GOOD OLD TERRA FIRMA
Oceans are bulging and swamping coastlines. Floods fill cities. Winds are whipping landscapes into flatness. Man is frail, and so are his works. Earthquakes crush what the winds don’t reach. Mankind struggles to help itself, wailing over its terrible losses, reaching out helping hands however it can.
When I was a child in far off Luzon, I noticed a decorative doo-dad of little glass pieces hanging down from the living room ceiling. The hand-painted glass clinked sweetly when I jiggled it. “What’s this, mommy? Is it a wind chime? Shouldn’t it be outside?”
“No Spookie (my nickname from Halloween) – that’s an earthquake detector. If the earth deep beneath us begins to tremble, long before an earthquake gathers force, it tinkles a warning – it senses vibration – transmits it through the silk threads holding those glass bits, making them move and touch each other, tinkling. Those little gadgets are all over this area, all over Japan and the Far East.”
I thought about that, and looked at it from time to time, in my childlike way almost willing it to clink. Kids can be moronic like that. What did I know of earthquakes? Just sounded exciting.
But then came the typhoon, sweeping through the nighttime, ripping half the roof off our house. Mama and I hunkered in cots in our dry closet, a central walled location. No room for Daddy… he put his cot in the living room. He’d been through worse during the recent conflict. Luckily the flooding only rose halfway up its legs. Mattress spared. During the calm, along with neighbors, we poked outside for a moment to peer at the impressive wall of its passing eye. Next day, we were astonished to find our first survivors – wet chickens, bedraggled but unbroken, clucking in sunlight. Besides removing our roof, 120mph winds had shredded banana tree leaves to feathery fringes – how had the chickens come through alive?
Time catapulted us to Los Angeles – I was now fourteen. At five twenty-in the morning an odd cacophony of clattering awakened me. A massive wave of rattling, like thousands of venetian window blinds. The ever-increasing noise swept towards our home, wave-like across the city. It hit my window. My bed began to pitch. I scrambled up and streaked in a wobble down a rocking corridor to hop in bed with my parents. Like the Fun House on the Pier, it rocked and rolled, then quit. I knew exactly what it was as soon as I heard it. Funny how there’s no question. You just know. The noise, the clatter – emphatically broadcast it. It was an earthquake, pitching the city into dismay.
Now decades later, I watch the media-reported horrors of nature from a temporarily safe place. Nice day. Clouds forming up over the mountains though. I remember our own 2008 Alamos calamity, when Hurricane Norbert stopped to squat on those scenic mountains, dumping over twenty inches of rain and sending avalanches of historic proportions down on this little town. Boulders were loosened and sent tumbling like marbles down the mountainsides, creating tell-tale scars on forested slopes and forming debris dams, killing the unlucky in its unstoppable tide of mud. Bridges were swept away, stores and homes filled with watery muck.
The first we knew was when a huge vibration shook and rumbled up through our pillows to our heads. Not wind, but what? All I knew was I surely toast. Fatalistically I sent prayers and love to dear ones, and then grabbed my husband saying: “Wait! What was that? Someone is calling to us!”
Our neighbors were at our window hollering “Michelee, Hal, wake up, see what’s happening to your property!”
A flashlight beam revealed a dramatic surging waterway…. arroyo floodwaters had burst and leveled our property walls, bucking and plunging just beyond the house – we were on higher ground. Upshot: We were marooned for 3 days, the whole town for a month. Via our little airstrip, supplies and help arrived and bailed out the town. Today there are no signs or traces.
It will be that way someday, for Mexico. But we must help.
It was my first time to drop a jumper from my plane. To chunky balding Andy, a man with many jumps “under his belt” as they say, I sang out a hopeful “Adios, amigo”’ as he traded a Perfectly Good Airplane for leg-flailing insecurity, hurtling earthward through unforgiving air.
I watched intently, waiting, expecting, to see his parachute open.
I didn’t see it. I kept on not seeing it. No billowing rainbow-hued poof, no swinging man hanging from a multi-colored fanciful shade – no Andy at all, in no quadrant of the sky. I circled and scoured the landscape, goose bumps crawling up my arms. I clutched the yoke anxiously.
Oh dear God, what do I now? I asked myself. Urges to just keep flying away, far far away, like even disappear into the wilds of South America, were invading my brain. Someplace where I wouldn’t be found and blamed for Andy’s splatting bone-snapping bloody death against the ground. The air turned sinister, I heard terrible music…
I shook my head. NO. Andy was highly experienced at this killer sport. NO worries.
