Monthly Archives: September 2013

No Stoplights in Wenonah

NO  STOPLIGHTS  IN  WENONAH

“Something’s wrong with your chair.”

“It’s because you’re sitting in it.” The thought came to me long after she had left. She was a nurse who had come to the house as part of the Home Care Service related to Liddy’s spine surgery. If chairs had feelings this chair in the sun room of our Lakebridge carriage house must have cringed as this morbidly obese lady prepared to sit. Three hundred pounds would b a modest estimate. The chair was one of those constructed with a series of thin metal pipes, a large one extending down from a cushioned seat to a four-pipe system in the form of an X with rollers at the end of each pipe. When she sat, one of the pipes cracked and gave way, causing the chair to sag in that direction. She honestly thought the fault lay with the chair.

Gloucester County, South Jersey is like Costa Rica, there are people who know how to fix things. The Gloucester County Yellow Pages lists 26 businesses in the welding category. It was easy for me to choose because there was only one in Deptford where we live – Cotterman, Inc. The guy who answered the phone, Paul Thomas,  gave immediate reason to think this was the right choice – his voice was sort of gravelly, like the movie actor Walter Brennan if you know what I mean – kind of welcoming. Could they fix my chair? Sure, bring it on over they’ll get right on it.

Paulie Thomas may be good at fixing things, and I was to learn he is a great story teller, but he is lousy at giving directions. Don’t listen to Liddy if she tells you Max is lousy at receiving directions.  The first thing I learned was that the phone book had it wrong – they were located in Wenonah, not Deptford; the Deptford address was that of his bookkeeper and he had no idea how it got there. Paulie led me a merry chase trying to find his shop. I lost count of the number of wrong turns, dead ends, false road markers, blind alleys, etc. At each stop I called Paulie on the cell phone – “Where are you?” He would ask. “What do you see?”              Note: I was only using the cell phone when stopped – there is a New Jersey law against using a cell phone while driving and I respect the law.

“I just passed two stop lights on Mantua Avenue.”

“There are no stop lights in Wenonah. Turn around.”

Am I coming or am I going? Nobody knows. Not true, Officer Hand of the Mantua Municipal Police Force knew. I was headed backwards into a ditch, and he was witness to the whole cockeyed episode. I had pulled onto a small lane bordering  the Avenue, stopped, fired up the cell phone and dialed up Paulie Thomas. I did not notice the police car parked no more than 15 yards ahead of me.

“Hang on Paulie, I just backed into a ditch, I’ll call you back.”

The tow truck arrived within 15 minutes. “If your wagon is draggin’ call the dragon.” That’s what was displayed on the side of the tow truck. My wagon was draggin’. The dragon never had an easier job – they had me out of the ditch in just a few minutes and gave me a special rate of only $100 because I was a senior citizen and a veteran.

But a funny thing happened while the tow guys were setting up. Paulie Thomas and his helper, Pete, showed up. My confusion was complete. “How did you get here?” I asked. I don’t  remember his explanation, but it had something to do with the cell phone.  Whatever. Officer Hand handed me a ticket for using a cell phone while driving, everybody had a good laugh and Paulie Thomas, as well as Officer Hand, gave me directions to the welding shop assuring me “you can’t miss it.”

I missed it. The next thing I knew I was on a four lane divided highway in fast traffic going in the wrong direction. I pulled onto a narrow roadway running parallel to the highway, stopped the car and called Paulie Thomas. A Chiropractor’s office sat on rising ground to my right.

“Don’t  move, I’ll send Pete,” said Paulie.

I had no trouble following Pete over a circuitous route through tree-shaded residential areas and finally to the welding shop that was tucked into a notch of forest somewhere in the wilds of Wenonah. A slogan on the side of a truck in their parking lot proclaimed, “we fix everything except broken hearts.”

Pete went to work on fixing the chair while Paulie began by showing me the railroad-track stitches on his back. It was because I told him I had to get home soon because Liddy was alone recovering from spine surgery.  Here is the story:  Paulie worked thirty some years as a tractor-trailer driver; three years ago he fell from the back of his truck and fractured six vertebrae. “You can’t imagine the pain.” He retired with a 40K pension and $200,000 compensation for his injury. “Money is not my problem, I still have pain.”  Paulie deals with the pain by taking extra strength Tylenol; he could take Percocet but is afraid of becoming addicted to the narcotic. Liddy chose surgery for the same reason.

Paulie is 65 years-old and missed serving in Vietnam because as a high school senior he already had a wife and child to support. But his brother Bill, who founded the company, is 80-years old and served on a Landing Craft in Korea. Paulie took me to the office where I met Bill and exchanged a few sea stories about the Korean war. Bill told of being present at Eniwetok when they tested the first hydrogen bomb.

“No charge for the chair,” said Paulie, “just follow me and I’ll get you back to Deptford, no need for you to get lost again.”

“So how did it go?” Liddy asked when I finally got home around four thirty, in time to cook supper.

“Nothing to it,” I said, “the chair is like new. But in case you ever wondered, there are no stop lights in Wenonah.”

