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.
Coincidences, Strange and Wonderful
Several years ago, our flying adventures propelled us to the artsy, picturesque Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. In those days it was still quite authentically, culturally Mexican, with all of the country’s flavor and charm intact. Since those days it has been fully discovered by norteamericanos who have delightedly taken it over in droves. But it’s still a dynamic place to visit, even though the best of the best have cornered the market there, jacking up some of the picturesque to high-cost twee. With good humor I refer to San Miguel as the Beverly Hills of the high plains of Mexico.
We were booked at a bed and breakfast, Casa Murphy, the owner a refugee from Washington D.C. It was charming. We had landed at Leon and rented a car to access San Miguel, having been advised by Mrs. Murphy that San Miguel’s old dirt airstrip was defunct and unusable. That was ok with us – the long drive was scenic and safe. Leon in those days was a medium-size city with a gemutlich airport and control tower. Today that has been replaced with a huge facility for biz jets and their ilk, the controllers puffed up with importance and NOT gemutlich. So it goes.
Anyway, we drove to and happily ensconced ourselves in Casa Murphy, settling in to enjoy our B&B mates. They were a pair from Baltimore, a recently retired Ob-Gyn doctor and his wife. Turned out that they originally hailed from a town near ours in Massachusetts. It’s always fun to find a link with strangers.
Hal and I decided to prowl the countryside and take a look-see at the maligned dirt airstrip. We asked our new friends, Lije and Benair, if they’d like to go poking around with us. They would.
Following Sra Murphy’s dubiously given instructions, we wended our way out of town to a dirt road to the airport. On it, we found a cheese factory run by a handsome green-eyed Italian transplant – one who emphatically had no use for the airstrip. We bought some cheese, thanked him for his enlightenment on our project at hand, and went our way. We ignored his diatribe of course. But it was interesting to see such antipathy. I think he didn’t care for the American woman who owned and kept her plane there. She was a blonde feisty type, recently divorced from a successful Mexican businessman. I knew her – she was a Ninety-Nine as was I, a member of the women pilots organization started by Amelia Earhart.
As our rental car rumbled down the rocky runway, we shrank from the cactus edged periphery. We judged its possibilities, and knew it would not do to screw up a landing. Out of context, a striking figure stood off to one side. A tall anglo type fellow stood there, his white hair blowing in the breeze. He appeared to be fiddling with a small radio controlled aircraft.
Hal queried me, “You want to chat him up?” I’m a bit more outgoing than he. I allowed as how I could do that. We stopped where he was. I hopped out of the car with a clever “Do you speak English?”
Blue eyes peered down at me from under beetling gray brows. “Well rah-ther” he snorted.
Ah, an expat. A Brit. And so we proceeded, exchanging names and data. And smiles.
Then something wonderful, extraordinary happened.
It came out that before getting into the doctor business, Lije had been a wartime Army Air Corps Air Traffic Controller, and in 1942-43 he had worked out of Massachusetts airport control towers at both Squantum and Quonset.
Looking quizzically at him the ex-pat announced: “In 1942-43, I ferried military aircraft for the British Air Arm of the RAF out of Squantum and Quonset.”
The air quivered, the men stared at each other. There on the high plains of Mexico, fifty-two years after the fact, the pilot and controller met each other face to face.
Years later, by chance I opened a newspaper in San Antonio, Texas. An item caught my eye. “Woman Pilot from San Miguel de Allende Dies in crash in the Sierra Madres.” Yes, it was my 99s friend.
Rattling the paper, I sighed.
How odd that I would pick up that paper, that day, so far from my then New England home. Another coincidence – but sadly not so wonderful.
It goes like this.
The Devil has a garage sale. The crowd is interested but not big. He isn’t, after all, too popular. I stop in, against my better judgement. Curiosity nudging me along, I peer and poke over the collection of old tools – a trowel, a broken car part declared repairable, a stack of folded work rags. And so on, items in a tempting scramble. Then I spy a peculiar tool, a prettily shaped item. It draws me.
“What can it be? What’s this for?” I asked the attendant. I pick it up, and stroke it. Suddenly I feel odd, unhappy.
“Oh, that,” replies the attendant (a demon? Satan has millions of helpers). “That’s been old Nick’s favorite tool of all – he’s used it so much he’s about worn it out and is dumping it for a new one.”
“So… what is it?” I ask.
“That particular tool is, well, Depression,” he replies. “He finds it most useful.”