I headed back to base. I landed, taxied up to the building, shut down the engine, and collected myself. The guys who had seen us off trotted up to greet me. They had helped extract the right front seat so the crouching jumper would have a launching site.
“So. How’d it go?’
I gulped, quavered, and looking pale, tremulously spoke from my pilot seat:
“I never saw his chute open. Never spotted his parachute.”
They looked at me, chewed that over, then shrugged, snorted, and said, “Oh well, easy come easy go!” True airport characters.
I climbed out, went to the office phone, and shakily contacted the people into whose party he was jumping (they were into drama and entertainment). “Has Andy arrived yet?” I casually inquired.
“Oh yes, it was so exciting! Just a while ago he landed smack on target.” (Earlier in the afternoon, Andy had laid out a sort of bulls-eye on their lawn, a large white crepe paper circle, crisscrossed with a giant X to aim for). My legs stopped trembling.
The airport manager had long-since pegged me for what I was, a clear-eyed adventurer. Of other people’s exploits. That is, I was mighty good at aiding and abetting the thrill-seeker, just not exactly one myself. He knew I could be counted on to cant my wings to accommodate parachute jumpers, to slip through the airstream so they wouldn’t tangle themselves on the control surfaces. It was a New Thing, and I was into New Things. I had learned to fly and to soar, hadn’t I? He figured that had to qualify me as Patsy-to-the-Ready, for ‘chutists looking for a hike up.
Ultimately I did that, while hollering out at their downward hurtling bodies, “Bye Fools!” (I could take four at a time.)
I mean, really. How could anyone leap out of a perfectly good airplane?
So the permit to change my plane’s configuration by removing a seat and door, to allow jumpers to eject from one’s Perfectly Good Airplane, went like this.
First, I had to pull together all its certifying documents – and mine – and trot them to an area FSDO (Flight Standards District Office). That’s a government agency that hands out all sorts of permits, if you pass. If you don’t, you’ve got a problem. That means you’re missing proper airworthy documents, or your own., and you have to get the missing item (s) in order to ever fly again. The gov loves paperwork and documents. Someday they’ll sink under the weight of it all. But we got ours, and copies thereof joined the tons of their ilk in those vast FAA archives. And we were good to go.
We made our flight and the jump. I hied myself to the party for the cheers and accolades along with Andy, recounting with humor not being able to see his chute open (keeping the part to myself where I’d been scared witless) – and drank the champagne toasts – smiling to myself.
Jumping thrills? Not me.
I like a reassuring solid surface under my behind.
As I look out on the distant high Sierra Mt. Alamos, foreground framed by masses of hot pink bougainvillea, bright blue swimming pool a trap for drifting blossoms, I wonder how a wintery thought could possibly bubble up in my head. It’s climbing to 100f degrees out there. After lapping up gulps at the fountain, our dogs have listlessly flopped in the shade. Local birds flutter and blither at the outrage. It’s their watering spa, and they do not like to share with those oafish beasts.
Seeing that mountain, I’m reminded of thickly frosted forests cascading downslope to a beckoning airport. There’s a town over there…at a distance, a grid of streets stands out against a few white traces of winter. We’re flying south from winter to a Texas visit, touring as we go.
“Know what?” said my attentive navigator. “The Luray Caverns are just over that ridge. Not far from the town.” He had been paging through the AOPA airport guide, a handy compendium of airports and good nearby stuff.
Luray Caverns? Notations were that those were the eastern US’s beauty challenge to the west’s Carlsbad Caverns. Here too were vast caves dripping with spires of stalactites and stalagmites. Okay then… That would certainly be a good take for our boys, now huddled for warmth in the back seat. The heater in our little Cessna didn’t have great output. They were bunched up under a pile of thick blankets, peeking out of hooded polar jackets. And making breath ice pictures on the windows, scraping out lines of tic-tac-toe.
Reducing power to drift down into the valley, I dropped to just above treetop level and slowly swept towards the airport, admiring the white frozen forest below. Although it was south and Virginia, the weather could be harsh. A quickly passing snow squall had happened overnight at the higher altitudes… the ice line dramatically melted to pine tree green when the outside temperature rose. Frosty outlines of trees evenly etched against a fresh blue sky glittered in the sunlight.