 

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Shutting down

When I post what I think are some of my best stuff leading up to the publication of my civil rights novel, COUNT and nobody seems to care, I thinks it’s time to stop and rethink where I am and where I’m going. I have much on my mind, not least giving full attention to Liddy’s recovery – she is scheduled to come home next Tuesday, September 17, 2013.

So until further notice, this blog is  ended.

 

Colonel Nishi – Background for COUNT

Chapter 10 of Max Blue’s first novel, For Those In Peril On the Sea, tells the story of Booker T. McCan’s experience with Japanese Colonel Nishi after the young black American is captured on the Island of Iwo Jima, in February, 1945. Max was venting some outrages he had experienced growing up in America. Again, this is background for the soon to be published novel COUNT.

COLONEL NISHI AND THE BbROWNS

Mac was led stumbling in the darkness blindfolded, his arms arrested tightly at his sides, through a narrow winding passageway, up two flights of wooden steps, and finally into a small room carved out of the earth and lighted only by a bare electric bulb hanging from a slim cord. When his blindfold was removed Mac saw a sparely furnished room; a table, a chair, a low stool.  He heard the melancholy sounds of Duke Ellington’s  Mood Indigo. A large, detailed map of the island was secured to one wall. On the table were a field telephone, a bottle of brandy, and two glasses. Sitting behind the table, facing away from Mac, was a Japanese officer. Other than movies, it was the first Japanese Mac had ever seen. It was the Baron: Colonel Nishi.

The colonel sat quietly, smoking a cigarette, listening to the music.  At length he stood and turned to face the wide-eyed young American. He smiled in satisfaction at the look of astonishment on Mac’s face. Mac, with his Hollywood-inspired knowledge of what all Japanese looked like, was totally unprepared for Colonel Nishi. First, the colonel did not look at all like a monkey, in fact, Mac was struck by how much he looked like Count, his old mentor in Peoria. Secondly, although Mac had grown to an imposing six feet two inches, the Baron was an inch taller. Third, the colonel did not wear thick glasses, and finally, to Mac’s utter confusion, the Baron was wearing a St. Louis Browns baseball cap.

Colonel Nishi stood directly in front of Mac, grasped the chain of his dog tags for a close look, and said, in a basso profundo voice that also caught Mac by surprise, “So you are Booker T. McCan? Welcome to Iwo Jima.”

Mac was stunned. Here, standing before him was a man who must be his enemy, who surely intended to kill him, and yet was speaking to him in unaccented English. To top it off, the man appeared to be friendly. It made no sense. It must be a dream.

“Why did you kill my brother?” Mac blurted.

Colonel Nishi blinked, shook his head slightly, stepped back, shook his head again, then turned and poured himself a glass of brandy. He took a large draught, swallowed it slowly, then lighted a cigarette with a small pocket lighter, all the while never taking his eyes off Mac who stood defiantly before him.

“Why did I kill your brother . . .” The question was repeated as a statement. The colonel stared at Mac in surprise . . .what was this all about? The colonel circled behind Mac regarding him with some interest . . . was it possible that he had at long last come across a thoughtful American? One capable of an abstract question? Very well, he would give him an answer.

“It goes back a long way, Mr. McCan,” said the Baron. “Before you were born. It goes back forty years.” The colonel circled behind Mac once again, his mind rewinding to recall long suppressed memories. He stopped, and spoke to the back of Mac’s head. “My family came to America because we were told it was the land of opportunity. My father and mother settled in California; they sent my sister and me to school. We learned. It was a happy time. I became a teacher. A teacher of mathematics.”

Colonel Nishi walked in circles around Mac as he spoke. He no longer looked at Mac, but seemed to be gazing into the distance beyond the confining walls of the dismal cell that contained them. Mood Indigo continued to play. Mac thought of Flapper Jackson, also a teacher of mathematics.

Colonel Nishi continued. “Your name is Booker T. . . . I wonder if you know anything about the man you are named for?”

Mac was startled. He had never thought much about his name.

“In nineteen fifteen, the year Booker T. Washington died, I came to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to teach mathematics. Booker T. Washington founded that school. He knew that education was important, and he built a fine institution at Tuskegee. I was proud to be part of it.”

Mac listened in gathering amazement; why was this man telling him this story?

The colonel continued. “I was educated in California, but when I came to Alabama I received a different kind of education. I saw a different side of America. I saw meanness. I saw ignorance. I saw hate. I saw hypocrisy. I saw uneducated white people trying to prove their own worthiness by degrading intelligent and sensitive black professors. I experienced the same degrading practices because, even though I wasn’t black, I was different. I was yellow, and I had slanty eyes.”

The colonel stopped pacing, and stood facing Mac, looking into his eyes. Mac, his upper body still roped, returned the gaze, never blinking. “Do you know what I’m talking about . . . NIGGER?”  The last word was a shout. Mac blinked. He was confused. This man was the enemy he had sworn to kill. He thought about Bucks Fulton. He thought about his billet as a mess attendant. He thought about his brother Davey as a mess attendant. Colonel Nishi, looking deep into Mac’s eyes, found a flicker of understanding.

