WHERE DID THE BODY MAN GO?
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.
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.
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.
The Close Call Cat
“What’s that?” asked my son.
He was in the right passenger seat, peering through cupped hands at the plane’s generator warning light in front of him. We were flying over the sound, from Martha’s VIneyard to the mainland. I leaned over, saw nothing.
“You have to hold your hands around it, then you can see a tiny light in the middle,” he said.
My sweet straight-tail, stick-flaps 1959 Cessna 172 – a honey of a bird – had just come out of annual inspection, so when we landed I asked its mechanic about it. I was leaving the boys with a friend over night; they tootled off, and I waited to question the mechanic.
Mechanic (the one who had done the annual): “Hm. I don’t know. Next time you’re in, I’ll get under the cowling and check it out. Loose wire maybe. You’re certainly good to go now.”
Me: “Well ok then – see you about it tomorrow or the next day.”
I scooted back to the Vineyard for dinner with Hal, the pets, and the packed car. I would leave in the morning with the pets. He would drive – I would meet him back at home.
A melancholy moment – the last summertime dinner behind picture windows looking out towards the mainland. The sunset was still two hours off. Earlier, I had flown the boys to a friend in our home town to make the seasonal closing of the house easier; we would retrieve them tomorrow. A coin-flip decided who would fly. I won, and would take off in the morning before a front came through.
But what was this? Looking out at the view, chewing our steaks and enjoying our last vacation moments, our eyes tracked lovely shell-pink scud… speeding across the sky. Lowering.
The front had upped its arrival time without telling anybody.
Whooff. I grabbed the phone to talk to flight service for an updated weather briefing. But I knew… It was just what it looked like – my get out of town notice. Right NOW. We raced to the airport.
The dog scrambled into the plane… the cat, not. Prying claws and paws off my shirt, I put him in the back. He didn’t care for moving vehicles. In a car, he yowled piteous wora-wora-woras and hid under a seat. They both settled down, cowering in corners. Lulled by the rumbling engine, they would soon sleep.
I blew bye-bye kisses over the now dull cherry red generator warning light and away I taxied. Hal had seen that glowing cherry, and had fussed. I shooed him off, convinced the mechanic was right; it would be ok. It was more convenient to believe that.
But that warning light. Relentlessly, persistently, glowing ever brighter on the panel. I considered it. If I didn’t go now, the plane would have to sit on the island, awaiting sometime off in the vague future to finally fly back to home base. I tossed it about in my mind – would the battery last? Pooh – of course. Anyway, I would have at least an hour’s worth of left of battery power, if needed. Plenty. Away I flew.
The light nagged from the corner of my eye. I climbed out over the sound, leveled off. As I passed by New Bedford, ATC transmissions began crackling in my headset. The Tower had bid me safe flight, and released me to Cape Approach. Well… the mechanic notwithstanding, the radio went dead, in only twenty minutes! Next the lights dimmed and shut off. I immediately turned off the master (electrical switch) and muttered “Oh S—t” – cockpit vernacular for “Heavens to Betsy.”
The ceiling was coming down on me. City lights to the west had disappeared into mist and rain– where the front was moving in from. But lights ahead and to the east sparkled clear, with welcoming airport runway lights here and there, not far off, shining in parallel lines. No brainer.
If the visibility hadn’t been so good to the east, I wouldn’t have continued.
So… It wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. After all, the engine was running smoothly. It didn’t need a charged battery, except to start. The worst? I might have to stay overnight in the plane at one of those airports, snugged up with the cat ‘Apache’ and dog ‘Sal’. In the rain.
I lie – that wasn’t the worst. I could be hit by an airliner who couldn’t see me! And I couldn’t tell anyone that I was there. No radio, no contact with ATC.
Here, I began to panic.
Not good… never panic. Clammy fingers clutched the yoke. “I should go up…” I said to myself, and went up a few hundred feet. “No… can’t go into clouds. I should go down,” I said – and descended again. So there I was, yo-yoing up and down, trying to call a quavering “mayday” into a dead radio, turning the master on and off as it regained a bit of juice in between uses, enough to pop on position lights.
I was foolishly panicky, silly twit, unsettling the pets.