As I hold it, a pall of hopelessness settles on my shoulders, slowing my movements. Like an invisible cape, it covers my head, almost hanging over my eyes. My mind slumps into a moist, sad quagmire of tears, I’m assaulted by everything I ever did wrong, hateful thoughts dive-bombing me with every slight I ever suffered, every pain and disappointment I ever suffered. Who am I, to think I can do anything? I’m worthless.
Horrified I throw the object at the floor, but it doesn’t fall.
Despair overwhelms me. The demon titters.
A person next to me starts to reach for it – I grab her arm to defeat the motion.
Surprised, she looks at me, then smiles kindly. My depression lifts like a soft feather and vanishes.
“Wow. How can that be?” I wonder, puzzled. “Such a gripping mood gone like mist. A mere smile from a stranger… and I’m back.”
“Let’s get out of here!” She touches my arm and leads me away.
The power of that smile, the power of kindness. In a blink despair is gone.
“Who are you?” I ask.
Her eyes twinkle. “My name is Hope.”
The woman who once staffed our Princeton post office, the pivotal citizen in the gathering place of our country town, is gone. Anne Mason, postmistress to a generation, was days ago struck down by an ugly, fast attack of cancer. Annie was a woman of her times, a subtle force for feminism and power-point for motherhood. She more than earned her keep, guiding her children through twentieth century vicissitudes to productive adult lives, her strong husband at her side. And in the Yankee tradition of summer getaways, she took them all yearly to an island place offshore to learn more about the joys of a simple life. There’s a fading snapshot in my mind of sighting her across Cuttyhunk yards. She’s shaking out laundry and spinning around excitedly to respond to my call across lots. We were a surprise drop-in from MVY across the sound. Time for iced tea and a good catch-up.
The family dogs adored her. There is a memory chain of large handsome German Shepherds flopping and panting exuberantly about her feet on the antique floor of their home.
Our children were schoolmates, in a time gone by long ago. This summer we were in New England visiting family. Something kept nudging me to call her. Life being what it is, I never did. Now I have to live with that omission. God that makes me sad.
Annie enjoyed my writings. This one is for her, with hugs.
There can be a strange passing parade, at airports. Sometimes most diverting.
Remember years ago when dangers arrived in the mail? When poisons or explosives were the fad threat to hated politicians, members of Congress, celebrities? Letter bombs, arsenic in envelopes.
One day we landed at Long Beach, CA, and once with ground control, he taxied us past hawks roosting on taxiway signs, to our FBO of choice. One that catered to biz jets. At the same time they were happy to accommodate little guys. We pulled in and onto its parking apron.
Where was our meet and greet guy? No “Follow Me” jeep. No signal waving orange-vested baseball-capped FBO employee. Well. So be it. I taxied to a likely parking place, shut down the engine. We got out and locked up. Still no local guidance.
Now what? Tentatively poking our way through a line-up of high-priced fancy aluminum, lofty jet noses above our heads, we ankled our way towards the entrance.
But hello – what on earth was that keening, that shrill screaming? And what was that impressively large federal agent doing beside that odd white bus almost blocking our path? We scuttled inside.
“What’s all that hollering out there?” I asked the receptionist at the sign-in counter inside the door, the requisite stunning California girl.
“I don’t know,” she said, wide-eyed, as another round of yowls filtered in. “The prisoner transfer bus is out there. That’s all I can tell you.”
“I’ll go out and ask,” said I.
“Ooh, gee, you can do that?” she looked sidelong at me. Her eyebrows shot up to incredulity level.
“Watch me,” said I, winking.
Outside, I strolled up to Big Fed and smiled up at him, friendly-like. “My goodness, you’re nice and tall. Wow.” (He towered over me, about six feet six.) “What’s going on? What’s that howling?”
He couldn’t have been more cheerful and forthcoming. Resting his hand on his pistol, he grinned and flexed his authority. “In my job, as a Federal agent, it’s good to be big. Useful.”
I nodded, seeing his point.
“Those yells? A white-knuckle flyer.” He chortled at his cliché humor. “That’s a prisoner we’re transferring to another facility. You know those arsenic letters that were in the news a while back? She’s the sender.” He pointed at a utilitarian, multi-passenger aircraft parked beside us, POLICE in big letters. The plane seemed to have blanked out windows. “She has to go in there.”