“Listen carefully, young man,” he said, and resumed pacing.  He spoke as he paced. “I thought it would be different in the north, so I moved to St. Louis, and began teaching at SoldanHigh   School. In the summer I played baseball.” The colonel stopped in front of Mac to see his reaction to this news. Mac was puzzled.

“Yes, baseball,” said the colonel.  “Does that surprise you? Did you know that baseball is the national game of Japan? You see our countries are not as different as you might think.”

This piece of news hit Mac hard. It did not seem right. His anger at the Japanese flared again . . . another treacherous act; baseball was America’s game.

“I was a very good baseball player,” the colonel mused, again seeing beyond the walls, talking aloud to himself. “I was a pitcher.” He smiled as he recalled desperate lunges at his deliveries.

But now his smile disappeared, and he turned back to Mac. “Our team was called ‘the All Nations’. Listen carefully McCan, this is important. On that team were three white men: a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew. There were also five negroes, two Cubans, a Hawaiian, an American Indian, and me, a Japanese. If baseball is a metaphor for life, and it is, this team proved to all who could see, that people of different races can get along with each other and work together for the benefit of all.”

Mac knew little of metaphor; he had once played basketball in Metamora, a hamlet near Peoria, but he too had teamed with players of mixed and wildly diverse backgrounds, origins, and beliefs. He was unmoved by the colonel’s words. What was there to prove? He remained defiant.

“That team was good enough to compete with the best teams in the country, and we proved it on the field many times. We beat teams with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth on them.” The colonel said it with pride in his voice, and paused to savor the thought. Like all former ball players, when he jogged his memory he could recall singular pitches and plays years after the event. He remembered the sound, and his disgust, when Ruth’s bat crashed against what he thought was one of his better pitches.

“Two of the white men on ‘the All Nations’, went on to play in the Major Leagues, but the rest of us were not allowed, and believe me it wasn’t because we weren’t good enough.”

The colonel stopped for a moment, as a different thought crossed his mind. He turned again to Mac and said, “Some people blamed your namesake, Booker T. Washington. He once made an important speech in which he said that negroes and whites should be separated. The powerful white community loved that, and it became the law.” He paused. “ . . . In nineteen twenty the Negro National Baseball League was formed, and I got a job playing for the St. Louis Giants. Those were exciting times.” Colonel Nishi’s eyes shone. “Think of it, Booker T. I was paid to play baseball! Not a pittance either, five dollars a game, and sometimes a bonus for a good performance. Oh, yes. Exciting times. What did we care if the white leagues wouldn’t let us in? We had our own league, and we felt good about it. The league had a motto: ‘We are the ship, all else the sea.’” The colonel smiled sadly.  “Brave words. Defiant words, and yet sorrowful. A ship is always at the mercy of the sea.”

As he talked, the colonel paced back and forth, smoking one cigarette after another. He walked to the corner of the room and changed the record that had been turning for some time with no music coming out. He carefully lifted the needle and placed the arm in its cradle. He looked through a stack of black 78 rpm records until he found the one he wanted. He placed it on the rotating turntable and set the needle. The haunting sounds of Billie Holiday singing Melancholy Baby filled the room. Momentarily the colonel stood quietly, thinking about the ship, the sea, and the melancholy. Then he resumed pacing.

“The nineteen twenties were good years for me. In the winter I taught mathematics at SoldanHigh School, and in the summer I played baseball for the St. Louis Stars who replaced the Giants in nineteen twenty two. That was the year the St. Louis Browns almost won the white American League pennant. George Sisler hit four twenty, but they still lost to the Yankees . . . by just one game. That loss took on great meaning for me as the years passed. I began to see the Yankees as white America and the Browns as brown America. Another metaphor, Booker T.”

Another metaphor. Mac’s mind was racing. He was listening carefully, as instructed. White America. Brown America. Metaphor. He thought of the glorious sunset on the broad Pacific that night on the troop transport out of San   Francisco. He thought of Holy Communion. Metaphor. White America. Brown america. Yankees-browns.

The colonel continued. “Beginning with that heart-wrenching loss in nineteen twenty two, I saw the competition deteriorate, and the Bbrowns took some fearsome beatings over the years.” The Colonel turned suddenly to look at Mac and asked, “What year were you born?”

“Nineteen twenty eight,” answered Booker T.

The colonel thought for a moment, looked at Mac sadly, and placed his open palm gently on Mac’s cheek. “So young,” he said.

Mac flushed in embarrassment. His anger was slipping into curiosity. Did this man really care about him? Or was it just another deception?

“Nineteen twenty eight,” said the colonel. “Yes. The Browns finished third with their new first baseman, Lu Blue. The Yankees ruled. They swept the Cardinals in the World Series. Gehrig homered once in game two, twice in game three, and once in game four. Ruth homered three times in game four. It was brutal. In nineteen thirty nine the Bbrowns hit bottom: one hundred eleven losses. I too hit bottom: too old to play baseball, battered by the Depression. The Browns were me. I was the browns.”

Colonel Nishi stopped pacing long enough to change the record. This time it was Lena Horne singing Stormy Weather. He walked back to the desk, took a handful of steel-tipped darts out of a drawer, and began slinging them in an underhand motion at a corkboard attached to a far wall. The circular board was painted into pie-shaped sections lettered with baseball symbols: 3B, FO, KO, SAC, etc.  In the center was a small circle with the symbol HR.

