The fees for children at Sidwell were on a sliding scale depending on ability to pay.  I said that I could manage something like two-thirds of the full fee and the rest was immediately awarded as a scholarship.  A single mother from the inner city might pay only a twentieth, but the important principle was that everyone was a fee-paying student.     

Sophie, too young to start at once, spent a year at the Montessori School near us before joining her sister at Sidwell. Both profited greatly from a well-run school which took the time to understand each child it taught.  Sarah’s years there were enlivened by the establishment of the Dunny Club with her friend Liz Gordon.  It was a select gathering which met in playtime at the place named, though ‘dunny’ was an Antipodean term unknown in Washington.  Its location removed the less welcome presence of boys (dunnies were strictly unisex ) and gave a happy opportunity for the exchange of gossip and planning of mischief.   One project was to raise an avocado tree.  Persistent efforts were made with the large round seed which each time split open to reveal an encouraging green shoot but the shoot and the hopes of the Dunny Club invariably withered.

The two eldest started at Seven Locks Elementary School along the road from us.  In the United States public schools are run by counties and quality varies steeply with their diverse inclinations and wealth.  Montgomery County in which we lived was said to be the wealthiest in the country and this was reflected in its superb schools.  The Seven Locks school boasted a music room and an art room with its own kiln.  In a way unfamiliar to New Zealanders, parents were closely involved in its work.  The first parent-teacher meeting we attended fired the principal and we were more surprised than he was.  Mothers (still then at home) helped in the running of the school and manned the canteen.  Discipline was reinforced because at some exuberant moment you might suddenly come upon your mother.  When on duty Julie discovered that our Labrador Toby had gently relieved Neil Armstrong’s two sons of their lunch when they were waiting for the school bus.  The stoical little boys made no complaint but Julie was able to make them another lunch and thereafter Toby was confined until the school bus had passed.

Settling in was made simple by the easy routines of suburban life.  Neighbours overlooked our exotic background because we spoke the same language, not just literally though the accent was odd, but in the ability to pour a beer, enjoy a backyard barbecue, help in the school library.   Life revolved around children and was lived largely in the car which supported an endless round of children’s after-school activities – Campfire Girls (like the Girl Guides at home), ballet lessons, tennis and swimming coaching, junior scouts (called Webelos in America), Saturday morning baseball, school plays and field trips and so on in a rotating schedule sometimes eased by car-pooling.

On Sundays the Anglican half of the marriage was able to stay in bed while I took the four children to Mass.  This required carefully managed seating to discourage furtive territorial disputes and the promise of treats later, while Sophie enjoyed the privilege of bringing a book.  St Batholomew’s on River Road was theologically progressive and had moved to guitar-playing nuns who sang rather vapid pop songs masquerading as hymns.  Afterwards we might recover by going to a shop where you could help yourself to an ice-cream sundae from a bucket with five spoons, or to the supermarket where the children, while I stocked a week’s supplies, were challenged to find the most useless thing, running back down the aisles with a metal egg-slicer or a can of pumpkin jam.

Two cars were essential for this life.  I brought over with me on the ship an MG sports car, bought with a legacy from my Aunt Edie.  In this I commuted to the embassy in north-west Washington.  On the way I took Sarah and Sophie to Sidwell, picking up any others along the way who needed transport.  On occasions a surprisingly large number of children might uncurl themselves from the inside of the MG when the school was reached.  More orthodox  transport was provided by a Ford Falcon station wagon which gave greater room not just for children but for complicated arguments and innovative ideas at the back.  Coming home from a birthday party at Shakeys the back-seat crowd put their straws together to make one of a record length that ran round the inside of the car.  That the wagon’s six-cylinder engine downed petrol faster than an alcoholic in a bar hardly mattered when duty-free fuel was 17cents a gallon but I remember saying to Julie that our grandchildren will not believe that we drove so cheaply.

