I, Henry Trotter, was born a genetic male on a military base in the United States where my dad was an officer in the US Navy. This was merely the latest assignment for Dad who had previously been stationed in California and Virginia after roaming the world on aircraft carriers, fighting against godless Commies. Two years after I was born, my family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where the Suharto regime was thankfully not Communist. Godless perhaps, but not Communist. My first memories come from that time.
But my life history doesn't start with what I can personally recall. It starts with what my forebears have taught me about my ancestry, which, in my case, amounts to precious little! Though I am a historian, I do not come from verbose stock and we have never really bothered to investigate our family origins. My Grandmother did once belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), so she was able to trace back her lineage to a Captain John Morton who fought in the American Revolution. Of course, we're all proud of ole Cap'n Morton, but the fact that we can only claim one patriot to the clan name probably means that the rest of 'em were Redcoats, hellbent on taxing colonial tea!
Aside from my brother Edgar's 5th-grade family-tree project, which confirmed our English, Scottish and Germanic roots (or some other equally shameful mix), we have been content to assume that most of our ancestors bore humanoid features. However, recent family photos have challenged our belief in this matter.
[The Trotters are not aliens, do not come from Planet KreePeeh, and have never visited said planet.]
My father comes from humble southern folks who enjoyed the quiet hum of southern living (especially the mosquitos, ticks, and crickets). Grandaddy worked on the Rock Island Express Railroad but died shortly after I was born. I think he was a conductor. Grandma Earl lived into her 80s, which seemed shockingly old to me when I was a child. I do remember that she could knit beautiful throws to keep us warm and cozy on the couch during the winter times. She was the first old person I knew.
My mom's parents are the epitome of hard work and thrift. Grandpa Henry (I'm named after him) worked as a civil servant for the Army after serving in WWII, flying fuel from Burma to China "over the hump," (the Himalayas) as they called the route. He actually visited Cape Town briefly after the war, so we often compared notes when he was alive. Grandpa passed the bar exam, but never practiced as a lawyer, preferring the stabillity of post-war work with the military. He and Grandma Lucy were great savers of money, coming from the Depression Era, enabling Grandpa to retire early and live off his well-planned pensions for decades. They traveled, lived in warm climes, and spoiled their Grandkids. Grandpa Henry died only a few years back at the age of 82, but Grandma continues to the thrive.
My parents are southerners (but we try to keep that our little secret - shhhh!). Dad and his brother were raised with good ole southern BBQ, eventually moving from Arkansas to Tennessee. The brothers went to Memphis State University, pledged with Pi Kappa Alpha, and ran on the cross-country team together. From there, Dad went into the ROTC program so that he could train to become an officer in the US Navy, while Uncle put his brain to God's purposes and became a Protestant minister.
Mom has deep roots in Tennessee too. In fact, both of my parents happened to live there at the same time during their youth, but they never met each until they were in California. They met later in San Diego, where Mom was at university and Dad was stationed at the big Navy base. Mom always loved a man in a uniform, and always had a soft-spot for a man with well-groomed fingernails (seriously!), so that's all it took for my Dad to win her over.
Jakarta - Indonesia
I was a child when we moved to Jakarta, that smoggy, pulsing, humid metropolis on Java island. In fact, we were there near the time of the infamous "Year of Living Dangerously," but life for me behind the walls of our embassy-certified house was idyllic. Our neighbors were a Chinese family on one side and a wealthy Indonesian family on the other side. Tarmana, our gardener and handyman, would carry me on his back, sometimes up the Frangipani tree which was covered with white perfumed flowers and overlooked the busy Kiai Maja street. And a string of different Ibus (lit. mothers) cleaned up behind us messy little American boys.
My first memories of life come from that time: of piggy-back rides on my dad's back at Monas and Merdeka Square; of swimming with my arm-floaties at the American Club pool; of trips to the local market on my mother's hip; of strangers pinching my cheeks whenever we went out, apparently to indicate that they thought I was cute (which annoyed me a great deal); of rice, satay, and noodles dribbling out of my mouth; of gamelan orchestras tinkling in the night; of playing with my brother on the tile floors of the house. We took rickshaw rides to most destinations, a huge adventure for me. And we even crept around smoking volcanoes when we had time to be tourists.