At that moment, the bus door opened and a slightly built, gray-haired woman emerged on the horizontal, writhing and screaming, two more big Feds hauling her out by the feet and armpits. We were mesmerized by the wild, wily strength of that old woman.
“Yep, a verified white-knuckle flyer. She told us she hates to fly and wouldn’t do it.” He snorted. “Like she has a choice.”
She maintained her lively, howling protest as they carried her past me and up the airplane’s steps, on the way to a dreary prison life. She deserved it. The big guys didn’t let her slip their grip.
I have looked for her in the annals of high-profile poisoners and not found her. I guess, since she didn’t succeed, she didn’t warrant more than a passing mention.
I can’t recall her name. And so flies fame, in the face of ignominy, no? That event was one of the most peculiar of any passing parade, anywhere. A diversion for sure. A clown act.
In aviation, a basic survival rule is not to be tempted by “get-home-itis,” a condition that lures you into flying into weather conditions you’re not equipped to handle. It can, and often does, lead to a terrifying death. Staying on the ground, instead, invites delightful adventures.
When you see a front looming, towering on the route ahead of you – land and see what’s there. The adventure begins. It’s all in your frame of mind. In flying, always be ready to slide into Plan B.
I’ll tell you about Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital. Its airport was our escape hatch.
We were headed northeast in June across the continent to vacation with family and friends, a flight of at least two days. We did country exit procedures through Chihuahua MX; border-crossed at Del Rio TX; flew in beautiful VFR to perch mid-continent at Wichita for an overnight. We like to stop there for the Kansas steaks.
Next morning, things looked ugly up ahead on the weather chart. Beyond Kentucky, our planned refueling stop, Mother Nature was boiling up a nasty, long, deep wall of weather, a bulging arc of impressive thunderstorms, lying north-south across our path. We would overnight in Frankfort after our top-off and wait it out.
We rented a car, headed to a nice clean chain motel, and followed the registrar’s directions to dine at Serafini’s in historic downtown Frankfort. Whooo, a five-star gourmet dinner. Serafini’s booths and bar under an embossed tin ceiling, chic and historic, produced succulence and important information about what to do while unavoidably detained.
It was Kentucky bluegrass country. Gravesite of Daniel Boone, home of bourbons, breeding ground of frolicking derby hopefuls. Sweeping green hills lie over a limestone substratum, the secret to strong-boned horses and superb whiskies.
Many zzzzs that night, then off we went for an interesting morning tour of special, famous distilleries nestled in the famous countryside. Our waiter said the Woodford Reserve was a don’t-miss.
Fathers’ Day was coming up. We bought a bottle, liked it so much we went back the next day to get some for house gifts. And what’s this? While we weren’t looking, the Woodford Reserve Distillery had brought in an etching machine to engrave purchases. We rolled out with bottles of the finest, nicely etched with our hosts’ names and dates. What a coup!
Interestingly enough, the rolling green countryside gave us a déjà vu. Except for the white fences and picturesque Churchill Downs type turreted barns and stables, we could have been in Vermont.
That’s the other thing about being unavoidably detained. Sight-seeing can be amazing.
The front inevitably swept along into the Atlantic; we packed the plane with the beautifully etched bottles, and soared out.
It had been quite a Plan B.
Guardian Angel Mexicano, Jorge
Guardian angels can come anywhere you need them.
High overhead fireworks gloriously crackled and thundered, blowing apart in streaming sparks. Stars and tiny moons were bursting, flaring, and exotic ovals of tiny lights were wobbling and fading, all showering the crowd below with light. And hot ashes…
Faces turned upward to watch the fantasy, a show our town fathers would put on at any excuse. Our new home, little historic Sonoran “Pueblo Magico” Alamos, revels in each revolutionary remembrance, each religious celebration, with stunning and happy ecstasies of pyrotechnics. Nowhere more than in Mexico do people love splashing the night sky with those dazzling displays.
And I’m a sucker for a good show myself.
So much so that years ago on a big number birthday back in the States, my husband secretly hired a fireworks company to put on a town-sized display to fete me, special discount, at a party to which nearly the whole New England town was invited. Fire permits? No problem. The fire department cheerfully rubbed their hands and set the whole thing off. Hooray for Yankee derring-do. While a rousing cheer went up, other husbands quietly cursed mine for raising the bar on wifely expectations.