All this was part of the adjustment to the new life.  An early landmark was the running of the Pinewood Derby.  This was organised by the school and was much looked forward to.      It featured a sloping and undulating track set up in the hall at the top of which each contestant released his model racing car and the fastest to complete the journey was the winner.  Gerald like his classmates was given four wheels and a little block of pine wood from which to carve and sandpaper a car.  What mattered was not the appearance of the model but its weight.  There was a maximum weight but anything below this was a waste of the power of gravity to accelerate the car.  He and his mother went to the Post Office and weighed it on the sensitive letter scales and adjusted the weight with a judicious screw or two until it was precisely on the maximum.  Whether this made the difference is unknown but in the crowded school hall the car flashed down the track in winning time and the new people with the strange voices became the centre of congratulations.

Pets were another feature of settling in.  A Maryland tortoise was acquired, known as Ivan the Terrapin.  Ivan was not a rewarding pet.  A daily supply of worms had to be dug for him, a task which inevitably devolved to Julie or me.  Each morning Ivan was placed outside the downstairs door and plodded off along the thirty or so feet to the fence along the back garden.  In the evening, still short of this modest goal, he was plucked back to start the cycle again the next morning.  One day, though, he must have managed something snappier and disappeared into the woods.  He was not much missed.

The official household pet was Toby, a five-month-old yellow Labrador acquired after we arrived.  He was good-natured but untrained.  Acres of unfenced gardens and the constant company of children meant that he ranged widely and the Armstrong boys were not the only victims of his gentle larceny.  These occasional embarrassments became more threatening the morning that Julie heard a desperate hooting of a horn and came out to find a state patrol car halted at the top of the drive by Toby, standing on his hind legs and peering sternly at two young patrolmen through the windshield.  They had come to deal with a rabid raccoon reported in the woods but armed policemen bailed up by an angry dog might deal with the dog first.  Julie hastened over to the car and with great presence of mind berated them for upsetting her dog.  They got out of the car to apologise humbly, patted Toby to seal the peace and hastened into the woods where several shots signalled that the rabid raccoon, never seen before was never seen again.

One of the charms of Washington, though not praised by all, was that it had four distinct and punctual seasons.   Spring was enjoyed by everyone, with overcoat and overshoe weather replaced by a temperature that was comfortable but still not excessive.   The dogwoods and azaleas that marked suburban gardens came into full bloom, the cardinals sang to rival the bellbird, the blue jays flashed in the woods and the air in Bethesda had the distinctive but undefinable scent of spring.       

The lawns that flowed on to the road now needed mowing and the sound of motor mowers was the sound of spring.  Gardening, beyond grass, the azaleas that did well in the Potomac valley and a few trees, was not much practised where we were.  The warm air, though, stirred me to think of growing something.  To my surprise a row of tomatoes planted along the front of the house produced so generous a crop that I acquired a lifelong interest in annually repeating the experiment.  It led to a long-lived family tradition.  On Sunday evenings I used them to cook spaghetti with tomato sauce.  This became habitual and is still remembered, but more like a dog walking on its hind legs because it was memorable as the only thing I could cook.

Summer came with Memorial Day and the start of baseball, biking and a whole range of outdoor activities.  Most beloved by our children, it was also the start of swimming.  By good fortune a club – Palisades Pools – was started at the end of the road to provide two large pools with lifeguards and other amenities for members.  By buying one of the last debentures on offer we became members and hot summer afternoons were spent in or beside the water.  The children who had managed to learn the basics in the discouraging London climate now dived and raced like dolphins.  Younger children had to start in a smaller pool and achieve a green patch to show that they were skilled enough for the main pool.  Sophie achieved this at the age of four while also liking to ride around on the shoulder of her first love, Dave the lifeguard.

The long summer holidays were highlighted by the Pet Show, an elaborate day’s entertainment organised at Ethel Kennedy’s home at Hickory Hill in Virginia.  We had friends from New York who had come to occupy positions in the Nixon administration and through them Julie was co-opted to join the organising committee of well-connected ladies who in the best American tradition were highly efficient and able to have a lot of fun being so.  The Kennedy pull was evident in the great who turned out for this charitable cause.    Art Buchwald, the famous columnist, acted as ringmaster, his stout frame crammed unconvincingly into riding breeches and boots, and presided over a succession of acts.  A number of celebrities helped with other attractions or at least lent an appearance.  

