“Your children are not your children. They come not from you but through you for they are but the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.” – Gibran
Ma worried. The majority of her energy was consumed by this endeavor. I often thought her anxieties were her finest possessions. They were frequently justified. I was a teenager but understood very clearly that every important decision Ma had made had led her closer to a kind of ruin. She seemed to be uncanny at making bad choices and when destiny presented her with options she usually picked the course to do her the most harm. My mother’s great ability, though, has always been her capacity to love.
We were standing at the edge of the June sun during a Michigan morning. There was hardly room for Ma and me on a narrow slab of concrete that served as a modest porch to our tiny tract house. A shadow kept us chill and I saw where the light was already hitting the corn and squash in the garden. We did not grow things for pleasure; we planted seeds and waited for them to become food. We also went to neighbors and tried to sell them the extra corn or tomatoes for money to buy other food or school clothes. But I was trying not to think about these things because I was 17 and leaving home after high school. In fact, a part of me was already gone through the split in the hedgerow that lined our neighbor’s yard and across the weedy baseball diamond where I had chased fly balls. I was already seeing myself hitching down Hill Road to where it intersected with the recently completed stretch of Interstate 75. I had not chosen a destination but was thinking vaguely of California and Colorado. There was nothing more important to me than adventure and I wanted to see the country and sleep under the sky. I suppose I was sufficiently smart to feel an obligation to my youth but not intelligent enough to be afraid.
“Son, I just don’t understand.” Ma looked up at me as I lifted my pack and slipped my arms through the shoulder straps. “Where are you gonna sleep? What happens when you run out of money?”
She was squeezing her fingers and alternately pinching them together with the opposite hand. This was a habit she had acquired years earlier when she feared an unexpressed rage of Daddy’s that she sensed might become violence.
“I’ve got my sleeping bag, Ma,” I told her as I patted the cotton bedroll hanging from the bottom of my backpack. “And when I run out of money, I’ll do odd jobs. There’s always some kind of work.”
“I don’t see why you can’t just stay around Flint,” she said. “There’s lots of good jobs for young men your age. You could make some real money on the line or a road crew or something.”
She was right. It was 1969 and the Chevrolet truck plant, Buick Motor Division of General Motors, Fisher Body, and every other business associated with the automotive industry in Flint, Michigan was hiring. They did not mind taking on college students for a few months because they were desperate for laborers to build the cars America had become fascinated with in the decades after World War Two. I had friends who were making over $400 a week with overtime by hanging doors as car and truck frames rolled past them on the assembly line. But I had always believed the factory had done something to my father that was not worth the wages.
“We’ve been through this, Ma. We can’t keep having this conversation. This is what I am going to do. I don’t need that much money. I’ve got the grants and scholarships I need for college. I’ve got to go now. I want to go see Lake Michigan before dark.”
“Oh son, just look at you.”
She leaned in my direction with her short arms and reached around to hug me in a way that had always made me feel safe as a boy but just then I was starting to feel trapped. Ma pressed her head against a spot near my lower chest. She was only 4’ 10” tall. I felt her hands grab the metal frame of my backpack and take a grip that was tight enough to prevent me from leaving.
“I’m so sorry, Ma,” I said. “But this is what I have to do. What I need to do. Please don’t cry.”
I shifted the pack slightly on my hips and thought she might ease her grasp. The nylon and aluminum frame rig was loaded with all of my clothes and some camping gear. When the $18.95 item had come in the mail I had felt the kind of excitement that kept me from sleeping at night. I had leaned the frame against the foot of my bed and lay awake looking at the tan fabric and contemplating myself wearing the pack in the midst of rugged scenes in national parks and great deserts.
“I love you, son.”
“I know that, Ma. I love you, too. But I’ve got to go now.”
She released me and I kissed the top of her head. No matter how many times she washed my mother always had the faint scent of fried food in her hair. She worked for eighty cents an hour at a short order restaurant just off the Dixie Highway and every night when she came home, her white, seersucker uniform and her hair gave off the aroma of fried fish and grilled burgers. Ma had come to America for both love and money and had ended with a job that provided nickel and dime tips from truckers and factory workers.
I quickly stepped back off the porch and said good-bye again and I was unable to avoid seeing her tears. I had never hurt my mother before and I did not like the feeling. She had so little and now one of her most cherished things, her eldest son, was simply walking away into the distance. She had no idea where I was to sleep that night or any other night nor when she might get a call or a post card. Ma must have thought she had no control over any events in her life and suddenly even her children were becoming losses.
