January 28, 2009

January 27, 2009

I wonder . . .

Sometime I wish I were the gentle clinging kind
The average man adores, and none despises-
Not ever gauche enough to speak her mind,
Who’s calm and sweet, whose temper never rises.

I wonder if I were as good as this,
Would my old self be sorely missed?

January 20, 2009

Out of Africa - those crazy men in their flying machines

Denys Finch Hatton had the idea of using an airplane to hunt elephants; for him, it was a fatal notion, but Beryl Markham made a living at it and it makes sense to me. In fact, better than flying for hunters, I like the idea of airplanes for African sightseers. Get up there, not to high, say two, maybe three thousand feet or so. See everything from there.

The right tool for the right job. Dad’s motto. One of the jobs was to look for the possible location of Queen Sheba’s Mc Mansion. If you want to find archeological landmarks in the jungle or desert then the logical tool for Dad was an airplane.

Enter Branko, and his DC-6. Instant bonding between pilots. Here I had my first acquaintance with Third World freighter pilots. And my first of many, white knuckle flight experiences.

About 2,000 feet over Lubumbashi, the veteran misplaced the airport. It was there just a second ago, and then like crazy magic it was gone. Branko led the DC-6 through a slow waltz of banks and curves in search of the strip. He scolded the copilot, who had been running the show and had to take the rap for flying past the airport; now the copilot sat miffed staring straight ahead. Branko made no effort to calm the edgy flight engineer. ‘Where the h**l’s the airport?’ Branko screamed at his two crewmen. The copilot peered coolly into thin air. Not his job. The flight engineer tried to ameliorate the situation and said, ‘It will be here, it will be here.’ Branko did not believe him. We started climbing, an admission of failure and the string of buildings that defined Lubumbashi-once everywhere below us-now was someplace else.

Better luck on the second circle: gas stations, bars, paved roads. Branko ordered a fresh batch of flaps as the runway came into view. There was a cluster of trucks and Land-Rovers on one side of the runway, a terminal building on the other, and of the far end was a French fighter plane stuck in the mud. Red, twelve-foot tall anthills covered the sandy fields surrounding the runway.
The plane was met by an American delegation, representing the U.S. consulate and led with resolute cheerfulness by a woman with a painful permanent smile of diplomats and Unitarians. She had come to collect her household effects-drapes, iron, canned goods, John Denver’s Greatest Hits, the works. This private cosmos, crated, weighed three tons. The rest of the freights manifest was vague. The cable read 8,500 kilos of Teacher’s. The Americans thought ‘Peace Corps’, the liquor distributor knew better, and the whiskey disappeared into the trucks.

In the tight-knit community of freight flyers, Branko was a virgin. He had missed World War II and Korea. But, Vietnam, Cambodia and Central America
would provide an abundance of practical experience. He flew in Laos and Cambodia for Continental Air Transport-one of Air America’s CIA affiliates-until he was shot down on the China border. By the end of the ‘70’s, he flew out of Cairo in one of Pyramid Aviation’s DC-3’s to oil-exploration camps near the Libyan border.

In Zaire he put together a couple of old Convairs, and had the misfortune of flying into Malta’s Luqa airfield with a ‘dubious’ manifest. The Maltese confiscated his unmarked Lockheed Constellation. Sold off the engines, towed the hulk off the tarmac, put down the passenger steps, painted BAR & RESTAURANT on the side and opened it for business. Branko was appalled when he found out.

Then there was his young American copilot who came to Africa to log some first-officer hours. His first gig was on a DC-3 flying out of Chad. On his first night in Ndjamena, though, he apparently got real drunk, went off with a whore and wound up at four in the morning with his throat cut and his wallet missing. ‘What he missed in wars,’ a pilot noted, ‘he made up for in one night.’ The family was unable to face what they considered a rather terminal blotch on their son’s resume and hired a famous detective from Texas to get at the truth of the matter. The detective decided that the kid had died for his country; the victim of a tragic political assassination suffered while in the valiant service of his country, and managed to convince the family of this.

More, a veteran Dutch pilot known around his home field for habitually trying to take off in his Cessna 172 with the concrete tie-down block still attached to the tail of the airplane (frustrated airport officials finally fined him for unauthorized towing). On a contract for a TV news organization, he flew a camera and sound crew down to Dakar to see the finale of the Paris-Dakar trans-Sahara road rally, and on the way decided to skirt the beaches of what used to be Spanish Sahara but was then the scene of a bizarre war between Morocco and the Polisario guerrillas. The Polisario shot down the airplane then lined up the survivors on the beach and killed them.