“I always went to SportsmansPark when the Yankees came to town. Hoping. Hoping this would be the day things would change. It was cruel. The Yankees were so powerful, the Browns were so helpless. Few could stand to watch the ridicule. One day I counted fifty four people in the grandstand and ten in the bleachers; the park could hold thirty six thousand. It was nineteen thirty nine; hope had yielded to despair. Do you understand despair, Booker T.?”

Mac had seen despair in the eyes of men sitting on the back steps of his Peoria home, eating the food his mother had prepared. But a new thought boiled to the surface of his understanding. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, despair had given way to exhilaration. The U.S. was alive and full of purpose. Should we thank the Japanese? Mac did not feel despair at this moment, but he sensed that the colonel did.

“The Browns had an unexcelled ability to break their fans’ hearts. How can I forget the day they led the Yankees by two runs with nobody on base and two men out in the top of the ninth? Then, with the suddenness of doom the Yankees loaded the bases on an error and two walks, and brought Gehrig to the plate. In nineteen thirty nine Gehrig was a dying man, but with a bat in his hand he was still dangerous, and God knows, a man who had punished the Browns unmercifully over the years.” The colonel paused as he remembered.

“There was an irony here. Gehrig was a fine man, unthreatened by, and unafraid to speak out for the browns. He saw no reason why they should be prevented from playing in the Major Leagues, and he said so. He, like all the others, played against  browns in exhibition games. He saw the absurdity when brown Cubans like Roberto Estalella were not considered negroes because they could speak Spanish and so were allowed to play. Your country, Booker T., is riddled with paradox: massive and senseless ill treatment of minorities; beacons of outrage like Gehrig.” Once again the colonel paused to reflect.

“Your country is riddled with paradox . . . AND SO IS MINE!” He threw a handful of darts at the board in an outburst of fury and frustration.

The colonel stalked back and forth, wanting his boiling rage to subside. Only slowly did it do so. He would speak again. He wanted to make his point. Like all the best teachers, he became so lost in his logical thought train that he forgot his audience. Mac was but an onlooker. An onlooker taking furious mental notes. With the last outburst, a new parameter had been introduced into the equation. Mac was beginning to see. Captured by the colonel’s intensity, no longer being lectured, he waited for the next point in the lesson. He imagined Gehrig, the good-hearted Yankee, husbanding his energy with slow and menacing bat strokes, glaring with murderous, but not evil, intent at the reluctant pitcher. He imagined the besieged Brownie hurler, the brown, grinding the ball into his hip, walking off the mound to pick up the rosin bag, avoiding the confrontation, seeing the dancing base runners, wishing he did not have to deliver the ball … hoping for a miracle.

“I was afraid to look,” the colonel continued. “What I heard made me wince. The crack of ball meeting solid wood. When I looked up I saw the runners circling the bases at the top of their speed. But I also saw, to my amazement, the first baseman camping under a ball hit so high it was almost out of sight. Gehrig had hit it up the elevator shaft, home run distance, but straight up. So high that all three runners, almost as if they knew something, had crossed the plate when the ball finally came down as it had to do . . . even the Yankees were powerless before the laws of Physics. But there is no law that an infield pop up will be caught, and as the ball descended I knew with sickening certainty that it was another cruel joke, and of course, the ball was dropped.”

Colonel Nishi slammed a dart with overhand fury into the board.

“I stayed in America one more painful year before returning to Japan. What decided me finally to leave the land of opportunity after thirty years, was a symbolic act that demonstrated to me with great clarity that it was not only the browns in America who were downtrodden, mistreated, and exploited, but in fact, all the people were victims, all the people were browns, with the notable exceptions of the wealthy few. Victims of an ethic that exalts only gluttonous and insatiable commerce.”

Colonel Nishi slammed a dart into the very center of the board, marked HR, placed Franz Liszt’s Le Prelude on the turntable, and turned up the volume.

“It was the exiling of a popular hero because he had the temerity to demand payment equal to his worth. Joe Medwick traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Ernie Koy and a hundred thousand dollars. Like the Japanese army trading General Kuribayashi to the U.S. Marines for Booker T. McCan and a bag of gold.”

A symphony of violins and trumpets swelled to majestic crescendo as the sounds of Liszt’s great tone poem flowed over the room.

“Medwick was a St. Louis Cardinal. The fans called him “Ducky Joe” and “Muscles”. They loved him, and for good reason. The year before he was traded he had seventy extra base hits, twice as many singles, drove in a hundred seventeen runs, and that was an off year for him. The Cardinals refused to pay him the eighteen thousand dollars he thought he was worth. The St. Louis fans were shocked by the trade, nobody in management asked them what they thought. Nobody in management cared. But the fans cared. Young boys cried, and tried to understand. Old men swore, and tried to understand. Ducky Joe was just reaching his prime. He was twenty eight years old. For me it was the final blow; I returned to Japan looking for something better.”

