In Perseids’ wake
the edge of summer first looms,
clad in August’s haze.
Thoughts of summer sports
– games lost and won, and picnics,
and ev’ning sunsets.
The school desk awaits
as reluctant minds set forth
on another quest.
Basking as reptiles,
our last fling, we find ourselves,
at summer’s sweet edge.
I was born only a few short miles from the Father of Waters. The Mississippi River is a constant presence in my psyche and my memories; always changing, always flowing, never exactly the same. It scoured and flooded our history. It was a demarcation line – so wide that there was us and there was them. You could barely make out a figure on the opposite shore. Were they really there? There were so many stories.
It could be beautiful, or it could be fearsome. I remember joyful summer days on the deck of the huge excursion boat watching the shoreline and the city glide past. The big ship’s engines vibrated as it made its way through the strong current. The river’s cliffs were made of red brick. Tow boats pushed barges up the river. There once were old warehouses that held cotton and furs – and a licorice factory. The old bridge made of granite and iron was built to last 1,000 years and it just might.
I lived as a boy near the confluence – where two great rivers flowed together. This is where Lewis and Clark, and a dog named Seaman, began the trip of discovery. This is where we ventured out, across the winter ice, to explore an island in the river. The island was big and wild, positioned where the Missouri River made a long, last bend toward its destiny. I remember the trees…massive trunks soaring skyward with piles of driftwood from ancient floods braced against the trunks. There were Snakes.
Still later I lived in sight of the Missouri River, named after a local tribe… the People of the Big Canoes. This was near the farthest reach of French settlement in the old colonial days. The river stretched clear to the Rocky Mountains. Some of the river’s water comes from John Colter’s Yellowstone and the old pathfinder was buried near here, on the south bank, not far from the edge of civilization in 1813. The sand glitters with promises of Colter’s mountains: grains of Granite, Jasper, and Rosy Quartz.
Now I live on a hill sloping to the Rio Grande del Norte, called so by the early Spanish. The same river is called Rio Bravo in Mexico. My Keresan Pueblo Indian neighbors say “mets’ichi chena”, maybe the oldest name, meaning Big River – Rio Grande in Spanish. The Rio Grande is a trickle by comparison to the rivers of my youth, but it is the lifeblood of the desert. Looking across the valley there is a broad forest of ancient cottonwoods following the river south toward the sea. We would not be here without the river.
The Navajo call the river “Tó Baʼáadi”, meaning Female River; the southward direction is given a female distinction among the Navajos. So, I have lived alongside the Female River as well as the Father of Waters. The current flows in my veins and I am anchored in the river.
* * *
If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. — Martin
Look not too fondly to the past;
Its charms are sweet but do not last.
By hastening to that Siren’s song
we’re on a path forever gone.
If we should ere be great again
the way behind is History’s bane.
Our future road climbs straight defined —
the path is forward, not behind.
Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.
– John Newton
What I know of you for certain is only what’s recorded on your tombstone
and two grainy old photographs. Certainly, you were once a girl. A wife.
A mother. You were a survivor of interesting times. Of Huguenot stock.
You knew duty. Did you know love? Did you know peace?
You were the family nurse, then a widow, a “Relict”, they said for decades.
The custom then, it sounds harsh today: Relict. But do we judge you unfairly?
You were a hard woman for hard times and kept a Bible cocked and loaded.
You weren’t afraid to use it. It was your preferred weapon.
Two of five children quickly fled when they could. A darling little girl
died as an infant. How you mourned. A son went insane, locked up forever.
One last daughter, a constant companion to the end, disappeared
without a trace. Are there really two people in your grave?
Your grudges piled up, un-dismissed for a lifetime. Cloying sweetness
masked failed manipulation. Did you feel unloved?
I think you were loved in spite of yourself. Your son fled to
marry an Irish “Papist” …oh the tears…oh the horror!
With hope in his heart, he gave his daughter your name: Lucinda:
— Illumination —
and she lived up to the name in ways you could never comprehend.
* * *
I don’t travel as much now as I used to. I seem content to go back to places that I’ve visited before rather than to strike out in a new direction. That seemed to be okay for now — as I am almost through my seventh decade — but I need to re-think that just a little.