They say it’s just not true that southerners are nicer, but I can swear that south of that Mason-Dixon line, people are indeed nicer. Full of warmth and honey. At least at first impact. Nicer than the cold suspicious Yankee. We were greeted with warmth and helpfulness when we touched down and rolled out at the Luray Caverns airport.
“Well, hello there; where you all comin’ in from?” And then, “How long y’all gonna be with us?” And “Will you be needin’ fuel?” Our line guy arranged a ride to the Caverns.
Those words – and a big crinkly southern hospitality smile – made us welcome. The line man was right there to help with whatever we needed. And it wasn’t because we were fancy. Our plane was a weathered old Cessna 172, in the years before we repainted her.
“Put your money into new radios… you don’t need to get her a new dress.” Practical advice from our local airport manager/CFI. So we did that – a nav/com and a Loran, the day’s state-of-the-art navigation system (now passé and replaced by the GPS, global positioning system). Howard Cadwell, mentor of my glider towing and commercial pilot rating, the man who after 17,000 hours of flying would grin and say, “Aren’t we lucky?… Look at those miserable ground-huggers down there. They’ve no idea how beautiful it is up here.”
Of course when we flew to any new place, we would hide our bedraggled bird on the back line. Yeah, we were proud. One day, the new paint would make her into a beauty. But Howie was aviation through and through. He knew what was truly important. R.I.P. old friend.
The Caverns. Besides the eons agreeably outfitting the underground vault with arresting mineral formations of gleaming spindles and spires – someone had ingeniously rigged little hammers to tap out melodies on them, ones such as the hauntingly beautiful “Shenandoah.” (Historic Luray is in the Shenandoah Valley.) As that reverberated through the high cavern, we hummed along with “Oh Shenandoah, far across the wide Missouri.”
The boys were intrigued with it all. It was a good stop. Luray could be a bucket list destination. Who knew?
D-Day plus 10 years
I’m sixteen again, in France. My father has been transferred to Paris. But he has war on his mind from his years in the Pacific theater, issues to set free. He needs to see where it all began to end.
So. We’ve taken our little Fiat to Normandy, map in hand, searching out Omaha beach, rolling through the small village of Saint Laurent-Sur-Mer… a quiet little village that gave no hint of what lay down the road.
We now are standing by an appalling German bunker. It’s truly evil, truly ugly, a massive teutonic beast. Ten years after the end of the War, I’m there with my parents, almost shivering from disturbing feelings. Oh yes, sunny day notwithstanding, there was something… bad. It’s clearly a haunted place. We move along to a vantage point looking down a sweeping beach, out across bright noontime seas. Eyes shaded, I squint to penetrate the misty miles, and I imagine I can see across to England. But of course I cannot. The beguiling blue skies that were once dark with allied war planes are clear and benign… the waters that were so thick with attack boats they say you could walk across them all the way to England – are free of all but a carefree white sail here and there. The graveyard, tended carefully by the French, is a sad final home to all those wasted men.
It’s eerie. I turn around, feeling the unrestful presence of invisible thousands. But no one else is there – just us. There are no monuments, memorials hadn’t been constructed back then – it’s only ten years after D Day; Europe has barely begun its giant cleanup.
The beach reaches out on both sides, the waves lap gently. There’s not a hint of the horror that took place here. Yet it’s there, hanging in the atmosphere. We do not disturb the silence with conversation. My parents hold hands, my father’s face more serious than ever I’d seen it before. My mother is praying – she spent a lot of time doing that.
Maybe it helped.
A FAVORITE MEMORY
1946 – The war was over. We were going to see our own soldier again – far across the globe in a distant land.
Behind a giant Vee-spray of water our MATS transport ship had muscled the Pacific Ocean out of its way, till three weeks out of San Francisco – spouting whales, rocking storms and all – we were at last hauling into Manila harbor. We passed Corregidor’s familiar profile, General Macarthur’s famous battle post, and settled into a rumbling drift towards the dock.
Slogging to a slow stop, the ship was practically listing to port, anxious dependents cramming the railing to spot fathers and husbands. Below, a band played a poignant “Kiss Me Once, Kiss me Twice” in the center of a shifting mass of olive drab, men whose grinning faces and waving arms eagerly welcomed us. We spotted who we belonged to, shrieked and waved, then pushed down the gangplank. There were fierce whirling hugs and requisite “Oh how you’ve grown” stuff – then the agonizing wait to be processed. You ever notice wherever there’s government, there’s processing?