You never know how important your childhood experiences will be to you later in life, but I credit those two early years in Indo with implanting in me the seed of wanderlust. Once we got back to the States, my memory made it seem as if I had had some sort of fantastic exotic experience which differentiated me from other Americans. Most other young Californians certainly hadn't been to Southeast Asia (though their fathers might have, fighting 'Charlie' in Vietnam), so I felt privileged. Unique. People reacted to me as if I had done something neat and mysterious for having lived abroad. And the furniture we dragged back with us from Asia made for daily reminders of that history. It made me take a sense of pride for my family's peregrinations. Since then, I have always felt the allure of traveling.
Years later, when I was 20, my nostalgia for the archipelago caught up to me, so my brother, Edgar, and I made a trip back to Indonesia to visit all the old haunts, eat some satay, and go snorkeling. We spent 5 weeks island-hopping, mostly in Java, Bali, Flores, and Sulawesi. While it was an awesome experience, the only bad part was that Indonesians were hooked on the cheesy power-ballads of Michael Bolton. Wherever we went, we could hear "Tell me, how am I supposed to live withoooooout you?" crooning away on some tinny radio. I'm still haunted by that memory. Damn you Bolton!
Camarillo, California - USA
After Indo, we moved to the west coast of the States, just north of Los Angeles. It's near a big Navy base for Dad's work. We found a house in Camarillo, a rather sedate middle-class white suburb surrounded by fertile plains on one side and a ridge of mountains on the other. The beach was only half an hour away and Tom Selleck (Magnum P.I.) was rumored to have a fancy house on the hill. At the time, the town was most famous for being home to a Camarillo State Hospital, a mental institution which, so the story goes, inspired the Eagle's hit song "Hotel California."
But as a youngster, my life revolved around my Green Machine pedal cart, bicycle, skateboard, and toys. My brother, Ed, and I, loved to play with our G.I. Joe action figures, our Nerf football, and our foosball game which our dad made for us.There was also a fantastic swing on the backyard tree (out of which I fell and split my skull open, requiring stitches).
Monte Vista Junior High School
In America, we tend to think of the pubescent years as the most fraught and fragile for a youngster. So we separate out the 12 to 14 year olds from the pack and put them in a hormonally contained institution called "Junior High School." I lived within walking distance of Monte Vista, so attended there with lots of friends. I was so excited to go there because that was the first time we got to have our own lockers: How cool! Just like on TV!
It was about this time that I got interested in cycling as a sport. My bro had been riding for some years already, and since I hero-worshipped him to a degree (a fact which he pointedly ignored), I got myself a bike and started riding. And, of course, I wanted to become the next Bernard Hinault or Greg Lemond (Lance Armstrong was still in primary school at this point) and win the Tour de France. I was well on my way toward winning the fabled race when I was hit by a pick-up truck while "training." I went flying into the windshield, bouncing 20-feet onto the asphalt. It broke my arm and leg, necessitating three surgeries on the arm and year of bed & wheelchair recovery.
That experience changed my life, mainly because I then had some cool scars on my arm to show off to the "ladies." Know what I mean? (Wink wink) Sadly, the "ladies" weren't interested. And thus my dream of becoming a macho stud, full of heroic scar tissue, never materialized. I thus decided to become a bookworm, full of heroic scar tissue.
My middle-class upbringing in Camarillo allowed me many opportunities to try different things, like play sports, take music lessons, play with friends, and go on trips. I think I played almost every sport, participating for at least two seasons each in swimming, soccer, baseball, basketball, football, and track & field. But my parents also wanted to provide some structure to our activities, so we all got involved in the Boy Scouts. When I was a Cub Scout, my mom was the Den Mother; when I was a Boy Scout, my dad was the Scout Master.
Though you sometimes hear funny things about the Boy Scouts in the news today, for me, it was a great time. We went hiking and camping every month: over the years I racked up over 100 nights of camping. We learned how to tie knots, weave baskets, perform first-aid and CPR, shoot rifles, sail small-boats, identify plants and animals, cook food over a fire, survive the threat of hypothermia, give back to our communities through service projects, and bury our toilet paper after we heed nature's call.
My brother, Ed, and I earned the Eagle Scout award quite early, having completed the requirements by age 14. Only 2% of all boys who enter scouting reach the rank of Eagle. But we stayed involved in scouting until we turned 18. Probably the coolest thing to emerge from that achievement was that a rich judge in the area drove us both to a special awards ceremony in his awesome Lotus Esprit Turbo! (Ah, yes, the perks of being a nerd.)
Most of the hiking and camping was done at places in southern and central California, places we could drive to in one day: East Fork Lion, King's Canyon, San Jacinto, and San Marcos.
