Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Ponderous Chain in Philadelphia

"The gentlemen from Philabundance, Mr. Scrooge."

Scrooge winced.

"They've been cleared by public relations?" he demanded of the intercom.

They had.

"Let them in," he growled. "But mind, an urgent call in three minutes if they're not gone."

His secretary understood. Scrooge sat up straight and adjusted his Hermes tie.

The door opened. They were two portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, who now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge's office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him. There was no doubt which partner they beheld, Scrooge or Marley, for the trade magazines had carried ample notice of Marley's death in the crash of his Lear jet, seven years ago this very night. Still, as one said, approaching Scrooge's darkwood desk over the vast carpet, they were sure Marley's liberality was well represented in the surviving partner.

And about that he was right, for Scrooge and Marley had been kindred spirits. Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone. Scrooge! He had all but levitated himself through mid-level management to partnership by generating greater output at lower cost through advanced software. Not a department posted production numbers but Scrooge's numbers beat them, and with a smaller personnel budget and lower overhead generally, especially in regard to health benefits. He inaugurated the era of major capital improvements to replace the expense of labor; and without anyone's seeing it, the average work week had lengthened. To those who spoke of overtime pay, he predicted it would be necessary for them to part--those who didn't part anyway as a consequence of restructuring. He was effective, efficient, conversant to the gills on employment law and raking in stock options. There was talk of a Peter Binzen profile in the Inquirer, or even a fawning interview by Ted Beitchman in The Player.

"Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman before the desk, taking up his pen. "At this festive season of the year, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

A smile oiled itself over Scrooge's face.

"Gentlemen," he said. "Are there not unemployment offices?"

"There are," said the gentleman.

"The welfare and food stamp programs still in their former vigor?"

"They survive," said the man, "though greatly weakened. I wish I could report otherwise."

"That is gratifying news," said Scrooge, in his concerned businessman's voice. "I was afraid from what you said that something had happened to stop them in their useful course."

The gentleman appeared confused.

"Under the impression," he said, "that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude, a few of us are endeavoring to raise--"

But Scrooge, in an unaccustomed show of impatience, raised his hand.

"Gentlemen," he said. His words were firm and even, and came from an Andrew Cassell column on techniques for better management.

"As you know," he said, "Scrooge and Marley is a publicly-traded company. Which means that I am answerable to a higher power even than myself." He laughed faintly at this old joke, as he had a dozen times before.

"None of us wishes for such austerity in daily business," Scrooge said. "If I had it my way, everyone who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips would receive a cup of warm pudding and a holly branch. But, sirs, we must deal with facts. The Asian economies rise, the price of goods plummets, the Dow is retrenching. Consumers aren't consuming, not even at Christmas. Competition is keen. And all the while, labor costs increase, and on Wall Street they can think of nothing better to do than fling mashed potatoes at each other.

"And city government...." Here Scrooge rolled his eyes vaguely, and took a deep breath to calm himself. "Our government simply hopes to tax us to tiny bits."

He shrugged his shoulders to ask what he could do.

"I'm sure you'll find that Scrooge and Marley's contribution to the programs I mentioned is substantial. As I say, none of us wishes for austerity. But my stockholders, you understand. If they caught wind that I had upset their expectations of return, by even the tiniest degree--why, if they heard of that you would now be speaking to Scrooge's ghost and not Scrooge."

The gentleman began to speak, but Scrooge continued.

"Scrooge and Marley has done business in Philadelphia for 40 years," he oozed. "In the past the relationship has proved amiable and productive. I would hate to think that this fair city had become more hostile to our business than, say, Horsham or Great Valley or King of Prussia."

The gentleman again began to speak. But just at that moment the secretary buzzed with an important call for Scrooge, and the men were bidden to depart.

Scrooge took his usual melancholy dinner at the Union League, then drove home to his monstrous mansion in Gladwyne. There, he locked all the locks and armed all the alarms, and sat ensconced within, solitary as an oyster. Before retiring, he punched in his personal computer and noted with relief that the Dow was up 63 points, the dollar had advanced against the yen, the prime rate was steady, and the National Park Service had given preliminary approval to his bid to convert the money-losing Independence Hall into a casino and entertainment complex. Then he went to bed and slept as peacefully as ever.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Read a Book and Get Retrospectively Creeped Out

Okay, so, yes, creepy.

I got stupid lost in the library again, this time looking for the oversized biography section, which is not, as it sounds, the section devoted to notable fat people.

I never did find the oversized section—never got near the B’s (for Bligh, William)—but a book in the W’s froze me.

I had a philosophy professor who liked to say there was nothing perfect in the world, no living Platonic ideal anywhere in the world--except Natalie Wood. And we always laughed. Because to have Natalie Wood show up in the middle of discussion on Plato’s pure forms blew up our notion of scholarly rigor. She appeared more than once in Jack Whitcraft’s lectures, always as the one indisputably pure and beautiful thing on the planet.

But Natalie’s shown up frequently on bookshelves in the last 10 years, and will no doubt show up more, as her various friends and husbands die off, and speculation flares anew on the circumstances of her death.

Wood drowned after apparently falling from the boat she owned with her husband, Robert Wagner, off Catalina Island in November, 1981. Also aboard was the actor Christopher Walken and Wagner’s hired captain.

Everyone had been drinking heavily that night, first on the boat, then on shore, then on the boat again. Around midnight Walken and Wagner got into a fiery argument and Natalie left them to go to bed. About an hour later, they couldn’t find her aboard, nor could they find the boat’s dinghy.

Those aboard first believed she’d taken the dinghy out for a ride, though upon consideration realized it was unlikely a drunk woman, who didn’t like the little boat anyway, would take such a jaunt on a dark, cold, windy night on rough seas. They called the Coast Guard.

Next morning searchers found the dinghy in a little cave on the rocky coast. And then they found her, about 100 yards away. She was suspended in the water beneath her red quilted jacket, which held some air and prevented her from sinking. Underneath the jacket she was wearing her nightgown. She hung in almost a standing position, head down, eyes open.

Of course the story exploded into a tale of scandal, conspiracy, cover-up. Wagner had thrown her overboard in a jealous convulsion for her attention to Walken. She had stumbled into a stateroom to surprise Wagner and Walken together. She possessed embarrassing information on both men, who staged a loud argument to mask their joint guilt in killing her. The forensic evidence supported none of this.

What probably happened, of course, was she fell overboard while adjusting the line holding the dinghy to the boat’s stern. Anyone familiar with boats knows you spend a large part of your night quashing this or that little noise so you can sleep. Night-time dinghy bumping is the number one cause of insanity among boat owners. And that particular dinghy had a history of bumping.

She was probably shortening the line when she fell in, probably held on to the little boat as long as she could, and then succumbed to hypothermia. A very sad story.

Well, it never occurred to me while sailing off Catalina that I might visit the spot of a notorious death. I had heard Wood’s name in connection with Catalina, when I worked in California; had heard she drowned somewhere around there. But it wasn’t until I opened her biography today that I knew exactly where.

Indeed, there in vivid description was Two Harbors, a place I know well, a ramshackle outpost on far side of the island that then, as now, contains only one restaurant. It was where she ate her last meal. And there was the description of the anchorage where they had moored their big boat, exactly where Exy and Irving always anchor to give the kids a swim.

There in description was the little dock I knew, where they had pulled her out. And there in a photograph was the very cave I had kayaked through with my kids, a long tunnel open to the ocean at both ends that always got them enthused. It was in this cave they found the dinghy.

So in other words we had all been playing right where she died. We’d been swimming where her body spent a night almost floating.

I’m glad I didn’t know this then. I wish I didn’t know it now. But it only goes to show you, don’t go into the library without a deliberate plan.

It reminds me of the time that the great David Vis and I climbed to the top of a hilltop village in Spain, only to find that what looked like Moorish fortress was in fact a great crypt, which, furthermore, had—

No, skip that. I’m creeped enough for the time being. Maybe one day all these macabre stories from the road will go into a book and I’ll be finished with them (possible title, “Travels With Ghoulie” --apologies to John Steinbeck and his dog.) Until then I want to concentrate on the living.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

And While We're On Great Architects...

Just found this in the archive--and it fairly represents the mind of its sender--and wanted to post it, so all could see what I have had to endure in the way of personal correspondance. This came from our own great architect of the age, Patrick Michael Zampetti, sent in March of 1990. And the correspondance continues.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another Random Looking Up of Stuff

Thank you, PMZ, for setting off the next random looking-stuff-up obsession. Our topic today: Evelyn Nesbit and the Stanford White Murder.

