JULY 4 ~ SPARHAWK’S 1976 BROOKLYN MEMORY


 I Remember Brooklyn. And My Son.  And The Tall Ships. JULY 4 ~1976 ~America’s 200th Birthday.billofrightstallship

I haven’t written this out before and I can’t figure why it suddenly popped back into my mind with such clarity except that it was one sure memorable Fourth of July.

It’s been a lot of years since 1976. Thirty-nine years. If I whirl into the past to that time (for that is the sensation: one of rapid flight through a huge and disorderly picture book) a frenzy shapes it all, that desperado overlord of young motherhood in Brooklyn demanding more of a day than could possibly be managed. Reflecting back on that, I may excuse myself for being out on a major roadway, late afternoon, Fourth of July in a crowded New York borough without having thought what on earth I was thinking to have done something so dumb. If any New Yorker had not left town in July they had certainly left the house by now to follow the siren song to terrific holiday fun. Well, my answer is simple. I usually did what had to be done without evaluating the consequences. I had gone out for the money. Now heading back to the neighborhood after a long day in Coney Island, my little boy in tow. I’d taken him with me so I could get sign painting jobs without having to hire a babysitter. It’s the kind of thing I’d be chucked in the hoosegow for these days for child abuse, as Coney Island was seedy, sticky, dirty, dangerous. Trevor was four years old and I’d been doing this since he was newborn. I was a distracted bohemian poor excuse for a mother who sometimes had to be asked by friends or strangers if I’d remembered to feed my son that day or why he was missing his socks or told that redheads need to have a hat in the summer sun. I treated him a lot like I treated myself which was a bit rough and a bit badly. That day however I had gotten us hot dogs and French fries and root beers before leaving the amusement park, which made me feel rather proud of my brilliant parenting skills. We were stuffed and happy. I had even added ice cream cones because I’d earned a nice piece of change painting a mural on the front of Big Jimmy’s Jumpin’ Shootin’ Gallery (hit the ducks, five shots for a dollar). Trevor sitting next to me. (The prosecution rests.)

I must say I cannot help but marvel at the monumental contrast in every aspect of today’s motherhood with 40 years ago. Parenting, if done singly, sure was something you did alone those days in a big city. I never got offered a seat on the subway during my pregnancy. One time I got robbed by a teenaged girl in the local grocer’s when I was seven months on with her threat of a beating to ”make that baby come out in the store” if I didn’t fork over the $20 bill in my hand. The shopkeeper, a friend! looked the other way. And I worked every day, until labor started. I was up a ten foot ladder painting a mural in the Westbury Long Island Music Fair lobby five hours before giving birth after a frenzied trip to Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. (I got paid early, it covered the bill of $150; thank you, Don Gilman).

And I will never forget one day racing like an engine on fire to a billboard painting job in Brooklyn….I had just dropped Trevor off at the lower Manhattan babysitter. The sign painter shop owner had a firm rule, one minute late and you didn’t get sent out on the job ~~ you got sent home. The taxi I could ill afford sped across the Brooklyn Bridge but was soon halted in its tracks by some son of a bitch I cannot forgive who’d chosen that morning to kill himself by leaping in the waters far below. Traffic stopped, sirens blared, nothing moved until the emergency was surrounded. By the time I got to the job I was three minutes late. I blamed the jumper, cried out that it would make the headlines in all the papers, believe me! and please give me the day’s work I need it, please! But the boss glared steely-eyed at me and said, Hey. Nobody told you to have a baby. Get lost, go home. I did.

Well life was like that, it just was, hardship was the juice sluicing the day’s tempo. I was on my own and there were more brutal edges than easy rides and you had to invent your pleasures out of thin air and take a good time where you found it. I still had hours of work ahead of me once we got home and I knew it. The thirty minutes or so that the car trip took was going to be the only relaxing part of the day I’d get and maybe (if lucky) see bed by midnight. It was warm and sunny that July Fourth, a beautiful blue skied prettiness in the air. Everyone not heading out to Coney Island for rides, dancing, beach fun and nighttime fireworks was heading into the city for the spectacular light and sound show NYC really knows how to put on. This was a special year, a very special year: the 200th Birthday of America, 1976.

For months, each day brought a new story about what was in store for us, most of them about The Tall Ships. It might have been the first of the tradition that became a yearly event. We’d all heard about the massive American flag that had been specially made for the event, to hang from the cables at the top of the Verrazano Bridge, across the center facing the water (rather than road traffic) to welcome the sailors. A week ago it was finished and delivered, and they’d hauled it into place. Some tricky job that high with something so huge. To everyone’s shocked amazement, within minutes of hanging it high, the winds up there shredded the flag to ribbons. Small flags on the guy wires were substituted. But we all knew whose birthday it was for the newspapers and radio and TV reported on all the human stories, the events planned, the politicians attending, the best place to see fireworks and ships, details were non-stop. New York was doing it up royal with a year of preparation leading to this Bi-Centennial Birthday.

Well there we were, mother and son in my beat up old Chevy heading back home and getting into thicker and thicker traffic and going slower and slower. We were on the Belt Parkway, which is a fabulous road I know and I adore. It hugs the river at the outskirt edge of Brooklyn, passing under the beginning earth-bound span of the Verrazano. You’re never far from the water. There’s a slim and pretty run of land between the road and the river that’s got grass and flowers and park benches and paved sidewalk, well used by a pleased public. For most New Yorkers, schedules prevail and stopping to smell the roses does not, so it was a road you could travel often without really being aware of its form and style and charm. The Belt Parkway was certainly not the center of anything, it was just a link to more important places. Nobody had reason to suppose that this part of Brooklyn might be included in the July 4 festivities.

Well as I said traffic slowed to a snail’s pace and that finally turned to a dead stop. We were next to the Verrazano Bridge, a beautiful span of architectural genius that was briefly the longest suspension bridge in the world; it connects Brooklyn and Staten Island. It was right there. As for the roadway, we were bumper to bumper as far as you could see in both directions, absolutely packed with only a couple of inches between the cars. Then suddenly The Tall Ships were there! Right in front of us!!

NEW YORK, NY-- Gloria, of Columbia.  Tall Ships from around the world anchored  south of the Verrazano Bridge on Tuesday, May 22, 2012 in preparation for Fleet Week, which begins on May 23rd.  The photographs were taken from The New York Water Taxi's Special OpSail 2012 Tall Ships Tour, to which the Wall Street Journal was given a complimentary pass. Credit: Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal Slug: NYSTANDALONE

NEW YORK, NY– Gloria, of Columbia. Tall Ship

Apparently, The Tall Ships had gone up the Hudson in parade formation, sailed past Manhattan, come down the Narrows and were passing under that perfectly beautiful Verrazano right before our eyes. It was unbelievably stunning. Sailboats and clipper ships from all over the world appeared, broad spotless canvas whipped by the wind, white water bursting up alongside restored and ancient wooden bows as their underbellies sliced through the river and it just took your breath away. America’s red, white and blue flew from every mast. It made your heart stop. It overwhelmed the senses. The Tall Ships were vast and brilliant and blazingly heroic and nobody could get enough of them.