Considering that we know longer live in "traditional" socities with pronounced initiation rituals (like conscription into the military or teenage circumcision), Boy Scouts offered me and my brother some approximation of a rite of passage from boyhood to adulthood. The structure of the program is certainly aimed at achieving that, considering that it tests you physically (hiking & camping), mentally (remembering lots of non-industrial knowledge, especially for survival in the wilderness), socially (to kill the camp counsellor or to not kill the camp counsellor?: that is the question) and morally (challenging you to live a principled life).
As we used to say in closing our Scout meetings, standing in a circle: "And now, may the Great Scoutmaster of all Scouts be with us until we meet again. Good night Scouts!"
It's hard to believe that I had a paper route for 6 years, considering that, today, I couldn't rouse myself awake before 5:30am to save my life! But when you're a kid hungry for baseball cards and WWF Wrestling magazines, the hundred bucks after a month's labor is well worth it. So, from age 12 to 18, I got up everyday at 5:00am—put on sweatpants, a heavy jacket, a beanie and my paper satchel—and walked the streets of my neighborhood, delivering the Camarillo Daily News to all the local subscribers.
I had a paper route with about 50 subscribers when I got into a car accident, so my mom took over from me. But she didn't get the kind of tips that I got because the people weren't impressed by a middle-aged woman delivering their papers. When I got healed from my injuries, I took over my brother's old paper route right on my street which had 63 customers. And every morning, they got their papers placed right on their doormat, safe from wind and rain. The Trotter brothers set a pretty high standard of service compared to other young delivery boys who would throw the papers while riding a bicycle.
I usually made about $100 per month, which was big money for a teenager. I could buy all the LPs and cassettes I wanted! But soon after I gave up the route and left for university, the Daily News was bought out by a larger company, the Ventura County Star, and they stopped using child-labor for delivering the papers. They instead hired lonely middle-aged men—still living with their parents, surely—who drove their pick-up trucks around numerous streets, tossing the paper onto subscribers' drive-ways. The good old days of personal delivery (and exploited child slavery) came to an end.
Rio Mesa High School
For so many American kids, high school is a phase of life they merely survive. It is often the worst time of their lives, which, of course, is quite sad. What's even sadder is if it turns out to be the best time of their lives! That's just pathetic!
I went to Rio Mesa, located in the fields of Oxnard. Half of the kids were Mexican-Americans from Oxnard and the other half a mix of whites, blacks, and Asian kids from Camarillo. In the late 1980s, there was a casual apartheid segregating these groups, as most of the Mexican-American kids formed their own groups while the Camarillo kids made cliques of their own. It didn't strike me as odd at the time, but when I look back, I realize that Rio Mesa was a bizarre microcosm of California demography. Probably still is.
During my sophomore year, I spent Christmas break glued to the TV watching college football bowl games. I was thrilled by the idea that these guys would go back to their schools as heros. Everyone would admire them: guys would envy them, girls would desire them. And man, that's what I wanted! So I decided to play football for Rio Mesa the next year. But I should have thought twice: Here's me—with the testosterone levels of a lady bug—trying to play a collision sport with guys who eat their dogs' toe nails for breakfast! I was way out of my depth. The coach was a retired Marine drill-sergeant from south-side Boston (which just means that he was Irish, patriotic, and tended to spit when he yelled), who soon disabused me of the notion that football was in any sense "fun." He put me as second-string fullback, consigning me between oblivion and ignominy in the world of football prestige. Not only did I not play in regular games, I was used as the first-string defense's pounding dummy during practice. Well....needless to say, I got no glory for my year on the gridiron, nor any much-desired glances from the girls. Instead, I learned that curling up in the fetal position in a corner of the gym shower after practices, sucking my thumb while the municipal water washes away my salty tears and mucousy nose-drippings, earns one a free trip to the school counselor (whose number I've still got on speed-dial).
During my senior year, I teamed up with my buddies to write an underground newspaper that mercilessly mocked the administrators of the school. With typical adolescent angst, we weren't pleased with the way our school was being lead, so we dreamt up humorous ways to "stick it to the system." We came up with CNN - The Covert News Network. It was double-sided paper with lots of silly jokes and scurrilous innuendoes about the school and its management. When we distributed it to the students, they loved it. Teachers merely smiled and shook their heads. But the principal was less amused: he called us into his office one by one, accusing us of breaking numerous school rules, trying to get us rat each other out. But when he started to eye the whipping cane next to us on the wall, I did shrink a little in my chair. Ultimately, the administration didn't shut us down: when my mom got word about it, she did! Thus, my revolutionary days lasted all of a week. But the counter-revolutionary oatmeal cookies that my mom baked later that week made up for everything.
