Thursday, July 08, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #2: Of Minoans and Mormons

The need for flexibility on my recent trip became all too apparent before I ever even left Texas. My flight plan was to fly from DFW to JFK, with an easy 2-hour layover before going on to Istanbul. Bad weather that morning in New York caused the air traffic controllers to delay incoming flights from all over the county. Under clear blue skies, my flight out of Dallas was delayed 2 hours. Inexplicably, my out-going flight from JFK left right on time. And so, my arrival in Istanbul had to be delayed a day. This turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events.

As a consequence, I spent the first night away from home in a Comfort Inn on edge of the Ozone Park area of Queens, NY. My only exposure to this borough has been from the backseat of a cab while riding from one of the airports into Manhattan, so I looked forward to doing a bit of exploring.

But more importantly, this provided opportunity to become acquainted with 2 other stranded travelers being shuttled out to the Comfort Inn. One was a Mr. Chi, a 70ish Chinese-American from Buffalo, returning from a 12-day European trip. His wife was now mobility-impaired, and so his occasional trips were now made solo. Although Mr. Chi was anxious to return home to her, he seemed nonplussed by this delay in his final leg of the journey. The other traveler was a fellow Texan, an easy-going lady a few years older than myself that I will call Deb. She had already experienced her second missed flight, being delayed a day flying out of Texas. Deb was on her way to Greece, where she planned to pursue research on the ancient Minoan civilization. She and her husband operated a bed-and-breakfast in a popular Texas watering hole. Having no consuming interest in the Minoans, he was more than happy to stay home and mind the store. I was struck by our similarities--3 married travelers, all journeying alone. But more to the point, none of us were complaining, or seemed the least bit put-out by our predicament. Those who submit to being transported in metal tubes hurtling 500+ miles per hour over 6 miles above the earth's surface must ultimately realize how really not in control they are of any part of the process. Delays and diversions are to be expected. Complaining about it seems juvenile. The manner in which this is dealt with, as much as anything, separates a traveler from a tourist. I saw a prayer and cross myself whenever the wheels leave or touch the tarmac, and do not worry about any of the rest of it.

There were still a couple of hours of daylight after I checked into the motel, so I set out to explore a bit of Ozone Park. A major thoroughfare cut through the district, with convenience stores, pawn shops, Italian deli/groceries, lotto stores, pizza joints and car-repair establishments strung-out along either side. But a half a block off the busy street, the area quickly resorted to solidly residential on each side. Neighborhoods, and by this I mean real ones, fascinate me. This was an Italian-American enclave right out of central casting. The homes were high and narrow--one-room wide, 2 floors above a basement, with dormers hinting at something of an attic. The lots themselves were no wider than 25', with room for one car to maneuver between the homes before angling into a rear garage. Each house had a little spit of a yard in front. With some, this area was completely concreted-in, with table and chairs. Others covered this area in plantings--hydrangeas, roses, peonies and day lillies. Many had statues of the Virgin or of St. Joseph. Others were more creative--plastic geese in luau gear, complete with an Italian flag.

What was readily apparent was that these front stoops allowed for an expression of individuality in what is an otherwise uniform block of homes. More importantly, this was where families gathered in the late afternoon after work, and where neighbors interacted with one another. A local corner grocery lay on the next block, as did the barbershop, and Aldo's Pizzeria transitioned into the larger business district. The streets were not crammed with automobiles, but with people actually walking here and there. It would be easy for me to romanticize this scenario. Deb told of her conversation with a sales clerk in the local Verizon store. He talked of how hard it was to make a living there, and how he could only dream of living in a place like Texas. My nephew lives in a ranch-style brick home in a leafy 1970s subdivision in Tyler, Texas. His is a wide lot with a board fence enclosing the back yard and pool area. He has lived there almost 2 years now, and does not know a single one of his neighbors. I could live here (Ozone Park.) I could not live there, like that. I am fortunate to live in one of those real neighborhoods, with a mix of housing and a web of connectiveness extending 3 blocks (There are exceptions, of course, even in old neighborhoods like ours....