Colonel Nishi hung his head sadly, gently laid his darts on the table, and once more changed the phonograph record. Mac heard the mournful sounds of Billie Holiday singing St. Louis Blues.

“And so at last, my adolescent antagonist, we come to the point . . . why did I kill your brother? I killed him because I, like all of us, am a victim. Foolish and helpless before the crushing power of people and events. In the name of duty required to act on the whims of anonymous brokers. I expected something different when I returned to my native land, but it was a childish and naive expectation. And so I killed your brother and many others, and saw my brothers killed in return. And for what? None of us knew why we were killing except that it was our patriotic duty. What price glory? Indeed.”

Colonel Nishi stopped to face Mac. “Go home, Booker T. McCan,” he said. “This is not your war. Stop killing. Take what you have learned back to those you love. Try to make them understand.”

The last thing Mac remembered was the soaring clarinet of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The Education of Max Blue

It began in East Peoria, Illinois, sometime around the time the U.S. went to war in 1941. Max Blue would not be born for another 40 years or so, but his progenitor, Paul Fritz, full of piss and vinegar, praying to grow up tall, was learning how to play baseball, and marveling at East Peoria High School halfback Charlie Gilkerson and his ability to run over and around outmatched defenders. Charlie Gilkerson was the only black student attending East Peoria High School at that time, and indeed his family was the only black family living in East Peoria. They lived on a hill near the edge of town; it was called Nigger Hill.

Ten years later, young Fritz was learning how to handle the duties of a U.S. Destroyer at sea Officer of the Deck. And learning the legend of Boats.

BOATS

Silent as death was the room. Only the occasional rattle of the window and moan of the wind broke the monotony. The old man slowly got up from his chair by the window, rearranged the shabby blanket over his shoulders, and moved with short, halting steps to a small table where he bent to turn on a battered radio.

. . . clouds thickening late in the afternoon. Blizzard conditions are expected with accumulations up to eight inches. Temperatures will fall to zero degrees or below. Wind chill factor of forty below. You are advised to stay inside if at all possible . . .

The old man returned to his chair, where he watched the wind-blown snow rise in great clouds, blocking the sun and causing oddly shaped shadows to be cast on the frozen ground. At intervals the gusts subsided, and the bright sun reflected with dazzling brilliance on the freshly fallen snow. Each flake, it seemed, caught the rays, bounced them around, and discarded them to be seen as sparkling gems to the attentive eye.

. . . and now, live from the Chapel of King’s College in Cambridge,England, we present a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The program combines the readings of Biblical Christmas lessons with performances of traditional hymns and carols . . .

The old man was alone with his memories, but they were rich, and he reviewed them often. These days his needs were few, which matched his resources. He wanted to get through another winter. He looked forward to spring, and to sitting on a bench in RiverfrontPark with his friend Sparks. They liked to watch the boats on the river and swap sea stories; both had served many years in the Navy, mostly at sea.

. . . with righteousness He shall judge the poor . . .

As the snow swirled before his eyes, it was transformed into salt spray . . .

. . . He struggled to keep his balance on the wildly gyrating, ice-slick deck of a U.S. Navy World War II Geary class Destroyer. The admirals and politicians liked to call these ships the greyhounds of the fleet. The men who made them go called them tin cans and rust buckets.

A crew of three men in life jackets huddled close to the bulkhead, port side, just forward of the amidships passageway. He saw the fear in their eyes, and measured it against his own. As Boatswain’s Mate First Class, he had been in charge of more fueling details than he could count, but he had never seen one like this. The sea was the enemy, and it was attacking from all sides with battleship force. He could see waves crashing over the bridge, 50 feet above him.

“Okay, you shit-birds, let’s get some fuckin’ lifelines rigged here, whaddaya think this is, a fuckin’ picnic?” He shouted above the roar of the sea.

“What the fuck’s goin’ on, Boats? The Old Man tryin’ get us all killed?” It was Vink; Boatswain’s Mate Third Class, arms like 16-inch shells, the strongest man on the ship, and probably in the whole 7th Fleet.

“Never mind about the Old Man, he wouldn’t have us out here if he didn’t think we could handle it.”

Boats was not as confident as he sounded. He knew the Captain was fueling out of desperation. Normally they fueled at sea every six or seven days, but the weather had been so rotten the Old Man had put it off for four extra days hoping for a break; instead, it got worse. Boats also knew that running out of fuel was of less concern than restoring ballast. In a sea like this, with fuel tanks depleted, the Captain was worried about capsizing.

Boats trusted the Captain; had trusted him since the first day he came aboard in Nagoya. The Captain was a redheaded Irishman, rough as a barnacle, and fearless as a hammerhead shark. Boats remembered the first time the Skipper took the con leaving Nagoya. They were tied up alongside a dock, and no sooner had the All lines clear call gone to the bridge, than he heard a quiet but firm voice of authority say, “All back full.” The ship had shot backwards from the dock and into the channel in an instant. The Captain knew the crew was watching him, and the cheer from the fantail let him know they liked his style.

Boats also remembered how the Old Man had backed him the last time Vink got in trouble on liberty in Sasebo. He had simply told the Captain, I need Vink. Now the Captain needed him, and he didn’t have to be reminded.

