Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 57 – LIGHT FROM BELOW

But it is 1986 now and I am on the hunt, and I have just encountered Mrs. Miner, the energetic and kind old woman who I thought was old when she was still the cook and housekeeper and boss of other helpers at White Pines decades back – back when I was enjoying popularly in our summer gang such as I never knew before in groups of contemporaries, where most often I had been dismissed as slow or dumb or unattractive, nothing at all like my twin brother. And even when I was popular and had fallen in reciprocated love with Kitty, to me the most desirable of all the sweet tanned girls in our summer gang, it did not register at home. My maternal grandmother, not the grand dame paternal grandmother but the one we called Grandmother Clark and who lived with us in Connecticut, would wonder aloud why my successes in school, in a academics and in debate, weren’t my brother’s successes – he was always so studious, so if only he had put his mind to it like Fred did. And my mother would wonder aloud why it was Fred who was with Kitty or Sandie or even some other girl no one knew, and why couldn’t girls see how very much – much more was how I heard it – that Peter had to offer.

This was on my mind in 1986 – this time when my cousins, the first cousins, not the distant older cousins, had come of age and were in the course of dying off already, dying in great pain and usually under circumstances of violence. This time when my brother Peter was at large not just in family places but in the CIA, and I was for the first time letting myself really know what I knew and taking it a perhaps logical step further to the point where White Pines, formerly the most perfect place on earth, had become a chamber of horrors that was at the very least unsafe for children – populated, I was saying, by people who not only should not have had children but who were too narrow and bigoted to be entrusted with much of anything, much less my love.

A situation that seemed so clear in 1986 but before this had seemed so muddy – their anti-Semitism and other snobbery now far outweighing their distant past accomplishments as Socialists and other sorts of liberators. This even before dealing with them as actual or suspected molesters.

Yet even now when I was on the hunt, in a time when what had been white had become black, even now this landscape would be full of color and I could not forget what it had once been for me.

It was partly a place of enchantment. Dad and Uncle Nick and Peter and I rose before dawn the morning after hiking – with snacks for us and a flask of whisky for our elders – all the way up to the Greenleaf Hut at the timberline on Mount Lafayette – the highest mountain in the Franconia range – the official view of which was seen so clearly from White Pines out past the long, horizontal pained class window that followed the line of the long dining table, and out past graceful French doors that followed the formal sitting room end of the great room – through the French doors and outside among white bird baths and trellises on a perfect narrow lawn that ended at boulders laced with iron ore, and then after the boulders a thick, prickly wild blueberry field that ended at, still with no humans in sight, the deep woods my grandparents actually owned. That they owned the woods I had checked on some years back when helping a criminal lawyer coach a young cousin. Whatever you do, the lawyer said to him, don't tell the judge that your grandmother owns those woods, for neither a judge nor anyone else in a city courtroom would get the conception. Those woods that led to the grand mountains.

In the early morning we walked from the Greenleaf hut on a steep pathway up through rocks and scrub pine, carrying with us a small mirror. At the summit, under the direction of Dad and Uncle Nick, who had been doing it since they themselves were children, Peter and I tried turning the mirror in ways that maybe it would send flashes of light that could be seen as far away as at White Pines itself. Whether our small mirror worked, the wall mirror Gaga brought through the French doors at a prearranged time certainly did – great flashes of white light from the valley, like some sort of annunciation.

And Peter was right, and Gaga was kind, and so too was Nana, my stately grandmother, the one who knew the famous people and knew right from wrong in style as well as substance, Nana the one who struck people as cold but who often took my side – probably, I thought by 1986 when I was on the hunt, because, bigoted or not, straight laced or not, socially superior or not, she was so much more intelligent than the rest of them.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 56 – HOUSES AGAIN

We were in a barn behind a Waspily tasteful house, looking at two black Bentleys, way out on the Easton Road in deep, maturing second growth North Country woods. It was August and there was a chill to the air.

The barn seemed strangely dead. I could not imagine live cows or farm workers in it. We were standing around these two old but perfectly maintained black Bentleys. And I heard myself asking the tweed-capped old gentleman who owned them if they were for sale – and he said they were in the sort of careful British-like, American upper-class accent so common to the summer people. It seemed like a reasonable thing to ask him, since I was quite drunk – drunker probably, than my old friend from childhood and her new husband, who had brought me here.

It was the summer of 1970 – and there was talk about the chance I would soon have money. I did not realize there was always such talk when you had a certain kind of novel coming out. My editor was saying that mine – which was set in Vietnam-era Bangkok, and had plenty of war and sex in it – would somehow be the successor to Taipan, Love Is A Many Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong. He said this though the advance had been $5000 (which seemed high to me).

I was on the final reworking, actually meeting my deadline. In the six months since signing the contract I had been sometimes working furiously, and sometimes furiously not working – moving first to London, then to Las Palmas in the Canaries, then back to London, and then to an obscure part of the obscure island/country Malta, and back to London again, then Zermatt, then Frankfort, and once more London. An old childhood friend who had become an investment banker lived there, and many war-loving journalists I had known in Southeast Asia were passing through.

I had not much liked London this time around and was wondering if I had ever liked London or had just been told by the family that it was my favorite place. For it was their place, not mine, the place where my sexy Aunty Betsy had a child and lingered after her husband was killed, and also adopted two more children. More important, it was the home of my grandparents’ close friends Sir Arthur and Lady Ethel Salter – names that were actually shouted out by a footman at the sort of parties these friends went to.