Passage removed by author 9/20/2010

) The goal for many in my part of the world is to buy 5 or 10 acres of land and build on the back side of the acreage so has to have as little contact with neighbors as possible. I could have don this on our farm, but have never been tempted to do so. I love my neighborhood.

But enough of that, and back to Queens. For supper, I checked out Aldo's joint. And this is as good a place as any to comment on my faithfulness to the Apostle's Fast during the course of my travels. One might charitably characterize it as "sporadic." Enough said. Aldo's was a local Italian eatery with a clientele that looked straight out of Mickey Blue Eyes, the Sopranos, or even worse, Jersey Shore ( As our President likes to say, let me be clear--I have never watched an episode of Jersey Shore. But I am an aficionado of Morning Joe, in which Willie Geist occasionally teases prissy co-host Mika Brzezinski with clips from this, the most godawful of reality shows.) Sitting back in Aldo's, listening to the locals was a delight, far better than anything I would have experienced had I made my flight.

The next day, we all arrived at JFK hours in advance, just in case. Deb and I left from nearby gates, which gave us considerable time to talk beforehand. While I knew the general outlines of the Minoan civilization, my knowledge scarcely extended beyond the superficial. I remembered them to be a trading and sea-faring people, and if their artistry is to be believed, an incredibly beautiful race. Deb enlightened me beyond that, in that there was no great disparity in living standards among the Minoans, that they were probably a matrilineal society, and were not at all warlike. After their sudden disappeance (either from volcanic activity or Mycenean attack), Greek civilization did not reach their levels for nearly a 1,000 years.

The discovery of the ruins of a Minoan ship (3 times the size of Columbus') led to a wide-ranging discussion about the extent of their trading forays. Before long we were talking about inscriptions found in the Indian mounds of Illinois, the ancient copper mines of Kitchi-Gummi, and (thanks to Milton), the transition from Minoan bull-jumping to eastern Iberian bull-jumping to bull blood-drinking cults of northern Mexico as described in J. Frank Dobie's classic Tongues of the Monte. Typical conversational fare, I would say, for a couple of shade tree historians. Deb is writing an historical novel about the Minoans. While she has the historical back story down pat, she was a little concerned about character and plot development, etc. I suggested she contact the aforementioned Milton, who knows about such things.

An off-handed comment by me, led our conversation into a completely different area. I was asking about any DNA studies that might suggest their connection to other, and later Mediterranean populations. Even though it is one of those "science things," and I try to avoid science at all costs, I do know a bit about DNA. (I have contributed samples to our family DNA group. In doing so, I have discovered that, despite all the Scottish clan hype and marketing, I am no more related to most others of my relatively uncommon Scots surname than any other person one might happen to meet on the street. And "our" group can be pinpointed to southeastern Scotland, on the border between Berwickshire and Northumbria, which side of the border probably depending upon which county they were not wanted in at the time.) I made the comment that advances in DNA science had demolished the old Mormon claim of American Indians being descended from the Israelites of old. Of course, the church hierarchy is changing the narrative now, claiming that only some of the American Indians were so-descended--the ones that are now conveniently extinct. Deb then confided to me that she had been a faithful Mormon wife for 19 years. She had not been raised such, but her first husband was something like 5th-generation. They had 4 children together, all raised in that religion. Deb reached a point where she could not take it anymore, and simply left the Mormons. Divorce, shunning, ostracism and estrangement from her family followed in quick suite. Over the years, however, each of her children has also left Mormonism and has returned to her. The first was her youngest son. She met him right after his 2-year compulsory missionary service. Deb maintained that many of these young missionaries came back severely emotionally damaged. She went away with her son for 2 weeks and, in effect, deprogrammed him. The last of her children finally left last year, in wake of revelations coming out of the Warren Jeffs debacle. She wrote a book about her experience, but never published it out of deference to this last remaining son in Mormonism. I encouraged her to publish, and she may do so, if only online. All of her scattered children and 10 grandchildren were home with her for the Christmas holidays, and she expressed great thankfulness that not one of the grandchildren will grow up in the cult (her words, not mine.)

