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Thoughts on a patriotic day…. For the Price of a Model T

January 22, 2013


ABOVE: My great grandparents, seated, with their children from left, Ruby, Ramsay (my grandfather), Glen, and Pansy. Burma, 1920.

Yesterday, I sat with my mom and kids to watch President Obama’s second inauguration.
As always, when it came time for the singing of all the official songs I found myself moved nearly to tears. There’s something about them that gets me, every time. I have never considered myself a particularly patriotic person–I tend to associate that very term with cheesy American flag regalia, myopia, blind allegiance, yadda yadda. I don’t know where those associations took hold, necessarily, but there they are, and they happen to live alongside the part of me that tears up whenever I hear the National Anthem.

Regardless, I have a particular perspective on this whole love of country thing borne both of my decided privilege in being American by birth and of an understanding of my immigrant grandfather’s own experience in passing from Burma to a new life in the States, where he could be free.

Free of the social constraints of being British in Burma. Free of the caste system that forbid him to work and earn his own money. Free of an expected identity with which he undoubtedly struggled. He was not allowed to befriend  the native children, nor was it acknowledged that there was more than British blood running through his veins. His early years were cushioned by the wishfully selective thinking on the part of his parents who, by virtue of their time and station, placed a premium on their British identity to the exclusion of their obvious Indian heritage. (Prior to living in Burma, the family had been in India for years…two generations, if memory serves.)

As soon as the opportunity to leave Burma arose, my grandfather and his older brother, Glen, jumped. They left the country in 1920, and never returned.

Following is an essay I wrote way back in the spring of 2001 for the Colgate Scene. Since this writing, both Grandpa and Glen have passed away. My grandfather died in January 2006, and Glen passed the following summer. Grandpa was 105. Glen, 107. I didn’t know Glen, actually–he and my grandfather weren’t close, in their later years. But my grandfather…I am still close with him. His influence on my life defies words. He was a sage…my mentor, my guide, my hero. I miss him every day.

And, considering the fact, as I mention below, that many more distant relatives who remained in Burma were killed or disappeared during the second world war, I am more than grateful for Dr. Baldwin, the prohibitive price of petrol, and a Model T that never came to be.


Shook the slush of Rangoon off our feet and boarded the Derbyshire by launch. Then a very unromantic farewell to Burma, and not even a solitary tear to augment the muddy Irrawaddy . . . . Ramsay Harris, July 10, 1920

The second day out we got some squally weather and rain and yesterday, although fine, shipped a huge wave for’ard. (It’s blowing very strong now.) Glen Harris, July 14, 1920

These words were written by my grandfather, Ramsay (then 19 years old), and his brother Glen (21) as they embarked on their journey to America. Born in India and raised in Burma, their passage to the States was a dream come true for both brothers.

But it wasn’t just a ship that carried them from Burma (now known as Myanmar) to New York. Stanley E. Baldwin, Colgate Class of 1912, and the prohibitive cost of petrol were instrumental in delivering Glen and Ramsay from the halls of Rangoon College (where signs forbade students from spitting on the walls) to those of Colgate.

The night went down in a crimson haze, and there was a fairly liberal sprinkling of stars — planetary above and phosphorescent and slimy stars in the sea itself. Ramsay, July 13, 1920

A missionary from Bloomfield, New Jersey, Dr. Baldwin met the Harris brothers at the Maymyo Baptist Church after his arrival in Burma in 1916. After becoming acquainted, he invited the brothers on a hike. They took several “long tramps” and, according to Ramsay, in their talks along the trail, “Colgate began to come to life for us boys. Professors such as ‘Craw’ (William Crawshaw), ‘Brig’ (Albert Perry Brigham), and ‘Johnny’ Greene became lively personalities.”

Here we are . . . 12 hours’ sail from Marseilles on a calm, untroubled sea. Far on the horizon is a beautiful sailing ship. Just a week ago we were passing Suez . . . The canal was passed at night so we did not see much of it except late in the evening and early the next morning. Glen, August 9, 1920

Not long after Dr. Baldwin’s arrival in Burma, his church in Bloomfield sent him $500 so he could buy a Model T Ford to use in his missionary work. But, considering the poor road conditions and price of gasoline, a car would have been impractical. Baldwin’s horse and cart certainly sufficed, so he asked the congregation if he could use the money to send the brothers to America so they could attend Colgate. It wasn’t until 1919, however, that the plan came together. At first, Glen and Ramsay didn’t take his offer seriously. But after they finished their first year at Rangoon College and returned home, they renewed their friendship with Dr. Baldwin, who then made it clear that he was serious about funding their passage to the States.