Pretty girls get attention when they’re murdered, and even when they’re only standing near a murder. In this case the victim was the pretty girl’s boyfriend…manfriend…lecherous old bastard friend, Stanford “Stanny” White, an architect, who got popped on the roof of a building he designed. The details of the murder are pretty freakin picturesque, the personalities involved likewise, and the whole story occupies a place in the annals as the first great Crime of the Century—the 20th Century, I mean. There would be many more, of course.

This Evelyn Nesbit, though, was probably the model for Charles Dana Gibson’s famous Gibson Girl, and had a number of other notable attributes, not least was that she lived some of her later years in Northfield, New Jersey, one town north of me own auld sod. So sayeth Wikipedia. (She died when I was 9, and had probably left Northfield long before that, so chances are I didn’t interview her for the paper.) In youth, she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the country, with "the slim, quick grace of a fawn, a head that sat on her flawless throat as a lily on its stem, eyes that were the color of blue-brown pansies and the size of half-dollars, and a mouth made of rumpled rose petals," according to Irvin S. Cobb. She earned lots of money as an artists’ model, fashion model, and eventually an actress. The movie "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" was written about her, and she appears as a semi-fictional character in E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime," also the movie made from it.

As for the swing, god, who wouldn’t want to push a beautiful 16-year-old back and forth on a velvet swing? To reinact some arcadian fantasy. Sure, throw some grapes in there, and twining vines. Don’t you have a swing, Pat? You architects know how to have a good time.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I'd Rather Be In...

As long as I’m leaving Philadelphia…

I yearn to stay here, but only for nostalgia’s sake. Most of the people I came to know here have gone, leaving me to hold the lonely city by myself.

Some went off to get married, some followed jobs, and some just went the hell off.

Joe the skater, for example, just one day decided to take a year off and travel. He sold everything in his apartment, emptied the place out, and when the last knick knack went out the door he followed it by a brief interval. He started in South America and worked his way up into Canada and finally to Alaska, where he got work on a fishing boat. Meanwhile he kept in touch with the folks back home via the skate club listserve. Even thousands of miles away he knew the time of the weekend skating sessions, and their place of gathering. And later, when the information went up, he knew who had skated, where they all went, and who had how many beers afterward.

This skating club—I can hardly travel a street in Philadelphia and not think of it. Back in the late 90s when skating had taken everyone with a fury, the skate club numbered several hundred members. Any hundred of these might show up for any given skate, and where did we not go when gathered all together like that. There is something about skating in a big group you can experience nowhere else. We skated miles, miles, every week, down from the Art Museum, into Old City, down along South Street amid the stranded traffic, up to North Philly and Northern Liberties, back uptown and across the bridge to West Philly and Penn, all around up there amid the crumbling neighborhoods, then back over another bridge into South Philly, and never stopped again until we hit Lincoln Field. We were a flock of birds, all of us free and striving together, all of us set to flight on an impulse.

Of course we never covered all of that in one day, but our range was vast. Fifteen and twenty miles a trip was the average, at least twice a week, often more. Our legs were like steam pistons. We’d usually stop at some favorite eatery or water ice stand, take a long refreshing break around our Gatorades and ice cream, then leap into flight once more as the night came down.

You get to know people when you’re skating. Socializing happens with butterfly ease. Stop for a light and chat up a stranger, continue talking until the next light, drift to a new stranger, drift back to find some old friends, pause and watch the crowd skate around and around the stairs at Dilworth Plaza. Our leaders, veterans of many years on these streets, knew every surface worthy of skating in the city, and didn’t fear to push our vast mob through twisting alleys and along hidden sidewalks. We skated the subway concourse, going underground at 17th Street and resurfacing at 13th. with numerous twists and detours between. We rode elevators to the tops of tiered parking lots and whirled our way to the bottom. And the Art Museum steps…I never got brave enough to skate them, but many did. It got to be the opening ritual of our skating trips to watch Buzz or John or Ellen come screaming down bank after bank of those stairs, the tiers thrumming on their skates as they flew down, all the way from top to bottom. It was easiest to do it backwards, and so the uninformed witnesses to these events believed they were seeing the impossible: boys and girls flying backwards on roller skates down the largest bank of stairs in Philadelphia. Rocky only had to run up them.
That skate club created many durable friendships. Even though Nina has moved away and had a baby, even though Lynn got married, even though Tylis took a job in New York—I still stay in touch. And even now, hardly a sojourn in town will fail to show me a familiar face and a friendly wave. We all have skating in common. Like drum corps, it’s an experience that binds you.

But of course, Philadelphia is an experience that binds you, too. Sometimes not in a good way. But let that rest. I leave here knowing I had as good a time as anyone, and better than most. And the friends I made are friends still.
Live dangerously. Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius.
--Frederick Nietzsche

I sometimes see my life as romantic. But then I remember where I live.

The “house” that I have rented for many years—an interesting structure—one of those bland fronts of a South Philly house that often shield peculiar and sometimes rich lives from the glare of public knowledge. Long ago my little place probably housed sailors or dockyard workers or longshoremen. Just a few blocks away are the great piers that once serviced ocean-going freighters, the street that was once a seething waterfront thoroughfare.

Photographs from the mid-19th century show this street a maelstrom of activity: the dusty avenue thick with horses and wagons, and thousands of carts bearing the freight of the tall ships whose masts tower above the piers in the background. It was a close, active street, the kind of street where the primary commerce of the international American trade once took place—among men and small-scale vehicles, not cranes and mechanics and diesel trucks. (I miss it, can you tell?) Now, of course, Delaware Avenue is no such thing, but a six-lane boulevard of stoplights and road rage, connecting the Sprawl Mart with the Home Repo and the Super Stash. It’s a strip mall stuck in the only place the city could put it, the only stretch of open retail-ready land within 10 miles.

But the houses around here remain largely what they were. I’m pleased to live in a place where a house can reach 150 years of age, and more, and still serve as a house, without making any great fuss about it. I live amid scores and scores of these houses, and not even a block of suburban-style mini-houses—vinyl siding, garages—can destroy the ambience.

However, I’ve known I must leave this place--the lust has indeed wandered—and have wondered what circumstance would permit me a graceful exit from this residence of six years. Last week I found it: The first floor wall, long bowed outward into the alley, has in fact collapsed. I didn’t realize this at first. My landlord spent the night here last week and we couldn’t figure out why the furnace, which had run all night, had apparently failed to heat the house by morning. Then we looked in the alley. A big brick wall really does make quite a pile. We had only a piece of sheetrock between us and the great outdoors.

This new development with the house takes its place alongside other, older quirks of the structure. For example, the hole in the bathroom floor that looks down into the kitchen.

Following the walll discovery came frantic calls to contractors, several of whom came to give estimates. And they confirmed what I’ve always told the owner about this place: Fixed up, it’ll sell at a huge profit. I think he believes it now, and plans to sell. Which means I need to find a new place to live.

Which is all right. I’ve decided, at least for now, that my only safety is despair of safety. I seem to be happy only when in flight. So once again into the wild blue yonder. So far the remaining two floors have not tumbled. Just give me another two days….

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What I Do On My Summer Vacation

Coming into the sailing job in 2004, I tried to drain the former director of the program for every scrap of information: How are the boats provisioned? Do the kids wear life jackets? How many miles do you cover in a day? Where does everyone sleep? I left no uncertainty untouched: How do you wake the kids in the morning? Who does the cooking? What happens if there’s a mutiny?

But nothing could have prepared me. Here was a program that put 10 people on a small boat for a weeklong sail around the Bay. The kids would learn how to sail, how to anchor, how to navigate, meanwhile trying not to sail into ships, piers, submarines, buoys, dolphins and the other boats in the program.

They would grope their way to the next daily destination, cook the food, clean the boat, plot the courses and do everything possible to prevent collision, sinking, drowning, exposure, sunstroke and death by flying boom. In theory this would happen. In practice what happened, what continues to happens, is: we all shove off and pray for the best.

Usually we get the best, but sometimes not. In four years I’ve seen two serious accidents. Two years ago I left a parent alone to steer while I went below. The wind was well up on our starboard side, the boom stretched out to port. I came back on deck just in time to see the boom swing across and crack another adult in the forehead, the classic accidental jibe, caused by not only by the skipper’s inattention, but also by the helmsman turning us more about 120 degrees to port without apparently noticing it. The victim rose from the deck with blood streaming down his face, and two hours later he was getting stitches.

Last year, lowering our spinnaker, one of the scouts let the halyard off the cleat and then tried to hold it while several hundred pounds of force tried to make it run. It eventually ran, but not before pulling several layers of skin off his palms. This was not an enjoyable event. At the emergency room, they cut away the lose skin, bathed his hands in ointment and wrapped them like mummies. For the rest of the week he could do nothing but order the other guys around, which indeed he did very well. But we’d have preferred he needed no such promotion in the field.