The ship was maneuvering to come alongside an aircraft carrier they could barely make out, laboring in the heavy seas several thousand yards ahead. Just our luck, he thought, to get mixed up with a bunch of flyboys instead of some real Navy tanker-men who know what they’re doing. This would not be easy, but he knew the Captain had the con, and Chief Petzhold had the helm, and this comforted him. It was no time for amateurs.

. . . and the Angel of the Lord seduced the Virgin Mary . . .

“You got everything under control, Boats?” The high-pitched voice from behind jarred him. It was Ensign Craig, an Engineering Division Officer.

Boats thought Why can’t this little shit just go away and leave us alone? All he can do is get in the way. He threw a half-salute at the Ensign and shouted, “Yes, sir.”

Ensign Craig was a hopeless case. Out of some ROT corps school in Texas. A pharmacist, for Christ’s sake, and the Navy wanted to make an Engineering officer out of him. The Ensign had been aboard for eight months, and still didn’t know his ass from the after fan room.

“Look, Mr. Craig . . .” The words were half out of his mouth when the deck dropped like a falling roller coaster, and a monster wave slammed him against the bulkhead. He managed to stay on his feet, and immediately saw that his men, hooked to the lifeline, were safe.

Ensign Craig was not. The wave caught the young officer off balance and folded his back around a life raft stanchion like a gymnast on a high bar. He crumpled to the deck, and floated quietly off into the wildly tossing sea.

“MAN OVERBOARD!” Boats bellowed.

Seaman Faust on the sound-powered phones relayed the message to the bridge. “Man overboard, port side amidships, this is not a drill.”

. . . go and search diligently for the young child . . .

Boats riveted his eyes to Ensign Craig in the bright orange life jacket growing smaller and smaller in the foaming, swirling sea. The Ensign was either paralyzed or unconscious because there was no sign of him struggling.

The ship heeled sharply to port, and rolled at a perilous 45-degree angle as the Captain did not hesitate to attempt rescue of the stricken man. The sound from the ship’s loudspeakers filled the air, the voice sounding almost nonchalant. “Now hear this. Now hear this. Man overboard, port side. Man overboard, port side. All hands, man your man-overboard stations. This is not a drill. This is not a drill.”

They had practiced this procedure until they were sick of it, but always in fair weather. The drill called for putting a whaleboat in the water, but today, Boats thought, if we try that we might have the whole boat crew in the water. He knew what he had to do. “Vink,” he shouted, “secure this line to the winch, I’m goin’ after him.” He tied one end of an inch-thick hawser around his waist.

“You’re crazy, Boats. You can’t swim in that sea.”

“When I reach him, I’ll signal with the Very Pistol.” He patted the holster on his belt, and dived into the water.

Boats was a strong swimmer, but more than strength was needed here. He had gauged the direction and flow of the waves, and as the ship came around, judged the moment to jump that would carry him as close as possible to the man in the water. The surge of the slate-gray sea carried him to within 20 yards of the crippled Ensign, and he began to swim towards him with all the strength he could muster. Instantly he sensed that he could make headway, and the feeling exhilarated him because he knew that the rescue would be successful. In ten minutes that seemed like hours, he was alongside the helpless officer, who looked at him with grateful eyes. “What took you so long, Boats?” he asked.

Boats secured the line around the Ensign’s waist and said, “Navy red tape, sir. I had to apply for hazardous duty pay.” He fired the Very Pistol.

. . . when they saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy . . .

Later, in a Yokosuka bar, one of his drinking buddies asked him a question. “Boats, how come you risk yo black ass to save that pimp Ensign’s white ass?”

. . . he came unto his own and his own received him not . . .

Boats didn’t know the answer then, and after all these years, he still didn’t know the answer. One thing he did know though; whatever the answer was, it had nothing to do with skin color.

. . . full of grace and truth .

Liddy’s Progress

Yesterday (9/9/13)they moved her to the 5th floor Transitional Care Unit; here is the plan: she will undergo occupational and physical therapy daily for a week and will come home next Monday (9/16/13). At home she will receive visits from the OT and PT people for an undefined period of time. This was serious back surgery and Doctor O’Brien will see that she is rehabilitated in the best way that 21st century medicine can provide – Liddy as always worries about cost, but to our good fortune, we are covered by the best system the U.S. has to offer: Medicare and Medicare supplement.

She continues to smile a lot, confirming what the Doc said -“this looks like a winner,” or something about feeling like $1 million.

Back to blogging- I started back on China but that will have to wait – more pressing is the novel COUNT, now in final edits by Tate Publishing.

Dear readers (you know who you are) – the problem for me is I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know how to find out. I was merrily posting blogs with response only from daughter Katie until I posted one about Liddy’s surgery – to my great surprise, I received several comments from old friends who must have been reading my blogs – or not? Can somebody help me here?

 

 

 

The Old Silk Road

To begin, let’s see if we can handle these names: Xi Jinping and Nursultan  A. Nazarbayev. Xi is  President of The People’s Republic of China, Nazarbayev is President of Kazakhstan. They are in the news because only last week they signed trade and finance accords worth $30 billion.  President Xi said he wanted to create a contemporary version of the Old Silk Road that crossed the ancient plains of Kazakhstan on their way from China to Europe.