I turned around at the hedgerow. She had both hands over her mouth and was crying. None of my four sisters nor my brother were anywhere in the vicinity. My departure was of little consequence to them. Maybe they simply did not believe I was going anywhere beyond the neighborhood grocery store. But Ma knew. And it was painful for her. There had been many times when the boys I ran with had urged me to join them in law-breaking schemes like break-ins or theft and I had backed out. There was no good reason for it except that I knew there was a risk of getting caught and I did not want to shame or hurt my mother. She worked to hard too give me chances. But I had to leave and travel regardless of her hurt and fears.
I turned back again on Westdale and saw her short profile outlined against the white doorframe. She was determined to watch me until I disappeared because I am sure she did not believe I was truly going. Our house appeared even smaller than the 850 square feet of space where Ma was raising her six children. The faded cedar shake shingles had been painted black a few years previously and she had planted a few flowers and bushes around the property. I had decided she was trying to suggest to neighbors that we were moving in the direction of respectability and that no more police cars or emergency vehicles were going to disturb their nights. Daddy had been sent to an institution down in Pontiac and Ma had gotten a divorce before he was released. He did not live any more in our house.
My only view of Lake Michigan that day was from the back of a pickup as patches of blue water flashed between factory buildings in Gary, Indiana. I slept my first night on the road beneath a highway overpass along an Illinois cornfield and listened to a soft rain. Ma was likely sitting at the small table in her kitchen and chewing on the nails she had long ago bitten to nubs. Her stubby fingers had never appeared feminine and her hands were coarsened by years of restaurant work but her children did not go hungry or stay too cold. I wondered if she had ever felt as hopeful and excited as I did lying there in the rainy darkness.
Ma still lives up in Michigan in a house where people care for her but she wishes she were back in Newfoundland. She complains that the people around her are all old and the woman who walks all day and takes tiny steps annoys her. Ma and I were in the living room and I watched the walking woman with the frail neck and papery skin until she stood next to my chair.
“I just came here to see if I could get someone to help me,” she said. “Can you help me?”
“I would if I knew how,” I answered. “But I don’t.”
Ma was staring at the front door. She spends much of her day now looking in that direction and I think she is convinced her youth and health are on the other side of that house’s wall. In her mind she continues to come and go as she pleases but her body is still and failing.
“Son?” She touched my forearm. “If you can just get me out that door and down to the border, I’ll be okay.”
“What do you mean, Ma?”
“Just get me to Canada. I’ll get back to St. John’s as soon as you get me over the bridge.”
“Ma, how would you ever get there?”
“I’ll just use my walker and I’ll walk and walk and walk until I flop over and then I’ll start again and I’ll keep doing that until I get there.”
“Even if you do get there, Ma, who will take care of you?”
“What do you mean who will take care of me?” She raised her voice. “I’ll take care of me that’s who will take care of me. I always have haven’t I?”
“But Ma, you’re…….”
“Don’t tell me anything, son. I’ll get me a job at one of those restaurants down on the harbor and rent me a room off of Water Street. I just need you to get me to the border. Don’t you worry about how I’ll get home. You never let me worry about you.”
“I know, Ma. I’m sorry.”
Ma’s turn had finally come to say good-bye. And I did not want her to go.
“There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind who were crucified for what they tried to show. And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time but the truth remains and someone wants to know.” – Kristofferson
In the morning dark, he stood in a cold corner at the entrance to the train station up in Michigan. A young blind man was sitting on a vinyl chair across from him and they had in common their guitar cases.
“Looks like a narrow case ya got there, Dave,” he said. “Must be electric, huh?”
“Yeah, yeah, it is.”
Dave pulled his white cane closer and tilted his head toward the voice. A cab driver had dropped him at the station, referred to him by name at the end of his daily routine, and said Dave’s ride to work would be along momentarily.
“How long you been playin’?”
“About ten years.” Dave had turned his head to face the speaker.
“Yeah, I’ve been at it about 40, myself,” he said. “I play acoustic. All I seem to do. Hours and hours on end.”
When I looked at the guitar man, I was reminded of the fictional conversation between the young Kris Kristofferson and the grayed and wrinkled musician in a Nashville bar. He sized up Kristofferson and his guitar and said, “It’s a rough life, ain’t it?” The answer was, “Yeah, I guess so.” “You ain’t makin’ any money are ya?” “You been readin’ my mail.”
But this bard was no longer a boy and his chances of becoming Kristofferson had long ago expired. His hair was strung in tangles from a bald spot on the top rear of his head and a pair of outsized glasses teetered crookedly on his nose. The profile lacked a chin and his overbite almost hid the lower row of teeth. A small shoulder pack was on the floor between his feet and it was covered with the kind of dirt and grease smears that come from years of sleeping under bridges and an open sky. A frayed blue pullover sweatshirt was all that kept him from the cold and I noticed his canvas shoes were an unidentifiable color after the miles and the music.
