Then there was the time I got the mumps. Yes, I know, everyone gets mumps, even kids from Wichita! But not everyone gets the mumps in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, which was my version of the Plaza Hotel! Today, this is one of the places to stay in Hong Kong, and frankly, it was in 1975, too, but we could apparently afford it on our per diem rate. We’d just come through the ordeal of my being evacuated from Saigon to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and we were stopping in Hong Kong. Well, I mean, really, doesn’t everyone?!
The Peninsula is a great hotel, one that even at the age of 13 I knew was a great hotel. They’d pick you up at the aeroport in a Rolls Royce (that was then; now, I think you’re on your own), and they’d whisk you through to your gorgeous room. I specifically remember my mother’s infatuation with the black marble bathrooms, which, when you were coming from places like Laos, must have been like dying and going to heaven. (See my mom’s short story about poor Mrs. McLarney in the Lao Bar Bathroom).
So here we are at the Peninsula in Hong Kong, me recovering from an emergency appendectomy, my mother drooling over where she’s going to start shopping first, and I get a sore throat. A really sore throat. And after the hotel doctor paid a house call (they had guys like that, back in the day), it was official: I had the mumps and I was quarantined from travel. (By this point, I had already cost Uncle Sam a pretty penny!) My mother, to her credit, tried to hide her joy, but I knew she was delirious at the prospect of a few more days in Hong Kong—my mom LOVES Hong Kong!
In the meantime, I was a swollen mess, and I couldn’t swallow a thing.
Now this is where it gets really cool: the room service guy (I’m afraid that back then, pre-PC, we called him the Room Boy, but honestly, “Room Guy” sounds a little creepy) asked me if there was any kind of food that I wanted and thought I could eat.
“Crème caramel,” was my immediate response. I’ve always been a bit of a freak for really good crème caramel. Well, frankly, mediocre crème caramel will do in a pinch. I’m not proud.
Wouldn’t you know, the head chef of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong personally (or so family legend has it) whipped up a portion for me and kept me supplied in crème caramel throughout my ordeal! I was in Kid Heaven! (By the way, Head Chef, Peninsula? Thank you, if I didn’t manage it in between mouthfuls!)
Mom got to finish her shopping just fine, thank you very much. You couldn’t blame her, really. We’d just lost everything we owned in Saigon, for honestly no really good reason. It wasn’t like no one saw The Fall coming!
We hit San Francisco on April 30, 1975, only ten days after we’d left Saigon in an emergency medical evacuation. The woman at customs looked through our passports, and then at my mother.
“Welcome home,” she said. “Saigon just fell.”
I think it’s the only time I’ve ever seen my mother sob, and it still chokes me up to talk about it to this day.