You just could hardly believe what you were seeing. For miles and miles cars had come to a standstill. New York City’s reputation would have called for ear shattering horn blowing at the traffic jam, furies of shaking fists, hurled epithets, donnybrooks and murder. Instead there was an absolute, total, complete, compliant silence.

Silence!

Not one horn blew. Not one voice raised up. Radios were stilled. One by one, all of the people parked unexpectedly on the jammed up Belt Parkway shut down their motors. You could hear the wind move around you! The sound of water thrown against the river barriers! In New York! And a kind of mass phenomenon began to happen. I’m willing to bet no New Yorker had figured anything like it yet it started spontaneously and went on universally taking in every single person on that road. It was impossible. It was miraculous.

All of us, as if participants of a rehearsed ballet, were drawn from our cars. We turned our faces and bodies toward the water. We stood still and watched what nobody knew was going to be there in front of us. Sailing ships on parade. 2tallship  It seized your heart.

I got out too, and I lifted my four year old son onto the hood of our car. Mind you, we’re on a major thoroughfare surrounded by cars, all parked in place! Too bizarre. Then in hushed voice (to continue the moment’s dignity), my arm around him, I explained America’s 200th birthday, and the sweet sailing ships, and our citizenship, to the American child watching this with me.  I could see the fleeting images of miracles reflected in his eyes, adventures of his own making spread, visible, through his mind and body.

images The stillness, the whole huge emotional happy pride that thrilled everyone in their stilled cars for miles both directions that lasted a good fifteen minutes at least, maybe more. We waved to the intrepid sailors and they waved back! Then the ships passed out of view to begin the process, further down river, of negotiating their turns to come back.

Quiet continued to prevail along the parkway. There was not a single raised voice. The faces of people around me were, like my own felt and must have looked, aglow with the wonder of this, some near tears, everyone moved, thunderstruck by ourselves! By what we were witnessing!

Gradually all those New Yorkers stuck in traffic got back inside their cars. It was slow, thoughtful, even moody. Engines started up. And then as if on cue, the cars on the Belt Parkway, three lanes wide, began to move.

Trevor and I looked at each other. Pretty amazing, huh? I said. He was wide-eyed happy from it, too. He snuggled half in my lap and fell into a well-earned sleep and I put my arm around him. It was long before the days when child’s seats even existed in some fascist social engineer’s brain that now set children and parents separated on car trips. Foolishly distant, not touching not making any contact but sitting back to back! What gross horror.

But this was then, the good old days, and we were sticky and hot and tired and glued together with it all. We were both needing a good bath and change of clothes. I still had paint on me and Trevor was wearing some of the ice cream cone on his little yellow tee shirt. In truth we were wonderfully decorated for the holiday and it made me happy. It made me laugh out loud.

We picked up speed slowly along with the other cars around us. The crowded lanes began to open as we put some distance between each other and a kind of Brooklyn normalcy returned. The sun was beginning to go down enough so you could spot the first pale emerald green flicker of a fireworks spray that exploded into a huge dandelion shape over the waterway, in the sky, up ahead.

Happy Birthday, America. We will always be country ready for unexpected change, with the good people in it outnumbering the bad, and knowing who we are and knowing what we want.

And the times, and there are too many (maybe even unfairly), that I think I never got any part of motherhood right or did anything good for that little boy of mine I can pull this memory out of the mix and be warmed by it, being sure I passed something on that day, full of caring for him and what he learned and how he might grow up, the example of a tradition that I could show him and teach him, and by way of a special holiday that drew my son and me closer to each other than I’d ever thought to be making time for.

I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think I got touched by a loving motherhood that night that had previously eluded me. I picture it in the way a July 4 sparkler maybe would be held above the mom’s head in a benediction, bright jumping around happy promise lit on one end and some kind of fairy godmother holding it on the other end, saying it’s all gonna work out okay. Don’t worry, honey. You’ll be fine.

Not bad for the day’s celebration of freedom and liberty.

Happy July Four, 2015, everyone. Happy Birthday, America.

NEW PAINTINGS, JUNE


Elephant, WaterfallTHE WATERFALL AND THE ELEPHANT

Oil on canvas, 11″ X 14 “

Were I either elephant or waterfall this would be a good way to spend the summer.

Silver Horse of Silver DawnSILVER HORSE, SILVER DAWN

Oil on Canvas, 11″ X 14″

I’ve been privileged to live in the company of some fabulous creatures.  This was outside my barn door every dawn, the occupants changing position and mood with the rising sun.  I lived in the tack room of a barn I’d converted to a studio and apartment.

The Cat, Elephant RocksTHE FOG, THE LAKE, THE CAT AND THE ELEPHANT ROCK 

Oil on Canvas, 11″ X 14″  e

I’m not sure how or why this got started in me but the longer I kept at it the more fun I was having.  I think it may be inside a cave, the lake is very shallow, and they’ve been there a good long time getting to know each other.  It’s nice and warm and there’s no hurry. Oh, and somehow the moon got in there. Unless it’s the sun.

NEW PAINTINGS ~~ SPARHAWK


Copy of Iris, Paints, Brushes outside wall  

IRIS, PAINT BOX, VARNISH, PAINT TUBES AND BRUSHES
New painting, Oil on Canvas. 14 x 11 inches

I can’t help it, I get a lot of pleasure painting the every day view of my environs. And the tools of my trade, the artifacts. I’ve got enough ego to suppose it is of some historical value to see the stuff (and sometimes nonsense) of the lusty endeavors of a lifetime of such pursuits. Here it is at its core: Aroma. Color. Texture. I cannot imagine a life not including the earthy pungent smell Damar varnish or stand oil, of halucination-worthy pigments.
No it’s not a yacht parked in the Mediterranian aglow with chunky bottomed oiled up overpaid celebrities, manicured lives and awash in Veuve Clicquot..

More a life where the dreadful spectre of eating pigment, wearing canvas, and drinking smelly flower water lurks ever.

But a good life, nonetheless.

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BIG SUR ~~ 2 SEASCAPES:  (one with sky and one with rock)Ocean, Wild Sky  Wild Sky, High TidePfeiffer Beach, Big Sur  Big Sur Ocean Storm

Waterlilies under bridge Waterlilies Under the BridgeDSCF5612  Large Meadowside Calla LilyDSCF5616 Yellow Tulips in Glass PitcherBridgeside Cafe, near full  The Bridgeside Cafe

DSCF5693  Backgarden Silver Rose

SPARHAWK original paintings are available for purchase. If any of my works interest you, please email me

sparhawk@barbarasparhawk.com

to inquire about availability, size, more photos, etc.