Well lookee here. Awww… I felt a gentle touch stroking my arm. Kitty was reaching his paw out to stroke my arm as if to say “there, there, things will be fine…” I grinned to myself, and patted him back.
That cat totally set me right. He was doing just as I always did to comfort him, when he was frightened. Humbling. I took him into my lap; he curled up and stayed. No wora-wora-wora yowling. Such a fine, clever cat.
So on I flew through the misting night almost at cloud base, passing by my home airport because it needed mic radio clicks to key on the runway lights – I was unable to do that. Droning on a few miles further to the one with lit runways, I landed, cracked the door to shine a flashlight on the taxiway line, making sure the pets didn’t jump out. It was now drizzling.
Those were pre-cellphone days… I dug through pockets to find a quarter for the pay phone. My dear friend came to get us – her second airport trip that day.
What did I learn? Trust your instruments. And something else – cats are smarter than you think. And they have empathy.
Why did the electrical system fail? The generator brushes were totally worn down. In doing the annual, the mechanic hadn’t inspected them. Required.
I was relieved to be home. Could’ve been worse. Could have had to spend the night in the plane.
Better to trust the instrument than the mechanic.
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.
We were cruising south over the eastern coastline, leaving bouncy fair weather in New England, merging with a system of low ceilings over Virginia and North Carolina. Massively wonderful tailwinds scooted us rapidly over the huge distance of the barrier beaches. Well, in our Cessna 182 the push was massive. It’s not a very swift plane. We were flying a window in the bad weather forecast, eyes on passing airports – just in case.
Each year on Dec 17th, the anniversary of First Flight, the day in 1903 that the Wright Brothers made their historic virgin flight on that desolate beach, the First Flight Society puts together a superb event. The tongue-in-cheek “Man Will Never Fly” Society holds a dinner of comedy speeches and great joviality, the night before. The motto embroidered on their badge says “Birds Fly, Men Drink,” a rousingly funny apothegm… the first time you hear it. Well – we still like it, even if it’s a little tired.
Manteo is the preferred arrival airport, a short hop over to Kill Devil Hills – we had tracked the ADF for surest guidance since we were getting into snockely mist, doing the IFR approach. But no dramas – the airport materialized through decent visibility. Some of our Aero Club group had scrapped the trip, sure that the weather wouldn’t work. Our morning research forecasted better. We patted ourselves on the back, pleased that all the plan B airstrips had disappeared behind us. A cheerful line guy greeted us and helped with parking. He was having a busy day, but we got a slot.
Nearby beach motels perch on dunes, peering at the Atlantic over a large protective ridge of sand. The sea would encroach if it could – sometimes it does. In the hot Carolina summer the warm sands are crawling with kids and distracted parents. Being December now, it was off-season with lovely empty beaches.
But that night it poured chilly rain, making for lively puddle-hopping in and out of our banquet building. An event where the main speaker was from Australia, touting the aerodynamics of the boomerang, with balsa handouts for the crowd to hurl. Stand-up humor had us wiping tears of laughter – a comedienne popular on dinner circuits and wife of one of the pilots. The farthest distance fly-in (Alaska) got a rousing cheer from the room, and a plaque. (Our trek from Massachusetts didn’t even make the finals.) People flew in from Canada, Mexico – everywhere.
The buffet food was… ho-hum blah. Who cared?
The next day dawned clear and bright. Good thing, because a kettle of us hawks intended to circle the Landing Place in our planes, before landing and going through the history museum of information and displays. Did you know that for the small population who lived along that coast, that gangly contraption of the Wright’s was the first ever motor vehicle they had ever even seen? No cars, down there. They saw an airplane before a car.
The festivities continued, a gathering of aviation aficionados filling bleachers, waiting to see, and possibly meet, modern icons of aviation. They came to make a few short speeches, take a bow, and mix with the crowd. And show off new inventions.
It’s such an American thing – not exotic or foreign, not hot-spice show biz. But it’s wonderful. Oh – they drive in, too. It’s a pilgrimage, a worthy trek of the faithful, the devotees of aviation. Or just the admirers. If it’s not on your to-do list, it could be.
You would never regret it.
The young dragon lady looked up officiously, coolly – challengingly? – from her seat of authority. “You will have to bring your bags in here to have them inspected,” she haughtily pronounced.