After several months of preparation, Glen and Ramsay boarded the Derbyshire and arrived on the shores of New York in September 1920.

Here we are at last, two sophs in Colgate. We couldn’t write before as there was such a rush of things since we landed at New York. To start off, we had to line up in a queue and pass the Immigration Officer who kept us till about 8:30 p.m. and then let us off. We then trod American soil, entered the huge shed and loitered around looking for our boxes. Ramsay, September 25, 1920

During their three years at Colgate, the world opened up for Glen and Ramsay.

The professors Dr. Baldwin had talked about during their hikes proved to be outstanding educators. For Ramsay, Professor Brigham’s Geology 1 was particularly illuminating:

Within the first week or so [of the class] I moved into a different world. I was able to envision the vast ice sheet grinding southward over the Hamilton hills. The very pebbles on the pathway whispered of vanished millennia.

Glen, a noted gymnast and flute player, was particularly fond of Dr. Crawshaw (who taught literature), calling him “a great teacher, one of the best I ever had.” Both brothers were thrilled to find that America’s lack of a caste system made it possible for them to work odd jobs for pay and they eagerly took advantage of that privilege, with Ramsay noting “how friends back home would scorn — and envy — us!”

The brothers both graduated in 1923. Glen, by then married, moved to Syracuse, where he taught for a year at Syracuse University. After that he went to California and taught at the University of Redlands until 1930. During this time his two daughters, Vilda and Lynn, were born. In 1931, Glen and his wife, Helen, separated and he started work on his Ph.D. in Seattle at the University of Washington, where he also taught until 1952. He met his second wife, Florence, shortly after his arrival in Seattle, and sons Glen Jr. and Trevor were born in 1934 and 1938, respectively.

Glen never did complete his Ph.D. The committee rejected his outline — he proposed a thesis on Sir Rabindranath Tagore — and directed him to write about Byron instead. Halfway through this project, Glen quit and went to work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he remained until his retirement.

Ramsay briefly attended Rochester Theological Seminary (he had originally planned to be a preacher), but the frontier called — he got a train ticket and went to California to be closer to Glen. There he taught at the University of Redlands and grew to love California. One of his letters home to Burma describes how California, the land of plenty, was where his parents and sisters should come — instead of Missouri!

Aside from some time spent in the Army and a job machining aircraft parts on a turret lathe for Douglas Aircraft in southern California, Ramsay was a teacher.

He married Mary Barton in 1943, and they had two children, Laura and Andrew. The family lived on the campus of the Webb School in Claremont, California, where Ramsay taught from 1945 until his retirement in the early 1970s. In 1995, daughter Laura Harris Ware of Santa Fe, New Mexico moved both Ramsay and Mary to a retirement home in Santa Fe. Mary passed away in April of 1998.

Remarkably, both Glen and Ramsay have now lived to see the dawn of the 21st century, which puts them in the possibly unique position of being non-twin siblings who have both lived in three centuries. Glen, born in 1899, will be 102 years old in March, and Ramsay turned 100 this past October. Both are in good health, considering their ages. Glen still lives in Seattle and only recently moved into an assisted-living situation, while Ramsay passes his days cheerfully greeting people who pass through the main door of La Residencia retirement home in Santa Fe.

Were it not for the generosity of one man who favored a horse and cart over the thoroughly modern automobile, who knows what would have come to pass? Indeed, the rest of the Harris family was fortunate enough to come to the United States before World War II — a few other more distant relatives who remained in Burma were killed during that time. That fact makes the following poem particularly striking today:

A year ago there seemed to be
Small chance that I should ever know
Aught but what Burma held for me,
A year ago.
But fortune has deemed fit to row
My bark into a foreign sea
And many seemly sights to show.
But never did I dream to see
Along the great historic Toe
The vine-clad slopes of Italy,
A year ago.

Ramsay, August 7, 1920

2 Comments leave one →
  1. hallie permalink
    January 22, 2013 10:18 am

    Oh, I love stories like this one! Thanks for sharing … you and Ruby have a lot in common, looks-wise. Wow! Gorgeous.

  2. Lynn Regudon permalink
    January 22, 2013 6:49 pm

    Ana, I know I have your original article for Colgate somewhere, but I will save this to my “cloud.” I don’t remember the quotes from their journals, though. Very much like your comments re: freedom, after watching the inauguration. We really don’t remember how much we have until we start comparing with some of the other news from other countries.Cheers! Well said.

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