Thanks for visiting

The Train Tracks at the Bottom of Wortendyke Avenue


A Short Story by Barbara Sparhawk

The Train Tracks

at the Bottom

of Wortendyke Avenue ©

When I was grown up and in my twenties a good friend and I spoke of the dogs we had as children. With my family, we didn’t have a dog til I was almost in my teens. It was a pedigree Boxer, and we lived in Alabama just then, and he was certified and officially named Bama. But my friend burst forth a flood of tears in the telling of her dearest one ever, a golden Lab they called Chester, and cried that when she was a girl of ten years, her dog had committed suicide.

No, I said no, it could not be!

How else, she said, now crying even the more, could I explain that he went and lay down on the railroad tracks in her Tennessee countryside town, and that it ended his life, a fact which more than a full decade later she could neither bear (imagining his unknown despair!) nor comprehend. Why would he have done such a thing, why? How could she have been blind, loving him so much, to his need, his sadness.

Well, it so happened that as shocking and terrible as that was to hear about her beloved pet, I knew why. I really did. Because I knew railroad tracks.

No, I said to her, it was the draw of the tracks. Oh God! Railroad tracks are fantastic, are wonderful. Railroad tracks? I spent no some small part of my childhood exploring railroad tracks. Her dog went there because it was the best place on earth to be and the terrible coming of the train happened unplanned. He hadn’t gone there to die at all. He had gone there for the pleasure, never understanding the danger. She was so relieved at what I told her, so sure I had hit upon the long illusive truth, that she bought me dinner that very night. Finding stuff out probably matters more in a life than any other thing anybody can ever think of doing.

So I told her the facts about the commuter train which had been in my childhood, the one that ran between Emerson, New Jersey and New York City, tracks set perpendicular along the bottom of the steep hill we lived on top of, which was a one lane unlined road called Wortendyke Avenue. And that there was no proper station that I remember but only chunks of coal with broad flat cuts that gleamed blue-black, crushed bright sharp mirror-like noisy cinder underfoot and if you stood there at the whitewashed arm that lowered with a flashing red and yellow lights across the street and if you wore a brown felt hat, broad tie and white shirt and brown suit and carried a leather briefcase and had your shoes shined up, the conductor would see you and brake to stop his train to load the one or two or three daddies in and bring them to their city jobs.

After school, for I was already in grades one then two and walked alone the eight blocks to Emerson Grade School run by Mrs. Gerlach, I would change into play clothes and run back down the hill and spend as many of the next hours I could on the train tracks. Weekends, too. I don’t remember a single time a train actually came by when I was there.

One did come every night long after dark that I could see from my attic bed if I ran when it blew its whistle to my corner window. The massive locomotive had a bright yellow headlamp bugs darted and danced in, you could see the gray black smoke moving above at the whim of speed or wind, its black steel engine, russet-red passengers cars with white squares of windows lined up exact like soldiers, or sealed up silent freight cars so dark, lettered with company names or towns, stop loud and long enough to drop off the business-suited fathers on their return home. I don’t remember any trains during the day. No, not one. Anyway, watching from bed, that was only the tease but on the track itself well that was the real thing.

A railroad track is every bit as diverse and fascinating as a sea shore. There are things to be found fallen into the cinders, things small and large. There are copper pennies to lay out on the rail and collect the next day squished out twice their size with the faces and words all distorted. Things hot enough to burn skin, sharp enough to make a cut go bloody or scrape the flesh off a knee and rip a shirt sleeve. There were colored rocks with magical properties. There were interesting crumpled up bits of paper and adverts, maybe a letter tossed away or an envelope with an interesting stamp, bottles with curious labels, so many things I’d never seen before. Pretty things, desirable things, ready for the private saving in a pocket. If you lay with your ear on the track like the Indians in the movies, you could hear a train coming from very far away, though I never did not once and regretted it to the point of annoyance.

There were tall grasses alongside the track, and no stores or houses very close by and no one ever noticed I was there to chase me off. I think I might have played on that bit of railroad with friends too, pretending we were hobos on our way to treasure, sailing ships, mules to ride across deserts, or just the cartoon festivals and Flash Gordon Saturday Specials in the Hackensack movie house, or on far away to the fabulous city, good enough. But I’m not sure, maybe I’m making that up, I wouldn’t have minded being alone. If I’d been able to escape my dangerous brother I’d have been pleased with myself. I don’t ever remember him playing on the tracks with me ever. He was more likely up at the other end, the hill top, in the woods, climbing rocks and trees.

But the railroad, wow the railroad and all its parts was a sensual thing of shadow and light and highly intoxicating smells of coal and stone and strange grasses right next to your nose. The most incredible smell of all was creosote which permeated the railroad ties and made them glistening and oily. I still love the smell of creosote. If the sun had done a good day’s baking and you lay down there between the rails with your cheek pressed on the ties you’d be out of the wind and cozied just like a lizard on driftwood on the still side of a sand dune, in this silent peculiar ground all surrounded by powerful aromas. Well, to tell the truth the strength of getting close to unfamiliar things, that kind of exotica can just blow you away. Lying flat, the grass would wave and bend a good three feet above and around you, and you could watch the clouds change shapes through slits of openings made by a breeze that went slanting the brilliant green and yellow wands in a mystical benediction, it was a ceremonial kind of thing of ancient meaning as if they were fairy-land barriers between you and grownups. You were in a place to watch the world without the world knowing a thing about it, all warm and quiet, all private, the best secret ever. Butterflies were drawn to it, moths and bees and crickets, caterpillers and centipedes, and they were all exciting to study, and they were all only inches from your face.

Growing alongside the rails were dandelions and clover. I don’t remember eating the yellow flowers, at least not after the first few, but the pink and white clover was a different story, rich in a drink of honeyed sugar. If you plucked out the centers and sucked the juice from the slim reedy blossom stems, well, it was just divine. And if you wanted something to chew, the asphalt at the edge of Wortendyke Avenue on a really hot summer day would bubble up from the tar turned to a little pool of black liquid and then make a real air bubble about the size of marble or so from the heat. And you twisted the end of the bubble at the street level, and plucked it loose, and then you had this tar bubble and you could chew on it, just like it was gum except it wasn’t it was tar, and that had its own interesting texture and taste. I don’t ever remember it getting stuck in my teeth or anything, it was really neat. It was free. It didn’t kill me. Another one of those private things I don’t think I spoke much about to an adult. When you’re a child discovering some really interesting phenomenon and there’s a possibility no one else ever thought of it before you since time began, well then you really are something to brag about in your own head and the next best friend might be shown or have it described, if you liked and trusted them enough.

I don’t remember rules about how far or where to go or not when I was growing up. It was a different world than we’ve got now. It was not so terribly long after the great World War II to end all wars, and such a war has an affect on a population. I wouldn’t have known enough to note it then but I can see now that the death and horror and effort of a war fought for liberation and to stop such certain tyrants makes a country’s people thoughtful about the conduct of a life. People demanded a level of independence, personal responsibility, and decency, even in the very young.

