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.
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.”
FIRST TIME OUT ALONE
“Oh please God, I’m lost,” I whimpered.
As I write this, I’m a student pilot again. Remembering, my palms go cold and slippery with sweat.
It was solo time again – this time to fly away from home. I hoped.
Puffed up with bravado, I pleaded with my instructor to let me loose to go someplace else, all by myself, please, to leave the monotonous pattern of “circuits and bumps,” and range away from home base. “Another field, please? A change of scene? How about Lawrence? I’ve been there often and know it well.”
“Circuits and bumps” is the tongue in cheek expression for take-offs and landings, going around, and around, and around, the landing traffic pattern rectangle. Ah, the Circuit. The takeoff and climb-out followed by turning left to parallel the runway, going back to land on it. Throttle back on final, drift and trim for an elegant touchdown (the bump). Roll out, add power, scooting down the runway to do it all over again. Around and around, up and down. Practice makes perfect. All those left turns. Took ages before I could tolerate a right-hand pattern.
After a while, I sincerely wanted to go over to the neighboring airfield and practice there for a bit.
“Oh come on, Dodge, let me go,” I whined to my baggy-eyed instructor. “I’ll be absolutely fine. You know I will. I’ve landed there lots with you in the cockpit.”
Unable to find a good reason to say no, he signed my logbook. Super-hyped, off I went, aircraft keys in hand. I was ready to lift off without a plane.
But there was just one interesting little thing. He had not checked the visibility.
Smug with my new freedom, I carefully did my preflight, listened to the ATIS Bravo (Automatic Terminal Information Service alpha-beta’d rather than numbered) contacted ground control and taxied out. I paid no mind to the visibility advisory. Ceiling 5,000, visibility three miles. So? That was VFR – but marginal. No problem. I, hotshot student pilot, was going flying!!!
Hanscom Tower: “Three Seven Two Two Juliette cleared for takeoff runway One One.”
The air, turned out, was pure murk. As up and away I climbed, the bright green land below dimmed to appallingly indistinct. Slant range visibility from the plane was low, three miles at most. So? Hey – I knew the way. Big deal. On I puttered, confidently turning to my outbound heading.
But now seven miles from home, looking back, Hanscom had vanished into the grayness. No big wide runways in sight. Where was I? Where was I? I didn’t recognize a thing. Front, back, sideways – nothing. I clutched at the yoke. Peering through thick summertime pollution, sunlight blocked by overcast, all roads and hills looked the same. Where were familiar landmarks?
Looking at my outbound compass heading, I turned to fly the reciprocal to just go home. Unnerved, I decided that had to be what to do. And so, demoralized, I started limping back. But…where was my airport? No airport! Desperately I strained to see my way. Was I headed in the right direction? I trundled along, muttering. Praying.
“Please God, help me. I’m lost,” I whimpered. (There are no atheists in the cockpit.) Seven miles from home – and lost? So much for the hotshot pilot.
Completely rattled, I realized I couldn’t just pull over to the side and stop to figure things out. The plane had to continue flying…or it would stall and crash. Oh foolish woman, stupid student. How dumb I was.
Intently I peered through the gloom for another aircraft that might show me the way. A plane I could follow – and avoid hitting. Oh look! Up ahead were a few in a line passing in front of me… and wouldn’t you know, they were on the downwind to the runway I had only just left.
I was saved. Just in case the ATIS had changed, I listened for it. Yep, still Bravo. In a confident deep voice I keyed my mike: “Hanscom Tower, November three-seven- two-two Juliette five miles east, Bravo, landing Hanscom.”
“Roger Three-Seven-Two-Two Juliette, join downwind traffic runway One-One.”
Oh. He had me on radar. I imagined I could hear the smirk in his voice, as the student pilot limped back home. I fell into line, warm relief replacing cold fright, and touched down smoothly.
“See?” grinned I to myself – “You’re pretty good after all.”
Inside again at the flight school, they looked blankly at me. “Back so soon?”
“Yeah, the visibility was lousy,” said I. “Another day.” They nodded.
No smirks. They knew what it could be like.
Dodge sniffed and ignored me.
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.
Don Jesus Gil is gone. Beloved Don Chuy, as known to friends and family. The landmark man of the Plaza de Armas, dueno of the Terra Cotta restaurant of the Portal of the Portales, is no more. I am amazed at how saddened I am by this particular call to The Beyond. An early memory of this kindly, handsome gray-haired man haunts me.
Let me tell you about it.
Hal and I were newcomers to this Pueblo Magico, Alamos, at that moment laid low by gripa that had gripped many. It was the January chilly season, time of the Music Festival. We were staying at the Casa Roberto, a short stroll down Calle Obregon from the Palacio, home of the governance of the town, the county. I was all better; Hal had improved to the reading-in-bed stage. I felt okay about leaving him for a nighttime downtown stroll. The town is safe for such. It was past 9pm, the sidewalks and streets were empty. I had a soup container to return to Joseph, chef of what is now Charisma, and the Tesoros. A busy man.
As I started pass the Hotel Tesoros, I peeked into the restaurant – nobody there. Then I looked beyond into the open air patio, where under the stars three musicos were huddled with their guitars, softly strumming, humming, choosing their repertoire. A merry busload of tourists had been relegated to the dining room in back – they were eating enchiladas and waiting to be serenaded, tippling the world’s best margaritas. I moved to join the three men as they sweetly intoned Gavilan o Paloma, a poetic love song of the past century. They let me croon along, adding my soprano to their bassos, grinning at my efforts to mouth the Spanish words. It was a magic moment, in the dark, under those stars.
I continued my amble. Finding chef Joseph busy in his Mansion kitchen, I returned the container – he was into the night’s cleanup. My stroll took me to the Palacio; I palavered with the night watchman. He was friendly, bemused by my gringo Spanish. Then I hoisted myself up the broad rocky stairs of the portal of the Portales – those would be banned by OSHA. There on the steps, enjoying the warm breeze of the quiet night, sat Don Jesus. He nodded a welcome to me. His day was over; meals made for who knows how many that day. We greeted each other, traded appropriate comments. “Muy bonita la noche, senora.” And then he left to arrange an iced coffee for me. He sat again on the steps, thinking his thoughts and I mine. There were two fellows talking on the plaza – they were the only other humans in view besides us. Warm winds stirred the plaza’s towering palms, trees extant for more than a century. Their rattling fronds heightened the tranquility. We sat for a while, and enjoyed the precious solitude and each other’s silence.
One the way back, I found the singers clustered in the street; we sang again, said our “que pase una buena noche,” and I returned to my sweetie’s bedside. I was under the spell of this town, held up by the gentleness of the people. Don Jesus was at one end of my walk, the musicos at the other. Where else in the world could I have done such a simple and beautiful thing?
Now there is no more the man on the plaza, the marker for our comings and goings, the one whose restaurant has fed us so well for so long. No more Don Jesus to greet when we go to the Terra Cotta. We are triste, sad. His wife continues the delicious comidas, his pretty smiling daughter Claudia serves. They fill his shoes. We have them to complete our circle.
Don Jesus, we love your daughter Claudia; she has become our touchstone at the Portal. But she’s not you, not the handsome gray-haired jefe of the Terra Cotta. I still see you in the darkness, resting on the steps, your kindly smile welcoming me. I always will. It is your spot. You will always be there.
RIP, Don Gil.