Aside from these, we have managed to scrape through, no matter what nature or the wiles of adolescence have thrown at us, and I make no presumption which of these forces is the stronger.

The season begins with the almost ceremonial shakeup of the boats, which have lain unused all winter and which have begun to develop their own strains of mold. This shakeup is usually undertaken in the sort of slow-motion melancholy that can only accompany the revisitation of things long played out and inanimate, much like seeing an ex-girlfriend.

Mold, old food smells, stains on the floor, perhaps the residue of an overflowed toilet are usually the only signs of welcome. There are sails to mend, ice boxes to clean, lights to test, deck leaks to fill. You got to change the oil, double check the fuel filter, pore through the sea strainer, keep a sharp eye on that fan belt. But things look brighter when the boss gives you the account number at West Marine.

This year, three of us managed to spend close to $20,000 getting our boats ready to sail. In theory, we acquired them in a ready condition. But you know how imperfectly theory sometimes translates to fact, especially when a West Marine account number enters the picture.

Oh, you have to have smoothly working blocks, mainsheet tackles that don’t twist, an easy-running furling line for the jib, sails spruced up and clean, and a radio that can be counted on to broadcast further than 60 feet. (My radio was so old I was hearing Fred Allen on it.) It means having bright new halyards and sheets, and fresh new waterproof chart kits showing in particular detail the shoals that we will probably run into anyway.

It means having fancy acid-based hull cleaners and steel polishes and—I still expect to get in trouble for this—an entire set of signal flags. It means replacing any compass that even looks like it’s thinking about deviation, replacing all the flares and life vests.

It means, in short, participating in a buying spree that is the Boy Scouts’ gift to you.

My boat suited me. Just recently purchased from an actual yacht broker--the scouts apparently robbed several banks this year, perhaps as a merit badge requirement—my Morgan arrived with luxuries I had never believed would ever surround my person on a small boat—a working toilet, for one thing, also a working water pump, a shower, and a heat exchanger that produced hot water. All of its lights worked, inside and out, as well as the heavy-duty anchor windlass used to pull up the very stern-looking claw anchor and 90 feet of chain. (I especially like this windlass, though it played me the clever trick of dumping 100 pounds of wet anchor chain onto the V-berth cushions the first time I tried it.)

This year for the first time the program ran out of a brand new camp just opened in Bayport, some 22 miles up the Rappahannock from Deltaville, where the river meets the Bay. This far up the river—actually, anywhere on the river—you can only reach deep enough water by building a dock more than 1000 feet long, as the Boy Scouts did, against all advice. Walking this kept us in good shape.

Great nervousness ahead of the first arrivals. So many things could happen this year. Booms could crack open young heads. Legs could tangle in life lines during a jump overboard, and break. Rope burns could scourge hands. And sunburn, lacerations, knife cuts, fabric whippings, broken bones, ripped skin, drowning.

Nothing looks so bleak, nothing carries a fuller freight of disaster than a season of sailing before it begins. When the scouts do arrive, of course, constant work, hard physical work, keeps you safely ignorant of those hovering calamities, and attentive instead to your immanent shortage of water, the fragrance from the head, the fact that some of these parents expect four star eating on a boat run by, after all, the Boy Scouts.

The kids finally do arrive and spend the first night learning about the boat, the simple skills necessary and where to sleep, then spend most of the night chattering like monkeys, calling to one another among their sleeping bags and from boat to boat, some of them slung in hammocks between the mast and forestay.

Next morning they awaken at 7, sometimes with assistance, and make ready to sail. The countdown enters the last frantic minutes. With encouragement, the scouts guide carts of food out that long, long walkway to the floating dock, cram the food into every locatable gimcrack including the inside of the oven and the crack in the cabinet beneath the sink, remove their wet towels and swimsuits, capes, loincloths, bibs, diapers and pantaloons from the lifelines, gather in the cockpit to receive one final pep talk and pre-packaged dressing down to be used as needed, and receive their instructions for shoving off.

They do all this under the fevered eyes of the adults, who are dripping with anticipation to go and creating puddles on the deck that I ask them to clean up later. Those scouts whose attention wanders are gently guided back to the present with a kind word. In the half hour before launch I let none of them visit the bathrooms on shore—first because the bathroom is almost a quarter mile away; second because they’d most likely forget the purpose of the trip and wander blissfully about the beach for hours, looking at fragments of broken driftwood and the shape of their own footprints, and I’d have to send a rescue party. The teenage mind is constructed upon turbulence.

At 9 a.m., we go.

For most of these kids, the first minutes off the dock are the first minutes ever sailed. They know as much about mainsheets as they do about medieval theology. Actually they know more about medieval theology, the precocious bastids, and will explain it to you at great length when you’re intending to do something else, such as pull one of their colleagues out of the water. The Rappahannock is wide, tranquil, scenic. Its banks look like the landscapes of Durand and Morse.

From the middle of the river, you can gaze upon mile after mile of orange beaches, misty forests, crumbling headlands topped with meadows of clover, enchanted streams leading off into quiet lagoons last viewed, it often seems, by the continent’s primeval citizens. It is open, untrammeled, wild. Stop at any point and there are small beauties to count and contemplate, burbling freshets and streamfalls, blasted trees mellowed by years and covered in vines, hanging moss, honeysuckle, wisteria, otters, beavers, badgers. Nose into any cove and behold a new slant on the transcendent.

But these mean little because the first of your crew are already violently ill.
The prevailing wind blows from the south or just west of south, the river itself runs east-southeast. With a good fat wind on your beam you can expect to travel far and fast, without troubling much about sail trim. The ride on a beam reach is smooth as it gets. But I have come to understand that just the thought of water brings seasickness to the predisposed. And many, so many, are predisposed.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Assault of the Carpet Monster

The creature waits in hiding, patient in ambush, blood on her mind and yearning in her claws.

When the moment is right, she springs from her lair, bent on killing!

Pure luck got the camera pointed in the right direction. Here is a never-before-seen view of the beast in mid strike.

Fortunately our screams broke her killing trance, and she retreated.

Later she cooled down in the basement, and took her Audi Quattro out for a spin.

She is always happier, and calmer, after running over pedestrians.

Stars and galaxies brought to you by Jim's Night Sky machine, plus a disco ball.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Of Fish and Cha-Cha

Several nights ago I arrived at my brother Jim's, barely half an hour after his wife Jamie, now two months divorced, finally moved out. The party was already winching upward.

Al was there with his wife, also their friend Teena, and music was playing from Al’s iPod through Jim’s mammoth speakers, a lot of top 10s from the 1960s forward, which were surprisingly seductive, also lots of Sinatra. Also of course Beatles and Billy Joel. There were spirits on the counter, and we all got more spiritual by the minute.

Teena was deeply involved with her new PlentyofFish account, a free online dating service, and was actually online as she sat there, fending off IM requests with a thumping rhythm. Some very hot guys hit on her, offering coffee and dinner, and Teena found no easy way to communicate she wasn't looking for anything tremendously meaningful at the moment. So she agreed to several coffees. Sort of.

The music got louder and Jim's daughter Olivia wanted to dance. So Jim hung up a disco ball and shone a light on it, then put out a machine that spread stars across the ceiling. Then he switched on the karaoke machine and gave the mike to Olivia, but very soon turned the mike off, in consideration of those who could still hear. Everything hushed down suddenly when Jamie called to say goodnight to Olivia, but by that time Olivia only wanted to get the party cranking again.

“Daddy, will you please turn back on the disco ball?” Olivia whined, straight into Jamie's ear.

My brother could always turn sorrow into hilarity, sometimes in feats of high inspiration. I remember the night neighbors Pete and Sue came over to visit Jim and Jamie, and somehow a tape of the infamous Tanya Harding wedding night video got put in the machine. We gollied and shucksed along about whether to watch it, as everyone there but me felt some need to square such a thing with regular church attendance. But then, almost without conscious control, as if resigned to the inevitable, we sort of collectively pushed the button.

And there we sat, grim as death, while images of a naked Tanya Harding riding wild and free bathed the room in lurid blue.

Once into this show we could nowise figure a deft way out of it, and so well before Tanya shouted her final war cry the anticipation of post-video embarrassment had gotten thick. In a moment the video would end, and all of us Protestants would face each other in shame and awkwardness.

It was at that moment Jim arose from his seat and cued up his Favorites of Cha-Cha album on the stereo, featuring 15 of the greatest cha-cha hits of all time, making it the soundtrack to Sonya’s moment of love. It was perhaps the greatest use ever found for the cha-cha version of Theme from "The Magnificent Seven," that proud and strutting tune.

