With Father’s day coming up, I began thinking about my father and how his life influenced my passion for travel. Growing up I heard all these stories over and over. As a Father’s Day “homage” I will retell some of them here.
Morgan Livemore Knight was born in 1918. Together with his twin brother they were two of five siblings. My grandmother called them her “tin men”, because they couldn’t say twin yet.
In 1934 he joined the US Navy to “see the world”, as the recruiting posters tempted. He was only 16, but at that time they weren’t as picky about age as they would be today. After basic training and training as a Navy hard hat diver, he was shipped out to the Phillipines. The Navy was undertaking the clearing of Manila harbor of the ships our Admiral Dewey had sunk when he defeated the Spanish armada in 1898. The harbor had begun to silt over and impede maritime traffic. Since we created the problem we took the responsibility of solving it. Divers would go down and using pressure hoses, tunnel under the sunken Spanish ships to place slings under the hulks to be lifted and carried out to deeper water where they were sunk again. Tunneling with the hoses stirred up the water to a point where it was nearly impossible to see anything. It also attracted sharks for some reason. These would brush up against the divers or circle around from time to time adding to the thrill of the work.
Imagine a 16-18 year- old from Arkansas transported, almost Wizard of Oz-like, to the orient. His stories, like many young sailors’, are peppered with tales of drunken nights and bar fights. He was a Golden Gloves boxer, which meant he didn’t lose many of the fights. He carried evidence of some of these all his life, in the form of a large scar on one calf from walking through a plate- glass window in a bar in Manila. Another was the required tattoo of a naked lady on his right forearm. I remember she would wiggle provocatively when he flexed his forearm.
After clearing Manila harbor of the wrecks from the Spanish-American war, Morgan was reassigned to a minesweeper vessel in Shanghai, China. This was during an interlude in the Chinese civil war. The government of The Republic of China requested American help in clearing the important Yangtze River of mines planted by the communists during the first part of the civil war. My father was on the minesweeper that ran up and down the Yangtze clearing mines.
One of the stories he tells is of being able to ride a horse on the Great Wall of China. This would be unheard of today, but at that time was allowed. The young sailor trotted his horse nearly half a day back and forth on the Great Wall.
The most dramatic and amazing story he told of his time in China has to do with an episode later written in a book and depicted in a movie entitled “the Sand Pebbles” starring Steve McQueen.
Once in 1936, in Shanghai, the ship’s crew was given leave to go ashore for some R&R. My father and some of his sailor friends found themselves in a bar/brothel having a great time. Morgan and one friend escorted two of the bar ladies to rooms upstairs where they ended up falling asleep and spending the entire night. The next day as they stumbled downstairs they found an angry mob waiting for them since they had apparently broken some Chinese tradition of doing your business and leaving. The mob of Chinese men hoisted them up on a table with their hands tied behind their backs. They tied nooses around their necks and threw the ropes over rafters in the bar. The crowd, screaming violently in Chinese was about to hang them when two shore patrol jeeps from the Navy screeched to a halt outside the bar and a group of armed US Navy shore patrolmen barged into the bar to rescue them.
My father told this story many times in the 1940’s and after. The book by John Hersey was written in 1956 and the movie with Steve McQueen (in the role of my father) was only released in 1966. My father claims he never met John Hersey, but obviously, someone who knew this story told the author about it. Whatever the case, it’s a great story. When I saw the movie I almost jumped out of my seat screaming “I know that story! That’s my father!!”
Morgan Knight spent the rest of his time in the Navy in and around the South China Sea.
Fast forward to 1947. I was four years old. We lived in St. Louis, Missouri. It was October and beginning to get cold. Morgan’s twin brother, Stormy Knight (not his given name, but that’s a whole other story) was living in Puerto Rico only two blocks from the ocean. He kept tempting Dad with how warm it is in Puerto Rico and how the ocean was practically his back yard. One day my parents quit their jobs, packed up everything, and moved to Puerto Rico. We arrived with no house, no job, nothing. For a while we lived with Uncle Stormy and Aunt Wilda until my dad got a job and a place to live. Within a little more than a year of settling in Puerto Rico my father saw an ad saying that the government of Brazil was giving away large tracts of land in Rio Grande do Sur to anyone willing to come and develop the land for farming or ranching. Morgan’s wanderlust kicked in and he was eager to go to Brazil and be a cattle rancher. My mother, on the other hand, had grown up on a farm in Arkansas and knew something about what was involved in that scheme. She put her foot down and said, “No way are we going to be ranchers in Brazil.” In a nutshell, that’s why I grew up in Puerto Rico instead of Brazil.
Growing up in Puerto Rico I acquired a second language, a second culture, and more than a little of my father’s wanderlust. On this Father’s Day, I see clearly how the stories of my father’s adventures and travels have influenced me and my passion for travel. If someone asked me to name my favorite thing in life, it would be Travel. Travel broadens your perspective, educates, stimulates, and makes you realize that we are all one regardless of language, color, or citizenship.
I believe I have passed some of this interest in travel on to my son, Eric. He has traveled with me to Colorado, St. Maarten, India,Thailand, Hong Kong, Mexico, and followed in my footsteps to Machu Pichu, Peru. We seem to be a family of travelers.
A final word: Morgan Livemore Knight was the last of his siblings and parents when he passed away in 2001. Maybe his middle name was prophetic. He really did live more. Perhaps in more ways than one.