“What do you play?” Dave asked.
“Only my stuff. All original.”
“Oh wow. Hours and hours?”
When the agent opened the door to the station, the guitar man seemed relieved to be indoors and sat quickly on a chair. He pulled out a thick book from his backpack and it had the kind of clear plastic cover that protects library loaners from wear. I watched him read and thought that he was consuming words like food but it was only a novel by an unknown author. He turned away from the pages after a while and kept looking around at people until finally he stood and went to the ticket window. I was a few feet distant
“Yes, I called on the 800 number last night and made a reservation?”
“What was the name?”
I did not hear the rest of the conversation but the ticket agent stood motionless and patient as the weary musician reached into his pocket and delicately removed several twenty-dollar bills. He held them in front of him for what felt like a long time but I did not know if it was because they were so rare and precious to him or he wanted others in that room to see that he was in possession of money. I watched him slowly count them off and then push cash in a neat pile under the window in exchange for a ticket.
“I’m going to New Mexico,” he said. I realized that he had been aware I was watching him make his ticket purchase.
“What’s out there?” I asked.
“Something different than here and it’s warmer.”
His tee shirt was thin and white and had the name of a painting company in black letters across his chest. “Meyer Painting, LLC.” I thought that maybe he had done some work for them to buy his ticket.
“Are you going to sing and play out there?”
“Mister, I’m going to sing and play wherever I am.”
“Yeah, I reckon so.”
He took up his book when he sat down and read for 30 minutes or so and then dug in his pack and took out a pencil stub and a note card. I thought he might be making notes for lyrics but he quickly finished a scribble and walked back to the ticket window and slid the paper beneath the glass.
“Mam,” he said. “You were very helpful to me and I just thought I’d give you this web site address. In case you’re interested, all my music is there.”
She smiled, pleased that he had thought of her and maybe because she felt for a moment like she was doing something more than just the prescribed duties of her job. When he got back to his seat he put down his pack and his book and picked up the guitar case and held it against his chest with his hands locked by intertwined fingers and he looked silently out the door to the railroad tracks.
I thought it possible the guitar was the only thing he had ever owned or maybe it was the only thing that had never slipped away.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
Our delegation was supposed to be about culture and history but nobody ever went to Cuba without a political intent. The organization was a Latino group from America and they had already made many public statements about normalization of relations with Cuba but they knew the chances were not good for that to happen during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. I did not want to think about the politics but when you walk around old Havana and visit the farms and talk to the people and see how they suffer then you know that everything in Cuba is related to politics.
“We have a problem here on our island.” Our driver, who was more of a “minder,” began speaking as we rolled away from the hotel. “This artificial sweetener is hurting our people.”
“What artificial sweetener?” I asked.
“They are beginning to use it in some of the Coca-Colas now,” Armando said. “This is very painful.”
“I guess I don’t understand.”
“We grow and sell sugar here and it is bought by countries all around the world. Now there is less demand. These doctors are saying sugar is bad. Do they know what this Nutra Sweet might do to people?” Armando turned around to look at me when he finished his question and one of his eyebrows was arched and he had drawn his lips together so tightly that they exaggerated the wrinkles around his mouth. He was surely in his mid fifties but his hair was suspiciously lacking any trace of gray.
“Yeah, probably ought to find that out, I suppose.” I was thinking, however, that my own beloved country was a bit foolish to be worried about a small island nation that might have its economy brought to grief by an artificial sweetener.
Armando drove my cameraman Vicente and I along the low stone seawall that traced the curve of Havana Bay and toward the green fields to the east. We were supposed to be getting a briefing from a Cuban government agency and then we all were to be taken to see a master cigar roller. This job was one of the most honored in the island’s culture and required years of practice and accomplishment in turning a tight leaf around the tobacco. I was wondering how I might construct any of this into some kind of meaningful news report but my main interest was in making certain I did not miss any single sight or taste or sound. I had not ever been to such an exotic place and was determined to visit the Floridita bar where Hemingway drank and the Finca Vigia, his farm in the hills where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.
Vicente and I had been forced to share a room in the old Riviera Hotel and it towered above the Caribbean Sea and all of old Havana. The rooms smelled of mold and decades of humidity and the paper was curling away from the walls where it had once been seamed. Furniture in the lobby was discolored by time and the Formica on the tables and counters in the café was without color and worn thin. The Riviera, though, had once been glamorous and glorious and was filled with beautiful people with mysterious backgrounds during the years that the American mob ruled Cuba and ran gambling, drugs, and alcohol. I still had trouble envisioning women in low-cut beaded gowns gliding over these scarred floors carrying champagne flutes in their hands and gaudy jewels around their necks as men with greased hair chased after them in tuxedos. Those people shared their money with the brutal US-backed dictator Fulgencio Bautista, who also made the campesinos cut tobacco and sugar cane for pennies a day so he might get even richer.