My mother did not travel much. Living and working in St. Louis, she was pretty far from the wonders of the world. She went with a neighbor family to see Pikes Peak in an shiny new touring car sometime in the 1920s — crossing Kansas on what passed for roads and camping along the way. She and a bunch of girlfriends drove to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast in the 1930s. (Whoa– how daring!) She wasn’t a driver so she rode in the rumble seat and got sunburned. I only know that because she kept a little travel journal complete with grainy Kodak photographs. We travelled on family vacations beginning in the late 1950s and when she and my dad moved to Virginia in the 1970s they travelled around the east coast. On her first airplane trip, out to California to visit her brother and sister-in-law, she visited an old Spanish mission and pried up an original clay floor tile and brought it home as a souvenir. Maybe it’s good that she didn’t travel to some places. Is that really the Holy Grail in the pantry?
But I get some of my “wanderlust” from her. She was a big fan of Richard Halliburton, an almost unknown name today but at the time, back in the 1930s, he was almost a rival to Charles Lindbergh. He was a dashing and fearless figure who travelled the world over and published stories and books of his travels. She scraped money together to buy his books and when he came to town she was in the audience. She went to see Lindbergh, too, but she seemed to be more impressed with Halliburton. He was almost a roaming evangelist for travelers…good looking and articulate — and single. He managed to turn travel into a career and made good money at it. His personal life was a little edgy by her standards, had she known, but back in the day much of that was kept private.
As I was recently going through some family books, I came across her old 1937 copy of Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: The Occident, which covers many of his travels and adventures in North and South America and Europe. I remember poring over that book as a kid and wanting to go see all of those places that were pictured. Looking through it now, especially the old black and white pictures, I wonder how much things have changed. He was writing before WW-II but made reference to the damage that was done during “the Great War”. Hitler was in power in 1937 and Halliburton pretty much ignored the existence of the German state except to mention the damage the Germans did in shelling Rheims Cathedral (complete with photographs of the burning church). My dad trudged all over western Europe in WW-II from London to Paris and Berlin with an eventful stopover in Bastogne and was much less impressed with the place.
As I paged through the book this time I see that I’ve managed to visit a number of places he covered in 1937. Some are pretty commonplace today. He goes gaga over the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. Chapters are devoted to Boulder Dam, Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls…people still are impressed with those. New York City gets a chapter with emphasis on the Empire State Building. Washington DC gets a chapter. It turns out I’ve staggered through all the places in the US that he featured in the book with the exception of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas out in the Gulf west of Key West, Florida. I just never took the boat ride. There are a lot of places in the rest of the book that I haven’t visited. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and his pictures from the 1930s are interesting compared to what it looks like today. I’ve been maybe a couple hours away from some of the places but didn’t get there. I recall reading his account of Vesuvius and Pompeii as a kid and even wrote a report for school based mostly on the book but I never managed to get there — just a few miles down the road from Rome. There are a few places I’ll not visit — monasteries, mostly, but there are a number that still beckon…Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro could be one trip. Athens and Istanbul could be another trip.
Halliburton was a great self-promoter and he seemed to be awestruck with almost anything he encountered along the way. His prose was gushing in praise for everything and sounds silly today. He found all sorts of people to happily pose in native costumes for his photographs but he seemed to really like being photographed riding elephants. There are a lot of those.
Undaunted by the first hostilities of WW-II, Japan and China were at war, Halliburton had a Chinese Junk, the Sea Dragon, built in Hong Kong in 1939 and planned to sail it across the Pacific to San Francisco. How tough could it be? Halliburton and a crew of six Americans set off in March and ran headlong into a typhoon. The ship was last seen some distance west of Midway Island struggling through the storm. It was never seen again. Initial reaction was that this was a publicity stunt — Amelia Earhart had gone missing two years earlier so nobody was dumb enough to try this without some back-up plan…right? Eventually the navy went out looking for the Sea Dragon or some evidence of wreckage but nothing was found. Halliburton was declared dead in October, 1939. Germany had invaded Poland the previous month so there was not as much attention paid to his disappearance. My mom was probably heartbroken. Rumors persisted for years that he actually was alive and living like a native in some remote location but none of the crew ever turned up. Eventually, in 1945, some wooden wreckage washed ashore near San Diego that could have been from the Sea Dragon but, after so many years of war in the Pacific, it could have been from almost anything. I might travel a little more but I won’t be trying that.
