Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Son of a Storyteller

I come from a long line of storytellers  I enjoy listening to a good tale, and have some decent stories to pass along myself, if I do say so.  Of course, I have few opportunities to tell anyone around here, as the folks around here are only interested in hearing stories about, well, people around here.  I believe this is what the dictionary would describe as provincialism.  I should not complain, however, for it is only a minor annoyance and given everything else that is going on these days, it hardly qualifies as a real problem.  I do not do nostalgia or cheap sentimentality and so resort to listening mode here in my small town.  But get me around my friends; or better yet, my cousins, and the stories will fly. 

I was talking to my son this morning, hearing the latest goings-on in what might be called Tbilisi cafĂ© society.  Living as an expat in a foreign capital is not without its adventures, apparently.  But we also discussed the implications of the recent death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.  John wondered how things might have been different if the Hashemites had not been given the shaft by Wilson et al at the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles.  I warmed to this subject, as one of my favorite themes of historical discourse is that most global problems of the twentieth century can be traced back, one way or the other, to Woodrow Wilson.  (And the fact that George W. Bush's foreign policy was often characterized as "Wilsonian" offers a key insight into my animus towards his administration.)

Then John made some offhand remark about the time our Uncle Bill met the king.  I said "What?"  He replied, "you know, the time he met the King of Saudi Arabia."  No, I did not know.  As a 17-year old, my Uncle Bill dropped out of school, hopped a freight train to California and joined the Coast Guard, this being his ticket out of Depression-era Texas.  When the war came, he joined up with the Navy and served 26 years, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer.  He really did see the world during that time, circumnavigating the globe three times.  He had tons of stories, and I liked nothing better than sharing a pot of coffee with him and listening to them roll out.  I had a keen ear for his stories about growing up in central Texas.  The Navy tales, however, ran together in my hearing.  As much as I enjoy hearing of other lands, I did not have an overriding interest in sailing or the sea.

Uncle Bill kept a lot of memorabilia from those days, and I guess I looked through all the pictures at least a half a dozen times through the years.  Yes, I do recall there being one snapshot taken on the ship where Bill and two or three other sailors were relaxing on deck.  One of the men had a monkey on his shoulder.  My son remembered Uncle Bill showing him the same picture, but he thought to ask the obvious question that only a child would know to ask, namely: "Where did the monkey come from?"  To which Uncle Bill replied, "the King gave it to us."  I remember that Uncle Bill spent a lot of time in the Persian Gulf area, and had visited Saudi Arabia more than once.  I'm not exactly sure of the date, so it could have been either Ibn Saud or Saud, but apparently the king had an extra monkey to offer to the crew.

John has a much more precise and exacting memory than I do.  I am pleased (and proud) to realize that he has been there all along, listening, and perhaps salvaging some of the stories I let slip through the cracks.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Charcoaled Samaritans of Gabrovo

I am leisurely reading through Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful posthumously-published A Broken Road.  By early autumn 1934, the nineteen-year old had hiked as far as Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where he lingered in good company.  From there, he pushed north, across the “Valley of the Roses,” up into the Shipka Pass through the Stara Planina range, and down the other side to Gabrovo and then Turnovo.  With a pound note in his pocket, the youth anticipated a £5 replenishment awaiting him at the post office of the latter city.

Fermor stopped at the Shipka Monastery—home to a grandiose, if a bit garish Russian-built church.  He listened to the stories spun by the White Russian refugees residing there, wistfully yearning for the Romanov restoration that never was to come.  A melancholy mood enveloped Paddy as he pushed on alone from Shipka.  Few carts were on the road, and no farmsteads were in view.  The darkening shadows of night were approaching, and a biting wind whistled through the pass.  To top it all off, a nail had worked its way through the sole of his boot, bloodying his toe and making each step a painful endeavor.

A cart with two elderly men pulled alongside Fermor.  He waved them to stop and explained his predicament in halting Bulgaria.  The grinning driver made the universal symbol of avarice—rubbing his thumb and forefinger together—and asked him how much money he had on him.  The youth, thinking this a jest, responded with an incredible figure and then made an effort to alight the cart.  He was astonished when the driver prevented his entry, then cracked his whip and disappeared into the darkness ahead.  A similar scenario played out with the next cart that drew alongside Fermor.  The young adventurer was astonished.  Never in his hike across Europe had he encountered such inhospitality. 