At least that lasted awhile, and was what I pretty much grew up in. When I was a kid you went out to play and came back in time for dinner and whatever you did on your own or with your pals was your business, all aiding in the process of you learning the particulars of finding your way to adulthood, making judgements about safety and distance and heights, the strength of a tree branch and depth of water, what to put in your mouth and what not to, and I guess, railroad tracks.

I understood its draw for me, and I understood it for my friend’s poor Labrador. I never thought about being hit by any train ever. No, I never thought about it. And sometimes you just get lucky and live to do it again another day. I learned that, too.

Drifting on the Road to Mandalay


THE BIG BANG
Drifting Through Time, Space, and
Wilderness on the Road to Mandalay

Not counting my childhood when moving state to state was someone else’s idea, I have made grown-up choices to live in jammed up cities and in desolate places for the adventure of it, for the attendant hoopla. I learned along the way that though it may come at cost, it is possible to study the avoidance of disaster to thereby survive another day. I certainly never once jammed up against anything potent enough to dissuade me from the hunt, from my journey on what I still think of as the road to Mandalay.

At 17, I drove myself across country from a small California beach town to big New York.

the author at 18

the author at 18

At 18, I went to art school in London, stopped in Paris, took a train west then across East Europe through the Soviet Union and Ukraine before I settled back in the states age 20, brief in Vermont, long in New York. Until near 30 years and a million careers tried in that electrifying town, my odyssey began anew. I left seven million Brooklynites for Virginia, immediate neighbors numbering but three.

I landed in a forest an hour west of Washington, D.C. on a modest-sized hilltop of the Blue Ridge range. My road was one of a couple of dozen long mysterious, tree-shrouded driveways which branched discretely off the narrow unlined public macadam, the main road, whose name I have forgot, a proper road which bisected my mountain.

candle lit shoulder hair

the author at 48

Deep inside the dense woods were fascinating men and women: test pilots, engineers and chemists, code-breakers and map makers, retired politicians and military, astronomers, White House officials, secret agents, Navy SEALS, gun-runners, egg farmers, and writers. Some rich as Croesus and some dirt poor like me. I was paying 1/5th of my Brooklyn mortgage dollars to rent an 11 room house on six acres with all the modern conveniences, most of which I never afforded in Brooklyn. Leave NY and own the world!

The main road boasted three original bronze plaques set in stone briefly describing which acres were heretofore granted to whom by none less than our remarkable President George Washington. The highway looked to be black velvet ribbon laid down with easy style from north to south. It was additionally acreage rife with game and a bird watcher’s haven of migratory raptors and fowl. I had abandoned New York City for my wilderness experience. That’s what I got.

The second southern home for me two years later was an 1850’s log cabin on sixty acres of farmland south of Harper’s Ferry, perched on a flood plain that drained into the ferociously converging Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers 1/2 a mile away.

It turns out that a city girl can make a lot of bad judgment in the process of educating herself in the ways of wilderness living and yet avoid death. Chiefest to learn is that you rarely have some skilled pilgrim for a consult. And the rural countrysider has little patience. Even the unskilled local roustabout would only be into helping you out for his sport.

Family oriented Virginians were not comfortable with this New Yorker’s single status nor my honest bravado. My intent was to while away my John Muir/Isak Dinesen/Georgia O’Keeffe/Thoreau-inspired hours painting,Farm Pond, Ducks, Two sculpting, writing, and getting lost by sundown in the comforting delight of Jack Daniel’s (winter) or summertime Mint Juleps while on the porch rocker; Beethoven, a man for all seasons on the portable radio. Genuine farmers, cynical to such diversions as mine, were likely taking bets on whether or not I’d survive a month. The winter was just then delivering the thickest most dastardly blizzards of 200 years.

It comes to pass that life in the wilds is a full time job. I’d gone into all this not knowing that I’d wake to fallen trees across the only road out, or a bridge smashed free by logs hurtling a flooded creek; jump-start a 1938 Ford tractor; brave multiple snow drifts too deep to navigate on foot, days with no phone, no electricity. All of it was educational, incredibly beautiful, and loaded with drama. The wildlife was thrilling. The birds, breathtaking. The abandoned gardens, the farmland….

Have you ever snapped fresh asparagus tops off their six foot stalks and packed a fistful to eat as you walk? Marveled at the color of food growing wild? Stood at the edge of spring-fed marshland teeming with life? Traveled rapids on barn planks? Slid iced lakes on cardboard? Dug tunnels through 15 feet of snow to reach a road? Watched a twenty foot black snake circle an old stone building and drop his head into the fresh water trough, seen his jowls puff full from each drink, arch back and swallow? Felt your hair fly from an eagle’s wings speeding less than four feet over you? Watched bees tunneling a nest underground, or the massive ant hill mounds on rocky hillsides? At midnight seen the silent ballet of a red fox run like the wind on tippy toes across the crisp tops of white snowbanks, his path marked by the red bleeding catch in his jaws? Stumbled on a Civil War campfire’s rocks, still circled, ever cold? Have you shoveled new hatched hissing rattlesnakes from behind your stove into a coal shuttle and raced them to the woods? Heard the screams of night stalkers? Jumped at the earth shattering crash of dropped trees too slim to bear their iced-up limbs? Backed off downwind from a bear with her cubs? Run for the shotgun at the sight of a prowling mountain lion? Seen water animals you never knew existed, watching you watching them, both in wonder? Let baby water snakes bite you to know the feel? Run outside into dawn because a passel of screaming peacocks crash landed on your roof? Watched a day’s then night’s flood waters fill field and meadow up to within inches of your boot-toe, then (as the farmer predicted) subside? Turn your flashlight on eight, ten deer tearing across your meadow into the dark forest and never figure what spooked them? Seen wild turkeys roost in trees at sundown? Walked along a moonlit trail, felt the air move in a gust, you ducked a massive owl’s silent wings (was that an 8 foot? ten foot spread?) as he dives beyond you to his meal? Come up on hovering fragrance before the roses? Watched frogs burst from tadpole to land-hopping life overnight, carpet acres in every direction around the pond making a roaring, deafening, guttural mating song under starlight? Seen the spirits of things, conversing with old friends and strangers who were not there yet spoke aloud in your twilight ecstasies of solitude?
Likely you have, and more.
Yes, you’ve seen it too.
But this, the phenomenon of life in wild places was new to me, touching to the core. Exhausting. Sometimes scary.

There were many exceptional experiences. Not too many hours in on my experiment I said to myself: You need contingency plans in case there’s something you can’t handle.

Everything was compounded by isolation though I thought I could handle everything. I had survived a dangerous population in New York City. Alone now on secluded farmland (and I was set back on 60 acres bordered by dense forest, rolling farmland, and powerful tributaries of aforementioned rivers) I had to think around being able to reach neighbors if necessary over problematic roads in vehicles that don’t work on ice, in flood. Or which way on foot, for medical care. I pretty much figured that I better not need help. If I needed help I’d have to bring myself to it.