Elsewhere in the garden the Green Beret commandos rigged a high wire for children to ride through the trees.  Sophie was struck by a rebounding seesaw and broke her collar bone, being carried by a Green Beret to the car.  I was conscious of a distancing among the other staff, thinking perhaps of lawsuits, but when we got to Georgetown hospital the power of the Kennedy name was again apparent.  All five of the trauma team including the surgeon were waiting on the steps to receive us.   

The risk of boredom in the long hot holidays was relieved, for parents and offspring alike, by the East Coast institution known as ‘camp’.  Going to camp for three weeks or so gave older children an escape from city life and a taste of the more self-sufficient existence of earlier Americans.  They were located in places like the wilds of western Pennsylvania or upstate New York and passed on some outdoor and survival skills as well doubtless as a lot of less official knowledge about growing up.  Gerald went to Camp Shohola, sending his parents reassuring letters such as “How are you?   I am fine.   I have poison ivy”.  Despite this he went there for two summers and was rewarded with a Mohawk name meaning ‘he who comes back’.  Caroline went for one summer to the sister camp in Pennsylvania called Camp Netimus, called Camp No Penis by its male rival.

While they were away we took the younger children to Kittyhawk and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, long beaches and a flat land under the brooding power of the sea where, to prove that I could, I grew the moustache which became a permanent fixture.  Another summer we went back to Cape Cod to a house almost underneath the tall lighthouse keeping watch over the Atlantic coast.  The Cape had acquired a motorway running up the centre and the quiet New England atmosphere had taken a knock.  But the beach plums were still abundant and the clams still delicious.   At the back of the house the children built an ever-expanding toad cemetery for the toads killed by Toby and I made the mistake of reading Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ late at night.  Working through that most convincing of modern ghost stories under the restless beam of the Highland light left me wide-eyed and reluctant to risk falling asleep.

The most memorable of the holidays was spent at Lake Bernard in Canada.  My Canadian colleague from the CIA, Alan McLean, invited us to spend some weeks with his family at their cottage on that lake.  It was a long drive, enlivened by the usual complaints about the air-conditioning not reaching those in the back, which we broke by staying a night in his American wife’s family cottage in the Adirondacks.  It was a traditional hunting-lodge built by her grandfather, with an enormous fire-place and wooden walls hung with heads of stags, bears and other trophies.  Bears were in fact a live issue and could be seen foraging in the town dump.  Sophie in bed was anxious that they might invade the house but, reminded that the heads on the wall showed what happened to intruding bears, went happily to sleep.

The freshwater lake was one of those numerous glacial holes in the country’s preCambrian shield, small, cold and sunk in the dark-green forest north of Ottawa. It was a perfect summer retreat.  In this remote spot there was nowhere to go except the frequent visits to the village for supplies which were an inseparable part of family holidays.  We swam, fished for bass and took turns at capsizing the little sailboat.  Daylight was announced by the melancholy cries of the loons on the lake.  Sounding a little homesick themselves it was easy to see why the recollection was so cherished by homesick expatriates.  Evenings were spent playing cards or reading by the light of the hissing pressure lamp. 

Before breakfast (pancakes and maple syrup) I shaved with a bowl of lake water and a mirror fixed on a tree and was startled amid the wilderness when a radio hanging on the tree relayed the words of a New Zealand minister on a frigate near the atoll of Mururoa, the French nuclear testing site. The tree, it happened, was occupied by a raccoon and we looked for it after dark. When a torch caught its anxious eyes peering down at us it peed on my upturned face, probably the most enduring memory of the holiday.

Summer which began neatly with Memorial Day at the end of May ended equally neatly on Labour Day at the beginning of September.  On that Monday morning the simple walk to the road for the newspaper brought the subtle but unmistakable signs of a change of season even before the leaves began to turn.  The air was no longer oppressive, the cicadas seemed quieter and the rain was softer.  The sense that the lassitude of summer was ending was underlined by the start of the school year.  The yellow school buses reappeared and the groups of children waiting for them had new schoolbags and a slightly apprehensive air, though Toby at least was kept inside.   