The cha-cha music put Tanya and husband into just the right aesthetic context for us. What looked grim and lurid in one light looked completely different on a sporty cha-cha background.

It was in something of this mood that the music got cranked up again, on this first night of my brother’s return to singleness, a night that might have sunk into deeps of gloom. Instead, we remembered a happier way to channel light, with my brother as usual holding the disco ball.

Friday, October 12, 2007

My Aunt Renoir

My Aunt Maxine grew up in North Carolina, and has remained in North Carolina for most of her long life. At 92 she’s entered probably the most productive period of her artistic career. Maybe it’s taken this long to conquer the business of art selling, but my aunt now finds herself with more commissions than she can manage: portraits, oil paintings, pastels, watercolors; pictures of children, prominent citizens and not so prominent, seascapes, landscapes, pets, houses.

They are all finding out about her: doctors, dentists, teachers—anyone with enough ego and money to commission a painting. (I should note my aunt’s prices have remained about what they were in 1975.) They come with photographs, sometimes clusters of photographs, and cobbling these together she will compose the picture, set a canvas in her hand-made easel, and begin to paint.

She has already populated a large part of Elizabeth City with her images: They appear in the local history museum, local art galleries, and once a whole truckful of them went onto the walls of the new City Hall. Eminent persons from Elizabeth City’s past, mayors, councilpersons, benefactors of various flavors, celebrities—singly and in groups, they have passed through the bright sphere of her gaze to the permanence of her canvas.

I will not fail to note my Uncle Jack’s place in this enterprise. At 87 he’s the errand runner, the frame stretcher, the appointment scheduler. He’s the man that makes things go. Along with her talent, my aunt also received the gift of long talk, and my uncle long ago gave up competing for a space in the conversation. If not often heard, you will see him plenty, fixing some part of the house or other, painting a porch floor, cleaning a wall, trimming a hedge. Early in the morning he’s spreading food about for the three cats and a dog, and any other stray creature finding a congenial place here amid the fig trees and palmettos.

Plenty of creatures have, myself not least.

I arrived here after yet another summer on the water, a regular but rigorous period of sweat, strenuous labor, long days in the wind, long days of squeezed-out tubes of sunblock and aloe vera, baloney sandwiches, hunting down propane cylinders, playing chicken with power boats, and the occasional trip to the emergency room. I came here last year, too, and the year before that. By early August I’m ready to experience the full explosive thrill of endless rest, days of rest, weeks of rest. I want to put my feet up until all the blood drains out of my legs.
And so I have done. Every August I have launched myself with scant apology into their lives, dragging my bike into their garage and making a mayhem of the “apartment” adjoining their house—actually its own small house attached at a corner to theirs. I have lazed on their porches and filled closets with my important papers. In return for this kindness, they get in me an occasional porch sweeper and paint fetcher, an alert boarder guaranteed to rise before noon and investigate if some great noise signals trouble nearby. It’s the least I can do.

Very quickly I have gotten used to the pace, as who could not? Jack rises by 6, Maxine a bit later. She reaches her studio by 8, while Jack hits the wood shop for a morning of framing and matting. At 11:30 all work ceases and they go to lunch at the little restaurant whose menu they know by heart. In the afternoons, there’s often some work in the garden, maybe some weeding. (I once pulled an invasive plant out of the flower bed, all on my own.) In the evening, another restaurant, and rest for the creation of more art.

And while I lounge without shame around this property, with its gallery view of humanity on the streets and its hanging gliders, while I wander amid the garden house and the woodshop, the flower beds and peach trees, this demi-paradise with a pretty lawn, and its dedication of every cove and corner to the making of beautiful things, I suddenly realize:

I am at Arles. I am in Tahiti and the Marquesas. I am surveying Paris from Montmarte. I am in Guernsey and Provence and Auvers. I am seeing stuff in person that others will admire in galleries a century from now. I get to stand by while art is being made. And I think: well, maybe I can help out a little more.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mark and Me

An important announcement. Henceforth this shop will no longer carry the Mark Twain line of products and services, popular as they may be with our current customers. The stock has run out and will not be replenished. The Twain brand will no longer form a part of this inventory.

I mean it. I’ve gone sour on this guy. I will no longer use Twain’s life as a yardstick and standard of judgment upon all other lives, and raid it for metaphors, and chop it into anecdotes to illustrate common wisdoms. I will stop coughing up Twain quotes at every chance. Henceforth I will quit the footrace I’ve run with this man since my 20s, which I long ago lost but never abandoned. I’m kicking him out of the cabin. He will no longer rattle his sarcastic bones in my closet.

It’s time. Some fascinations really do need to end, and especially those that beckon downward. Nowhere have I read more avidly, imagined more vigorously, yearned more desperately than in the study of Clemens. Nowhere have I failed more completely than in his comparison. With his success as the standard, he has strained my labor and blighted my career--to use a word he would surely approve. He has made me nostalgic for an age I never knew, and no doubt made my company tedious sometimes when it might have been otherwise, more like his.

No one ever explained him, is the problem. Probably no one will. What James Couzens said of Henry Ford he could have said of Clemens. You can’t analyze genius.

Oh, how I hate the G-word. But Clemens surely had something, something that not even he understood. He could mesmerize with words, even himself. Whatever fear he felt, whether on the page or the stage, the words took over when he began to produce them, and that was that. The words followed their own way. There was something from Beyond that spoke through their strange and beguiling combinations, that shines yet through those truer-than-life word pictures, which I’m finished describing as talent. It was much more than that.

And let us not speak of the voice, which had a power all its own. The drawl was hypnotic, the slow cadence pulled you into participation, brought you into its own sphere of experience. You could not be in a room with that drawl and want it to stop, hope it would stop.

It’s a significant loss to American history that recordings of Clemens’s voice, made upon wax cylinders as he dictated his autobiography in 1906, have never been found. (Nor have those of William Dean Howells, who followed Clemens’s example in dictation.) Even Howells said you had the best of Mark Twain when you had the voice. To feel the utmost of his powers, you had to share the room with him, your eyes and ears awake to the performance. Whatever the voice might have told scholars, maybe it would have given me, finally, the man instead of the miracle. I have gotten right sick of the miracle.

These thoughts come courtesy of an octagonal aluminum garden house in my Aunt Renoir’s backyard, where I am now sitting. I had been taping a tear in its plastic roof, on this warm September morning, wondering if I should move my computer into it, when I began to think about Twain’s famous octagonal study in Elmira, built for him as a gift on a ridge above the Chemung River.

I have been in that study, that structure in which much of his greatest literature came into being. It felt odd. Who knows but that something about its shape, some bounced-back convection of brain waves, didn’t ignite genius in there like a vapor explosion. Clemens wrote much of Huck Finn in that study, and Life on the Mississippi, a good bit of Roughing It, and much else that has expanded the vocabulary of American letters. I would say he averaged 16.5 brilliancies a day there, a pretty good pace.

Well, maybe if I tried writing here, in my own little octagon, I could enjoy that kind of success! Maybe I could produce great literature and earn several fortunes and be hunted up by universities conferring honorary degrees! Maybe I could have that kind of life, see the great wilderness of a young America, witness gunfights in the wild west, go around the world on a steamer. Maybe I could pan for silver in Nevada and set fire to Lake Tahoe and cruise the Mississippi in a paddle wheeler. Maybe I could--

After a quarter hour of this I decided what I really needed was medication, and went and lay down. For it is no good, you see. Even I can understand that, sometimes. It is no good singing someone else’s happy song if you have the chance to sing your own. An easy lesson, but difficult to embrace. Why be the Elvis imitator when you can be McCroon the Wonder Scotsman?—a lesser light, perhaps, but steadfastly his own man. Why dance the dear old Twist when your own steps include double knee swirls and fast-action rump gyration and a complete backward somersault over an open fire pit? People might wanna see that. Imitation is a form of enslavement. Don’t go that road.

I know it, of course. Probably I always did. It’s one of those truths we don’t want to believe. However, I believe it now. You can’t be the man you never were in the first place. Forget it. Quit the whining already. Grab a rag and do some dishes or something. Hit the road till your head’s clear, don’t stop for lunch meat.

Yeah, that's the way. Say goodnight, Huck. You can go to hell without me.

Statistical Anomaly

Written Sept. 9, 2007

I am having the strange experience right now of being shut up in a remote cabin with nothing to occupy me but a couple cans of beer and this computer.