Cargo unloaded and distributed, a waiting government issue sedan picked us up and hauled us away to Clark Field. It was full dark by the time we got there; the road had been full of bumps and mysterious shadows, headlights briefly illuminating… something. I could see nothing outside. We entered through the gates of what I later learned was the erstwhile Fort Stotsenburg, now Clark Field – Ft. Stotsenburg was a prewar post my mother had murmured about in reverential tones. She and Daddy had been there a decade before the war. (Daddy? Yep – he’ll always be Daddy.)
Finally slowing, our headlights passed over a structure I thought was a hotel. But no – we were there… We had rolled up to the commander’s quarters, a large plantation-style home with two floors, deep screened balconies and wide porches. We would spend a few days there before traveling on to my father’s post, Floridablanca at Tarlac. (The war there, turned out, wasn’t exactly over. We spent many nights dodging Huks attacks, guerilla filippino communists.)
Inside, floors gleamed with overlapping circular patterns of wax. Early next morning, transfixed, I watched barefoot house boys, feet gripping coconut halves, skate in sweeping circles to bring back the shine, mucked up by footfalls of the previous day. A primitive buffing machine. Intrigued, my eyes followed graceful dancing moves, sometimes with a candle stub grinding under the coconut against the floor.
“Missy do?” They grinned and offered me the chance to try. “Oweeee” I whimpered… the hard coconut hurt my feet. Total failure. I toppled off, giggling. As I walked around barefoot, I picked up a stiff layer of wax on the bottoms of my feet. Shoe soles did the same. But never mind – the floors gleamed richly, enhancing the huge plantation-like homestead.
It’s been seventy years, yet I can still feel and see that gray wax coating my barefoot soles. And see my father’s face in the crowd on the dock.
THE DALHART INCIDENT
Flying the wide span of west Texas plains can shake your confidence. Not from the endless empty square miles of land (embellished only by the odd cattle tank and small shed – where are people?) but from the fast, frightening growth of towering cumulonimbus storm clouds, popping up like colossal cauliflowers. Their energy plainly threatens your future. One can tear you apart. The horrendous updraft draws you in, sucks you up, breaks you up and spits parts out the top. We remember iconic test pilot Scott Crossfield, pilot of the X-15, and his shocking demise in a ripping thunderstorm over Georgia. When the storm passed, parts were found scattered over a ten mile area.
Clammy palms come with visions of torn wings and spiraling fuselage, images that ooze into your mind as you reroute yourself to dodge them. FSS had said, “Possibility of scattered showers.” Right. Weave between? They’re well-spaced. Rule of thumb: “Give a 20-mile berth.” Well, they’re probably forty miles apart. But swiftly expanding.
Dalhart is now nearby. We flight-planned for it, we’ll make it. We had called FSS to extend our flight plan. Unplanned off-track wandering had added time.
We touched down in the scruffy terrain of a yet mostly unimproved west Texas desert community. One runway was weedy and unused. Thing is, pilots generally take the strip facing into the wind. The other, not favoring the prevailing wind, was neglected and overgrown.
Dalhart’s surrounding landscape since has filled with queer-looking platters of green… see those? The result of circular irrigation. We are bemused. Back in the day of our adventure when flying west for a niece’s San Diego wedding, it was still very rough country. Only a few of those whimsical round fields.
We had a welcoming committee. The airport manager and a curious side-kick came out with raised eyebrows and scolding words.
“Flight Service has called looking for you – you are an hour and a half overdue!” Typical Flight Service. A lazy government worker had taken his time passing along my flight plan extension. The service was so infamously inefficient that pilots rarely used it. They didn’t get much traffic at Dalhart – the odd rancher and whatnot. We stirred them up, brightening their day. Only a few other planes, bleaching on the periphery.
So – dinner and an overnight. We’d be off before dawn with much distance yet to cover. Eschewing iffy enchiladas, we had steak. Why not? It was Texas. Should be safe. But later in bed, I felt my gorge rise, and I miserably off-loaded it. So much for strange places. Hal battled his back. Not smart.
Next morning in the dark predawn, we taxied cautiously towards a possible runway – the weedy one, it turned out, our taxi light giving faint guidance. In rolling for takeoff the propeller mowed a path, hurtling bits of loco weed or whatever past our windows. Putting on flaps for a quick boost up into ground effect, we left the weeds and climbed into the pale dawn, heading towards the Sangre de Cristo mountains. They were a glorious sunrise red. Hal felt lousy and didn’t care.
