Tuesday, January 6, 2009

My Holy Roller Days - Adventures at the YMCA

An article shortly to be published in the next edition of Human Rights & Culture. Following the article is a reader's comment.

My Holy Roller Days - Adventures at the YMCA
Stewart Sloan

The years from 1975 to 1980 are what I refer to as my holy roller days. I was ‘born again’. It was a period of my life that I look back at with a degree of embarrassment and also relief. Relief that, having gone through them, it’s something I don’t have to do again. It had its moments. I had all the answers; I was invincible. And I was also broke.

I found a job at the Young Men’s Christian Association in Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui (Hong Kong) as a driver for their mobile book shop. These were the days before the handover to Mainland China and there was a large contingent of British Forces scattered throughout the territory. Actually, in those days Hong Kong was still referred to as a ‘colony’. It wasn’t until the 80s that this term was considered a no-no.

I would drive a Toyota Lite-Ace van, laden with paperback books and magazines to all the buildings about the colony that were occupied by British Forces families. These ranged in area from Stanley to the north New Territories. On Mondays we would go to Hong Kong island, Tuesday was my day off and from Wednesday to Saturday morning we went to Sek Kong Military camp. My companion on the drive was a Mr. Wong. Mr. Wong was a very pleasant gentleman who had been employed by the ‘Y’ for years. His joys in life were swimming and sleeping. On the first I was happy to oblige him by driving past all the better beaches like Stanley and Deep Water Bay so that he could have a dip. As far as sleeping was concerned, Mr. Wong was an insomniac and would catch up on badly needed sleep whilst I was driving. It says a great deal for him that he could sleep while I was driving.

When we were not driving around the colony selling books to bored British housewives we worked in the book shop. It was not particularly onerous work and some of the staff kept us amused. One of these chaps was named Samuel. Samuel has a problem (the details of which were never explained to me) which required him to take tranquilisers. Unfortunately, Samuel was a young man and like most young men, myself included, he enjoyed the occasional beer. And this is where it all went wrong for Samuel, but more of that later.

My employment with the Y only lasted for six months and most of the time it was all quite mundane. There were however, two incidents that stuck out in my mind.

One of the locations we sold our books and magazines was at Sek Kong Military Camp at the bottom of Route Twisk. Route Twisk is a road that was built by the army to connect the Sek Kong Air Strip with Kowloon. It is a dangerous, winding road that runs over Tai Mo Shan and has seen its share of sadness. This was never more so than on one day in 1977 when a Kowloon Motor Bus single-decker lost its brakes coming down the last section of the hill. Almost completely out of control it ran the junction at the bottom of the Twisk, mounted the pavement on the other side of the road and plowed into a family owned supermarket where it burst into flames. I don’t recall the number of fatalities but apart from those that died in the accident many of the passengers suffered severe burns. I do recall that the daughter of the owner of the supermarket was due to be married in a few weeks time. Completely unaware of the catastrophe that was going on less than half a mile away Mr. Wong and I packed up the shop and headed down the hill to find ambulances and fire engines completely blocking the way. At the time we had no idea of the extent of the tragedy and saw it only as a nuisance. It was not until we saw the news that evening that we came to know how close we had been.

Another incident happened a few months later.

I lived at the time in the north wing of the YMCA. In those days the Y was made up of three separate buildings that had been built over the years. The north wing was the oldest and was being used as a dormitory. There were private rooms, mostly taken by the staff on the 3rd and 4th floors. My room was on the 4th floor.

One night I was settling down with a good book when I heard a commotion out in the corridor. Someone was shouting, “Where is he? Which is his room?” Whoever it was it was unlikely that they were looking for me as everyone knew my room number. Then I heard, “SLOAN, I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!”

‘Oh great’, I thought. I’ve upset someone and I don’t even know who it is. Then the person was banging heavily on my door and I recognised Samuel’s voice. I couldn’t possibly have upset Samuel, I thought, I’ve hardly even spoken to him. I took a deep breath and opened the door.

Me: Hello Samuel.

Samuel: I’m going to kill you!

Me: Okay, do you want to talk about this?

Samuel thought for a minute. I got the impression he has just realised where he was and couldn’t remember why he was there or how he got there. He looked about the corridor and seemed at a loss for something to say. I said, “Samuel, why don’t we go back to your room”. Silently he turned and I put a friendly arm about his shoulder. I can’t remember what we talked about as we walked back to his room but I am sure that it was pretty innocuous. Finally, after what felt like ten hours we were at his door and I opened it for him. Samuel walked inside and I saw him sit heavily on his bed. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said, and closed the door quietly. I made my way as silently as possible to the stair case, intending to get to the admin office and seek help. I got as far as the top of the steps when I heard a door crash open and Samuel yell: “SLOAN, I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!”

I sprinted down the stairs three at a time and rushed out into the car park, I was a lot fitter in those days. There, in the form of two of my colleagues lay salvation. One of them, Edward was one of the aquatics instructors, Portuguese by birth but more importantly six foot tall and twice as wide. I made a beeline for him and he saw me coming with Samuel in pursuit. I didn’t say anything, just hid behind him as Samuel screeched to a halt in front of him.

Edward was obviously accustomed to Samuel’s problems (I wish someone had told me about them). Edward barked an order and Samuel did an about face and meekly walked by to his room on the 3rd floor where he climbed into the shower fully dressed. He was still in the shower when the Assistant Secretary found him.

It was shortly after that incident that my hair started falling out.

A reader’s comment:

There is something smooth and flowing in your writing that makes reading a pleasure--even when it is sad. So thanks for that. But what really happened to Samuel, did he commit suicide?

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