They are not bush pilots, the laid-back Piper jockeys who cruise the pipeline in Alaska. In equatorial Africa, especially, the independent cargo pilot is often the only component of a transportation system that otherwise does not exist. Highways are a threatened species in Africa (in Zaire, for example, there were some 90,000 miles of passable road in 1958, after five decades and a quadrupled highway budget, there are only 4,000 miles left.) Waterways shrink and expand quickly and unpredictably. Railroads have become mechanically obsolete, and many are no longer in operation. Moreover, all forms of ground transportation are subject to prodigious amounts of theft; most shippers allow for one-third of their consignment to go astray.

Cargo pilots are left a pretty clear field. One pilot told me that 90 percent of the cargo he carries on his flights is, one way or another, contraband; his co-pilot put the figure even higher.

So, Donald Douglas’ greatest hits of the ‘30’s (the DC-3), the ‘40’s (the DC-4), the ‘50’s (the DC-6 and -7) and the ‘60’s (the DC-8), (there was a DC-5, a high-wing job. Douglas made five of them and sold them to the Dutch air force, which crashed them all) along with stray Britannias, Electras, Constellations and the odd 707, support entire economies, keep industries, government and guerrilla movements alive, provide logistical support for a welter of development projects and supply gainful employment for a group of high-risk entrepreneurs who, back home, would be stuck in the suburbs teaching the finer points of aviation to the Beechcraft kamikazes.
Together, they constitute an ad hoc Luftwaffe of seat-of-the-pants, fiercely independent small businessmen whose chaotic, hard currency, cash-in-advance network of freight runs stretches from Malta to the Cape of Good Hope. ‘Anything goes here’, remarked a chopper pilot. ‘You can fly light or heavy, early or late, high or low. Just get your money up front.’

You meet them in hotels in Kinshasa, Kisangani or Khartoum and listen to them talk about flying for both sides in half a dozen civil wars. Hang around for a while and they will present you with a realpolitik more cynical than you could ever imagine.

How to transport rocket fuel from South Africa to a Libyan base hidden in a satellite shadow.
Or how to negotiate the deviously circuitous flights (a favorite route: Tel Aviv to Cyprus, then Cyprus to Mombasa. In Mombasa, file a flight plan to Mumbai, but then turn left just past the gulf. Iranian air force jets meet you at the border and escort you in; they’ve been alerted by the Israelis, and they’re expecting you. In view of Iran’s resemblance to the Hotel California, they suggest that you use no American crew members.) that will take former Soviet Union hardware or Israeli rockets from Warsaw to Tel Aviv to Teheran. Commiserate with a broker who can’t find anybody to tote military cargo from Havana to Lima or from New England to Johannesburg via Kinshasa. Or sign on as loadmaster and transport weapons on relief flights from Khartoum to Juba, or watch American taxpayers feed the Cuban army in Angola.

Branko’s maxim: ‘If you are going to live on the run, it pays to have a ready supply of airplanes.’ If you never quite thought of meeting the exigencies of life that way, maybe it is because your life has not been a series of quick and essential departures. Branko has flown planes for right-wing governments and left-wing governments, for Texas ranchers and American movie directors; he has flown for money, flown for the heck of it, and more than once flown for his life. He has been winging it, as it were, for a long time, and for a long time, the runways and landing strips of the world have been black holes through which a handy fellow like him can slip into another dimension, suddenly invisible.

Flying antique cargo planes offers Branko room to improvise. Flying expensive jets cramps his style. ‘Look,’ he says. ‘I have told you this before. And I will tell you again, stick around.’ He pointed out the window of the airport toward the runway. The cracked and patched surface vibrated in the heat. ‘This is where it all happens.’
Yes, but I have always remained a white knuckled pilot.

January 17, 2009

MALARIA DREAMS (part 2) or I was invincible until I met a mosquito.

Mosquitoes love me. Conversely, I do not like them. The same goes for flies, gnats and other small circling creatures. This simple fact exasperated my father and brother who were immune.
"Relax into the bugs," they would counsel me, as we hiked along in some damp place, a cloud of insects swarming around my head like a dark halo.