“When do you think we might meet the premier?” I asked Armando. Brightly painted buildings were passing behind us and giving way to open country that was outlined by low hills.
“This we cannot know,” he said. “The premier moves about. No one knows where he sleeps. It is a different place every night. Your American CIA tried to kill him, as you know. We must be very careful.”
“But we are going to meet him, are we not? It’s part of why we are here. I think the delegation wants to personally express interest in trade; at least that’s what I was told.”
“Let’s hope this happens.”
Vicente was quiet and sat in the back with his bulky TV camera bouncing on the seat. He had not spoken much since the first night because he had a Latino surname and everyone had expected him to know Spanish but he grew up in Texas during a time when Mexican-American parents were embarrassed to have their children speaking anything other than English. Our first night in the hotel restaurant a waiter had approached our table and asked if two of our four chairs were taken. The question had been spoken in Spanish and Vicente responded with an embarrassing answer.
“Si, dos cervezas, por favor.”
Vicente was wide and strong with thick arms and legs and when he pointed a TV camera at people and told them what he wanted them to do they obeyed his instructions. His constant facial expression was confusion even though he seemed to be trying to make everything in his immediate vicinity fit to a vision he had of what he wanted to happen. All of the Mohitos that were brought to us in government and business lobbies did not loosen him up and make him more talkative even though most of our hosts spoke fluent English.
“Where are we going? Is there a problem?” Armando had suddenly turned into a dirt lane on the edge of a tobacco field, stopped abruptly as if he were in a hurry, dropped the car into reverse, and backed onto the highway to return in the direction of the city.
“I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say, senor.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I wish I could tell you.”
“Hey man, we got a right to know what’s goin’ on.” Vicente had leaned into the space between the two front seats and was trying to be intimidating but there was no response from Armando.
“I told you we had to be careful.” Armando offered nothing further as he sped back toward the city.
“Should we just hop out when he stops at a light or somethin’?” Vicente had lifted his camera from the seat and was holding it in his lap and he was ready to jump.
“I’m not sure what to do,” I said. “We can’t exactly grab a taxi very easily out here.”
“Yeah, but this is a communist country, man. And they mostly don’t like Americans and especially our media. Who knows what they might be planning on doing to us?”
“You’re right. I’m pretty sure they are going to take US reporters to a field and cut us down while they are traveling with a high-profile Hispanic delegation. Stop being ridiculous.”
A long fence line appeared on our left and we drove along its length until a gate appeared and we saw that we were at the remote end of an airport runway. Our delegation was gathered around a white, turbo-prop aircraft and a few of them were already climbing stairs to board. I stepped out before the car had stopped rolling and went directly to the government official who served as our host.
“What’s going on?”
“We are going to Isla de Juventud.”
“Why the change in our itinerary?”
“I cannot say.”
“Of course not. Nobody can say anything in this country.”
The island was mostly a volcano risen from the Caribbean that was covered with palms and long grasses. Two dirt lanes crossed near what appeared to be the middle of the island and there were a few stucco-walled buildings standing in clearings. I had the notion that Hawaii must have looked this way before the condo-builders arrived from California. Fidel Castro’s government had decided to use the island off the southern coast of Cuba as a preparatory school for his country’s best and brightest and teenagers lived in cement block dormitories and took classes in rooms with three walls. The taunting sun beat out on the pathways that led to the mysterious jungle only a few feet from where they were opening their books. Our gathering must have looked absurd to them as we shuffled along on a tour and sipped Mohitos and dark coffee and asked mundane questions. There seemed to be no connection between this place and the contemporary world and I wondered if it were possible these young people had ever seen pictures of Los Angeles or Paris or even had enough information to formulate a dream that might lead them beyond Cuba. Castro had spent a few years here imprisoned at the Presidio Modelo before he began planning his revolution while in exile in Mexico.
“This place is fascinating,” I said to Vicente that night in our hotel room. “But I’m getting tired of the games and I’m just going to bail out of the itinerary and go to the Floridita tomorrow if they won’t answer questions about when we get to go there.”
“I doubt we’re going to get there,” he said. “Doesn’t seem like they want to emphasize an American writer or anything else American, for that matter.”
“Maybe not, but he was a hero to the Cuban people. He drew a lot of positive attention to the island during the political change.”
“I don’t know nothin’ about that but I’m always up for another Mohito,” Vicente laughed.