One January I woke in the early dark of morning. It had got hard to breathe. My fingertips told me my face and neck were swollen. Why? I’d been cutting trees that poison ivy had been growing thick on, a day of ripping off the vines and burning logs with some of the toxic plant still attached. That had to be it, though it took 12 hours before I knew what I’d done to myself. When it made itself known, by God, I was headed for anaphylactic shock.

Initially it was a minor reaction. I stayed uncomfortable but functional. I got up and dressed and had some tea. I waited til six a.m. to call the neighboring farmer’s wife and she told me not to worry, it would settle down. It didn’t. I bundled up and fishtailed the 45 minutes on ice sheet roads (in my absurd 15 year old Ford Fairlane with bald tires) to the Food Lion grocery store in the closest town, parked and went straight for the pharmacy in the back. The pharmacist looked up briefly and said: “I want you to go there, end of the counter (he pointed), pick up that pink bottle, open it and drink half now. Go. Now!”

I was feeling bewildered and open to command. I did as I was told. The relief from swelling was immediate. My entire body relaxed. I walked back smiling to thank and to question the pharmacist. He looked at me closely then said I was about (holding his thumb and forefinger separate by 1/2 an inch) this close to coma, anaphylactic shock. The pink stuff was Benedryl. I’ve never been without it since. I was very lucky. The darling man had been a medic in Viet Nam.

Now nineteen years hence, I have maintained an emergency plan wherever I lived that stands alone: Plan A. Nothing more complicated than how to get to medical help if I need it. Anything else but fire was not an emergency for at least 48 hours. I never thought to accommodate my environment to something safe or easy. I was in it for the view from a canyon’s precipice, for thrilling flora bunda perfuming the air, for roaring rivers, for turbulent skies that elevate the soul, pounding surf, pink sand; for lucky commune with wild animals if offered, for gardens of enormous variety running as they please, even amok. Years of watching people and now I was become a watcher of the land and sky around me to see what we had to offer each other, to understand who I am in it.

I have had a full, fairly emergency-free life despite some derring-do I wouldn’t a done without. When I broke my leg in a fall in 2002, my only broken bone ever, I was on a horse ranch with a lot of people within shouting distance.

But not when I had a heart attack, five short months ago. September, 2014. Eighteen years on from Virginia; 22 years out of Brooklyn, my heart gave out. I used the back up plan I’d set in motion in Virginia and had thought through the steps for this out of the way place I’m now in on the Central Coast. Despite no phone, no internet, living with a cat but no other full-time human in range, it worked again. I’m writing this out to recommend the use of a contingency plan to you. It doesn’t involve more than thinking. And possibly pen and paper, maybe a flashlight.

Mid-September, 2014.
For three days over a weekend and into Monday I’d had a couple of episodes of severe chest pain. In each case it lasted about five minutes then went ~~ as if nothing had happened at all. The Internet diagnosed Angina. Something like 9 million Americans have it. It requires a change in diet and more exercise. Okay. I can do that. I took an aspirin and started both.

Tuesday night around 7:30 p.m. or so, one of those chest pain episodes hit hard. This time it would not end. Took an aspirin, took two, tried gardening, doing Tai Chi, drinking a Bloody Mary, smoking my (last) cigarette, walking, lying down. Over 45 minutes. The pain did not go away and was getting worse. What was this? I’d never worried about my heart; my health had always been good and I’d always been strong. But now, fast increasing, my left arm was killing me, the pain was a nightmare, like a truck crushing it by driving back and forth fingertips to shoulder. And the unrelenting pain across my chest, horizontally right to left, was horrific. I wrote it out in my journal so that whoever found my corpse would know. Then I stood up in the middle of my room and thought: This is serious. Am I dying? I looked at my left arm trying to figure out exactly where to amputate so as to end the excruciating pain.

I knew without question that whatever I did in the next five minutes was going to affect the rest of my life. I sat on the edge of the couch, and didn’t realize it til months later but the predicted life flashing before my eyes kind of happened, I was seeing something of carousel whirling in front of me, and my different ages and expressions of me on each horse that whizzed by. It lasted a few seconds then dissolved.

It was all impossible really. This could not be happening. My best friend, my big beautiful striped cat Thomas Jefferson, had not been well for a week, so I was hand feeding him. He was due for baby food at seven o’clock but I hadn’t been able to manage just yet. If I ended up in a hospital Tommy might not survive. So that was out of the question.Tommy on the Bed

But the pain got worse. I wasn’t dizzy or faint. I did not want to pass out. I didn’t want to die. I was some scared and I was annoyed. I wrote a note to my neighbor who has his shop near me. He’s a marvelous guy, a saddlemaker. He had gone to San Francisco the day before. I didn’t know if he’d be back the next day but he was all I had.

I looked at my Tommy fighting back my tears, made the effort to lean down and patted his head, and said: I hope I’ll see you again sweetheart, and pulled the front door closed between us. It was one of the most awful experiences imaginable. Even writing it out now is the worst part of all this. We both needed help. It’s not supposed to work that way.
The note I’d written to my neighbor said:

Tommy in Chair, 1If this is still in your door in the morning, I’m either dead or at CHOMP (Community Hospital of Monterey). I’m having a heart attack. PLEASE KEEP TOMMY ALIVE!!! He has GOT to be hand fed, he’s not eating, food on the sink counter with the extra car key, he may be hiding in the closet. The car’s in the Safeway parking lot, please drive it back here if possible.
love, Barbara.

I got up my garden staircase, stood at the top, DSCF5176and observed I was still alive. Walking another twenty feet, I slotted the note in my neighbor’s door and got in my car noting I was that far yet I lived. I put the key in the ignition, cranked the engine and turned on the headlights. It worked. I was still alive. 8:30 at night. I said outloud: I am going to drive the six blocks to Safeway and not pass out or die and NOT cause an accident.

I drove. I pulled up to the welcome sight of lights and people. I thought not to park in front because I might need the car in a day, overnight it might get towed. I parked under a tree still alive as I turned off the headlights, pulled out the ignition key, opened the car door. The place seemed almost empty. My chest and arm hurt like nothing imaginable, of great intensity. I was one hundred percent focused on the lights inside like a beam to a ship at sea but wondering if I was going to make it that far.

I did. I walked up to the front doors which opened in front of me, and walked in, going left to the one cashier on duty. Two customers, one a woman who’d paid and was getting packed up, the other a man waiting his turn. I came up behind the cashier, tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to me. I said: “Excuse me. Please. Call 911. I think I may be dying. I think I’m having a heart attack.”

The bright and competent fellow turned and picked up his phone and punched up 911 before two seconds had passed us by.

What sort of magical sequences do we have set up in our brains and souls, maybe it’s a lifetime’s construction. I’d be willing to bet we’d every one of us felt it~~cert right in the knowing I am safe now. I’m okay.