As the East Coast woods began to blaze with autumn colour suburban dwellers exchanged mowers for leaf rakes.       Raking leaves into neat orange and brown piles around the lawn and paths was an autumn pleasure but a brief one as dogs and children quickly scattered the effort.     Gerald had been elected chairman of the school’s Reptile Committee.     The chief pursuit of committee members seemed to be to bounce in the piles of leaves I had raked but it turned out that they had penned a snake in an old packing case on the edge of the woods and were eager to discover if it had bred yet.

A more believable snake in the form of a copperhead spent some hours under the car, perhaps to enjoy some residual warmth.  No-one was keen to go near the car but while advice was sought on what to do it slipped quietly back into the woods.  More vivid was the diamond-backed rattlesnake we encountered on a picnic in West Virginia.  It was unmistakable, with a yellow diamond pattern on its black body and when annoyed it rattled, though not so much a rattle as a vibrating burr like a phone in your pocket.  It struck at a long stick I held out.  We saw the head poised to strike and again after it had struck but the striking head moved too fast for the human eye.

West Virginia abounded with wildlife, not all of it squirrels and deer.  It was especially beautiful in the fall and Gerald and I drove up to walk a part of the Appalachian Trail.  The area where we left the car was unexpectedly full of generously built Russian women sunning themselves in bra and pants, making an excursion to the limit of the distance they were permitted to drive from the Washington embassy.  We walked along the trail through stands of white oaks with leaves turning gold and scarlet and came to a shallow valley covered with wild blueberry bushes.  We crouched down to hunt for the sweet, overripe berries until I saw that down the row from us were two bears doing the same.  They were as engrossed in eating as we had been and there were more than enough berries for all of us, but it seemed prudent to quietly withdraw the way we had come.

Autumn peaked with Halloween.  Every household laid in supplies of toffees and chocolate, apples and oranges for the more health-conscious.   As darkness fell Seven Locks Road and its neighbouring streets came alive with small ghostly figures hurrying from house to house with bags that became steadily heavier.  Sophie set off as Caspar the Friendly Ghost but most went as witches or less friendly spirits.  Sarah discovered that going later brought more returns as people emptied what was left in their bowls assuming that she was the last of the evening.

‘Trick or treat’ was the challenge at every well-lit doorway.  No-one had ever been known to say ‘trick’ but an Englishwoman in Bethesda was alleged to have said, “Oh, treat definitely”, taking a bag of sweets from a child and shutting the door.  There were urban legends about apples laced with razor blades and all the door-knockers were warned to be careful but nothing untoward ever turned up in the large amount of loot gathered.  The children returned slightly sick from the amount of chocolate and sweets already eaten.  Julie then had to impound the heavy bags and dribble out the remaining contents over the next few weeks.

Winter seemed to start as punctually as summer: every Thanksgiving afternoon as we finished our meal the first snowflakes began to fall.  Winter in Washington was enlivening rather than depressing.  Snow opened new possibilities.  A fall in the night was revealed by the profound silence that followed, a silence broken only by the reassuring rattle and clank of the snowplough going by.  In the sunny daytime its bright light was dazzling against the blue sky and the sharp cold.

For adults snow was not an unmixed blessing.  There was the bundle of gear, jackets, overshoes, hats, to get the children into; the chore of getting the smallest into and out of their snowsuits and the gloves which had to be attached to sleeves with a piece of elastic to prevent their being lost.  The drive up to the house, unnoticed for much of the year, now had to be shovelled clear.  It was a chore needing to be done immediately if the car was to be got on to the street before the snow froze and all who have done it have never forgotten the unbelievable weight of snow on the shovel.

