Michelee Cabot

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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.

RIP Alexandra.

 

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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.”

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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.

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Clouds for AnneThe 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.”Beautiful-Girl-Wallpapers

“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.

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UNAVOIDABLY DETAINED

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.

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Fathers’ Day was coming up. We bought a bottle, liked it so much we went back bourbonthe 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.mare and colt

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.

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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.
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WHERE DID THE BODY MAN GO?

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In bygone years, as people aged and got wobbly and dotty, there were well-muscled care-givers who were like a handy man. I remember one named “Will” who used to chase after old lady “Hen” who lived on the Chesapeake Bay.  An elderly white-haired acquaintance in rural Massachusetts sadly didn’t have a keeper; one day he filled a suitcase with clocks and trudged down his country road into oblivion.

 

Body Men would be companions to the old fellows, old gals, and follow them around, make sure they didn’t wander away. Help them to the toilet. And when they got too decrepit to ramble, they would change the bedding and do a wash-up. The family home was part of the arena. The younger generation loved and felt obliged to their creaky grandparents, and wanted to keep them around until they left their bodies behind.

 

Cultures change as do ways of living. In many countries the family is a tight-knit tribe all living together. Today that is unfashionable, at least in the USA.  Once our three-deckers had generations arranged on separate levels – ground floor for the elders, the middle floor for the middle-aged, and the top floor for the children. The wonderful three-decker has sadly morphed into apartment houses, in our nation of a home for every family, and car for each. But rarely a place for the declining elder unable to care for himself.  This trend initially brought Rest Homes, the first iteration of the Extended Living facility.

 
So, the noble, kindly Body Man.  He surely must now be employed in the Health Care business, a nurse or nurse’s aide, hired to haul those flailing seniors around in the Extended Care places, places wryly referred to as storage units, where old folks sit strapped in chairs await recycling. Places void of the families they brought into life.

 

Well, as we age we do get odd and disgusting. Smelly and dirty and needing a keeper. Maybe that unpleasantness makes it easier to bid the final farewell to the once robust father, the erstwhile lovely and tender mother.
Or not.
They don’t do that here in Mexico. The only old folks’ home here, the “Asilo,” is one run by good-hearted nuns, a place maintained for those who have no families. Other old folks stay with their families, cared for until called Home.

 

Viva Mexico.

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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.