And so, we wished each other safe travels and boarded our respective flights. I am confident our paths will cross again. My wife and I enjoy visiting to bed-and-breakfasts, and I am sure I will have additional questions about the Minoans by then.


Ranger said...

I am so glad, you are not a tourist, your travels are enlightening and in my mind what exploration and life in general is all about.
I thought it was interesting that people made a fuss about Mit Romney stating: "I saw my Father march with Martin Luther King." when in fact he couldn't have because it didn't happen. But noone in the media could dare make a fuss about Romney's Church founder being visited by an amgel named Moroni and the even more ridiculous claims made since the founding of Mormonism.
"Mormons, making stuff up since 1830"

Kirk said...

John, I'm really going to enjoy this series. Would you consider taking me along on one of these trips?

With regard to your fair city, don't you live near the Cactus Speedway? I doubt the Minoans had anything that would compare.

It is interesting that you should mention the followers of Joseph Smith. I admitted earlier today to having a deep-seated prejudice against that group. Scientology has more basis in fact, methinks. Every time I see one of their stakehouses I grit my teeth and growl, "Errrggghhh....Mormons!"

Milton T. Burton said...

Kirk, read about the Mountain Meadows Massacre some time.

And John, thanks for the complements. The Dobie book is great for anyone wanting to read about a truly different culture, "so close, yet so far away."

Becky said...

I can't believe you ended up in Queens - oh, what I wouldn't give to have eaten that meal with you. I was born in Queens (Jackson Heights) and we lived there until I was six. In the early 70's it was still pretty safe. We were very neighborly with everyone in our apartment building. Walking up and down streets of those tight row houses is one of my earliest memories.

John said...

Ranger, Kirk and Milton--yeah, I'm pretty much of the same mind as y'all are. John Cardinal Newman has that great line that I use a lot--"to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." Well, even to be "shallow" in history is to cease to be a Mormon. Their narrative and texts are absurdly ahistorical. Of course, in their push for acceptance into mainstream Christianity, much of this is now soft-pedaled, or at least at first. But there is no way you can extract all the craziness from Mormonism, its too tightly wound into all of their beliefs. The funny thing is that I have found them to be some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet. For those that don't know, the last picture is a clip from a South Park episode that absolutely demolishes the Mormon "founding story." The first clip can be found here:

In the past, some of the links were tampered with so that you would be redirected to an official LDS site. So, watch out for that.

Oh, and Kirk, I would love to have you accompany me on one of these trips (or anyone else who posts here, for that matter.) I am, at heart, a wannabe tour guide.

The simple meal I had at Aldo's was wonderful, to be sure, but half the enjoyment was the local atmosphere--something that just couldn't be replicated in our neck of the woods!

Kirk said...

Milton, I am aware of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I suppose that the moral to that story is that you should watch out before you mess with Mormons. No telling what they are capable of when their kooky beliefs are threatened.

Ian Climacus said...

For 5 or so minutes I was transported out of a grey Sydney afternoon to Queens, NY; thank you John. And what a blessing to meet such wonderful fellow travellers.

Living in a very mixed area, with many from Italian, Iraqi, South-American and SE Asian backgrounds, the houses here are wonderfully mixed and individuality is clear to see in the front yards. It was not until someone from another area in Sydney visited and pointed it all out that I realised it was rather unique.

My prayers for Deb and her family, and for all who find themselves emotionally damaged by such 'religions'.

Anonymous said...

I bet few of you have read the Book of Mormon. Give it a try.

Kirk said...

I've read it.

John said...

I've read it as well--though the thing is well-nigh unreadable.