It was because of the Boy Scouts. They called Thursday for help moving boats on Friday—apparently a storm forecast for the weekend put them in a panic. And so I rose at 4 and drove four hours to the scout camp in Middlesex County, and yesterday moved two boats, first one of our Morgans, then the Hunter, to their haul-out at Yankee Point. I traveled twice along the 15-mile route, and was retrieved each time but the ever-untiring T. J. Auth in his red James Bond speedboat. (Two and a half hours down in the sailboat, less than half an hour back in Bond style. Why do I like sailing again?) For company I had only myself and at one point a brace of dolphins, who surfaced six feet from my boat and made me scream in my brother’s ear as I spoke to him on the phone.

Naturally I didn’t want to leave afterwards, but elected to stay the night in one of the camp’s cabins. These little cabins have no running water, most of them. But they do have air conditioners and microwave ovens, and a striking hilltop view of the mile-wide Rappahannock. They also have—most significant to me—coffee machines. So when I tucked in last night and opened the window to the murmur of forest sounds, I didn’t figure I’d be rising early.

And I didn’t. I rose way late and did nothing, and went on doing nothing all day, and only very slowly persuaded myself to leave tomorrow. (This same storm might pound Elizabeth City tomorrow afternoon.) But for the moment, here I am, shut up in this very Kacsinski-esque cabin, minus the books and bomb-making materials, and waiting for the urge to overthrow capitalism and the spirit-killing, ever-expanding structure of technology that has made such a slog of human life.

But I find myself not in the mood for violent overthrow tonight. I find myself troubled.

Two nights ago, the city of Elizabeth City phoned me at about 8 p.m. to say someone had found my wallet—I didn’t know it was missing—and could I possibly retrieve it soon, as it would become official “property” at midnight and retrieving it would become much harder.

No need for encouragement: I got to the police station before the voice mail finished. Lisa, the dispatcher, apologized for making me fill out a form. I found myself remaining quite patient.

The wallet came back containing every one of the seven library cards I have collected in the last three years, also my driver license, also my credit cards, also the $160 in cash I have been carrying. A young couple had found it, he from California and here with the Coast Guard, and she his sweetheart, a local girl. Lisa had no phone numbers for them.

“I thanked them for you,” she said. “I knew you would be grateful.”

Yes. Grateful is one word for it.

I have lost my wallet no fewer than three times in the last five years, two of those times on the hard streets of Philadelphia. Each time it has been returned to me, containing everything I lost with it including Schlockbuster Video card and ShopTite supersaver card, also postage stamps. Two of those times, the finder had to play the detective in finding me, for my phone number appeared nowhere in my documents.

Now, here’s the disturbing thing. I have tried very hard to remain cautious and eternally vigilant against trespass against me. We should all keep a wary eye open, no question. You can’t watch the news without acquiring a fresh batch of murders, rapes, robberies, confrontations at knife point, scams, ruses, organized deceits, fires. Each night a new assortment. I am no different than anyone else, I fear for my life out there. People are crazy, kill you for a piece of Velveeta.

The trouble is, my experience—and I’m sorry to confess this—my experience has so far failed to ratify this picture.

Oh, I know I’m not normal. No doubt I’m a statistical anomaly, a man who by some unknowable grace of god has gotten this far in the world without being shot, burned, stabbed, cheated, scammed or hated in an organized way. People return my wallet when I lose it, what are the chances? I leave my doors unlocked and find my stuff still there in the morning. I leave stuff lying around all the time, and find it still lying around when I come back.

The consequence is, I find myself becoming…less…vigilant.

I know, it’s crazy. I shouldn’t take my eyes of the scoundrels out there, the villains, the humbugs and frauds, those ever vengeful, ever exploiting figures we glimpse on all the most instructive TV programs.

I know I should be locking my doors every night, so that thieves and murderers can’t cut my throat. I know I should lock my car when I leave it, so the smash-and-grabbers must at least make noise when they steal my phone charger. I know I should breeze past the man broken down on the highway, as his steaming radiator could be masterpiece of trickery, and I need only to turn my back and he’ll brain me with a spanner.

It's the patriotic thing to do, as well. We got to be scared in these times, we got to be as frightened as possible. Even the government says so. It'll make us stronger.

So I’m gonna try harder. As a matter of survival. I’m gonna start watch the TV news again. Every night, I vow. With a little effort now, I can fear my way into--if not a happier future, at least a more secure one. And what could be more important than security?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On Ranger Road

Sometimes we hear an irrefusable voice from within. It speaks in its own language, but is nevertheless understood. It speaks without volume, but is audible always. It speaks without force, yet its command shines with overwhelming radiance. Recently this voice spoke in me. It said: go camping.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina, clogged with development perhaps, still have room enough for the occasional little camp ground, often in someone’s back yard. You’ll find more of them the further out you go, as the tourists, like in number to the grains of sand on a beach, become outnumbered by the grains of sand on the beach.

At the far end of the Banks, where the long arm of shore is interrupted by towns with names like Salvo and Waves, where every quarter mile shows you another chance to stop, and raise a tent, and heat a can of beans, and be eaten by flies, and sleep with a broken clam shell digging into your backside, the command speaks with special emphasis.

The Mighty Ranger got me pretty far out the first day. Rodanthe, North Carolina: Not even a wide patch on the highway. Rather a temporary suppression of the wild vegetation that wants, yearns, perishes to take back these islands. Private property here, as in most of these towns, has expanded to its federally protected limit. If a lot doesn’t belong to someone now, it never will. That fact, and the place’s remoteness, have preserved in it some flavor of the frontier and recently-settled. Builded lots alternate with wild meadows of beach plum and bayberry. After a windy spell, drifted sand buries the roads.

My tent went up exactly in accordance with the printed instructions, which were sown onto its storage bag so that first-time tent putter-uppers couldn’t lose them. The campsite lay on the sound side of the island—never will I understand why the western side of barrier islands go unpeopled throughout the summer—and the sunset, as well as the full moon afterwards, brought a warmth and contentment that you often find in dreams of happiness--if you could ignore the Grateful Dead playing from one of the nearby RVs.

Q: What do they say at a Grateful Dead concert when the drugs wear off?
A: Man, this music sucks.

Development takes place under great restraint in the Outer Banks. And the sheer extravagance of miles protects it from overcrowding, mostly. Miles-long stretches of surf-washed beach contain not a single soul, and what souls do arrive do so in a motor vehicle. But this is an eastern-end phenomenon. In big tourist towns like Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, you’ll find the full array of beachside commerce in full throb: jet ski rentals, custard stands, drive-through liquor stores, “sundry” shops, big box retailers, and often entire blocks of new retail shops, which universally contain at least one t-shirt store, also a den of knick-knacks featuring carved wooden light houses, sea captains standing at ship wheels in their sou’-westers, shot glasses mounted on wood blocks and many sizes of souvenir plate, all made in China and stamped with the magic words, Outer Banks.

Well ahead of the national mania for three-letter place names, the Outer Banks staked its claim on automobile bumpers, rear windows, license plate brackets and refrigerators throughout the country: OBX, the sign of a proud vacationer.

Further down, past wastes of grass and drifting sand, on a road as straight as a sunbeam, another oasis rises, a cluster of towns huddled together like three men trying to keep warm: Waves, Rodanthe and Salvo. Beyond that, Buxton, and then the town of Hatteras, home of the tallest brick light house in the country, 208 feet, now the centerpiece of a national park. And lo, for miles along the beach, four-wheel-drive vehicles gambol and frolic, many with the fence of fishing poles clustering from their grills, and coolers held in their own protruding balconies before or behind. Their tires are deflated to 20 psi, as advised by the signs.

At island’s end one of the truly amazing North Carolina ferries will take you to the next stage southward—“truly amazing” in this case meaning “free.” North Carolina operates a fleet of ferries, some of them making two-hour-plus trips every day. But you’ll never pay more than $15 a ride. Locals pay $100 for a free yearly pass. For the ferry south of Hatteras, no rider pays a cent.

Ocracoke Island: about 20 miles of beach grass with a town sprouting at the end.

Actually a village. There is something eternally small about Ocracoke the town. It stretches a mile from its sandy north to its watery south. Rampant development has not taken over, as if the modern ethos of headless growth could find no place to stand. You are as likely to see electric carts whisking about as automobiles, and more likely to see bicycles. Not so likely are you to see banks of condos, or hulking hotels by the sea, tarted up with ornamental mermaids and pink paint. Beach scrub and wild oaks break through every patch of ground that a house does not occupy, and most of those houses go back 70 years.

By unspoken consent, the automobiles creep along the roads, often letting the bicycles set the pace. The National Park Service information center provides—who could possibly think this a good idea?—a vast public parking lot where visitors may leave their vehicles and explore on foot. Almost every house is rentable, but the proportion of vinyl construction (read: modern) is as low here as anywhere on the American coast. Here again, remoteness equals repose. The madding crowd prefers easier access to its maddingness.