As we passed westward over more dry flat lands, the sun came up. He made use of a de facto H.E.R.E. bag – the pilot’s cockpit Human Element Range Extender – in this instance, a ziplock bag lined with a paper towel. That helped a little. It went out the window onto a rattlesnake-infested land. Probably wasn’t the first. Maybe it’s still there, decomposing in the tumbleweeds. Maybe scorpions like plastic.
Soon we were looking for the nearest airstrip for the rumbling bowels. Turned out Sandia was right there, off the nose. “Sandia,” to me, meant mysterious Air Force activities, hearkening back to my A.F. brat youth. Deferential comments like, “He’s off to Sandia.”
Never mind that. We landed, rolled onto a taxiway – and found a fly-in community. A woman came out onto her porch and called offering help. It was still very early, before most people were up and about. I bellowed my husband’s problem, she swept wide the door, and he trotted over. The “trots.” So embarrassing.
However, the issue wasn’t there resolved. Poor guy cowered in bed for all the wedding festivities. He got “atta boys” and kudos for the try, though. That, and for the wedding check.
Did you know that sandia means watermelon? Sniff.
So much for the cryptic reference to secret Air Force R and D activities.
BEAUTY GOES UP IN SMOKE
And a way of life is gone.
Our home for ten years, a crazy white elephant purchase on a hill looking at Boston fifty miles in the distance, is gone. The flames reached into the overcast, illuminating the township for miles around. Mother Nature whanged it with a bolt of lightning, as if saying “Time’s Up.” What a calamity for the town, the current inhabitants, and all who remember. She was a three-story play house, kitchens and bedrooms on all floors, with wide open skies and sweeping views – and trilling birdsong. A place to gather for meteor showers, toast birthdays, and have wine-tastings.
For us, Worcester industrialist Charles Washburn’s erstwhile summer house was a fabulous venue for playing party host to friends and family, the locus for elegant soirees and giant sleepovers. Once we had twenty-six at thanksgiving, complete with six lolling dogs. The carcass of the deep-fried turkey, cooked by family friend Elliot, a New York restaurant reviewer, saw itself being hoisted through the hallway at a trot in the jaws of one victorious dog, making us roll with hilarity. It was a place to love, enjoy, and cherish.
Much has been said of its chapters in Princeton history – but our chapter is the one we hold dear. It was full of magic, the old house, and we renovated her to reignite that magic. We reinstalled the curved staircase, torn out to comply with building codes for her chapter as an inn. While the carpenter was working his own kind of architectural magic, the intercoms came alive with a husky voice rasping out:
“I really like the staircase.”
Oh, didn’t I tell you? She had ghosts. Oh yes. The carpenter grabbed his tools, announced loudly to whatever in the air around him, “Well I’m going home now,” and scampered away as fast as his legs could take him.
Winter came, and the Christmas season.
Ah, let’s have a concert! But how to decorate. No problem – Jess Hart, our house guest, turned out to be a display expert. (We had ample room to host three cycles of young families, while they renovated their own homes). She and husband Terry festooned the rooms with evergreen swags and fairy lights, helped by their pretty young daughters. And outside? Fat snowflakes lightly fell, veiling the landscape with glistening white, putting lace on mini-light wrapped trees. When soprano Maria Ferrante swished down those stairs in her diva dress, joining the crowd of sixty-four in the staged living room – her performance cast even more magic. How can I tell you how mystical it was?
The ghosts know. I’m sure they too, wail into the abyss, bemoaning their loss. There’s nothing more final than fire. It was a good run we’ll never, ever, forget.
FLYING THE OMEGA
As I peer out at sturdy fan palms and frilly guasimas thrashing in the desert winds, their branches hanging onto trunks for dear life, I’m plenty glad to be on the ground. A few minutes ago a fierce gust blew a mess of doves right out of where they were roosting. Ugly surprise. Yep, I’ll bet it’s rougher’n a cob, up there – an old cliché for bad turbulence.
Another old saying goes like this:
“It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
It’s a saying I can confirm, looking back on fifty years of piloting. There are times of blood-racing happiness, like peering out over the panel into the vastness of the air around from several thousand feet up. I sit and remember more these days than I actually get exercising the privileges of my license. Such great memories can be as good as being there. Let me tell you about flying in the jet stream.