Come on Xi, we know it’s all about oil. But what gets me is that 21st century China, only 65 years after Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists chased Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists off the mainland, is able to talk about $30 billion as if it were a bag of rice.

So how did that happen? I have blogged before about events in China leading to where we are – it began with Charlie Soong in 1876.

 

Blue Soup – A Little Something For The Kids

 

A LITLE SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS

The eight German tourists, tightly packed into the large white Toyota van, drew in their collective breaths, and became very quiet as they watched the driver settle into his seat and light a cigarette. Cesar Romero switched on the engine, jammed down the clutch, threw the vehicle into gear, and lurched onto the highway in front of his Rancho Corcovado Lodge near the Arenal Volcano somewhere near the middle of Costa Rica. As quickly as he could get into high gear, with the help of an agile left knee to steady the wheel, he exceeded the speed limit in his hurry to get the touristos to the Caño Negro Biological Reserve, close to the Nicaraguan frontier, 50 miles away. What got the touristos’ attention was that Señor Romero only had one arm. It would have been small comfort for them to know than don Cesar has been doing this sort of thing for almost 30 years, ever since he was sideswiped by an overtaking vehicle when he was driving with his left arm propped on the open window. One minute the arm was there, the next it was gone, don Cesar tells the story with a rueful smile.

Don Cesar has always been a high-risk sort of guy. The accident ended his airline pilot career, but he soon discovered to his surprise, that he had a talent for making money, probably not inherited from his father who was a Costa Rican cocoa farmer for more than 70 years. Don Cesar went to Mississippi to buy a truck, and after driving it back to Costa Rica, sold it for a nice profit. He returned to Mississippi and bought two trucks. And so it went. Two years ago he opened the Rancho Corcovado Lodge, five miles from Arenal, the most active volcano in the world, and one of the fastest growing tourist areas in Costa Rica. Just after sunset, he likes to load his van, at $10 a head, and take the curious to the very slopes of the volcano where there is a good chance they will feel the ground tremble, hear the roar of an eruption, and see sparks and fire in the night sky. Is it dangerous? Of course it’s dangerous, but one who stood in awe as warm ash began to fall, said to his companion, “I think we’d better get out of here,” then, as he looked back at the towering, cone-shaped volcano, cried, “Do it again.”

The Rancho Corcovado is a family business …daughter Agnes and her gringo (from Brooklyn) husband Sonny run the restaurant. Agnes went to school in the U.S., graduating from Livingston State College in Alabama. She and Sonny, along with their one and three-year old children, came home last year when things got tough in Brooklyn. Now Agnes has stories to tell about the clients from all over the world who come to her table knowing how to order a beer, but not scrambled eggs. She can say thank you in German and Japanese. She complains about long hours, and a shortage of thrills. “The biggest thing around here,” she says, “is to take your date to the volcano.”

Don Cesar laughs a lot these days, and can hardly contain his joy when the little ones come to sit on his lap. In all directions around the rancho you can see healthy green stands of cassava plants, evidence of a thriving export business, mostly to Estados Unidos. He lights another cigarette, sighs contentedly, and says, “I will work for a few more years, and then turn everything over to the kids.”

 

At Hacienda Los Inocentes, in the Guanacaste region of north Costa Rica, only 15 miles from Nicaragua, high on a short list of things to do, is sitting in a rocking chair on the open-air deck watching cloud formations shift across the top of the Orosi Volcano, five miles away. Except along the river, the landscape in mid-April, shortly before the rainy season begins, is bleak … shades of brown stretching for miles. Sad to think this was once Ficus and Eucalyptus forest. The wind is almost violent, and it blows all night.

Also near the top of the list is hearing the stories of people from far away places … George, “Just call me Bing,” Cherry, is from Tecumseh, Ontario, not too far from Toronto, and he is disgusted with Canada. “Canada is a big giveaway,” he snorts, “they just say, sure, come to Canada, we will take care of you. So what happens? Everybody who can’t make it in other parts of the world comes to Canada for a handout. And who pays for it? People like me.”

Bing Cherry is Vice President of a Bulk Waterborne Freight Company with a fleet of ships on the Great Lakes. This is his second trip to Costa Rica. Last year, he and his new wife (they both have grown children from first marriages) spent a week on the beach at Tambor where the Gulf of Nicoya opens into the Pacific Ocean.

Cherry stops to light a cigarette, and take three gulps from the Imperial he clutches in his left hand. “Can I buy you a beer?” he asks. “You wouldn’t believe the taxes we have to pay to support the Canadian welfare state, and I’m sick of it.”

In the morning, Dennis Martinez has the horses saddled for a three-hour ride along the river trails, where we see spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and giant anteaters in the soaring canopy, along with Keel-billed Toucans, Elegant Trogons, and a Great Currasow, a large black bird with a yellow knob on its bill, and a crest that looks like a lady in hair curlers. Dennis has a sore back because his horse is not amused by the two dogs yapping at his heels, and kicks fruitlessly at his tormentors.  Dennis knows the monkeys … he cups his hands over his mouth and produces a high-pitched yipping medley that brings curious and acrobatic spider monkeys scrambling through the trees. When Dennis spots a group of howler monkeys, he claps his hands loudly,
bringing an immediate chorus of low-pitched hoots and howls from the agitated monkeys. The howlers fall silent, and stare in disbelief when Bing Cherry tries to imitate their hoots.