In the morning, Armando gave us the news that we had a visit to a large health clinic on our schedule and then we were to stop at the famous Floridita bar where Hemingway was a habitué during his years in Cuba. When we walked in a few hours later I saw several photos of the writer that were tilting awkwardly along the walls. There were also framed articles that had been published by American magazines and newspapers that profiled the American ex-patriot. I liked the photo of him with his defiant eyes and tight grin as he stared into the camera with his arm around Martha Gellhorn, the glamorous UPI correspondent he had seduced while married to his second wife. All of the journalists in our delegation sat at the mahogany bar and drank to excess for several hours and ignored the pleas of Armando and our host that we return to the cars for a ride back to the hotel. Each one of us thought we might be fine writers, too, and become best-selling authors if only we were able to get away from daily reporting. When you are young and in Cuba and there is rum in your belly you do not think about mortgages and car payments and living on a cul-de-sac.
We finally met Castro a few days after we had stopped expressing interest. My Spanish was not adequate to understand the conversation but he was as animated in the small conference as he appeared in the TV clips that were excerpted from his legendarily long speeches. The premier refused to speak English on his home soil so there were only a few people in our group that were able to later talk about what he had said and how he felt about the current American president. The deprivations of his people would disappear if the US were to simply buy cigars and rum and sugar from the island but he knew no such commerce was likely under a conservative administration.
Castro’s energy seemed to perceptibly change the air in the great anteroom outside of his office and I had no difficulty understanding how he inspired a small band of revolutionaries to cross the Gulf from Mexico. I easily saw him at the helm of the “Granma” as it topped wave crests and he leaned his head in the direction of Che so that they might contemplate the form of their struggle and scenarios for success. They went to the mountains, of course, and moved closer to Havana with each battle and they owned the hearts of the campesinos almost from the day they landed and stories of their presence spread across the land. Che did not want to govern, though, and left for Bolivia for a new struggle but he was undone by his asthma. He built great fires in the jungles each night to breathe warm, dry air and clear his respiratory system but the blazes enabled the CIA to track the revolutionary and kill him before he achieved another overthrow of a government friendly to America.
There were only three days left on the island for our trip and we had completed all of the interviews that needed to be taped. My goal was to spend the remaining time as a tourist and walk neighborhoods with a translator or sit on the seawall and drink cold beer and contemplate how I might spend my years traveling to other locales like Cuba.
“We gonna shoot anything else, tomorrow?” Vicente asked as he plugged in batteries for charging in the hotel room.
“Nope. Tomorrow we are going to Papa Hemingway’s farm.”
“Yeah, right; you know these guys aren’t going to leave us alone. They damn sure have other plans for us.”
“I don’t care. We’ll meet them at the car when we walk out and just tell them we are hiring a driver to take us up there.”
“Sure, pal. Whatever you say.”
In the morning, Armando was sitting in the hotel lobby and sipping a tiny cup of coffee with a broad smile.
“Do you wish to see the Finca today?” he asked.
“Yes, of course, we do; we’ve wanted to see it every day since we’ve been here.”
“Very well, then; let’s go.”
“I thought you had two more government agency visits or something for us today and that we were supposed to see the sports training facilities.”
“No, no, that is not important. Perhaps tomorrow. We’ll go to the farm today, as you wish.”
The Nobel Laureate’s residence was in a serious state of decline and vines were reaching out from the jungle to cover walks and fencing and they snaked up over the edges of the patio. Our tour was not constrained, though, and I saw his bookshelves and the table where Hemingway wrote in longhand at the peak of his literary powers, sober and focused until midday and then drunk and complicated as the afternoon passed. A picture of his boat, the Pilar, hung near his desk and there was also the inevitable photo of him standing next to a great swordfish he had landed with a gaffe somewhere near the Gulfstream. A kind of magic had happened inside those four walls but the uninitiated would have seen only a crumbling farm nestled between low hills. I still see that house some times in my dreams and it appears to be filled with words that are rusting and rotting from going unused.
The next few days I slipped away from Vicente and Armando and walked the old neighborhoods of Havana. The streets were busy with people and 1950s era US automobiles; there had been no American imports since Castro had won control of the government. I did not want to leave because there were endless things to know and life was outdoors and simple. Everyone danced and drank in the streets and there was no place to walk without hearing music. The air was wet and warm and tasted of the ocean and hills and cigars and cooking meat.
After the delegation’s farewell dinner the night before our departure, Vicente and I walked back to the Riviera and argued about socialism and capitalism. Politics is never a good subject but it is even worse when you are debating with a professional colleague and opinions are inflamed by alcohol. We were still bickering an hour later in the room as we packed our TV gear but Vicente had a greater concern than politics.
“We’re idiots, you realize,” he said.
“Yeah, but why?”