As you probably know, jet streams are the mighty steering currents for the world’s frontal systems – those bulging air masses of warmth or cold that flood our continents with interesting weather, making for interesting flying. They stream the upper altitudes a bit like the sinuous rivers in the oceans – the Humboldt current, the Gulf Stream, and so forth. But jet streams shift around coyly, operating on physics that keep meteorologists busy with their better-than-educated guesses. They diligently study rapidly shifting techie graphics, trying not to embarrass themselves with bad forecasts. If a G A pilot gets lucky, when one of those streams sinks to a lower altitude, he can snag onto the flow and get himself some phenomenal tailwinds. It doesn’t happen often in a comparatively slow single engine aircraft, but the big “heavies” glom onto them all the time, right up there in the upper flight levels. Their coast to coast-to-coast ETAS count heavily on those head- or tail-winds.
So one day, heading eastward out of San Antonio for Orlando, usually a two-day trip for our mama bird, we planned an overnight at Lake Charles, LA. But soon, at cruising altitude, we found ourselves already clipping swiftly over the coastal southland. Checking our ground speed, pop-eyed with amazement as we screamed along ever faster, faster, we suddenly realized something wonderful. At a mere 17,500’, we had incredibly snagged the jet stream. The 1,500 mile trip would finish in a scant 4.8 hours. No need for either a rest or fuel stop. Our daughter would find us on her doorstep a day earlier than expected. Navaids were whizzing by almost faster than we could identify them.
The far misty horizon sped towards us, then passed under us, in a splendid 180 degree geography lesson, the blue Gulf of Mexico stretching out to our south, Corpus Christi and Houston sliding by to the north, that megalopolis growing to include Galveston passing by on our left. As the sun changed its angle on our route, the coastal plains flashed silver lace edges and threads of rivers tracing watery routes inland. The Gulf itself shone as a plate of gold.
The interesting thing about this particular jet stream was that it looped down from its usual tropospheric altitudes in an omega pattern, like the Greek letter. That is, it swung down southward from western Canada like a jump rope, and then after looping west to east, snaked its way back north in a most accommodating way. We were going on to New England after a couple of days, and if the Omega held, not only would get we get the push towards the east, but we’d still have that tailwind to boost us northward all the way home. It rarely gets as lucky as that. We could hardly believe it, and crossed our fingers.
It worked out. We’ve talked about it ever since, bragging of course.
We got into it another time, clocking a groundspeed of 326 knots from west of Columbus OH to home base Fitchburg MA. The mid-continent controller came up on the frequency and asked: “Did you say you’re a Centurion?” We allowed as how that was right. He came back with “Good thing you’re not going west.”
We had 150 knot tailwinds from that dipping Jetstream. The plane’s airspeed was a reliable 180 knots. Going the other way? Traffic on the ground would have beat us by half again.
We joked about it with ATC….he’d had us pegged as a fancy high-speed Citation. We said we’d take that upgrade if he was giving it out. Smiles all around. I think he was bored. Not much traffic that day. Folks who didn’t have the equipment stayed on the ground.
We had a new tale for our logbooks.
La Belle Ann, La Belle Carine
In the little picturesque town of Princeton, MA, live a delightful pot pourri of citizens, a cross section of the globe, even. The town sits high on the hip of a monadnock in central Massachusetts. We lived there for many years, raising children and enjoying the winters in the way youth can. We were a post-hippie group, enjoying our co-ed spas and summertime skinny dipping. I cross-country skied and hauled my offspring to the mountain where they zoomed their downhill stuff. In January we listened for the hooty-owls preparing to nest. In the springtime, I lay abed as the sun came up, listening to the too-whee call of the chickadee and the gurgle of the purple finch as they nested outside my window.
My neighbors were the best. Next door were the Smiths, God rest their souls. When a lightning strike took out their water pump and blew the paneling off their inside walls (yes, our houses stuck up into the storm ceilings) they were more than welcome to haul a hose across the driveway from our outdoor spigot to their house till the pump guy fixed it. (We all had wells, and ours went down over 400 feet). The next storm took out our pump, and they repaid the favor in kind. That sent my visiting mother flying back to Texas. She was not into the pioneering thing. We used a cast-iron antique stove to cook on when the power went out – she yipped “I can’t even make myself a cup of coffee” and went hurtling to the airport.