“Of course,” I smilingly responded. “We have six bags – I will need a worker and a cart to do that.” She glared at me. Her superior, a good-looking mustached man, thick eyebrows and pleasant face, tapped her shoulder and bent down to speak to her, quietly. She looked up and quite melted, even cowering a bit. He turned to us… “You may push the traffic light button over there on the post,” he said, “and if the light is green you may pass through.” I laughed and exclaimed… “It’s a lottery!” I chirped gaily, smiling at him. I like to weave a pleasant tapestry with the Mexicans – they have a wonderful sense of humor and gaiety. “Yes! Exactly!” he exclaimed, and we all crossed our fingers as I timidly reached to push that button. “Yay!” I sang out, as it shone a lovely steady green. And we all clapped. (I think he might have rigged it.)
Always brings a bit of angst, flying into a Mexican border crossing. The language, the paperwork… You better have your papers in order – you can never know for sure, what to expect. Rigid adherence and exaggerated insistence on fine details (your insurance form is almost out of date…)? Or a laissez-faire attitude. It will depend on the heat, the numbers crossing, the mood. The officials are usually courteous and amiable, even helpful. But don’t let that fool you. They take their work very seriously. Often one must process through five desks with five officials – officials that staff their posts with helpful but no-nonsense attitudes (each desk often tiresomely found in different buildings) .
The Mexican government is a huge employer of the Mexicans. In the USA, airports are arranged for the convenience of its pilots – their customers. In Mexico – all is arranged for the convenience of the employee – a shock to the US pilot. And the government, being the government, has an innate passion for paperwork, and whoops it up with rules and paper stamping. The Mexicans love to stamp papers. You’re not important unless you are the wielder of a rubber stamp. Thud, slap, thud, slap, thud, slap… uh-oh you missed a desk? Go back to that other building, find it, get that paper stamped by that other official. One of those fine, tiresome details. Quixotically, things change randomly. For the workers, that can be a huffy ego thing. Having been blind-sided by a rule change, they must pretend to know what’s correct. For the pilot, it’s exasperating.
And oh, yes, they do indeed use a pseudo traffic light to decide if you get inspected or not! Press a button – red means unload and open the bags, green means you get a pass. Everyone hopes for green, even the wokers. Nobody likes hoisting and dragging in the heat. I was mighty glad to have passed.
BROTHER MATTHEW FLIES AGAIN
The Abbey rose among the swelling green hills of central Massachusetts, a handsome sprawling stone compound echoing medieval Europe, a beautifully mystical place of monks chanting in the dimly lit chapel their morning lauds and matins, the afternoon none, evening vespers. There were also tolling bells calling contemplatives to prayers, ringing sweetly out through the halls and over the walls. Lay people were invited to attend these chanted prayers, and come they did – sitting silently in a chamber off to the side of the Abbey chapel. The Abbey itself was off-limits to the public. Think Mont Saint Michel, and you wouldn’t be far off.
Matt was a monk, a Benedictine brother. I met him at the Abbey’s store when I was browsing through their delicious Trappist jams and jellies, goodies they simmered up in huge vats in their great kitchens, items to sell to support themselves – my favorite, a strawberry-rhubarb walnut delight. (Today, they also produce a top-notch beer made in the manner of their oldest traditions.) Also, I was searching for a reader-friendly book on meditation. He was a kindly fellow who worked doing errands and maintenance for the plant – yes, a plant, this very large Abbey.
The brothers and fathers were members of a contemplative order that maintains silence for a good part of the day, a part dedicated to prayer and meditation – hours when our brother went off in a truck on errands – first shedding his monk’s robe for workman’s blue jeans and shirt. Brother Matthew, interestingly enough, had been introduced to the heavens on an earthly plane – literally. He’d taken flying lessons when he was a teenager, and had never gotten over it. Personally, I saw no reason he should have gotten over it. This predilection, however, stood in the way of a priesthood for Matthew – he had earthly attachments he couldn’t give up, at least not in his heart. In practicality he had. But as you know, to dedicate one’s life to the priesthood, the heart and mind must be free and ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit – not taken up by any aching for man’s heaven with wings.