“How many weeks have we been here?”
“Several. You know. Why?”
“Because it’s one in the morning and our charter leaves at five and we have no rum or cigars……..”
“And who the hell goes to Cuba and comes back without rum and cigars?”
“We aren’t going to get any either. It’s Sunday night or Monday morning or whatever the hell it is and there sure isn’t anything open at this hour.”
“Holy shit. Travel to Cuba and forget to buy rum and cigars to take home. Who in the hell is that stupid?”
“Us, I reckon.”
We finished loading the camera and batteries into Anvil crates and packed the tripod into its tube. I went to the window and stared out at the lights down the shoreline from a vantage point seventeen floors above the surface of the sea. I convinced myself I was to return and know Cuba and that my first impressions were to become a love of the culture and the people. Sitting in the chair by the window I fell asleep for a few hours without undressing and I jumped when the wakeup call came from the front desk. Vicente opened the door to begin stacking luggage and crates in the hallway and he nearly tripped over two baskets sitting outside our room.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “Look at this.”
“What? I walked out from the bathroom. “That is hilarious. No way.”
There were four bottles of rum, two white and two dark, and two boxes of Montecristo cigars. A small, white card was taped to each of the dark rum bottles. I picked one up and read the words: “Republica de Cuba. Fidel Castro Ruz Presidente Del Consejo De Estado y Del Gobierno.”
I still have Castro’s calling card. I carry it in my wallet. There are times when I take it out and look at it and wonder what might have been for Cuba. Everyone doubts my story, though, and no one thinks the card bearing Castro’s name is real. I do not care about that indifference but I wish that I had made another trip to Cuba. I have not been back yet but I am going.
I know that I am going.
– Wilfred Owens, poet and soldier killed in World War I
A summer cold front slipping down from Canada was cutting through Central Illinois. When it ran into a warm, southern wind, rain had begun to fall and thunder and lightning broke up the sky. Cornrows, spreading endlessly toward the horizon, wavered under the weight of the summer rain. I knelt on a paved slope beneath an overpass, entreating motorists to stop and wondering if I was going to have to walk to California.
Rocking back and forth to keep from shivering in my wet clothes, I felt my grandfather’s World War I medal bouncing lightly against my chest. Ma had given me her dad’s award from the King of England for a graduation gift a few weeks earlier when I had finished high school. The silver pendant bore on its front the words, “For King and Empire, Services Rendered.” My grandfather’s name, George C. Hiscock, and his regimental enlistment number N297 had been scratched into the back. When I heard the story of what happened to my grandfather’s regiment in the Valley of the Somme, I was unable to stop thinking about the improbability of my family’s existence. Statistically, the odds were against any of us even being alive.
My grandparents, whose families had immigrated to the island of Newfoundland from England and Wales, struggled to build a family with whatever the sea might provide. Hardly a soul in St. John’s earned a dollar that was not connected in some manner to the fishing or sealing industries. Ma’s daddy, George C. Hiscock, developed skills as a cook and spent time in the galleys of various ships of Newfoundland’s merchant marine fleet. While still very young, Newfy boys accepted the inevitability that, like their fathers, they would be absent from home for long periods of time, either on a merchant vessel or working the ice floes and taking seal pelts. My grandfather’s destiny also appeared to be defined by the Atlantic until the guns of World War I began to sound.
When the King of England decided to confront the German Kaiser, a call went out to the colonies for volunteers to serve the empire. Newfoundland, proudly bearing the legacy of being England’s original overseas settlement, responded with a patriotic naiveté that was to bring a profound sadness to the island. At the time, Newfoundland had no real army and the organization most closely resembling a military unit was a group of cadets dedicated to service and called the Church Lads Brigade. Regardless, by the hundreds, the b’ys came in from the ships and the fish processing plants, walked away from the docks, and went down to sign up and serve in a war they did not understand against an enemy they had no reason to hate. Within days, the Newfoundland Regiment was formed by 500 enlistees, the heart of the adult male population in St. John’s, and they began to prepare for combat in a camp on the shores of Lake Quidi Vidi, which, optimistically, was named Pleasantville. Eventually, machine gun training was conducted in the Southside Hills where my mother would one day climb to pick berries as a little girl. Instead of waking to the call of seagulls, a foghorn, or the gentle rumble of a passing freighter, Fort Amherst and all of the Southside families arose to the chattering of machine guns.
“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” – Paul Fussell
The road noise and wind was too loud to have conversation in the back of the pickup so we did not talk but we watched the broken white line unrolling behind us and were comforted by the movement along old Route 66. Our hair was long and twisted by the rushing air and Butch and Chiszam had beards but the old man said he did not mind hippies. I did not think of myself as a hippie and Butch was a soldier. He had just returned from Vietnam. Chiszam was short and angry with a big hook nose and wire rimmed glasses that made his wary eyes look mean.