I burst into tears for the first time in days, my arm pressed across my chest and clutching my left arm and weeping freely. The kind woman at the end of the checkout line came over and put her arm around me.

“Over there,” was all I could say, and we headed for the flower display. I do think of myself in maybe uncommon historical terms. There was no question even that moment I would let myself die crumpled next to plastic bags and the cache of customer discards due to get restocked. Not me. If Barbara Sparhawk was on her way out she was going to be in the middle of the flower display and that’s where I went and where I sat.Garden Rising, full I had more than once been saying really loud:
“Not now Jesus!! I have things to do! Wrong time! It’s me, remember me? Too much unfinished, NOT NOW!!”

The cashier was fielding questions about my condition between me, the kind lady at my side, and the 911 operator. The Carmel Valley Fire Department medics showed up in minutes. I was back on my feet headed through the exit while they were beside me through the ”in” door, me busy pointing to myself and shouting, “Here! It’s me!!”

I don’t remember a lot of what happened next except I started feeling okay despite knowing something had gone very wrong with my primary internal engine. I recall sitting on the curb next to a fireman. I got walked to and stretched out on the gurney and tucked into the ambulance. My blood pressure was skyrocketing. The fine fellows (were there 3? 4?) worked their miracles. They were all delightfully good looking, strong, and young so I refused to tell them my age. They said I’d be riding backwards in there, facing the back of the truck, was that okay or might I get sick from it.

Hell, I told them, no way! Why, no. Me? I used to ride outside the bright yellow Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Department truck, suited up in boots and hat and coat and hanging onto a pole and leaning way out airborne over our folded canvas hoses, feet planted firmly on our highly polished chrome step, over the exhaust pipes, and the Chief hitting 90 mph. Go on boys, do your stuff.

I ended up attached to many tubes and machines in a bed with full bells and whistles, admitted as a patient, gussied up in a hospital gown inside the very fine Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, known as CHOMP. Nurses and doctors came and went and spoke and read my beeping monitors and consulted and queried and medicated.

By noon the next day my dearheart neighbor called me at the hospital. He saw my note, leapt into action with my cat Tommy and fed him, organized three other friends to help out, and was on his way with a buddy to retrieve my car.

Two days later in the hospital I had another heart attack which was so quickly attended to by these remarkable people that it barely had a chance to go full blown. For the next several days I was being stabilized, monitored, medicated, calmed, comforted, and fed three squares by their divine four star kitchen. What a fabulous place it is. One week later I had surgery. A stent wouldn’t be enough repair. They’d calculated a triple bypass to replace something like three 95% critically blocked arteries. When they went in they did a quadruple bypass instead. The very brilliant team of Dr Gregory Spowart, Dr Hisashi Kajikuri, and Physician’s Assistant, RN Mariselda Peralez.
The initial surprise is about five months past me now, but frankly the monumental impact of what happens to your body in a heart attack doesn’t leave you. There’s a lot of pain at first, that diminishes. There’s caution, fear, weakness….most goes with time, too.

There were other problems turning to emergency. My eyes had been going progressively bad from cataracts before the heart attack, and even worse afterward. I was able to arrange for cataract surgery, both eyes, the month of February. If it had not become a crisis of blindness on the way I’d have put it off. It’s a lot to go through, all that in a short time, and I would not recommend such doctor-packed surgical episodes.

But my God, sight! I did not dream I’d be able to have the color and depth, detail and contrast restored. I can paint. Read. Drive long distances, day and night. I will never fail to be spellbound at what I almost lost but now have. There’s another serious miracle in my life that I can see again, 20/16, unbelievable. Dr Leland Rosenblum, thank you.

I am, of course, alive, writing this, and hear often of those who don’t survive heart attacks. And what I had is just as common in 20 and 30 years olds, Triathlon athletes, long distance runners, vegetarians, and the unbelievably fit non-smokers. Life will, I suspect, never be quite the same. There is an irreversible change to everything, I know it already. Nothing seems to be the same, nothing at all, nothing at all.

My darling Tommy, who got two veterinarian visits with my doting friends while I was in the hospital, did not survive. He was about 13 years old, and very ill even our last week together though he didn’t show it a bit, purred til his last breath in the arms of a good friend, and Tommy and I loved each other equally which was a lot. He had a good many fine adventures with me and was a fantastic, brave explorer. He did, because of splendid caring friends and devoted animal lovers, never experience being alone while I was away, something which will move me to tears likely til my last breath. Every time I call his name out, and I do it often, my voice catches, tears held back, sometimes released.  I’d done a painting of him last year, The Cat Who Loved Flowers, and he did.Cat Who Loved Flowers, best, full, TJ

You sure have a face-off with your mortality in a major medical emergency. A neighbor said he thought me strong, not just for my survival but the up and at ’em (expected by doctors and nurses) in short order. It was nice to hear, to cling to. I hope I get back to feeling strong again. As I had cried out in something of a delirium: There’s still so much left to do! And SO much more to witness, to touch, to know. I want to be here for all the dawns and sundowns and all the inbetweens I can muster.

Okay, I’m here. I’m painting again. Kitchen Table Bouquet, paleCopy of Iris, Paints, Brushes outside wallTuesday Airport SweetieLilies, Tulips, on WallOn to new writing. Glad to be here.
Did I say thanks?
Oh yes, yes indeed. I said thanks.
Glad you’re there, too.

HUNTER~GATHERERS


Gene Roddenberry:
“Jump off the cliff first then grow the wings.”

HUNTER~GATHERERS

I quote an actor, sailor and explorer here, from his autobiography:

(On the road, Summertime, 1977)
“I have long been both dismayed and astonished by the disparity that exists between the world known in the dreams of youth and the world we find ourselves faced with…..They never taught wandering in any school I attended….Or that of writing a book. It’s all so mysterious and~~yes~~enchanting….the free-swinging, far-rolling time when, however rough the going you have the feeling: “Fuck it! I wouldn’t swap places with anyone else for anything on this earth.”

…Sterling Hayden. From his book: Wanderer

——————————————————————————–

He was one sort of big game hunter. The quarry? Robust life itself.

About hunting and hunters of animals? I don’t know your opinion of hunting animals of course. I find that I have apparently mixed pro and con in me, which I’m not sure I knew before writing this.

For instance, up until the age of ten I thought it fine to have a raccoon cap, though I surely did not literally (nor mentally) make the bloody pass from kill-and-skin to look like Davy Crockett when I wanted one to show me off in town or playground. Likewise it did not register in me that in order to get a handsome fringed buckskin shirt like Buffalo Bob (Howdy Doody’s best friend) or a suede frock like Princess SummerFallWinterSpring I’d have to bring down and skin a buck, shear off meat and bone, and sew the garment up.