Every summer during high school and the first couple of years of college I went on international trips. These jaunts instilled in me a sense of wanderlust that I have yet to shake.
National Parks of the West
[More Coming Soon!]
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo - Cal Poly, SLO
Though I threatened to go straight into the military so that I could scrub latrines and peel potatoes, the wisdom of my elders prevailed and I decided to risk college. "Education," I thought, "what a crock! Literacy's so over-rated."
But two-and-a-half hours north of my parental home is a fine university which offers high school graduates the opportunity to buy...I mean, earn...tertiary degrees. So I called Cambridge and Oxford and told them to stop trying to recruit me so hard—shame, it was getting rather pathetic—and that I was going to the intellectual juggernaut known simply as Cal Poly.
Sure, Poly is more well-known for its engineering, architecture, business, and agriculture programs, but I started out majoring in History. That didn't last long: my first professor got up in front of the class everyday and rambled on-and-on about his personal experiences in the colonies of the British Empire. His tales were totally implausible. I dropped History, became an English major, and thus secured my one-way ticket to Obscurity.
I lived in the dorms for my first two years. Those were perhaps the most unhygienic years of my life. Me and a dorm pal spent most of our time playing ping-pong, devising elaborate pranks for our dormies, and eating at Pasta Pronto and Bond's BBQ. While my blood pressure soared and my IQ plummeted, I thoroughly enjoyed myself in San Luis Obispo. I credit Poly with providing a stimulating intellectual atmosphere which, I must sadly admit, I inadvertently missed while I was busy watching re-runs of The Jerry Springer Show.
Africa: 4-Year Travel Odyssey to 17 Countries
While at Cal Poly, I knew that I would spend my junior year abroad so that I could expand my cultural horizons. I had already spent four summers in eastern and western Europe, plus another summer in South-east Asia, and some time in Central America. When I looked into programs, the only one available in Africa was at the University of Zimbabwe. At the time, I knew very little about the country, but once I read up on it, I knew that I would go there.
I spent 1994 studying at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, the pleasant capital city.
St. George's College
Backpacking through Africa
Back to Poly - Mentor Nancy Clark
[More Coming Soon!]
Some Yale administrator must have made a big goof-up, because they accidentally sent me an acceptance letter for their Masters in African Studies program! Well, legally, they were screwed, because once I had that letter in my hot little hands, I was packing my bags for Connecticut. Suckers!
Actually, my mentor at Cal Poly, Nancy Clark, inspired me to apply to Yale because she and her husband, Bill Worger, were graduates of the History Ph.D. program there. They had both studied South African history there and thought I could follow in their footsteps. So this West Coast boy started to dream of an East Coast education. Turned out to be a fantastic move.
I had gotten the most out of my Cal Poly education and Yale felt like a perfect fit. The neo-Gothic and neo-Georgian campus is beautiful and inspiring. When I first arrived in the summer of 1999, I was amazed. The whole atmosphere conspires to elevate the intellect and produce all kinds of Nobel Prize-winning thoughts.
Research Excursions to South Africa
With inspiration from my travels in Africa, and encouragement from my mentors, I decided to focus my academic career on African history.
(*Note for Americans* : as you know, Africa is a country where everyone speaks African. However, for some reason, the inhabitants of that country recently decided to split it into 53 smaller countries and then to start speaking a whole bunch of different languages. It's shocking, I know. It goes against everything we've been taught at our fortified compounds. So if your astrologer, psychic or cult leader starts talking about the "continent" of Africa, rather than the country, don't be alarmed. Just sit down, take the blue pill [not the red one!] and try to relax. [For best results, don't move for about 6 hours.] This change may take some getting used to, but if you look at an updated atlas, it should reflect these changes.)
I've made three major research trips to South Africa thus far. The first was when I was an MA student at Yale. I won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to conduct research in 2000-2001 on the impact of apartheid era forced removals on the coloured population in Cape Town. During that year, I stayed with Jones family in Bonteheuwel township which had been built in the early 1960s to house coloured forced removees from places like Sea Point, District Six, Goodwood, Newlands, and so forth. My interest was to understand how this traumatic experience of removals impacted the way that they produced memories and life history narratives. So I interviewed over 100 coloured forced removees (plus a dozen African removees and the same number of non-removees) and wrote a 334-page MA thesis on my findings, titles "Removals and Remembrance: Commemorating Community in Coloured Cape Town." I had a fantastic time doing it and am still mining that research for new ideas.