Which has its detractors.

“It’s a good place to visit,” said the manager of my campground, a resident of seven years. “But you’re dependent on ferries. The nearest Wal-Mart is two hours away.”

Right. I’m definitely coming back.

But she is right. Few of the appetites usually sated in a beach town can find satisfaction here. There is not a single funnel cake stand. Mini golf they have none, nor golf of ordinary size. Nor water parks, nor movie theaters, nor boardwalks, nor “go-kart” tracks, nor tarot readers, nor hermit crabs, nor traffic jams nor beach inspectors, snow cones, invisible dogs or crystals.

They do have an ice cream shop, and a general store selling camping supplies, and a little community theater tuned to visitor interest, seafood restaurants, a fancy sandwich shop and about a dozen mouse-sized art galleries featuring local artists, which you will always find on distant islands. For no remote locale is so forlorn and dilapidated that some dreamy heart will not believe it the prime spiritual meridian of the world.

Some of the tourist books warn about this: “Don’t come here for the typical busy shore town experience,” one of them says.


The next ferry ride lasted two and a half hours, traveling south from Ocracoke to Cedar Island and its long woody passage south to Beaufort, where I got out the bike.

Make note of this: Beaufort, North Carolina (pronounced BO-fort), must be conscientiously distinguished from Beaufort, South Carolina (pronounced BYOO-fort) if you want to see the place your friend Emily called her favorite southern town.

Chances are you’ll reach BO-fort before you even know BYOO-fort exists, and then have deep confusion over which she meant. And she’s in the middle of the Pacific so you can’t call.

So you’ll assume she meant BO-fort. And why not? Here are some dignified pre-war mansions, like she described, and the remnants of a once busy waterside street, now given to the usual pursuits of the no-longer-relevant: restaurants, sport fishing charters, art galleries. Here is the charm of the 19th century separated from its coarseness and cruelty. And here also, the fleet of cruising boats fresh off the Intracoastal Waterway, which touches the ocean here. They come here to wait for good weather before jumping to Bermuda and the Bahamas. The prospect of a long boat ride: That would have appealed to Emily, certainly, whose blood is salt water.

I drove 15 miles out of my way looking for the campground I’d called, mostly because it sat behind a locked cyclone fence that I refused to believe could surround a campground. It looked like a boat and RV storage facility. But I got a spot by the river before a beautiful old house—a spot they reserve for tents, so apparently there is some decency among campground owners.

And so on around Camp Lejeune, next day. I had to stop for a view of the perimeter fence, now converted into a large Welcome Home bulletin board. If the folks around here really supported our country’s mission, they’d not make their loved ones feel so welcome upon their return home. I have no patience with people who claim to love this country and then undermine its raids of conquest in this fashion.

Retail offerings are the television of driving, and here the programs were not high brow: local yokel tax preparation, dollar stores, always the dollar stores, bait shops, army surplus stores and a store selling both guns and hardware. I’m not sure what it is about guns that let’s them be sold in combination with other commodities. In Elizabeth City there is a store that sells guns and jewelry. I’m waiting to see one selling guns and ice cream.

And so on around Wilmington, down a highway that changes without notice to a crowded commercial strip, and so on to the only campground I could find.

Campgrounds have an ambience all their own, and sometimes you can smell them a long way off. It was a mistake not bringing a guide. Very little tourist literature of any kind lists campgrounds, so you find yourself watching for those ridiculous signs picturing teepees.

I wish I had seen a teepee where I stopped, for the place was in exhilarating. It contained the obligatory crowd of permanently placed RVs, now doubling as vacation homes for many. These provide campground owners with income through the winter. But camping amid a crowd of RVs is like pitching a tent in a junk yard.

Not that RV owners lack loyalty to their choice of temporary residence. No. You are as likely to see mirror balls, lawn jockeys, cutesy wooden figures and picket fences surrounding an anchored RV as you are the regular double-wide trailer these people call their permanent home. (This is one advantage marinas have over trailer parks: it’s hard to surround your boat with this stuff.)

The ambience is largely the same but the character of the place differs.

In this particular place, signs performed the work of running the park smoothly. Signs had much to say about my behavior. They advised me I would be trespassing if I drove into the park without registering. They advised me that littering would get me thrown out, that making trouble for my neighbors would bring the sheriff, and then get me thrown out, that overloading the washing machine would bring a sinister result otherwise unspecified. They told me that vandalizing the men’s room would get me prosecuted, fined, and thrown out.

Most of the signs, scrawled on cardboard with a broad felt-tip, seemed the inspiration of a moment, suggesting a lightsome and freewheeling approach to rule making. I could not but admire the efficiency of legislation that arose impromptu, as it were, to meet the need of the hour. I resolved to try it in my own life if I could discover any conduct of mine that needed alteration.

Never camp in a commercial campground if you can do it in a state park. Or a national park. The camping there is quieter, cheaper, prettier, more interesting, and there is a notable scarcity of threatening notices nailed to trees. Also, no RV can rest there for longer than a day. If I’d driven another two miles I could have stayed in a beautiful state forest with no company but birdsong.

Next day, down to Southport, another town with plenty of free literature and a historic district. I’m going to save that for another time. I had to get back to Elizabeth City the next day, driving five hours in torrents of Labor Day traffic. The mighty Ranger continues to roll strong.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

12 Crazy Sailors

Water is an expansive element, but not so expansive that you don’t run across old shipmates once in a while. In California I re-met Josie, from the Virginia, and Emily (another seafaring Emily) from the North Wind. Last week I went only 20 miles out of my way to meet another old Virginian, Bill Ryall, who’s found the most ununsual boating job I’ve heard of.

At the Ruth Parker Marina in Tappahannock I found him, and the other 11 boys and girls now sailing the John Smith Shallop around the Chesapeake. They embarked in May, seven boys and five girls, in a 25-foot hand-made wooden boat carrying both sails and oars, on a three-month tour of Chesapeake Bay. They are re-creating the trip made by John Smith, the founding buccaneer of Jamestown, some 400 years ago. Smith put out from Jamestown in the summer of 1607 with seven other swashbucklers in a boat very much like the one Bill is now sailing, to survey as much of the bay and its tributaries as possible. The recreation voyage is attempting to retrace that voyage, with a few small variations, which produced the first reliable chart of the Chesapeake, a chart that guided captains around its beautiful and shoal-bedeviled waters for a century afterwards.

Ever loyal to his maniac impulse, Smith scoured the Bay to its limits. His expedition reached the fall line of every major tributary and many minor ones, including the Elk and Susquehanna rivers, far to the north, and never turned back until further passage became impossible. He mapped the locations of dozens of indian villages, and hundreds of natural formations.

The voyage itself never found much space in school history books, strange to say, but Ryall and crew may change that. The idea for this trip took shape at the same time something called The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail was coming up through Congress. This trail, authorized by Congress in December, 2006, will be a kind of national park laid out along Smith’s route—for what can you not designate a national park if you really want to?—and will essentially put parts of Chesapeake Bay under federal protection against all manner of inimical forces, such as development and overfishing. It will also provide a focus on “appreciation of the resources associated with Smith’s voyage,” and offer new opportunities for education, “heritage tourism” and recreation. Interpretive kiosks will line the route, along with “interactive buoys,” whereat boaters may drink of rich historical knowledge on local land and seascapes, and here presumably interaction means something other than collision.

Since May, they have rowed, sailed, or drifted along on the tide for at least eight hours a day, with very few days off, stopping in the evening for a fitful night’s rest wherever they could find a friendly wharf. They have covered as few as five miles and as many as forty miles a day. They have rowed through rain, thunderstorms, chilly dews and brutal heat, sunburn, fatigue, bodily indisposition and hunger, and kept smiling about it. They have passed out on beaches, marshes, docks and coastal woodlands, napped under clusters of bushes, slept the night in tents hastily put up near their boat, all the while keeping up a happy appearance and trying not to kill the people they live with and can’t possibly get away from. Their boat offers no shelter from the elements. They have clung fast to their brisk schedule. One or two of them look tired.

Not even this non-sailing Sunday can offer them much respite, but they must rotate through their shoreside stations, to answer questions for the visitors, staff the exhibition tent which accompanies them to every scheduled stop, wash each other’s clothes and prepare food. It’s a bright and prismatic day in Tappahannock, a cool relief from the head-breaking heat of the previous week. The Ruth Parker Marina occupies a wide strip of weedy sand between route 17 and the river, running from a gravel parking lot near the highway to a narrow beach at the waterside. The shallop rests about 15 feet off the beach, its nearness a testament to the usefulness of this craft: she draws less than two feet, and can go almost anywhere. Crew members slew her about as needed, push her further out in water barely up to their waists. Yet this 25 feet of hand-hewn timber is their home.