Years later there I was on Alamos plaza, my face turned up, eyes wide and gawking, gasping with delight in the midst of the tightly packed crowd. A huge burst was expanding right over our heads. A chorus of oohs and ahs arose in one voice at the colorful shower. Gently drifting downwards, each glowing shred slowly winked out. One, still rosy with heat, aimed at my eye.
The pain was immediate, shocking, and fierce. A man beside me with a child riding on his shoulders, grabbed and dragged me down the street through an open door to a kitchen sink, hollering to the people inside. There he dashed water into my eyes. Before I could barely notice what was happening, my eye was saved.
Family man Jorge will forever be my hero. His reflexive act of kindness to me, a stranger, was so immediate, so extraordinary. His face has become a fixture in our lives; he works at the best hotels in our town. I greet him with “Buenas Tardes, Jorge, mi heroe’,” and he nods and beams back “Ah, la reina, buenas noches.”
A guardian angel? I like to believe it.
Some, like Jorge, are even handsome.
PARIS, the last time…
Paris, my heart is breaking. My heart was young and gay… so was yours. Will it ever be again? I think mine will not. It’s aching for your terrible bloodbath, one that never should have happened.
The magical city of my teens has erupted, perhaps the ripple down from a long-ago (1830) far-reaching contretemps between Hussein Dey of the Ottoman outreach empire, and the French Consul. A naval blockade ensued. France puffed up its pride and breached the blockade, and went on to eventually eliminate the Ottoman threat, capturing and colonizing Algiers. (The Barbary Pirates had been such a plague.) Then eventually gave house to all the denizens of Algiers. They flooded the nicer country of France, set up shops and mosques.
And here we are.
“Sous les Ponts de Paris” – under the bridges of Paris. In my youthful Paris, lovers strolled and canoodled in peace, deep in their shadows under heavy arches. There, also, the occasional dreaming wino curled up with his comfort. Will lovers ever again see the Seine shimmer in moonlight, arms folded around each other? Will the homeless man find his bench place again? Homeless – but the whole of Paris has been his home.
“Where do you live, monsieur?” – “Moi? Chez Paris.”
Our hearts are breaking.
MVY pre AIR FORCE ONE
For years and years I logged flights into the Island, first in a little two-seater as a young mother in the 1970s, our baby battened down in the netting behind us. Coming to the Vineyard was always to visit Granny and Grandfather in Chilmark, in their hillside summer place “Quail Hill,” named for the neighborhood’s melodic birdcalls. It was idyllic (if isolated) looking out over the peaceful Elizabeth Islands. Hal and I watched the airport change from a small open facility set about with aging wartime barracks and free automobile parking, to one of hurricane fences, a fancy terminal building, and high security. In the old days, there wasn’t much in the way of air service to Martha’s Vineyard – a seaplane from New Bedford flown by pilot Gingras was one of the interesting options. Also Provincetown-Boston’s DC-3s… And eventually Air Force One made its inroads, closing the airport whenever it showed up – and irritating every pilot on the island.
Now there are many scheduled airlines to bring in vacationers – the rich and famous mostly come in their own jets – and lovely hangars have burgeoned to keep the higher priced aircraft out of the elements. In the old days the illuminati snuck in to keep a quiet, happy low profile, their escape away from the world of adulation – there used to be bumper stickers that said something like “Slow down, you’re not on the mainland any more.” Well, they’ve dumped those – now MV is practically a suburb of NYC, and traffic jams during the Season are nasty. The days of free car-parking near the tie-down and keeping it there for the winter are gone – we’d fly in, grab bags, step over the low fence to our old car while crossing fingers that the battery had held up – and head to town for a lobster roll, two for us and two for the elders. It was a tradition.
Now the elders are gone, as well as the easy parking. No more old car tires oozing life and gluing themselves to the ground, wheels rusting into place and needing a shove to snap loose. No more country mice wintering in the engine. Well – you can do still that, but not close to your plane. Facilities have grown, those hangars have popped up, and like any other nice thing, it grew to accommodate tourism. And year-round residents. There used to be a small handful of those – but with the advent of electronic connections, people can work anywhere in the world. Including on Martha’s Vineyard. I remember when the coffee shop was a mere lunch counter – now it’s a restaurant with a chef. Sort of.
The Tower controller is still friendly, and still tries to get you in before the fog covers more than half the airport. There have been summers when days and days passed without anyone being able to fly in, and ferry boats were filled to capacity. Getting a car onto the ferry has always been a struggle – reservations a must – so the private plane always seemed a perfect solution.
