Terry McLaughlin: The not-so-ugly American
January 2, 2019
William Lederer was a writer and a career Naval officer, having graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1936. He is probably best known for his book, "The Ugly American," which he co-authored with Eugene Burdick, then a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
"The Ugly American" was among the first books to deal with the United States' foreign policy strategies in Southeast Asia. It portrayed the American Foreign Service community as isolated, and its workers as inept and smugly arrogant in their dealings with the local population. The title of the book became an American idiom, referring to the American traveler abroad who is oblivious to or disdainful of foreign cultures.
In 1962, four years after publishing "The Ugly American," William Lederer experienced an encounter that affected him deeply and prompted him to write the following letter to then Chief of Naval Operations in Washington D.C., Admiral David L. McDonald.
"Eighteen people asked me to write this letter to you. Last year at Christmas time, my wife, three boys, and I were in France, on our way from Paris to Nice. For five wretched days everything had gone wrong. Our hotels were tourist traps, our rented car broke down; we were all restless and irritable in the crowded car. On Christmas Eve, when we checked into our hotel in Nice, there was no Christmas spirit in our hearts.
"It was raining and cold when we went out to eat. We found a drab restaurant shoddily decorated for the holiday. Only five tables were occupied. There were two German couples, two French families, and an American sailor, by himself. In the corner a piano player listlessly played Christmas music.
"I was too tired and miserable to leave. I noticed that the other customers were eating in stony silence. The only person who seemed happy was the American sailor. While eating, he was writing a letter, and a half-smile lighted his face. My wife ordered our meal in French. The waiter brought us the wrong thing. I scolded my wife for being stupid. The boys defended her, and I felt even worse. Then, at the table with the French family on our left, the father slapped one of his children for some minor infraction, and the boy began to cry. On our right, the German wife began berating her husband. Through the front door came an old flower woman. She wore a dripping, tattered overcoat, and shuffled in on wet, rundown shoes. She went from one table to the other.
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"'Flowers, monsieur? Only one franc.'
"No one bought any.
"Wearily, she sat down at a table between the sailor and us. To the waiter she said, 'A bowl of soup. I haven't sold a flower all afternoon.' To the piano player she said hoarsely, 'Can you imagine, Joseph, soup on Christmas Eve?' He pointed to his empty tipping plate.
"The young sailor finished his meal and got up to leave. Putting on his coat, he walked over to the flower woman's table.
"'Happy Christmas' he said, smiling and picking out two corsages. 'How much are they?'
"'Two francs, monsieur.'
"Pressing one of the small corsages flat, he put it into the letter he had written, then handed the woman a 20-franc note.
"'I don't have change, monsieur,' she said. 'I'll get some from the waiter.'
"'No, ma'am,' said the sailor, leaning over and kissing the ancient cheek. 'This is my Christmas present to you.'
"Then he came to our table, holding the other corsage in front of him. 'Sir," he said to me, 'May I have permission to present these flowers to your beautiful daughter?' In one quick motion he gave my wife the corsage, wished us a Merry Christmas and departed.
"Everyone had stopped eating. Everyone had been watching the sailor. Everyone was silent.
"A few seconds later Christmas exploded throughout the restaurant like a bomb.
"The old flower woman jumped up, waving the 20-franc note, and shouted to the piano player, 'Joseph, my Christmas present! And you shall have half so you can have a feast too.' The piano player began to belt out Good King Wenceslaus, beating the keys with magic hands.
"My wife waved her corsage in time to the music. She appeared 20 years younger. She began to sing and our three sons joined her, bellowing with enthusiasm.
"'Gut! Gut!' shouted the Germans. They began singing in German. The waiter embraced the flower woman. Waving their arms, they sang in French. The Frenchman who had slapped the boy beat rhythm with his fork against a bottle. The lad climbed on his lap, singing in a youthful soprano.
"A few hours earlier 18 persons had been spending a miserable evening. It ended up being the happiest, the very best Christmas Eve they had ever experienced.
"This, Admiral McDonald, is what I am writing you about. As the top man in the Navy, you should know about the very special gift that the U.S. Navy gave to my family, to me and to the other people in that French restaurant. Because your young sailor had Christmas spirit in his soul, he released the love and joy that had been smothered within us by anger and disappointment. He gave us Christmas."
Welcome 2019! May this be the year in which we each release the love and joy that has been smothered within us.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.