"Easy for you to say," I would snarl from deep within my swirling aura, hands flailing angrily at the air.

So with some trepidation I prepared for our Cairo to Cape Town trip.

I followed all the precautions. I dutifully popped my meds and covered up in the evenings, wearing long-sleeved blouses and lightweight pants, applying repellent, carefully checking my mosquito net for holes. But as time went by, I became increasingly careless. The repellent was the first thing to go, mainly because I hated the hot, sticky feeling of it, like an airtight layer of latex paint on my skin, not to mention the smell! The long sleeves went next.

I would sit on deck of our Felucca floating down the Nile enjoying the delicious whisper of the night air on my bare skin.

In Stanleyville, I awoke with a hot ache in my bones and the sensation of a thousand tiny needles pricking my flesh. When I sat up, my head seemed to soar above my body at a great height. My arms and legs felt weighted down, as though an army of Lilliputians had anchored them to the bed.

The beast had the best of me at last.

I lay on a bed in a hospital room, blurredly watching a fan turn above my head. The air was hot and still. As I stared at the fan's hypnotic spiral, an extraordinary languor seeped into my limbs. I went through the feverish dance I'd come to know so well.

Sister said that if it were malaria tropica, the most dangerous strain, and they did not treat it, I could conceivably die from it, whereas taking unnecessary medication might screw with my system, but would not kill me.

The fevers were in full swing. My body behaved like a furnace gone haywire, my temperature modulating up and up until it broke in a dramatic display of sweat and shivers, only to begin the process all over again. Every hair on my body stood bolt upright on its follicle in protest. Although I was ravenously hungry, when I finally got access to food, I was unable to keep it down. Even with something as innocuous as rice, I would eat one spoonful, and my throat would close on the second bite. Still my mind remained detached, even slightly intrigued.

"Malaria's not so bad," I said to myself.

Little did I know the fun had just begun.

My first medication-altered night was spent in a surreal state, somewhere between painfully acute wakefulness and grotesquely etched, brilliantly colored dreams. Everyone I had met in my short life paraded through my head like a Super 8 movie shot with a hand-held camera. All my loved ones came forward in random order to take their shaky bows -my loving grandparents, my adoring father, remote mother, my curiously detached brother, school friends- I shouted their names and sat up again and again.

I started to get up and was stunned to discover that I could not stand and cross the room. I stood up and sat down again three times in rapid succession, my legs folding beneath me like a marionette's. The dizziness in my head was so severe that the walls zoomed by me as if on a high-speed carousel.

"What are you doing?" Dad called out from across the room.

"We've got to get going," I said.

"You've got malaria. You're not going anywhere."

"But we should," I told him, my voice rising and then I passed out.

When I woke, my head ached like the worst kind of hangover. All the colors of the world were piercingly bright.

In my dreams, I rose and fell and rose and fell like a crazy jack-in-the-box before I dived headfirst into a lake, unable to move a limb, I started to drown. I began to scream in absolute terror; arms flailing, shaken by violent sobs that gradually gave way to a bottomless river of grief. Life was fragile. Things could be broken. Loss was real.

I lay on my bed, staring up at the white ceiling, a 12-year-old girl, privileged and reckless, sporadically courageous and wildly arrogant, selfish and loving, thoughtless and tender -sick now and growing up.

January 13, 2009

The Street I love, ( 9th. arrondissement, Paris)

The delightful little Avenue Frochot is literally a stone’s throw from Pigalle but atmospherically worlds away, with its quiet gardens and trees.

The area has largely been given over to commerce, still memories persist of its aristocratic and artistic past. Josephine de Beauharnais lived in the Rue de la Victoire. ‘Yes, Madame, the stables were on this very spot’, the hairdresser round the corner told me, sighing at the weight of history thus imposed on her. In a corner of the garden Bonaparte plotted the coup d’état of 1799. A slightly reverend look came over her face. Napoleon slept here.

Nowadays the quarter is weighted with the glass and stone of insurance buildings and banks, and has the Opera, the churches of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and the Trinite, and department stores for landmarks. Grey crowds fill the lunchtime streets.

But on Sundays when traffic thins, it gives itself up to almost provincial peace.