For children, though, the snow brought fresh possibilities.  Everyone had snow sleds known as ‘flexible flyers’ and we took our two down from the garage wall to join the fun.  Snow forts were built and defended with snow fights and the hills of nearby Cabin John Park provided magnificent opportunities for racing.  Best of all was to link sleds into a line by each person holding the end of the sled ahead of them.  The whole line then sped down the steepest hill with the tail end sweeping back and forth in widening swings.  It ended in shrieks of excitement and everyone half buried in the flying snow.

The indoor life of winter and the approach of Christmas also meant that it was the party season, for children as well as for their parents.  The party to be at was the White House’s annual Christmas party.  President Nixon and his wife had become more and more reclusive.  None of us at the embassy had met him, not even the ambassador once he had presented his credentials.  The Christmas party, though, was an institution and each year our children were lucky enough to be asked.  Everything was perfectly organised down to the bags of favours each child brought home.  There were magicians and famous acts, with characters from Sesame Street, peaking with the arrival of Big Bird to circulate and talk to the guests.  Even so the revelry was a little constrained by the exalted atmosphere.  In a newspaper photo Caroline sitting next to Mrs Nixon looked as solemn as she did.

Christmas at home was jollier.  The winter dark, the warmth of fires and the snow-laden trees all helped make it seem more natural than in the southern hemisphere.   My piano, hitherto used for Bach and for playing Schubert and Mozart sonatas with a violinist friend, became the accompaniment of family carol-singing sessions, a tradition still alive forty years and several pianos later.

A friend from the CIA sent the children a glorious gingerbread house every Christmas and a sweet-smelling spruce was brought home in the station-wagon and put up near the piano. Excited hands crowded round to decorate it with lights and ornaments of varying artistic merits made by the children.  On Christmas Eve the tree gleamed and winked with delight as all the boxed presents were laid out underneath.  A cautious shake of the box was all that was allowed to those who wished to speculate on the contents. Then everyone went to bed except on one occasion Sarah and Sophie who sat on the stairs as long as they were able to stay awake to intercept Santa as he came through the front door.

Sophie was by nature something of a dawn treader.  I was awakened once at four by a noise and called out a warning to her, to receive the reassuring reply through the darkness, “It’s all right,  I haven’t stealed anything yet”.  One Christmas Eve in Washington she was too wound-up to wait and, in a horror story recalled each Christmas since, everyone came down in the morning to find their presents already opened.

At Christmas 1972 the main concern, at least for her parents, was Caroline’s future.  She had come to the end of elementary school but the next step, Cabin John High School, had acquired a reputation for drugs and random violence that put it out of the question.        Boarding school in New Zealand seemed the only answer, especially since she had never been to school in her own country and needed friends who did not rotate every three or four years.  We settled on Woodford in Hawkes Bay which then took only boarders.     There were grandparents in Christchurch for emergencies but it was a daring move to send a girl so far away on her own.  I said to her, “This is an experiment, Caroline.    If it doesn’t work, say so and we will find something else”.   It wasn’t clear then or later what else could be found but fortunately the move was successful.  Both her younger sisters followed her there, each fortified by Julie’s advice, “A term’s notice in lieu of fees and you can leave”.

She and her mother set off in January, with a short stay in Mexico on the way. Their arrival at Woodford was recounted at school functions for years – their voices, their clothes and above all the floods of tears when Julie left.  Julie was still shaken when she got back to Washington but Caroline made the change with little difficulty, or none that she admitted to.  She found herself a year ahead in schoolwork and could coast in the classroom while her wardrobe from New York and Washington brought respectful admiration.

Back home my inexperience showed in caring for the other three children.  For dinner I could cook meat, potatoes and vegetables separately but was shaken by the effort of serving them all together and could not understand how Julie managed this every evening with such nonchalance.  My innocence about shopping and other meals was manipulated by an orchestrated litany of misinformation.   Milk at breakfast had to be replaced by fruit juice “because Mummy always does”.  Mummy, it appeared, also sanctioned cocoa pops, chocolate milk and a supply of biscuits.  The old milk and muesli regime moved back as soon as Julie returned and no-one said a word.