Heading for the barn, don Bing draws his horse alongside, and smiling happily says, “I really love this, you know. What I want to do is invest in some land down here, and start an export business. I could build it up, and have something nice to leave for my kids, and grandkids. You know what I mean?”

 

A map of Costa Rica looks like a big crab, the claw on the left is the Nicoya peninsula, the one on the right is the Osa peninsula in the south. The Pacific beaches of the Nicoya peninsula, 30 minutes by small aircraft, and 3 to 4 hours by car from the International airport near San José, are sprinkled with luxury hotels, to the dismay of environmentalists, and the delight of the Ministry of Tourism which promotes “ecotourism”, and beginning in 1993 saw income from tourism soar to near a billion dollars, passing banana exports as the number one source of foreign currency in the country. To drive to the beaches you can take the Pan-American highway to Liberia where you will see the most important four-way stop in Costa Rica, proved by the presence of a large Bomba (gas station) on each corner … the usual suspects … Texaco, Esso, Shell, and 76. While filling our tank, we noted the passing of a large white trailer-truck sporting the label, Pepperell Mills, West Point, Georgia. For a moment we thought we were back in Alabama. You can’t get to the beaches from Liberia without passing through Filadelphia, but that takes only a minute. There is also a place called Vientesiete Abril (translation – April 27th), so small that if you go through on April 14th as we did, you will not even know you passed through. What you mostly see here, in this very dry time of the year, is scrawny cattle nibbling on dusty scrubs, and evidence of cleared and burned sugar cane fields. Still, the land looks like it would flower with a few good rains, or maybe a good irrigation system.

You can cut an hour or two off the ride from San José to the beaches by taking the Tempisque River ferry; the river flows south and widens into the Gulf of Nicoya. The ferry is big enough to hold three trailer-trucks, and about 20 cars. The trip costs $3, and takes about 20 minutes. Passengers leave their cars, and stand on catwalks or sit on benches above the main deck. You have to speak loudly to be heard above the rumble of the engines, and the squawks of the Gulls who ride free on the lead ramp.

Overheard on the 11:30 ferry . . .

“How long will you be here?”

“We’re going back tomorrow, we’ve been here a week. You live here?”

“Yeah, I export ornamental flowers.”

“No kidding? How’s business?”

“Business is good. I have fifteen acres of private beach; it’s for my kids, you know.”

 

Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia, and about as close to heaven; at its widest part it is only about 150 miles from the Caribbean Sea in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. The population of just over 3 million is about what you might see on an average day on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia.  From sea level at the eastern Tempisque river ferry landing to the Monteverde cloud forest at 5,000 feet is only about 50  miles, but let me tell you about the last 26 miles. How bad is this road? This road is so bad that chickens refuse to cross. This road is so bad that birds fly around it rather than over it. This road is so bad that at the top there are three muffler shops, two tire stores, and a junk yard for ruined cars. The mother of bad roads is the daughter of this road. So why do tourists brave this road to come to Monteverde? Not for the cheese, which is pretty good. Maybe for the chance of seeing the Resplendent Quetzal, or the Three-wattled Bellbird with its resounding gong that echoes through the forest, and startles you with its loudness if it settles in the canopy 100 feet overhead. Maybe it’s for a stroll through the awesome cloud forest where you can hear, but not easily see, the Black-faced Solitaire with its song that sounds like a squeaky hinge or a rusty gate, but with style. On this trip we uncovered one of the best kept secrets of Monteverde … the mating dance of the Long-tailed Manakin; the Quaker founders would be shocked.

Some people might come to Monteverde just to sit and watch the sun set. Perhaps on the deck of a cottage at the Sapo Dorado Lodge … Monteverde at one time was famous for Golden Toads, but nobody has seen one here for years. From the Sapo Dorado the view of the Nicoya Gulf and Peninsula 50 miles away is spectacular … it looks like a gigantic map of Costa Rica. There is also the night sky. On a clear night at Monteverde you can’t count the stars, but you can see the Southern Cross, rising at its cockeyed angle in the southwestern sky, and Venus dotting the exclamation point of a crescent moon. One can feel at peace on nights like these.

A man calling himself Gary breaks the peace. “Tell me about Costa Rica,” he said. We first met this guy three days ago at Los Inocentes, and now here he is at the Sapo Dorado. He is from Vancouver, Canada, and is here coupling a holiday with business. “I have this friend who is interested in buying some property here, and starting an export business… He wants to do it for his kids.”

As we start the slow descent down the grandmother of bad roads, I am thinking out loud. “Maybe we should buy a cocoa farm, I’m sure we could make it profitable … it would be kind of fun, and we could have something to leave to the kids.”

Liddy is silent. I steal a glance without turning my head. At last she speaks. “Why don’t you just write A Little Something for the Kids?”