Around that time my mother owned a fox stole in which two tails met somehow at the back and two fox heads met across her breasts. A furrier’s sewed-in metal jaw allowed for attaching one to the other. On some part. I’m not sure about the protocol. Such pathetically displayed foxes were certainly big middle class chic of the 1940’s and ’50’s. I don’t remember any moral repulsion in me, though I thought it vulgar and sad. I did not covet it. I did not pet it. I did not secretly try it on.

I was around nine years old being instructed on how to traverse the rapids of the Mississippi River in a canoe on an exciting voyage of two weeks. Alongside the mighty river on our second night out I watched fascinated (with the other five children) as our counsellor (by campfire) identified, ordered us safe distance from, then caught a deadlyImage result for COTTONMOUTH SNAKES Cottonmouth snake who’d set up camp before we had. She brilliantly trapped it behind its jaws with a forked stick (which she grabbed out of thin air a second after spotting the Cottonmouth) killed it with one swift sure knife swipe (drawn from her hip sheath), instructed us Missouri younguns about the placement of its organs, how to clean it, and before we reached home she wore it, having sewn it around her leather belt. I found it bloody marvelous. Thrilling.

I have eaten wild game caught and prepared by friends. I have not once (yet) in my life had to depend on hunting wild animals in order to eat in order to live. Though I’ve had some barren pantry stretches where I wish I’d known how to make that work.

I can catch little to medium fish, even large Atlantic Bluefish. And more common crab, catfish and trout. But I am not a true skilled hunter. Nor would I trust my survival skills in discovering the edible among a mushroom cluster beneath the mighty Sequoia, or coming face to face with the delightful fruit of an unfamiliar berry patch and being wise. Not even if distracted by ephemeral fields of seductive wildflowers.

So I am somewhat surprised that for the past few months I’ve grown fascinated by a group of people whose lives in the early part of the last century seem to have crossed brief or long, who learned the ways of desolate places, did depend on wild caught game, part for sustenance or earning a living or part for pleasure of the kill. In fact a number of them made a living out of leading expeditions through savage and spectacular landscapes for the restive wealthy. Every one of them interested in seeing how they might react if threatened with a horrible demise, yet surviving. Hunting as a way to test reflex and endurance and the heart’s strength.

I’m suspending judgement for the moment.  It seems to me if I go gathering a reflection of those various lives, they had developed an emotional dependence on feral experiences; on lives lifted slightly off the ground; on nights uncommonly wet or cold or days deep or high or dawn that came at them hot or dry and bloody.

Hemingway was there too, though peripheral to this particular lot. Most all of them wrote books that were, driven by empirical experience, hard to resist.
These were European, royalty:
Image result for saint exuperyANTOINE de SAINT EXUPERY ~~of a centuries-old French family. A bad student and school drop-out, he became an explorer-pilot extraordinaire adored by his country and then the world; he wrote marvelous books about being in the cockpit of the early aeroplane, spanning a clouded night sky across the dangerous Pyrenees then over endless Sahara to the civilized lights of Casablanca or Paris in honored mail-runs. French pilots, whose plane engines frequently dropped out of their planes and fell to earth, and (if they survived the landing, and if tracked by Bedouin) were captured and kept as slaves. Saint Exupery wrote about a child who lived on a far off planet with a petulant rose, sheep and volcanos (Le Petit Prince). At the age of 44 Saint Exupery was blindsided by fog-enshrouded White Cliffs of Dover on a wartime spy mission. He crashed then dropped into the sea, undiscovered until 2012.

  BERYL MARKHAM  Image result for beryl markham was two or three years old when her British father, C.B. Clutterbuck, who loved all animals, moved his family to Kenya to expand his career to Africa and set up stables to breed, train and race horses. Beryl’s mother went back to civilization less than a year later without her child. The father stayed and got famous, taught Beryl well about tame and wild things; the native children were her jungle companions, she learned to hunt with a spear, was gored by a lion, trained and raced horses, and led a life of the most stunning independence imaginable. The six foot tall, glamorous athletic blue eyed blond fell in love with airplanes and set unique flying records and wrote one fabulous book about her doings which is poetically beautiful and stirring to the core.

The gutsy Dane, adventuress and writer KAREN BLIXEN also led me into delicious far off places. I’ve loved my hitchhike on her magic forays to the fantastic (nom de plume Isak Denisen): the spartan human kindness of Babette’s Feast; the expansive Out of Africa; the curious Seven Gothic Tales. As well as her fascinating husband, lovers, movies, articles, and through casual reference to her fellows on similar trails in the three or four decades from 1900 next on. She wed an amiable royal cousin Baron Bror von Blixen for his title and her chance for an extraordinary life. They were in their early 20’s when they moved to Africa on her money to explore, to hunt, to farm. Along with sharing the most rare sort of life in unequaled landscapes under endlessly clarion skies, providing themselves an opportunity otherwise impossible in rigid Scandinavian society, and a chance for Karen’s ingenuity and courage to bloom large, Bror soon abandoned her (and their farm) for big game, lengthy safaris, short wars, and other women. He also infected Karen with syphilis, gotten from his casual romps with native Kenyan women. The Baroness never recovered in full from the toxic, devastating cure of the venereal disease, though she never stopped loving or admiring Bror. Indeed, though the alliance was unexpectedly costly she swore she never regretted it. She outlived him by 17 years; he tragically died at 60 from a car accident in Sweden~1946; she said she missed him til the day she died.

   DENYS FINCH HATTON ~~the swashbuckling son of an Earl; his mother~~daughter of the Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Codrington. He was schooled at Eton and Oxford, Captain of Cricket Eleven, President of the Music Society. In 1910 Finch Hatton traveled to South Africa where, on the west side of the Great Rift Valley he bought acreage–then gave it up to a partner to manage. Denys Finch Hatton went hunting. In Kenya he was close friends to European royalty including the Honorable Berkely Cole, aristocrat, brother-in-law to Baron Delamere who ran the Kenyan white colony. Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen fell in love. After she separated from Bror, Finch-Hatton moved in with her on the coffee plantation she’d built and continued to work for its success. Denys took the Baroness on her first flight. He also taught neighboring Beryl Markham to fly a plane, brought her along on his safaris, and shared her love of Africa. Karen Blixen returned to Denmark. Markham eventually flew herd-spotting flights for Bror Blixen’s safaris; they had become close and admired each other’s unique skills with wildlife, shooting, safari organizing, and flying.

I’ve read their own words, biographies about them, their autobiographical notes on each other. I invite you to drink at this deep remarkable well of human experience. It will boost your imagination, your spirit, and your courage as it has mine. I’m not sure the order of introduction matters; leap in anywhere.