When the driver stopped to let us off we were about five miles west of Winslow. We jumped out and he waved as he turned down a dirt road to the south toward the Mogollon Rim. The horizon to the west was a low ragged line that I assumed was made by the San Francisco Peaks outside of Flagstaff. There was a faint glow of orange behind the ranges but there was no other light except the distant glimmer of Winslow.
“Just great,” Chiszam said. “Another night of sleeping in the dirt next to a highway as we wait to get mugged.”
Continue reading “Adventures of a Young Man: Off the Paved Road with the Lord”
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir
They were fragile and appeared insignificant against the repetitive roar of rollers on the Gulf of Mexico. Oval and grayish in color, the turtle eggs looked as if a puff of wind might cause them to evaporate. Momentarily, as our television lens hovered above and focused on the nest made of sand, the eggs began to crack. Tiny green heads emerged from behind the opaque fragments of shell and snouts pointed at the air. Time and the genetics of survival had programmed the Kemps-Ridley hatchlings to scent the ocean and turn, instinctively, toward the water.
A clutch of the sea turtles had hatched within minutes of each other and they had all begun scratching at the sand to make their way to the unforgiving gulf where they were destined to live. They looked like olive silver dollars crossing an expanse of a hundred yards of beach on the Padre Island National Seashore. Our TV camera tracked them and the minute prints they made as their shells moved closer to the waves. Less than 20 minutes passed before each of them were pushing fins against the hard packed seam between the soft white beach and the drumming surf and they were picked up by withdrawing waves and curled into the sea. Survival seemed unlikely but some rose to the top of outgoing surges as if defiant of the odds that only a few of them were destined to live beyond these initial hours.
I first heard of the Kemps-Ridley sea turtle while working as a TV reporter in 1979 covering the blowout of the Ixtoc 1 drilling rig in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico. As the governor of Texas was calling public concerns about the oil in the gulf “much ado about nothing” and suggesting that we only needed to “pray for a hurricane,” a few people were already hard at work trying to prevent the extinction of a rare creature. The millions of gallons billowing into the sea at the Ixtoc site near Cancun were going to make saving the Kemps-Ridley a great challenge. Acutely instinctive, the endangered turtles nested only in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico near Tampico, and the oily ocean drifting northward was a threat. Eventually, the turtles were saved from extinction by a rescue effort that also moved north to South Padre, Island, Texas, and the dedication of Ila Loetscher, an accomplished woman who had been the first female licensed airplane pilot in Illinois but is remembered by history as “the turtle lady.
“DJ wanted, first class license required, morning drive, top-notch entertainer, produce commercials, local news gathering/reporting, sports announce, public appearances/promotions, light sales – $131.50/week and no beginners please.”
Broadcasting Magazine Help Wanted Ad
“You know this road pretty much follows the old Oregon Trail, don’t you?” The man with his hands on the big wheel of the tractor-trailer did not take his eyes off of the interstate. He was easing into the outside lane to pass a Japanese model pickup.
“Yes sir, I do.”
He had picked me up just west of Des Moines and was going over the Rockies to San Francisco with a load of washing machines. I thought he looked like a trucker with his thick middle and soft chin and uncertain, weary eyes. He was hard to imagine anywhere other than behind his wheel.
“Yep, them old wagon trains never got too far from that river out there.” He nodded toward the open plain north of the highway. “It ain’t much more than a sandbar but it kept them alive, I reckon.”
I looked out the window toward the Platte River and the scattered cottonwoods dipping roots into the muddy flow. The Nebraska land, though green, did not seem to offer many prospects. Sand hills rose in the distance and a large herd of cattle trailed up the soft inclines and out of sight beyond the river course. Wagon trains had hung close to the Platte as they made their way westward toward the Rockies and it was impossible not to think about the people who had fallen to disease and conflict on that ground rolling by outside the glass. In front of us, the divided roadway crossing the High Plains was rising imperceptibly toward the Intermountain West.
“Hey mister, you mind letting me off at the next exit ramp?” I had not asked his name and he had never offered.
“At North Platte? Sure will, son. Ain’t much of a town, though.”
“Yeah, I know, but they’ve got a few radio stations and I thought I’d apply for a job,” I explained.
“Well, sure.” He looked over at me bouncing in the high seat on the passenger’s side of his cab, making an obvious appraisal. “Like I said, you sure don’t look like no newscaster to me.”
“Yeah, I know. I don’t look like one to me, either.”