And the Flatts, who lived just beyond the Smiths. Dr. “JP” (Jean Pierre) Flatt, a Swiss-born medical researcher, was responsible for the pinning down of the correct IV mixtures for recovering patients. Ann, his wife, a beautiful leggy blonde, was a teacher of French in local schools, a member of a French speaking group I loved. And, she was the mother of wonderful children. The oldest one made the memory I share now – lovely Carine’s wedding in the country church at the corner. Carine shares her mother prettiness and the brains of both parents, she is one who has always been loving and loved in return. These days she has had to leave her children’s and handsome husband’s side from time to time to care for her mother. Ann is fighting cancer. Talk about life being dreary and unfair.
But my happy memory must come first – the bucolic setting of the Congregational church’s white spire towering into sunny skies over the town green, the sight of Carine and her attendants walking up the little road from home, under the allee of spreading maples European village style, gentlest of breezes touching her blonde hair. Her cheeks glowed pink, smiles ringed all faces. Our son grabbed his camera and filmed it for a gift to them. In the Church, family friend Ruth played the flute and set the spell for the holy rite. It was enchanting, it was romantic, it was so perfectly Carine.
Well, remember that town ski slope? From the church a joyful congregation rollicked up to the ski-lift, seats now enchantingly beribboned and flower-strewn, following the wedded pair to the mountain top. There, the couple disappeared… where’d they go? The magic continued. They hopped off and fled to honeymoon, the crowd riding the swinging seats up and back to the feasting reception down at the lodge. It was the best country wedding ever. So perfectly Carine – as cleverly orchestrated by showman mama Ann.
One of the finest memories ever, for me. Viva Ann! Viva Carine! You can do it. Love conquers.
Mexico – a complex culture of family, friends, and connections.
Its warm and charming people gather happily to chat and share, most times in the plazas. One such locus, Alamos’ Plaza de la Alameda, is a bustling center complete with bandstand for music. In its early days, this plaza was shaded by gloriously huge cottonwoods (cottonwood tree = alamo). In time they died, leaving giant, leafless, branchless trunks – grotesque, lumpy, ancient, upright corpses. Nobody wanted to remove them – they were history. After all, the Alamo tree is the cottonwood, for which the town was named. But there were many and they were right ugly, unfitting for a town designated a Pueblo Magico, one of Mexico’s picturesque antique colonial towns.
Finally a presidente (mayor) took them out and had new saplings planted. This was a good thing. Nobody complained. As the welcoming entry to the town, the run-down Alameda needed to be prettified. Many stands selling tacos and fruit ices ring the Alameda, as well as shady tents with tables and chairs where you can eat birria (spicy stew) and caldos (steaming soups). Aromas of simmering chiles and meats waft alluringly as you pass, stirring appetites. Mariscos, fish platters, vie for your palate. Shrimp tacos are exquisito. And oh my, there are crispy churros, the sugary fried dough drooling goodness on your fingers. There are on the Alameda as well, little ma and pa businesses – sales tables for colorful handicrafts.
And there is Bobby.
He’s an impressively rotund man on our Alamos’ Alameda, one who sings like an angel. Bolero Bobby, the shoeshine man, can polish up your shoes and boots till they gleam like mirrors. He proudly flaunts his handiwork by peering into the shine to catch his reflection – and he can serenade at your parties, punching out the standards and favorites of Old Mexico. His is a melodious, enthusiastic baritone. Powerful and pure. When we had a fund-raiser casino night/auction chez Cabot, Bobby came to robustly belt out those classics to the spending crowd. It was lively, it was joyful. He had people applauding and hollering requests.
We used to haul our leather downtown regularly, but then we had to go back north for a while, and he missed our custom. So enterprising Bobby started appearing at our house to exercise his trade. If we wouldn’t come to him, never mind. He would come to us. The muchachas would see him coming and scamper to the closets for anything leather to polish. It became a welcome routine.
The advent of “tenis” (sneakers) as footwear of choice hit his business hard – and we felt for him. Bobby attends his stand on the sidewalk edge of the busy plaza, a seat on the raised plaza for his shoe-shine customers, a shady spot usually surrounded by joking, kibitzing friends. We see fewer and fewer clientele in that chair… those darned sneakers now festoon too many feet. Can’t be helped – comfort will win out over style. Except for the august Mexican male tradition of business shoes and nice trousers; those men always wear leather downtown and to the office. Along with the customary white sombrero. As long as that custom endures, there will always be a place for Bobby. I can’t see it changing.
But you know, we don’t hear him sing out there anymore. Maybe times are changing after all?
Bah. We’ll fix that. I feel a party coming on.