Friday, November 16, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 25 - Stories to Hide Stories
Umbrellas appear that put real stories in the shade. Such an umbrella might be an official family story that is repeated over and over and never changes. The umbrella story might be about things done long ago that can never be matched, or maybe about paths chosen, a path to failure or a path to respectability from which one must not stray. Or it might be a catchall system into which all stories are supposed to fit – an inner child system or a family-systems system or a Jungian system, or a yogic one or a patriotic one. Or something from inside that is so badly wanted it must be true.
That big trip, and soon to leave the age of 26 forever, which meant it might be the last time to do more of those things I had dreamed of doing. Dreamed of doing these things, which seemed like the proper things to have been doing – as if there were a correct form that I had discovered and was following – and dreaming in the right way was a part of filling that form. But it took effort to maintain that form, and, beyond dreams, fill that form the way I had decided it should be filled.
Steve and Berta, Vannie’s old college roommate, came to Athens, buying a VW bug in Germany on the way, and brought cognac to the hospital over near Lykavatos where I had just had my appendix out. I didn’t need them to bring anything for this was a hospital where the nurses expected tips, and the services for which you tipped them included drink if you wanted it and always that thick black coffee that I knew to be Turkish coffee but humored the nurses by saying was Greek coffee.
I had spent the year in Yugoslavia and Greece, even though Kennedy had beat Nixon and it seemed almost reasonable to assume America would leave the dull, stagnation of the Eisenhower years – become more like a place really ought to be – but anyway I had left for the Balkans, and now Steve and Berta were here, and Vannie – my pretty, touching, smart, artistic and sometimes tortured girlfriend from New York who had joined me in Athens – Vannie and I defied the fifties and lived together in a small white-washed house – electricity but no indoor plumbing and I wrote and wrote and also sometimes filled the place with carousing expatriates, a place that was on the side of the Acropolis – fitting matters to go into the form.
We drove around through Turkey and Syria and over the mountains into Beirut where I left them all – for reasons not quite clear but certain, as if ordered by some authority on the subject, that I had to move into the rest of my life alone – sailed off to Alexandria, from there some Nasser-era Egyptian adventures and on to the main rail line from Cairo and down all the way to Aswan and then on one of the old steamships that Kitchener had used in his vain attempt to save Gordon from death at the hands of the Mahdi – or was it Gordon trying to relieve Kitchener? – from Khartoum across the Sudan, off on a new railroad with old steam engines, into the west, ten days to go 800 miles, and then a number of days riding defective vehicles in Sudanese military convoys in which, for purposes of their training, you could not carry water - nearly dying of thirst, it seemed.
And many more days then in market trucks going through the sand on the French side, where there were no roads between grass-hut villages, just shifting tracks in the sand – with the men on the back relieved of their spears before the truck’s captain, Bashir Ramadan, who like them had a face decorated with tribal scars, would start the engine. The men sitting up high on a big stack of dura beans in this truck that operated like a tramp steamer in the grand sweep of the savannah – and me in the cab reloading a rifle for Bashir as he careened between huge trees while shooting out the window at antelope on which we lived – and everything was new but also like a movie like it should be – sometimes but not always comic – and there was a cinematic armed showdown in a dispute with tribes people who appeared from nowhere and wanted our fresh antelope carcass –
All those scenes. Drinking hard in the middle of nowhere and a man showing me the power of dura bean liquor by pouring some on the ground and putting a match to it, which caused a loud popping sound, a blue and yellow flash, a smell like burning gasoline, and thick black smoke that I would describe in stories later as looking like a mushroom cloud. And the torch-lit communal dancing.
And in Abeché sleeping the a Foreign Legion widow’s sofa in this house to which she brought who acquired live lines and let the roam free. The face of lioness first thing in the morning. Then being given the mayor’s house because it would annoy the French, who had ordered me out of town, though nowhere to go, then a little man in a General deGaulle hat circling around and around all night as a visitor from Dakar, the chef de cabinet there, and I drank Pernot on the front veranda before I went back to sleep with lions. And behind me all those days without water, parched like in a story of people dying in a desert
And then I’d made my way down to Brazzaville, and skirting Leopoldville on to Bangui and then into Angola where Holden Roberto’s revolution against the Portuguese was underway, cat and mouse games with the Portugese, nights spent in secret safe house since I was on the anti-colonial side.
VV And then I was doing anything way down in Angola, fitting the form, moving around the dangerous countryside - a sacred mound of skulls, skulking rapacious Belgian and English mining company agents – and I stayed out of sight of the Portuguese enforcers by using obscure safe-house stations where Roberto’s rebels sometimes hid.
I escaped finally on a freighter that went non-stop all the way to the North Sea, which still had World War II mines in it, me on the bridge learning to read the charts that kept us from the mines, like Walter Mitty living out a dream. By the time I reached Emden and started back down to Greece overland I had the feeling that now I could do anything.
This I wrote, when back in Athens, in letters to friends in New York, letters which also included talk of girls I had met that eventful year – girls with whom, I said in the letters, I fell in love – lush Dutch Ina, who appeared suddenly in Athens with children and a beat lover, and whom I had known, had necked with, she
expelled like so many Dutch from Indonesia, appearing with shaved legs and lipstick and a non-Dutch tan nine years back when I was a teenager on an exchange program in Holland – and up in Slovenia just before Athena a Croat heart-breaker, Inga, a perennial teenager now who never mentioned that her mother and father had been lined up and shot when Tito took over –
But the thing was that much as I liked Ina and Inga, and at moments had thought either would fit the form, even if neither was an action painter like Vannie – I did not have affairs with, much less fall in love with, either Ina or Inga — and I did not mention night activities with the girls of the Pireaus waterfront, and back when I reached Ft. Lamy I was happy to be alive but certainly not certain that now I could do anything. Rather, riddled with dysentery and 50 pounds lighter than my New York weight, and dreaming of so many other possible lives. And through the nights typing away back in Greece in a hunters’ cabin in Lagrena down the coast, typing away at what I hoped would bring me fame. And steering clear of seeming evidence that there was no such thing as love – no-such-thing-as-love being the way it should be for a properly world weary young man, but I did not find it satisfying, and I drank and fought and wrote, none of which seemed enough to save me from helpless sinking. A dark time – unlike my stated version of it as a time of triumph.
In old-time Portuguese Angola in the revolution, those safe stations for rebels where I hid - I did not mention in the letters to New York that they had been run by Methodists.