* * *
The chance meetings or random coincidences always intrigue me. I’m travelling cross country by train and I‘ve met two writers already just as table-mates in the dining car. One, age nineteen, has two published books (what was I doing with my time at nineteen?). The other is a ghost writer and mostly now does short stories. The nineteen-year-old just started a university writing program so, who knows, she may never write again – or maybe be a great success. I knew her when…
I had lunch in the dining car yesterday with a lady from the island of Hawaii travelling to St. Louis, which happens to be my destination. As we talked, she shared some of her experiences of moving to Hawaii and what her immediate surroundings were like…plants and animals. There was also another lady sitting at a table across the aisle who was glancing over from time to time. It turned out that she also was also from the “Big Island” and they were, in fact, near neighbors. They lived in adjoining communities. So what are the odds of two people starting off on separate journeys from the same general place at different times and meeting in a dining car in New Mexico on an east-bound train? How many different things had to fall into place for that to happen? I suppose someone could figure out the odds with enough information but I’ve learned just to accept it. Maybe a butterfly in Tibet flapped its wings and things fell into place. Maybe not.
My life is full of similar random coincidences that defy explanation. My late wife’s birthdate matches exactly with my brother’s wife’s birthdate…same day and year. They were born in the same state but not the same city. Also, totally unknown until later, my wife once worked for my sister-in-law’s mother when she was starting her career before I met her.
About a twenty years into my work life I was living in a small town and employed in government as a program manager. I had to hire a new secretary so I interviewed maybe a half dozen candidates. I hired a local woman from the small town and never really thought much about her background or family. In small towns one doesn’t pry into family connections unless the topic is initiated by the other person. My experience was that many people were related to each other either directly or by marriage and it was best not to express opinions or comments about someone. Now, realize that I was born and raised 150 miles away and had no prior connection to this town. That is what I thought until a chance conversation with my secretary revealed that we were both cousins to the same person. Somehow one of my cousins married her cousin and we were commonly related to their children. It was a second marriage for both of these cousins; both being divorced in different localities.
I also have two insurance agents, both living in that same small town that I moved to at age 27, and both of these agents share my birthday. One is exactly the same — day and year – and the other a few years later. They don’t know each other and work for different companies. There are other date-related coincidences: my dad died ten years, to the hour, before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. I could list almost a dozen other odd, seemingly random occurrences but you get the idea.
I was recently reading a short passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which he questions how things happen. Often we see things as planned and managed by a talented leader (in this case, Napoleon) but maybe that is an illusion. Maybe things are set in motion in another way. Maybe a peculiar string of random events led Napoleon to Moscow with a huge army. Maybe he was just along for the ride. We plan things and sometimes the plans work out and sometimes they don’t. “Serendipity” is one English language concept – to find something good by accident without seeking it. In history, one person’s serendipity is sometimes another person’s catastrophe. I suspect that concept is not unique to English speakers.
At any rate, things have an odd tendency to fall into place in ways that, while seemingly random, also give a hint that something else is in control. My daughter says that it is the angels at work. She got that idea from my wife who attributed certain happenings to an unseen hand…”Let it be – marvel but don’t question” was her philosophy. Maybe so. Maybe the angels are bored and play these games to keep busy.
Carl Gustave Jung, a clergyman’s son and prominent psychoanalyst, was also intrigued by these chance happenings and devised the concept of synchronicity. To his way of thinking, events do not need to have a causal relationship to have meaning — perhaps meaning eclipses cause? Out of all of these events that I’ve mentioned above, or others I haven’t described, or those others have experienced, none of them really had much of an impact. I didn’t change my behavior or plans in response to the events and it made no difference to other people whose lives intersected in the events. It is just a curiosity, sometimes with meaning to the observer, sometimes there is no meaning. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. Other than that one fact, there really isn’t anything else to say except that they both went on to change the course of history.
For a number of years, beginning in 1975, my wife and I would take a week-long vacation each year…maybe longer some years. The dates of our vacation coincided with a number of major events including the stock market crash, the death of Princess Diana, the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., the assassination of Anwar Sadat, disappearance (and death) of Jimmy Hoffa, various plane crashes, coups and military invasions. We would occasionally joke about the CIA or FBI wanting to track our movements — something big was going to happen if we took a vacation. We still took our vacation and we were finally able to shake off the “curse” about fifteen years ago. Nothing would happen when we went on a trip. It was sort of a let down…we didn’t have any special powers after all.
(Revised from the original posted at The Green Room, August, 2016)