Howard Hatton had a storybook childhood.
His everyday life growing up in China as the son of missionaries could have been lifted from a pulp fiction adventure novel.
Home was a remote mountain village, reached by trails skirting sheer cliffs and a rope bridge swaying above a gorge. Chinese soldiers guarded him from bandits and wild animals on three-day treks to the nearest town.
His family barely fled for their lives from Mao Zedong’s army. It took him three weeks to reach his boarding school by train and tramp steamer, with stops in exotic ports along the way.
For two years during World War II, the Japanese held his siblings and him prisoner before an epic journey across the globe reunited them with their parents in America.
Given his romantic youthful experiences, it’s not surprising he became an adept storyteller — or wrote his own captivating narrative.
Mount Nittany Press, an imprint of the Lemont-based Eifrig Publishing, recently published Hatton’s “The Shaman’s Dilemma,” a semi-autobiographical tale set among his first friends, the Kopu tribespeople in the village of Hsinshao.
“It was really my Shangri-La,” Hatton said, reminiscing one morning at the Village Eatinghouse in Pleasant Gap.
“I can remember everything vividly. I was 5 years old when this story happened.”
The year was 1934, the setting a distant China that no longer exists. Hsinshao remains, a tourist attraction tucked away at 9,000 feet with a different name these days. But the Kopu and their culture have vanished, victims of social upheaval.
“I wanted to bring the Kopu to the attention of people in the modern world, because they’ve really disappeared as a tribe,” Hatton said,
“I wanted to give them a place in history, because no one else would and they would be forgotten. That was very important to me.”
Now 86, Hatton will travel from his present home in Howard to share his childhood stories at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe in State College.
He was born in a little town on the China-Burma border, moving at the age of 2 to Hsinshao on the eastern end of the Himalayas. There, surrounded by lush forests and mountainsides covered with spectacular rhododendrons the size of trees, he spent four magical years.
He played in Kopu homes, speaking the local tongue and Chinese, learning about a rugged people who carried their ancestors’ spirits in “lolo” baskets and enjoyed smoking long pipes and staging fights between bulls in the village square.
His father, the de facto village chief, would forbid the pipes and fights, though the villagers secretly puffed away in their homes and waged clandestine bets on bulls whenever they could.
One time, Hatton recalled, their scheme backfired.
“My parents were out on a long walk. They would do that regularly,” he said.
“And so the villagers knew they would be away for quite a while. They had people watching, and the whole village then got the bulls out and they were having a bullfight, the Christians and the non-Christians alike. And my parents came back a different way and caught them. There was a lot of loss of face.”
It was a Wild West existence, drama at every turn, a boy’s dream. His father once stitched the scalp of a Kopu man mauled by a leopard. Her mother forced herself to cross a rope bridge high above jagged rocks.
“We came to this bridge, and my mother suffered from vertigo. I remember vividly where she didn’t want to go across,” Hatton said.
“She was terrified, and the soldiers were laughing. Of course, I just walked right across. I loved it. And we finally got her across, but she hated it.”
Mao’s communist army broke the spell in 1934 when it swept across the province. A missionary couple were beheaded, and Hatton’s parents were next in the rebels’ sights. Tipped off, the villagers helped the Americans escape to the provincial capital of Kunming.
En route, the family persevered through a heart-stopping scare. Hatton’s father spied men in the distance and, thinking they were communist soldiers, ordered everyone to hide behind boulders next to the path.
Their dog began to bark, but Hatton desperately kept her quiet until the approaching figures turned out to be merchants.
Eventually, he attended the Chefoo School on the Shandong peninsula, far to the northeast. Today, a superhighway cuts a direct path, but in the late 1930s, the only way from Kunming was by train south to the Vietnamese seaport of Haiphong and then up the Chinese coast.
He left on the train with two older boys, on their own for three weeks — an almost inconceivable situation for modern parents.
While Hatton’s older sister traveled to the school years earlier, pirates had captured her ship for a few days. Hatton didn’t have the pleasure, but he was far from bored, tasting his first ice cream in Hong Kong and beholding Shanghai’s colonial majesty.
Because of the distance, he didn’t return to Yunnan province on vacations, and wouldn’t see his parents for another six years. The school became his home.
He generally hated it and its draconian teachers, but loved the evening stories in the headmaster’s house over the holidays. Free time also meant solitary expeditions in the mountainous jungle behind the school compound, all the while imagining himself as Tarzan’s sidekick.
“I could have been killed I don’t know how many times,” he said. “I loved climbing mountains, cliffs, trees and so on. That’s what I would do. I would disappear for a whole day all by myself.”
The Japanese already occupied his town when Pearl Harbor exploded in flames. Immediately, Hatton and his classmates were interned in their compound. Once, he slipped away and saw soldiers tie up a Chinese man and use him for bayonet practice, but his military police captors were a humane lot — a rarity for the time.
“We were the only place in, I think in the whole of East Asia, in China, where we were treated really very well,” he said. “In fact, I liked the concentration camp because we didn’t have any school. We just played most of the time, and I could engage in my favorite activity of walking along branches of trees and pretending I was Tarzan.”
The commanding officer, a Christian who attended Sunday services, treated his wards kindly and set an example for his men. One day, a sergeant rounded up children, took them far into the countryside and told them to play.
“So we just ran around and had a good time and he just sat under a tree and slept,” Hatton said. “I mean, this was absolutely unheard of.”
Periodically, a general would arrive for inspection, and the camp would have to snap into more of a regulation mode. Hatton can still remember his visits.
“His sword could almost touch the ground. It looked ridiculous,” he said.
“He would come into the camp, walking pompously. It was very hard for us to be polite but we knew we’d better be because this was actually a Japanese general.”
In 1943, the teachers and children were exchanged for Japanese prisoners of war. Hatton’s parents and younger sister already had escaped Yunnan province when he and his other two siblings embarked on their own odyssey.
After an arduous two weeks in a transition camp, they boarded a seized French liner to the swap in Goa, India. From there, a Red Cross ship took them around Cape Horn, across to Rio de Janeiro and then finally to Philadelphia, almost three months after their initial departure.
His unique childhood made a deep impression. Hatton would go on to be a missionary in Thailand, earn a doctorate in social linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania and become a translation consultant in Southeast Asia for United Bible Societies.
But before all that, he left his own mark. On the liner, he and his pals discovered ornately bound books of Japanese propaganda in the library. Deciding to do their part in the war, they stole the volumes and ripped out pages.
As the ship approached Saigon, they stood at the stern and fired off the only salvos they could — a burst of fun in the middle of war.
“The whole harbor was filled with paper boats and airplanes.”