Through conversations – mostly irritating ones about how I should dump the jam, eat only small portions of fruit and raw vegetables, and not drink water while eating (a cultish point of view that quite put me off) he divined that I was a glider tow pilot at an airport not far from his supply route. And so he showed up, during the Fathers’ hours of silence, while out scouring for Abbey supplies. One day he rolled up in the pickup – and hel-looo… there he was. “Was he looking for a ride?” you ask. Danged straight he was, and into the back of the tow plane he hopped at my grinned invitation. Wiry guy, rank with whiffy BO from sweaty labors, he clambered in. And so began a friendship that lasted for years, years of cheerful flights (my talisman?) and occasional stop-offs at our house. Usually for a drink of water. Remember, his mantra was “No water with food,” and so he got thirsty.
When he could spring loose, Brother Matthew came to our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. He wisely learned to leave me alone about the strawberry rhubarb jam – for me, a staple to any feast.
And water with food.
Do I fly over, under, or around…???
That morning had dawned “severe clear,” right up to Flight Level God. We were happily, confidently, on our way from Alamos to Tucson. But suddenly it wasn’t so clear any more. We had drawn out the departure – and now up the road, things were “building.”
Our usual airport departure routine: underwing prayers with the charismatic preacher-airport-manager, then climb in and lift off. It was splendid weather. We waved adios to our helper hombres from home. A half hour later we slipped into Cd. Obregon to document departing the country. It was such tiresome government paperwork.
An hour after that, we were two-thirds of the way to Tucson, beyond the point of no return.
As forecasted, pretty piles of cumulo-nimbus were popping up ahead, hints and promises of storms on a grand scale. So far they seemed innocuous – but we had to get beyond them before that changed. Still nothing on the “fright finder” – the sensor on the panel that registers data on electrical storms up to 200 miles ahead. But this was the monsoon season, and we knew it was only time before they soared high to burst their crackling fury.
I had planned to stay the course, deviating just a bit to go between build-ups, and proceed directly to ARVEY intersection, on route to TUS. My favorite cockpit mate, said “Hmmm, why don’t you just go below those, you’ll be able to see the mountains – the highest is only 5500’ in this sector.” I mused, decided no, it would be bumpy underneath. But the impatient suggestions kept coming to “Just go below.” Those played with my head.
So I pulled on the speed brakes, added some flaps, took off some power – and started down. Then I waffled, thinking better of it. On with the power and up with the air brakes, leveling off. Let’s just stay at this altitude, I muttered. But the clouds were piling higher and thicker. Nuts.
Into the descent profile again. Nose down, power back, flaps to angle the forward view better – and speed brakes going up on top of the inner wing, spoiling a bit of lift and slowing us down.
I was being a danged yo-yo, I muttered to myself. Stupid.
And down, and down, and down…. still not below the ceiling. Ooof. This was not working out.
Peering through the windscreen, I noted large purplish shadows hiding sharp lumpy ridges – and serious rain billowing down from slate-bottomed cloud bases. Thick, mean, curtains of rain. Nope – not going under there. So much for suggestions. But sometimes you don’t know till you take a look.
A course change.
Looking off to the west, I could see my way clear to a run up the valley to Nogales. Cranking ninety degrees left, off we shot westward. Once around the buildups on a mere ten-mile jog, a sharp right turn around that menacing pile of energy put us back on course.
A jagged bolt ripped cloud to ground, off to our left. Immediately off the right wing appeared the deep misty blue of heavy rain. A lovely grand thunderstorm; the one we had just circumnavigated while it was building – it had grown fast. Those can blossom upwards by thousands of feet per minute, and this one had. Ok, not lovely. Frightening.
By now I’m with Tucson approach, who is advising us of bad weather. We said oh we knew, cells were in sight – but from where we were, we practically could see him through good visibility. Just bad in the cells. The smile was in his voice when he asked “What are your observations, zero-five-alpha?” I reported cloud bases at 8,000’ and dropping, and where there was precipitation, zero visibility. He cleared me down to 4’000 direct to the airport. Soon we were on the ground taxiing to customs – and scampering into the office before the rain came.
But it was a drenching that didn’t come. That one stayed in the foothills. Later on came monsoon misery to poor Tucson, with microbursts and floods. There are days when you’re glad to be on the ground inside something strong. And your wings nicely hangared.
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.