I try to think of questions Bill hasn’t heard yet, but he answers the one he usually hears before it’s asked.

“A bucket,” he says. “Just one bucket for everyone.”

“Boys and girls both?”

He nods. “Of course,” he says, in a Beatles-like inflection (he grew up near Liverpool), “we try not to drink too much coffee, too much of anything, before we get started.”

Friday, August 03, 2007

A Week on the Corrotoman and Rappahannock Rivers

Our last week was fantastic. It's always great to have enthusiastic adults, but to have enthusiastic kids is the best. The week started with lots of rain and we got underway late on Monday, but caught some good wind several miles downriver and rode to Deltaville on it. Tuesday the wind came strong straight out of the south, so instead of the familiar swimming hole we put her head east and set out across the Chesapeake. We got pretty far, a bit better than halfway, about 11 miles out, far enough to have nearly sunk the land behind us and just raised the land before us. I had programmed a waypoint called Bikini Island on the GPS, located somewhere near our line of travel, to keep my crew interested, but I cautioned them that only the pure of heart could see it. It's probably good they didn't take me seriously. Anyone promising real bikinis to teenage boys had better deliver.

And all this time I'm starting the Perkins with a hammer. Every time that engine had to start, I had to use the hammer. It was yer basic sollenoid failure, the telltale click at the turn of the key and then nothing. Batteries good, fuel tanks filled. No grinding, just a click. But of course anyone who's been around diesel engines knows the trick of arcing the sollenoid with a piece of metal. Just line the metal along the two critical contacts and whoosh! Sparks fly out, the air crackles with electric fire. But then the machine engages and the motor starts. For three weeks I'm doing this, pressing the head of the hammer between the two contacts. My crew is calling it the Hammer of Life, and take pictures of it. It is one severely lacerated hammer. Meanwhile, two separate shops are bloodhounding a new starter for me.

Wednesday sailed to Urbanna, our favorite port. Here the kids lit out immediately for the ice cream shop, where, being scouts, they enjoy a 10 percent discount. Some go to the pool in town where, being scouts, they get in free. A few trudge all the way to the grocery store on Virginia Street, where they buy a truly astonishing amount of sugar in the form of Hershey's cookies, Little Debbie Snack Cakes, Mountain Dew, many kinds of ice cream and of course candy bars. That's just the sugar. The salt comes in its own varieties. The parents hit the Virginia Street Cafe and struggle heroically not to order a dozen cold ones. At night, a funny movie in the air conditioned captain's lounge.

Thursday, we arrive at Yankee Point Marina on the north side of the Corrotoman River, a tributary of the Rappahannock--and my starter has arrived before me! Another movie at night and all our remaining food for dinner: chicken, pork chops, peas and carrots, flour tortillas, steak strips, shredded cheese--anything we can't save till next week, which is almost everything. Friday morning after Brian installs the starter we can't resist starting the engine several times just for the joy of it. Everyone agrees the new starter speaks in an earnest and confident tone.

But we only need to use it twice. Once to get us off the dock and then again to put us into the slip at Bayport. Between those two uses we sail, we sail, mostly with the spinnaker, mile upon mile, the great sail billowing colorfully overhead and the Morgan chasing after it like love itself, the scouts taking turns flying behind us on the water by hanging on to the swim ladder. One of the scouts loses his shorts to the rushing water--I warned them--but manages to keep on his boxers. We sail 10 miles to Bayport and then a good two miles beyond, making the day last as long as we can.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Boy Scout Navy

This makes my fourth summer—if I survive it—of working for the Boy Scouts of America, in the capacity of Sea Captain.

They don’t call the job Sea Captain. But the scouts who arrive at this program—their special-issue duffel bags stuffed with a week of clothing, sunblock, batteries, postage stamps for postcards, iPods (actually forbidden), DVD players (really vehemently forbidden), rain ponchos, flashlights, matches, water purifying tablets, science fiction novels, mosquito netting, sunglasses, miniature sewing kits, pocket knives and emergency flare kits—expect something very nautical and adventurous from the experience they are about to receive.

Maybe they get it. Usually some adults come with the kids—scout leaders and their assistants, adult staff, parents—and these also look forward to a seafaring time, full of complicated knots, salt spray, whaling yarns and the lore of boats. I usually start them out learning how to coil and cleat lines, crank a winch and use the toilet, an activity only faintly related to the similar practice onshore. During a later lesson they learn how to throw up over the side (always the leeward side, try to aim slightly upward.) Then they learn how to bucket off the deck with seawater. These early lessons take on a tediously practical character, though necessary.

I explain the importance of cleaning up, of closing bags, of collecting all crumbs of potato chips. I do this mostly to amuse myself: at the end of the first day, a riot would look more orderly than our boat.

I used to say all adolescent boys should be put on a boat and aimed out to sea; I never expected to be on the boat with them. But these kids have proven time and again to be thoughtful, awake and curious—most of them—the sorts of boys anybody would like as a son, and for a week they are mine. Included in the lot of big, helpful, always prepared young men is the occasional eccentric, and these are my favorites. We had the guy last year—long blonde hair, granny glasses--who insisted on wearing a kilt during most of the week. This he complimented with a pirate’s plastic sword and tricorn hat he bought in Yorktown, and swaggered up and down the river walk there with his entourage, to the great amusement of the local girls. There was the young man two years back who had made a remarkable number of fashion accessories including a wallet out of duct tape, and who, out of all the adults and boys there, was the only one to laugh at my less-obvious jokes.

The people I work with—another interesting group. The first pair I sailed with, a captain and mate, could not be persuaded to rise from their bunks before 10, which put us on the water from about 11 to 4, long enough to catch the ferocious thunderstorms that were numerous that year. They spent the summer naked but for their baggy Hawaiian swim trunks and never even packed their official CHASE shirts. Their presence echoed with waving palm trees and a crisping lilt of surf, and it was impossible to be near them and not relax.

Two years ago there was the mate who, after the program ended, persuaded one of his 16-year-old Venture Scout girls to join a voyage of his own boat for some near coastal cruising. At least, they were near the coast when the Coast Guard caught up with them. The girl had explained the trip to her parents as a kind of extension of our program and then disappeared completely from phone contact. The Council assured her parents the program had definitely ended, and the girl took on a status of national significance as helicopters went searching. They found her alive and well, as the whole crew of them were, sailing happily down the coast of South Carolina. They had managed to run through Oregon Inlet above Cape Hatteras on an outgoing tide, a treacherous bit of navigation in the best of circumstances, at night. Oh, yes, and without a working motor. I knew this young man to be a very good sailor. If he ever acquires some judgement he’ll be great.

More in a bit.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

In the Land of the Lucky

NO ONE should come to Los Angeles unless he is willing to be lucky.

Probably the most interesting thing about creative Los Angeles—Hollywood, let us call it, the collective manufactory of illusion spread among the hills of southern California--is indifference to its own celebrity.

Popular culture has been remarkably unexalting of the place. It has failed to exalt itself. Nowhere do we hear of Los Angeles the toddlin’ town, or wish to give our regards to Sepulveda Boulevard. In no nursery rhymes do children learn of the Thomas Vincent Bridge falling down. No lines form to see the changing of the guard at the mayor’s residence.

Nowhere is sung the pride of Los Angeles the city, perhaps because the city is not pretty, this sprawl of development larger than the Republic of Ireland, spread across foothills of sandy rock. The attitude of most Angelinos seems to be one of apology--for the smog, the traffic, the odd characters who populate its streets, the ubiquity of fabricated plastic.
Los Angeles is uncomfortable with scrutiny from the learned states of the east. Meanwhile its work has changed the world.

Since 2005 the global entertainment and media industry has grown at the rate of about 7.3 percent a year. By 2009, this uber-factory of songs, movies, television, video games and advertising is expected to produce revenues of nearly $2 trillion. The death of movies foretold so many times has proven unprophetic to the utmost. Online distribution of games, movies, music, and entertainment objects of vague definition has put rockets on the entertainment market.

The worldwide appetite for online entertainment services--Internet TV, video on demand, music downloads, games, gambling and adult entertainment--will reach $36 billion in 2009, a three-fold increase over this year. Most of this increase in production will take place in Los Angeles.
But the city is simply too busy grinding out product to trumpet its importance. You can see the evidence everywhere.