Our time in Seven Locks Road was also coming to an end.  The Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Lang, took me aside on a visit to say that New Zealand was enjoying a sizeable balance of payments surplus, a situation which he said would not recur in either of our lifetimes, and he thought some of it should be invested in buying houses overseas.   I was allocated a substantial amount to do so in Washington.  Houses were bought for all the diplomatic staff including one for us, on a bluff at the edge of Georgetown, on the corner of Reservoir and Foxhall roads.

It was a pleasant house from which I could once again walk to work, though Gerald forced to change schools and friends was less happy.  The house itself was comfortable rather than exciting, though there was a laundry chute running three stories from our bedroom to the basement down which Sophie could be dropped when her siblings needed a diversion.  The real excitement was that life in the car had been swapped for enjoying Georgetown.     

We walked to the shops, walked to the library and walked to the Georgetown University chapel where the Jesuits provided more intellectual fare than singing nuns.  In the bookshop on P Street I talked more than once to the aged Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, whose conversational wit was summed up in her most famous line, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, come sit by me”.  Julie rose to these heights when we passed the great post-war Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, resplendent in a mustard-yellow waistcoat and she whispered to me, “Look, a yellow-bellied Democrat.”    

Georgetown had style and its inhabitants formed an establishment of people like Ethel Kennedy and Art Buchwald who seemed to be in power whatever the Administration. We went to summer parties in the gardens of old houses, enlivened for a time by the Gucci hotpants Julie acquired.  An excited young man had a breathless question, “Who’s the chick in the hotpants” and was dashed when I told him. The children were introduced to the Marx brothers in a theatre which ran the classics continually and a third generation of the family laughed at the familiar jokes. Julie and I even went to a much-advertised pornographic movie festival but had to leave when she could not stop laughing at the efforts of a young lady with a football.

In March my parents arrived from Christchurch and were accommodated on their first night in the study downstairs which had its own bathroom. At two the following morning I woke suddenly, knowing that something had roused me but not knowing what it was. Shortly afterwards my father appeared in the doorway to say, “Someone seems to have fired a gun into our room”.   This sounded improbable but I jumped out of bed and went downstairs to see the curtains blowing from the shattered study window and a thin skein of gunsmoke floating in the air.

My first thought was that it was the work of a lunatic.  Concerned about what else he might be planning, I slipped out the front door to reconnoitre.  The moon slipped in and out of the clouds as I groped my way round the house and I began to regret my impulse.  There was, however, no-one there and I returned to find that Julie had phoned the Diplomatic Protection Squad who arrived shortly accompanied by the Washington police.  They found what I had missed: a message painted in black on the wall under the study window: “There will be a homeland for all or a homeland for none.   Death to Zionists and their imperialist functionnries (sic)” and above the badge of the Black September terrorist organisation.     Both spelling and writing became a bit hasty towards the end.

Two bullets had passed over my father’s bed into the wall above my mother.    That at least enabled him to say, “If I had been an upright lawyer I would have been dead”.   It looked as if this was not an attempt at murder but a political demonstration and the shots had been fired to draw attention to it.  The police traced the getaway car as far as the Chain Bridge into Virginia but then lost it.  Intensive questioning of the surrounding houses revealed that our  Texan neighbours had heard the shots but assumed that Julie and I were simply settling some domestic difference.  Others had noticed a car which had been keeping the house under surveillance for the past two days.    

This was the first act of Middle Eastern terrorism in the United States and was followed a month later by the murder of the Israeli air attaché with what proved to be the same gun.     The mystery was why the house of an inoffensive New Zealand diplomat had been chosen.     It was probably a mistake, the result of the less than thorough reconnaissance which causes most terrorist misfires.   Two years before we bought it, the house had been rented by the Jordanian ambassador.  I was Charge d’Affaires at the time the house was being watched and the black Cadillac with diplomatic plates parked in the drive must have encouraged the lazy assumption (they could have checked the diplomatic list) that the Jordanian was still there.