A couple of wonderful things happened during that year too. Through Mr. Jones, I was able to join a Coon Carnival troupe in Mitchell's Plain, becoming the first white person in living memory to run with the minstrels. Since this is an almost exclusively coloured working-class amusement, stretching back over a century, my participation sparked some serious media interest and gave me massive exposure across Cape Town. The "street credibility" I gained through this event had a major impact on me getting quality interviews from people. Even to this day, I am able to mention that I was "that first white guy in the Coon Carnival" and people with become wide-eyed with amazement and recognition. When the parade comes each year, certain TV channels play a documentary about the carnival in which I happen to get some face time. It's always a pleasant reminder of a great experience.
Also, it was by hanging out with Charlotte and Jones that I started to learn about the old port culture that used to typify Cape Town's dockside social life. Charlotte used to live in District One, in the Waterkant area, right next to the docks. Her brothers were stevedores, her uncle a serang (dock foreman), and one of her aunt's was a Madam who "entertained" the passing seamen. Her whole life was wrapped up in dockside affairs. Her husband, Jones, is a salty sea-dog of many years too. Growing up in District Six, near the city center, Jones was also a stevedore in his youth, then became an engine crewman for Safmarine, De Beers Marine, and a host of other companies. The guy has salt running through his veins. And from him, I heard of amazing experiences abroad as a sailor. Imagine: during apartheid, seafaring provided the only legal way for blacks and coloureds to actually leave and return to South Africa! The Jones' stories about this dockside and deckside world inspired my current dissertation research, which I explain below.
The second trip was technically a year's leave of absence from Yale so that I could do preliminary dissertation research on South African port culture. (It was also an opportunity to spend time with Marjorie, whom I hadn't seen in months, and start making marriage plans with her.) I literally sailed to South Africa from California on two cargo ships, docking in 14 ports along the way. From Long Beach (Los Angeles), we sailed up to Oakland (San Francisco), across the Pacific (through Alaska's Aleutian islands) to Tokyo and Osaka (Japan), then headed south to Kaohsiung (Taiwan), then straight west to Hong Kong (China), then hooked southward again to Singapore, through the Malaka Straits to Colombo (Sri Lanka), continued west across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and up through the Suez Canal, sprinted west across the Mediterranean past the Rock of Gibraltar around the Iberian isthmus north through the Bay of Biscay to Le Havre (France). The ship continued on to Rotterdam (Holland) and Hamburg (Germany), but I disembarked in Le Havre so that I could catch a ferry across the English Channel to Portsmouth (UK).
A couple of weeks later, after spending time with friends in London, I caught another ship from Tilbury (London) to Bremerhaven (Germany), then south to the Canary Islands (Spain) which lie off the coast of Morocco, then then long steam around the west coast of Africa south to Cape Town (South Africa). It was a fantastic learning experience. 2 months on sea: no longer a landlubber!
South African Port Culture
The final trip, which I'm still engaged in now, is the formal period of my dissertation research on South African port culture. I was fortunate enough to win some scholarships to help me with the project and I now spend most of my time either: interviewing sailors, dockworkers, prostitutes, seamen's missionaries, cab drivers, night club owners, port officials, shipping enthusiasts, and the families of seafarers; raiding the archives for useful information; or hanging out with maritime folks in their work environments, on the ships, tugboats, at the Seamen's Mission, in night clubs, and so on. I'm basically exploring how the social relationship amongst dockside personnel has been transformed by the adoption of containerized cargo in the 1970s, along with other major events like apartheid repression, the onset of mass air transportation, the OPEC oil crisis, and the initiation of TV service into the country. All of these events had massive ramifications on the constitution of port societies, but I argue that none of them were more important than the immense structural changes wrought by containerization. That simple technological innovation in the shipping industry had incalculable social effects: most maritime people see it as bringing to an end a 'traditional' way of life in the dockside world. My dissertation looks at what the old port culture was like, how it was impacted by containerization and other events, and what it looks like now.
After years of international courting, Marjorie and I finally got married on 4 June 2005 in Cape Town, South Africa. What a fantastic day! We had met back in 1997 while I was backpacking around Africa and we established then the foundations for what would be a long-term romance across the oceans.
Now & The Future
Since getting married last year, lots of exciting things have happened. Marjorie passed the bar exam and her conveyancing exam, making her an attorney who can also handle property transactions (a specialized aspect of South African law). I've been wrapped up in my research on contemporary South African port culture.