A few miles farther on, Fermor spied a farmhouse near the road, with a small light inside.  He went to the door and knocked, explaining his situation to those inside.  His plea went unanswered, except for muffled whispering behind the door, followed by the blowing-out of the lamp.  Dejected, Paddy limped on down the road, swearing at his fate, “blinded with tears of fury and frustration.”  He wondered “what passion of xenophobia, predatoriness or timidity lurked in this horrible mountain range?”  His fortunes, however, soon took a turn.

After an hour’s tormenting crawl through the windy moonlight, I spied a gleam of light in a wide hollow to the left of the road.  The wind dropped as my track, sinking below the trajectory of its flight, dipped into a quiet dell full of beech trees.  At the end, on the edge of the spinney, tall dark pyres smouldered and an aromatic tang of woodsmoke hung in the air.  Light radiated from the doorway of a hut.  It was cleverly woven of branches, a leafy cave, and inside it, three satanic figures, their rags showing a dusty black by the light of an oil dip, were sitting cross-legged on a carpet of leaves and playing cards with an upturned sieve for a table.  They were charcoal burners.  How different was the welcome here!  All three leapt up, led me to a place in their midst, helped me off with my blood-filled boot, washed the damaged foot with slivovitz and wrapped it in a clean handkerchief, then plied me with slivo for internal use and then with bread and cheese.  Finally, after commiserating over my reverses, they made me a leaf-bed of freshly cut branches and bade me goodnight, as they rolled over to sleep.

            Fermor watched during the night, as his benefactors would check on their pyres, stoking and then damping down “their three great smoldering cones.”  In the morning, one of the men cleverly managed to hammer down the offending nail in the boot sole.  The three men quickly went about their work, cutting and trimming trees before adding them to the charcoal-producing pyres.  As the charcoal burners scrambled up and down the pyres, poking the fires, Fermor noted that his “black benefactors bore the aspect of stokers in hell.”  After a while, Fermor waved goodbye to his Samaritans and climbed back up to the road, “and after a long way of unwinding downhill, reached Gabrovo.”

            Of these lowly charcoal burners, I would say that of such is the citizenship of Heaven.


Thursday, January 08, 2015


In 1969 or so, I got a glimpse of the Big Bend country of Texas, stretched-out in the back of my sister’s little Pontiac station wagon, wedged in between the luggage, picnic supplies and my niece and nephew.  Ever since then, I’ve wanted to return and do it right. 

Forty-five years later, I made good on that resolution.  I recently spent two nights in Marathon, a quiet, low-key place of some 400 souls, located 54 miles southwest of Fort Stockton, 32 miles east of Alpine, and 108 miles north of Terlingua—with nothing in-between any of those destinations. 

This is what people who have never been to Texas think the state looks like.  The topography is certainly breath-taking:  low-lying mountains as a backdrop, with broad fertile basins between—home to real ranches and their vaqueros.  And at night, well, the sky is bright with stars, undimmed by any lights from below, just like that old song says, “the stars at night, are big and bright…”  While I could easily romanticize the region, I also realize how hard it would be to make a living in this rugged locale.  While no doubt some fortunes were augmented, I doubt if any were actually made here.

Edna Ferber’s Giant did as much as anything to lock-in a certain stereotype of Texas and Texans.  In fact, this is in the heart of Giant country—the movie was filmed in the next basin over, on the other side of the Alpine pass.  Marathon itself has something of the mystique of that particular movie.  Alfred Gage, a Vermont-born entrepreneur, founded the town and named it Marathon after a description he had read of the original Greek site.  The town became the headquarters for his ranching operation.  The historical marker said that his ranch encompassed 600 sections.  A section contains 640 acres.  You can do the math.  Gage later went on to San Antonio, where he made his real money—in banking, of course.  He would return to the ranch, however, and in the mid 1920s constructed what is now the Gage Hotel to serve as his residence and ranch headquarters. 