Perfect – except for the lovely, soft blinding fogs, turning roads and runways into mysteries. The closest I ever came to having to turn around and go back was finding the approach lights blur into sight just at the minimum descent altitude of 200’. Approaches to the runways are flat clear of obstacles; no matter how tempting, do not go below the minimum. You need to see the “runway environment” – the rule. The lights are environment. The safe arrival mark. And that night, all was clear under the deck.
In time, the children grew up, and the elders went up – to the Other Side. We fatigued of the noisome crowds, got too creaky to hike in traffic (old days had quiet country roads) so we left. It seemed to us that the halcyon Vineyard we loved had morphed into a terribly chic place where celebrities, home-grown and international, gathered to share their own light with each other. So, we left, so glad we had known it “Back When.” When it was a tranquil home to Islanders. Real Islanders.
The quail vanished from Quail Hill. Those summer homes built to capture that view? Houses that espoused the landscaping trend from thistle-and-beach-plum natural to suburban-style lawn landscaping – had no doubt pushed them out.
But the Vineyard life-style is super – quaint towns, great restaurants, beautiful gardens, eye-popping roadside organic vegetable markets, artists galleries, concerts – it’s all good. A beautiful Island of live and let live.
RIP, old Quail Hill.
On the wide South Australian desert horizon, flat and vague, slowly appeared low undulating mounds. Nothing spectacular – but the nearer we got, some appeared strangely, smoothly, cone-shaped. Mysterious piles like giant anthills – but not. As we descended to land, we saw that these regularly spaced cones had a black hole in the middle, just like an anthill. Coober Pedy was a mining town, and darned if they weren’t tailings.
Tailings? Tailings from coal mines we’d seen… discards from underground excavations. Huge hills of black. But these were tiny, whitish, and surreal. Like ants, workers digging below ground had hoisted the earth out and up a shaft to the surface, where each shovelful made an ever-growing, symmetrical hill. Our curiosity was hugely piqued… We peered with interest at the rough edges of this mining town as we circled over it.
Since back in 1915, when as they were out walking an explorer and his boy spotted colorful rocks gleaming in the sun, Coober Pedy has been the home of the world’s best supply of opals. Opals are splendid gemstones containing a wee but critical percentage of water – gems of shimmering rainbows, so fragile they don’t last very well. You mustn’t let them dry out, or they’ll crack and splinter, fade and lose their beautiful color.
I wanted one.
Whirring our wheels down onto the hot macadam, we taxied to parking, there scooped up by our hotel rep. Oh, the famous underground hotel. The desert heat of Coober Pedy was hell-fire hot, but folks had long since figured out a way to beat that – they burrowed like rabbits beneath the surface, making cozy, earth-cooled homes. (Soldiers returning from war to work, back in 1916, brought the concept of dugouts to the new town, which morphed into underground living.) There was even a lovely below ground chapel for Sunday worshipping. And similarly, in time, they had carved out a terrific cavern of a hotel, full of handsome wandering tunnels chiseled out of rock, leading to cool well-appointed cave bedrooms. Sometimes, if you squinted closely, you could spy a speck of opal in a tunnel wall.
Ah, opals. To find them one had to stroll about town (yes, there were buildings on the surface with a grid of streets) checking out opal salons, following signs touting bargains of finest quality gems. But walking about “on top” outside the main drag with cameras to the ready, tourist-like, poking around the curious mounds – was vehemently discouraged. There were abandoned holes, de facto traps for the unwary. We had a guide; we did the right things. No traps for us. (Except for our wallets.)
We happened to be in this unique desert town on ANZAC Day… as important a day to the Australians and their war veterans as our Memorial Day is to us Americans. ANZAC. The Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, those who fought in the horrendous bloody battle of Gallipoli. We watched from a shady restaurant porch as a wiry little handful of aged soldiers strode in the morning down the middle of the street, proudly marching to a brass band. It was so poignant. The straggling little parade evoked the universally felt pain and compassion for the failures of the human race to be peaceful. And an ache for the wreckage of lives brought by this failing.
In later years a song was written about this 1915 battle, called “And the Band Played Waltzin’ Matilda.” Please find it on YouTube, and listen. It is powerful.
It was an interesting stopover, with the chance to purchase the coveted opal. Got one, love it, never wear it. Afraid of its drying out. Bah. Such is a woman’s life.