After clicking on his signals, the trucker engine braked to the side of the interstate and I opened the door, jumped down, and pulled my pack to the pavement. I thanked him for the ride and wished him luck with delivering his cargo. There was a fence between the local road and me and I had to cross a wet field of center pivot irrigation rigs spinning watery rainbows in every direction.
Before the 18 wheeler had stopped to give me a lift, I had struggled to get across Illinois and Iowa. Rain had not stopped falling for three days and I curled up trying to sleep beneath bridges over Interstate 80. My jeans were smeared with grease and the black color of my tee shirt did not hide its filth. The glamour of a broadcasting career was proving to be evasive.
The strategy I was employing for finding my first broadcast job was moderately unconventional, perhaps even stupid. After rejection by every radio station I had applied to with resumes’, cover letters, and unprofessional audition tapes produced at the university’s radio station, I had decided to go out on the road. As I hitchhiked across the country, I intended to look for radio broadcast towers and stop at each one to apply for a job. This seemed simple and direct and honest.
Continue reading “Adventures of a Young Man: The Stories We Could Tell”
(I rode a motorcycle 4000 miles across Australia with my buddy Jack Holt. A lot of improbable things happened but nothing as unexpected as finding a Jerry Jeff Walker fan in the furthest remote reaches of Western Australia.)
In the morning, we rode south to Cape Leeuwin, a long outcropping of rock that separates the Indian from the Southern Ocean. (Only Aussies call it the Southern; the rest of the world knows it as the Pacific.) A tall lighthouse stands up on the rock and broad rollers 10 to 15 feet high are breaking far off shore. I cannot help looking off toward Africa and Asia.
We enter the Karri forests through what appears almost like a tunnel or a gate. The wall of trees shows darkness in the sunny afternoon and as soon as we move past the first big trunks the road begins to course like a snake through the unusual stands and unrecognizable undergrowth. The exit we make puts us back out on straight pavement through bright yellow fields and I roll the throttle back with joy. The wind bounces against me and I am cruising through another countryside that is new to my eyes.
- Stirling Ranges at dawn
Camp is made that night along the King River outside Albany after we have dipped and rolled down the Southwestern Highway for several hours. We find a spot with soft grass, put up our tents, and wander down to a pub where there is abundant drunkenness. In the Bundaberg Tavern, set below an inexplicable rock mound and hard by a crook made by the highway and the river, we have a few cleansing ales. On our way back to the tents we pass a broad, stout Aussie who is weaving across the floor.
Continue reading “A Race Among the Roos While Stumbling Upon a Jerry Jeff Walker Fan in the Australian Outback”
(Author’s note: The president is expanding American presence in Afghanistan. The Iraq war does not appear to be ending any time soon, in spite of significant troop draw downs. I voted for something else and I support neither conflict. In 2003, when President Bush launched the Iraq war, I traveled the country for a book project and spoke to families that had lost a son, husband, brother, daughter, sister, or mother in the war. And anyone that supports US involvement in either conflict ought to have similar conversations. If you support either war, and believe the sacrifice of someone else’s child is necessary to protect our country from a perceived peril, then you must also believe your child’s life can be utilized to the same ends. But before you make such a choice, listen to the families that have suffered the worst kind of loss. Six years ago this month, the Mata family of Pecos, Texas, buried their handsome hometown hero. A month later, I met the family at a fund raising old timers’ baseball game. The money was to be used to support the children of a soldier who was killed when Jessica Lynch’s support unit got lost in the Iraqi desert. The tragedy of Johnny Mata, which follows below, ought to be remembered. And remembered. And remembered. – JM)
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” – Robert Benchley
The little girl sat at the table with her face leaning close to a small piece of paper. Her dark, bobbed hair swung forward, slightly obscuring the soft curve of her cheeks. She did not notice her mother enter the room.
“What are you doing, mija?” her mother asked.
“I’m writing daddy a note.” She answered without looking up, her concentration focused on the careful shaping of words and letters.
Nancili Mata wanted to cry. Instead, she smiled, and did not let emotion take control of her. When she surrenders to her sadness, she does so in private.
“I have to be strong because if I’m not my little girl will see me, and then she’ll hurt more than I will,” she explained.
At age seven, Stephani Mata has the oversized, startled eyes of a child finding amazement in the mundane. A happiness moves across her round face, and it rarely disappears. She has figured out a way to deal with a sadness no child should ever have to confront.
“They are just so sweet when she writes them,” Nancili said. “They make me want to cry. But I don’t. I won’t let myself.”
The notes began appearing after the funeral out in Pecos. Nancili found them stuck to pictures of her husband, Johnny. In the hallway of their new home, or on shelves, anywhere there was a photo of Johnny Mata, a message from Stephani might be attached.
Continue reading “When Johnny Came Home”