From a commercial standpoint, the hotel is the town.  Take away the hotel, its restaurant, the bar and the small cluster of businesses absolutely dependent on the Gage’s clientele, and there would be no real reason to even slow down while passing through Marathon.  I liked the vibe of the hotel—all done out in 1920s Texas cattle baron grand. 

I have a bad habit of noticing small things and drawing perhaps too large implications from them.  I took breakfast both mornings at Johnny B’s, a small hole-in-the-wall eatery next door:   a simple establishment consisting of six barstools and four tables.   Arriving before sunrise, I was the only Anglo there, joining the cook and two tables of Hispanic cowboys—the real kind, not like those from where I'm from.  What caught my notice was that they had all taken off their hats inside, as gentlemen used to be taught to do.  As I slurped on the coffee and waited on my pancakes and bacon, I realized that I was dining with a classier clientele than most anyplace I would otherwise frequent these days.   

The Gage Hotel is always quiet.  They have no televisions, and consequently weed-out those guests who cannot live without them.  My upstairs room was located on the front of the hotel, facing the railroad tracks across the highway.   After a while, you become accustomed to the occasional plaintive whistle in the night, followed by the rumbling of the tracks as the trains whiz by.  The first night, I heard a train whistle approaching from the west.  I pulled the shutters back, and then raised the window and peered into the darkness outside, as the train's headlight approached Marathon.  This was no ordinary train, however, but the Sunset Limited, carrying passengers from Los Angeles on to New Orleans.  The sleeper cars and the dining car were all alight.  I briefly wondered about these passengers lumbering across West Texas in the night.  And I was reminded of the passage I quoted previously from The Broken Road—of Paddy Fermor hiking across the Rumelian plateau in 1934, stopping to wave at the passengers aboard the Orient Express as it hurried along on its way to Constantinople.  My experience  is not exactly that, but in this diminished age in which we live, it will have to suffice.        


Thursday, January 01, 2015

History in smithereens

Patrick Leigh Fermor At Rila Monastery, 1934


Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor is a good way to start off the new year. Fermor wrote about many things, but his fame stems from his account of a 1933-1934 hike across Europe. He intended a trilogy, and the first two volumes appeared decades ago. Severe writer's block descended on the prospective third volume, however, and Paddy Fermor was still revising his notes two weeks before his death at age 96.  The literary executors proceeded to decipher his legendary unintelligible handwriting and publish the third volume, The Broken Road:  From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, in 2013.  I purchased the book as soon as it was available in England, some months before being on sale in American bookstores.  For a number of reasons, I am only just now really starting to read it.

The account picks up with Fermor leaving the Danube at Vdin and entering Bulgaria, a country of particular and enduring interest to me.  Though hardly over a chapter into the book, I am already highlighting passages.

For historical context, there is this (on the road east out of Sofia):

This as far as history records is the great path from Europe to the Levant: the road to Constantinople and the gates of Asia.  It is the track of a hundred armies and the itinerary of those wonderful caravans from Ragusa that joggled their way to the Black Sea and Anatolia, just as their huge argosies of merchandise--when only Venice surpassed the little walled republic in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  Here, too, the Bulgarian inhabitants were at their most defenceless during the long night of subjection to Turkey.  The Ottoman 'beglerbeg' or viceroy of the Balkans, ranked as a three-tailed pasha, had his court and his garrison at Sofia, and between here and the capital, the Bulgars were powerless; the faintess stirrings would unloose a whirlwind of janissaries and spahis and later on, and perhaps the worst, bashi-bazouks.  They adorned the towns with avenues of gibbets, the burnt villages with pyramids of heads and the roadsides with impaled corpses.  I think it is an Arabian proverb which says, 'Where the Ottoman hoof has struck, the grass never grows again': and it is true that their occupation of the Balkans--in Bulgaria it started before the Wars of the Roses and ended after the Franco-Prussian War--has left desolation behind it.  Everything is still impoverished and haphazard, and history in smithereens.  The Turks were the last but one of the Oriental barbarians to cast their blight over Eastern Europe.

For a taste of pre-Hitlerian Europe, there is this (while walking east as the Orient Expresss passed by):

The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed.  The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs.  I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer.  I wondered who the passengers were--they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople.  The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms' manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau.

Simply put, the man could write!