Directly across from our berth in San Pedro is a warehouse with one of its ends blown off. You’ll see how it got blown off when you watch the last Schwarzenegger movie. Just down the channel, Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl broods darkly among the container ships, a pirate ship that looks like a pirate ship only in a general way: Actual workmen built the ship from the keel to the crosstrees and digital imagery supplied everything above that.

Two of our maintenance days aboard Exy were disturbed by teams of men rappelling from helicopters above a nearby wharf. In the climactic scene of the next Die Hard, look for bewildered figures on the tall ship in the background, their paint brushes arrested in mid stroke.

The place abides in ambiguous reality. It’s strange to realize that, as you watch Chaplin’s Great Dictator frothing and raving and climbing his arras, traffic was proceeding normally on La Brea Avenue 200 feet away.

Non self aggrandizing it may be, but the cultural references point to California more frequently than anywhere else on earth. It never rains in Southern California, so do you know the way to San Jose? Are you a Valley Girl or a little old lady from Pasadena? Is there a free wind blowing through your hair on Ventura Boulevard? Are you on the side of L.A. Law or L.A. Confidential?

You know the names of Oxnard, Beverly Hills and Long Beach, but can you point them out quickly on a map? Those places have very real substance. You can get in a car and drive from one of them to another.

All this I learned when Elaine, Exy Johnson’s new mate, took me on a drive through town in her very un-Californian beat-up Toyota. Together we visited some of the places in Los Angeles that live in the collective imagination of the world.

Such as the Chaplin studios at 1416 La Brea Avenue. Just a few blocks parallel from Hollywood Boulevard and about a half mile from Hollywood and Vine (a corner, by the way, now devoid of all commercial life), the Chaplin Studios enrich about half a block with little buildings in the semblance of an English Village, all of them fronting the 10,000 square-foot sound stage.

Chaplin built this complex on land recently cleared of orange groves in 1917, and it remained his headquarters until he left the country in 1953. It housed the making of most of Chaplin’s great films, including two of my favorites, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. About 10 years ago Jim Henson’s company bought it, which explains the figure of Kermit the Frog dressed as The Little Tramp on one of the gateposts. It was also the headquarters of A & M Records and—but you can easily find a list of the great things that happened there at

We stop long enough at the building to perform the obligatory tourist motions—press face against gate, speak disarmingly to the guard, shoot pictures through gate, back away slowly. Elaine is happy to be doing something very Hollywood-focused that she wouldn’t do without someone to guide.

Elaine came to sailing ships by way of the theater arts and a brief stopover in office work. A stage rigger by trade, Elaine got into tall ships as relief from a busted romance and an employer who playfully held a loaded pistol to her head. This man was—still is—a giant in the movie animation world. When he put the gun to her head and asked who would possibly miss her if he pulled the trigger, Elaine beheld a change of career in prospect. Coming to Los Angeles was her first retreat from reality, she says. After the gun incident, she leaped the second: sailing aboard tall ships. The third she can’t yet foresee. But she lives in the right place to find it. What E. B. White said of luck and New York goes double for Los Angeles.

Our next stop: Hollywood Boulevard, so famous now as to be the very symbol of fame—also a necessary check on the tourist checklist. We park the car a block from the street and somehow it’s still amusing to realize you can reach this place by car rather than a puff of magic fairy dust. A few short steps and our feet are planted on the very substance of celebrity: The Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

Actually, our feet are planted on the names of luminaries both living and dead. Bernadette Peters is the first famous person we step on, followed by Dolly Parton, Diana Ross, Mack Sennett, Sylvester Stallone and Bob Barker. Every few feet another great name interrupts the pavement— Gloria Swanson, Bud Abbott, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Olivia De Haviland, Ray Bolger, Judy Garland—along with a symbol indicating the field of greatness in question—motion pictures, television, recording, live theater and performance, radio.

Fame comes in more flavors than even the entertainment business can encompass--unless Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong count as popular entertainers. They have stars for being famous on TV.

The arbitrary sequence of names tends to conflate disparate brands and wattages of fame. Thus Arsenio Hall resides next to Marilyn Monroe, and John Lennon beside Mae West.

It’s possible some archiving system may soon be needed for the famous who have become, well, less famous: Mabel Normand? Dale Robertson? Sons of the Pioneers? Some stars seem to require an explanation why they should be there in the first place. I’m thinking here of Buck Owen.

Given our current rate of celebrity production—this year some 23 names will achieve immortality, including Michael Caine, Michelle Pfeiffer, Erik Estrada, Barbara Walters, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Lily Tomlin—the Walk will need to be extended up to and over the Hollywood hills.

The commerce along Hollywood Boulevard runs to the slinky lingerie and team-logoed sportswear end of the spectrum, the shops mostly small, the whole tone of the retail environment inclining a few degrees to the seedy. But they suit the local market. Every city has its freak street, the place where the dispossessed and outlandish go to flaunt their defiance. Most of these streets in America contain kids saturated with piercings and tattoos. In Hollywood it contains grown men dressed as Wookies. These characters lurk in front of the Kodak Theater, scene of so many Academy Awards ceremonies, and sidle up to passers-by and attempt to have their picture taken, after which comes the bite for a couple bucks. We walk briskly past them.

From Hollywood Boulevard it’s a short drive—in fact it’s only a moderate walk, but let’s take the car—to a close view of one of the world’s best-known images, the Hollywood Sign on the shoulder of Mt. Cahuenga.

Built for $21,000 as an advertisement, the nine letters of the sign stand 30 feet wide and 50 feet tall, built of metal scaffolding, wires and utility poles. It originally read Hollywoodland, the full name of the housing development beneath it. It also originally enlivened the California night with a three-part blinking sequence, HOLLY, WOOD, LAND. The builders planned to take it down after a year and a half. But fortune intervened.

We wanted to hike up behind the letters on one of the trails of the state park that now houses the sign. But then we realized the park closed in half an hour.

“They’re really just aluminum siding anyway,” Elaine says.

However, we manage to drive close. Nearing the sign, ever nearer, on Beachwood Drive, which offers the closest approach, you can’t help but feel the power of it: the cynosure of billions, this beacon ablaze with promise. Give me your dreamy, your ambitious, your workday routine yearning to race across the sky. Its greatness rays filter down through the trees and lay a cover of stardust perhaps an inch thick.

Somehow just looking at it doesn’t satisfy the urge to know it, understand it, dwell with it. You need to keep watch over it constantly. I suggest using some of security cameras feeding to the web,

As we shift through the streets, another strange and unexpected thing appears in our windshield, this one what you might call secretly famous: the original Hollywoodland Realty Office, at 2700 North Beachwood Drive.

The little building sits enshaded among old trees and resembles, like the Chaplin buildings, an English country cottage, though the developers aimed at a more generalized quaint European village look. Built in 1923, the building anchored the development effort of the Hollywoodland tract, a 500-acre subdivision to be built on a former ranch. It was the reason the Hollywood sign was built.

Most of the houses from the original development are still here. And they have housed their share of celebrities—scarcely a location in Los Angeles hasn’t, including a great many alleys and the overturned lifeguard boats on Manhattan Beach. Some recognizable names among Hollywoodland residents: Doris Day, Lowell Thomas, Bela Lugosi, Melissa Manchester, Bugsy Siegel, Vincent Price, Connie Selleca, Peter Tork, Stan Kenton and Aldous Huxley. Oh yes, Madonna also lived here before she became a security risk.

We’re spending daylight in vast amounts. I make one last request: I want to see a beach. We head for Santa Monica.

Santa Monica really throbs on the several streets closest to the beach—the beach which seems to exist only as an ornament: I have yet to see crowds on any beach in Los Angeles. Citizens of the walk stroll and sport among the more elegant and “exclusive” shops of the town—not a tattoo or lingerie joint in sight. A pedestrian-only street, one of the few I’ve seen not killed outright by the exclusion of automobiles, contains street entertainers in plenty (yearly permit: $25), and people I could easily imagine to be film or music VIP’s now enjoying sport-shirt time with the family. Most of these people look rich and relaxed, even the kids.

Our walk takes us from one end of the street to another, passing gymnasts, comics, miscellaneous entertaining persons and, finally, dancers. Except these are not performers dancing for an audience. These are the pedestrians of the street pulled into several circles featuring a different style of dance in each: bossa nova, ballroom, freelance jazz. A set of music ends and another begins, and the dancing style changes to merengue, waltz and fandango. Twilight is falling and Santa Monica is dancing.

It’s this image that sticks in memory as the daylight finally drains away and the almost brighter lights of the storefronts take over. Elaine and I choose a restaurant on the strength of a tall ship pictured on its menu, and settle in to a single beer each. Tomorrow we go back to work on our tall ship, our small bit of fantasy in this town devoted completely to it.