Delacroix moved here in 1844 and wrote his impressions to George Sand. ‘On my arrival here the first object that struck the eyes of my virtue was a magnificent lorette dressed in black satin and velvet who, getting out of a cabriolet with the unconcern’s of a goddess, let me see her leg up to her navel.’ The particular splendors of the neighborhood were, he freely admitted, enough to make an ardent man quite dizzy.

Berlioz, Offenbach, Gustav Moreau, Toulouse-Lautrec, Marcel Proust went to school at the Lycee Condorcet, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Liszt, Chopin, Renoir all spent time here – the quarter if full of ghosts.

Victor Hugo, attempting to divide his affection into four workable parts, used to devote the mornings to his work, the late afternoons to Juliette Drouet, whom he met each day by the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, dinnertime to his family, and the evenings to Juliette’s rival, Leonie d’Aunet.

Alexander Dumas the elder lived here. In the summer of 1849 his son wrote La Dame aux Camelias. Midway through reading the play to his father, he had to leave for an appointment. Upon returning, he found his father bathed in tears. His father rose and embraced his son. The great success of the piece never gave him as much pleasure as that moment.

Rue de la Victoire was known during the Second Empire for its numerous maisons de rendezvous, known also as five to seven houses. This is where Mme Gautier run her establishment. According to Peter de Polnay, in his book Aspects of Paris, she had the enterprising idea of writing to every American whose name appeared in The American Register’s list of visitors, inviting him to her house because she has something important to tell him. Occasionally an entire, innocent, transatlantic family would turn up, whereupon she would explain that she was running a theatrical agency, hence the assembly of attractive young women, and had mistaken the man’s name for that of a celebrated actor. Touché.

In Paris, even in the ‘new’ district of the 9th, history lies layers deep. Modernization has eroded, but not destroyed its charm.

January 12, 2009

cyber blues

Charles is alive and well, drifting through the Steppes of Central Asia ‘disconnected’.

You are in a foreign country, one of those countries just recently released from the damp basement of a dank past. Your hotel room has no view. The phone does not work, and speaking into the light bulb, which used to be the way to communicate, no longer pertains. The men who once sat patiently in a cement cubicle below your room listening breathlessly to your every word have emigrated to a technologically advanced country, ours let us say, in order to employ their gift for patient snooping in more rewarding ways. You are alone in a small room at the far edge of nowhere and there is no place to plug in the computer. There will be no phone calls, no e-mails, and certainly, no snail mail for the duration of your stay, which, originally slated for one month, now looks more like an eternity.

After the first wave of tech-withdrawal anxiety has subsided, you ask yourself, and why should I, off all people, be so connected to other people that I must suffer withdrawal anxiety? The obvious answer is that you are neither important nor irreplaceable. If you disconnect from all the plugged-in people you used to be connected to, the network will make only an infinitesimal adjustment. Your former plug-in mates will go on connecting with each other, barely noticing your absence. You realize then that the network is the important thing. Anyone outside of it ceases to exist. You also remember now, with some remorse, losing all your old epistolary friends for the simple reason that they wrote snail-mail letters. You dropped them into nonexistence because they were not plugged in.

When you realize this, you stick your head out the window and shout: ‘Anybody home?’ and suddenly heads appear in the windows looking at you and speaking in some non-electronic language. The whole world is at home! Which is quite reassuring and you are comforted by their physical proximity.

See, your computer plug does not love you enough to answer your shout.

P. S. I am well again, thank you for sending all that positive energy.

January 10, 2009

malaria dreams

I am starting the New Year with shivers. Malaria relapse. My little souvenir from our Cairo to Capetown trip in 1958. I remember the wonderful Sisters taking care of me in Stanleyville (now Kisangani) spoiling me rotten. Dad, auf course had all the good women wrapped around his little finger. Brother just vanished who knows where to for the duration.
Interesting to note, that I have not remembered anything about this trip, except my malaria dreams in the Congo, and every minute detail of Kenya. I still can recall the smells, sounds, and varied landscapes.

Karen came to visit and I embarrassed her when she realized that I do not dress for bed (upright Wisconsin upbringing).

I believe in the power of positive thinking. So dear reader, when you read this, will you send some my way?

P.S. Charles is lost somewhere along the Silk Road. Cut off from all modern communications. That must be hell for someone as ‘cyber centric’ as he is.
When I ask him, if it was not a bit dangerous to travel into these contested areas at this time he said, ‘Aw, no big loss.’ Typical Charles.