Any repeat of the attack was therefore unlikely but from then until our departure we lived under armed guard.     Our mail was intercepted and checked before being delivered to us.    This was not foolproof.     A package arrived for me from Beirut where I knew no-one.    The police left it carefully on the lawn until an expert could examine it for explosives.     It sat there in the rain until Sophie returning from school picked it up, opened it, and said “Look what’s come for Dad”.  Otherwise life with guards was not as burdensome as we might have thought and Julie was even able to recruit them for a little lifting around the house.  I was away at the embassy all day and the only inconvenience I remember is that the guards in the patrol car parked beneath our bedroom window gunned the engine at intervals all night to keep out the March chill.  In the morning two lines of cigarette butts showed where they had passed the night.

Caroline at school in Hawkes Bay perhaps had the biggest shock.   She was called away from breakfast by the headmistress (itself an ominous event) to be told, “Your parents have been shot”.    This was neither tactful nor accurate but Miss Bell was perhaps a little flustered.  In any case Caroline, a diplomat’s daughter, had already read the headline upside down in the paper open on Miss Bell’s desk and concluded that we were alive.

Life, however, had more for the twelve-year-old.  We brought her home to Washington for her next school holidays and when she was returning on Qantas as ‘an unaccompanied minor’ the plane was struck by lightning and limped to Honolulu for repairs.  The passengers sat in the terminal for hours in the usual way and then were taken to a hotel where an air hostess stowed Caroline in a room and forgot about her.  She sat in the room for a day, too timid to use room service but heartened by opening her suitcase and finding a large card from Julie saying, ‘Remember we love you’.  When the flight was ready to resume other passengers fortunately recalled the twelve-year-old girl who was travelling by herself and alerted the airline.  When she reached Hawkes Bay Miss Bell, by now thoroughly unnerved by the scale of events which seemed to distinguish Caroline’s family life, put her in the school sanatorium for a week.

By then the message painted on the wall had become something of a Washington attraction and from then on all lunch or dinner guests had to be taken to see it.  When we were about to leave a few months later I gave the traditional party to drink dry the remains of our cellar.    On a weekend morning we got an exceptional turnout from the State Department, White House and CIA, partly to discover what the invitation meant by “elevenses” but mainly to see the celebrated inscription.  At its own farewell in Langley the CIA in a well-intentioned gesture gave me a medal – not the sort to be pinned to the chest fortunately but a large bronze medallion to be hung around the neck in the manner of wine waiters.  On one side was the CIA badge and on the reverse it said simply, ‘Gerald C Hensley’ which was something of an embarrassment since it seemed to imply that my association with the agency was closer than my actual liaison duties.  It went into the bottom of an old trunk and as far as I know is still there.

Julie and the girls went home early to gather Caroline for her second and less adventuresome school holidays.  Gerald and I followed in August, spending a few days in Mexico on the way.  There the drama of our Washington stay made a last appearance.  We stayed in a hotel in the Pink Zone in the centre of the city.  I was wakened early one morning by a violent and prolonged shaking.  As our beds slid back and forth across the room I managed to tell Gerald that he should stand in the doorway.  It was easier to stay in bed, however, and by the time I was insisting the earthquake stopped.

I went downstairs to find the lobby full of people in varying states of undress and excitement, demanding to leave.  The shaking seemed to be over so we both went back to sleep and early the next morning travelled to the hilltop town of Taxco to see the silver workers and Guadalupe to see the pious crowds struggling on their knees across the plaza to the cathedral.  We thought of the earthquake as of purely local interest and did not see the parts of the city that had been severely damaged.  The following morning I was awakened by the telephone shrilling in my ear.  “You’re alive!”, Julie shrieked.  I was surprised to be asked to confirm this but while Gerald and I had been sleeping the agencies had been carrying news and pictures of the earthquake, reporting that over seven hundred people had died in Mexico City.  Not having heard from me, Julie had visions of us both reposing beneath a heap of rubble.         

We returned to Wadestown and a quieter life.  Unpacking at home we discovered that some books borrowed from the Georgetown Library, a paperback set of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, had been accidentally swept in with our own.  I wrote to the library about returning them but received a most gracious reply saying that the children had been such regular customers that they should keep the books, noting a little sadly that we were the only people who had ever borrowed them.

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