It’s BROR VON BLIXEN’s autobiography, African Hunter, [​IMG]that I’m reading now and that after already liking him a whole lot as portrayed in the movie Out of Africa by Klaus Maria Brandauer I confess to adoring the fellow again, only 100 pages into his book. Von Blixen came from a royal shooting and hunting culture in Sweden, thought of as a birthright, and a means of testing the mind’s cunning, physical skill, and durability. He prefered at least a stand-off. The animals obviously were not armed with guns. But the bullets fired (or misfired) did not always hit a mortal target yet wild prey were armed indeed with claw and tooth and athletic endurance. Baron Bror von Blixen never freed himself of severe malaria gotten from Africa, the bouts lasting his whole life never killed him. He reportedly withstood sickness and injury with an enviable constitution. Markham reported that Blixen dropped in place on the safari trail one day from malaria, unable to get back on his feet for 24 hours of convulsive fever after which he stood up and continued on his mission. He had numerous close calls with death brought on by furied elephants, vicious buffalo, violent boar, hippo, rhino, and self-respecting lions. Bror was generally loved and admired by men and women for his wit, deep friendships, good heart, and lust for adventure at any expense. Bror Blixen fell head over heels in love with Africa. He had come from a wealthy, titled family but turned from them and at 25 years old, headed (with Karen and on her money) into the dark continent to use the shooting skills, bravado, and determination cultivated by the aristocratic Swedes who had born and raised him. The irony of his death, a man who lived so dangerously stopped by an automobile in town, stunned his friends.

In 1928 the Prince of Wales first found Bror and Karen in Arusha en route to Nairobi, and ordered up a lion hunt. They developed a friendship and a common new interest in photographic and movie safaris. Bror later said getting a wild beast to come nose to nose with a camera you were holding was no less heroic than standing your ground with a gun.

Through their own writing you will not fail to see that side of any of these characters as blood-thirsty; self-involved; even sadistic. But you also need your imagination picturing the life which is a hard translate into our present day 21st Century, cosmopolitan world. They killed lions and elephants when possible, leaving the younger, lighter-weight tusked elephants and rhinos (under 100 lbs) for a later day. There were menacing man-eating lions near villages, happily hunted down and killed to stop the human slaughter, in one case over 60 residents. There was skinning the bounty to send off as trophies to delighted and grateful European nobility. And the especially handsome monetary reward of feeding the Asian aphrodisiac market for horn and tusk. They organized horseback hunting, men racing in full gallop across the Serengeti, across rocky plains after buffalo and lion (animals good in spurts but not endurance) and the speed, the roughly cratered ground, the salt sweat and saliva burst up from their horses as they hung tightly with their thighs and arms, being swatted by the odors of the trapped prey, and becoming the conquerors, hunting for murder and finding it and feeling lively from it.

It’s there for sure, no good pretending otherwise. There are other ways they could have felt life. I am not of that time or world, and excuse my slipping off it’s previously important cause to me now, because it is incidental to what draws me to them. I no longer care about the hunting. The more I read I also find them honorable and compassionate. And I need more of the other stuff of them. There were explorers like Thor Heyerdahl who did not seek to draw blood and I loved him first.

What draws me to them is this: I read each one’s story with their inclusion of bristling, chilling, dangerous discomfort. Tracking through unforgiving jungles past herds and packs of man-killers. Getting lost with no saving equipment or supplies. Making an airplane runway by hand out of dense thorny thicket in the hope of being spotted, found and saved. Crash landing their primitive planes on savage turf and only oneself to rely on, then finding a way to safety with a broken, bloodied body, and disoriented mind. Lost at sea and having only hope on which to ride safe to shore, which is somewhere, that way, maybe. Of weeks unending spent under roughest circumstances, without bathing, enough food, or water. Or out for weeks, then camping with companions, killing and staging animals for bait, preparing and eating rough cooked meat, and the jungle life altogether.

Well, read and picture it because you will not see it exactly spelled out on biographical pages, or often see an actor or actress spotted with blood, rarely looking anything less than laundered, starched and pressed. But these are the men and women who would skin a lion in the wild places, spot where they were shot to ground. Or would uproot the tusks from newly dead flesh with knife and chisel out of massive still hot-with-life creatures weighing thousands of pounds just shot between the eyes or in ear or into mouth. They got not just dusty but bloodied, the kind of detail of this particular breed of persons we might get to know more with the full picture. Karen Blixen I am guessing was a tough, imaginative, violent little broad more than the tidy, plucky cream-puff she has been played and Africa brought out the savage waiting in her, released it. I want to know her better, that aspect of her for what it might teach me. I did not think I knew her, nor any of them, not real knowing. Unless you imagine all the particulars of a life you can’t.

Or unless you live it too, in some way.

Nonetheless, it is a fascinating period seldom celebrated so much as it may deserve. I believe these lives were overshadowed by near biblical events, the dreadful horrors of WWI (1914-1918), the Russian Revolution of 1918, the Stock Market Crash (1929) and the Depression (1929-1939). History so carefully recorded disaster, not superficially or falsely, but through all that sordid angst and despair and death we fail to cast equal light on the swift and stunning growth of mankind’s freedom as the roads and skies were opened wide and conquered, lives of striking adventures were lived and written up by men and women. This makes me curious. And I suspect along with seeing the gore we need to see, to cherish, to honor, to cleave to, and search out the excitement of being alive.

The stupendous birth of flight was 112 years ago~1903~Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Thank you Wilbur and Orville Wright for your perseverance and sacrifice. You both nearly died trying to be airborne as others similarly experimenting did die. You gave the substance to human dreams of flight since the dawn of time.

Then there is also this:
Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Night Flight ~ 1932,
Beryl Markham: West With the Night ~ 1934
Baroness Karen von Blixen: Out of Africa ~ 1937
Baron Bror von Blixen: African Hunter ~ 1938
Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Wind, Sand and Stars ~ 1939
Consuelo de Saint-Exupery: The Tale of the Rose ~ c.1940’s (An autobiography of their life together, by the wife of Antoinne; posthumously published in 2000; it was discovered 2 decades after her 1979 death; written in the ’40’s and hidden away by her.)

For good measure (both of which you must read):
Jack London: Valley of the Moon ~ 1913
and half a century later:
Sterling Hayden: Wanderer ~ 1963

There are of course so many more. The Europeans were typically aristocrats, the Americans were not. And such a defining and oft forgotten boon to human beings is that America was uniquely, singularly, originally to the human condition and experience….classless. It’s what’s meant by American exceptionalism. It still exists despite detracting arguments to the contrary. It cannot be said or examined or celebrated enough. You do not need credentials to become anything under the sun. Europeans, indeed all other cultures on the planet were restricted by birthplace, heredity, education, accents….all unflexible. We didn’t like it and we sailed west.

But this interesting mix, it so pleases me to discover and re-discover these unusual women and men who took off into places brightly lit and dark as pitch to better understand themselves, the times and places and planet they live on, and have~~at the very least~~one hell of a romp in the process.

On a numberless page in the start of Wanderer, American actor Sterling Hayden dedicates his book to his wife. He writes:
To Catherine Devine Hayden
Who had the heart
To join with me
And plunge
Into the Abyss
Where books like this are written
Thanks, Sterling Hayden. And those who came before you and after and the breadcrumbs you all left along the path

for the rest of us. Yum.

 

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