All of this being the sort of thing I hated most except when it was parodied for comedy's sake.

But then I was reluctantly coming also to hate the family’s home base, the White Mountains, notwithstanding that I had come into life there, including love and sex and literature. Despite sex and love I could never totally deny what the White Mountains stood for – which included silly, bigoted Wasps (who had recently voted for Nixon),

That there was a long-odds chance that my book would make big money did not explain why, as the book came to an end, I had been drawn here. Drawn not so much like the moth to the flame as like the fly to the flypaper.

Why did I come? Why, when drunk, did I, clearly a radical left-winger when out in the world, say I wanted to own a Bentley? I knew I would never spend another summer here – I know it on some level – but a few days before the Bentley evening, when drunk again, I had talked seriously with my friends here about using book money to buy back White Pines, the biggest of the old family places. Bringing White Pines back to glory, the way it was before it had been sold to avoid taxes and fallen into the hands of uncouth people. Gatsby-like I would buy it.

The people of the past could make of this what they would. I would put them in their place, though it might seem I as out to honor them. For just a moment this house purchase idea, like the Bentley idea, had the feel of clear thinking – for just a brief gin-soaked moment.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 55 – PARKWAYS AGAIN

For the first time in my life I was freed from the tyranny of my mother tongue – this English language, the only one in which I was fluent, the language that had been so useful for making lists and arguments and putting forth closure and conclusion, but was of so little use to me in this time when everything was changing.

A language that worked now was that of trees billowing out on either side of the old style parkways I drove now for the first time or the first time in years. Special old four-lane, divided and landscaped highways from the early days of automotive motoring. Highways that brought instant nostalgia whether it was the name of the Merritt Parkway, which I had traveled to go to Kitty’s place when 16, or the Palisades Parkway along the Hudson atop high cliffs that spoke of sensuous danger, or the old Taconic, the take-off route for northern destinations – the Taconic, which felt familiar though I could not remember being on it before.

The Merritt Partkway like the rest of Connecticut as I remembered it, intensely green and hopeful and unadventurous, and strangely comforting in its lack of surface excitement. The Palisades, high above the river, with a circular restaurant with fireplaces and fans rather than conditioned air, and they cooked the cheap hamburgers to order, a time warp situation. And now the Taconic, so like the roads that were driven in 30s movies and civilized old detective novels.

On the Taconic this summer they had still not gotten around to anything resembling the exits and entrances of modern turnpikes. So far from having cloverleafs, you could simply turn off the Taconic onto narrow roads that went off at right angles, appeared without warning, and seemed that summer to as often as not go through bowers of lush vegetation – like tunnel entrances to enchanted lands. Several times I turned off to see what was there and, by God, I would come out the other side of the tunnel in my aqua Mustang and I would be in exactly the kind of enchantment I had imagined – rolling hills and flowers and cows and horses and once even fluffy sheep.

It all came in these new word-free languages I was learning – everything now so far from books I’d planned or actually constructed.

Constructed. That’s all I seemed to have left in 1986 of what writing had been about. Constructed with a certain end result always expected. As perhaps in my grandfather's novels, that not so long before this time could turn up on compulsory college reading lists, as they still did on the compulsory reading lists for White Mountains summer families.

But now sounds. Music was constantly playing in the car. Willie Nelson and Carly Simon and James Taylor and Judy Collins. Also Mozart, who knew the lightness of being that I was only just beginning. Mozart (though not Beethoven, for right now I wanted gentleness). Sounds, not thoughts put into an alphabet. Sights, like what I was seeing in the city in the museums and galleries and cityscapes as well as parkway landscapes that I had not seen before
sights, not labeled things that could be looked up and checked. Feelings rather than maps showing the way.

Breaking out of times without music, without painting, without billowing trees, without parkways, without a car.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 54 - OLD VOYAGE

After all these adventures – later there were those who said I must have been suicidal but that had not occurred to me, or I had protested against it. Even during times of deep depression alone in Darfur without water or among silly expats – or being served raw liver in a desolate grass hut village – and certainly not suicidal in the clearly exciting times, hiding in safe places deep in colonial Angola during the revolution against the Portuguese. Or dealing with scoundrels, such as a travel writer who turned out to be the cruel son of a titled English friend of my grandparents. He was was traveling through Angola and Katanga financed by the mining interests that had had Lumumba killed. Hardly depressed when facing spear carriers in Chad’s near desert who suddenly emerged in a previously empty landscape to negotiate the division of a just shot antelope – or, after being ordered out of Abeché by French army men who were still present, but staying anyway and sleeping in the house of their enemy, a mysterious Foreign Legion widow named Madam Lucieni, whose pet lions roamed through every room.

And now I was on a ship – with help from an old friend from draftee army days who was now in the Foreign Service and in the U.S. Legation in Luanda. I had gotten this job way, way below the equator on a Norwegian freighter going non-stop all the way up to Emden on the North Sea – this in exchange for my friend helping with paperwork so the old captain would not have to go ashore and do it himself.

Another reason I was hired, it soon became clear, was that the old captain needed someone new to hear his stories. Norwegian ship’s officers, though not crew members, stayed at sea for six years at a stretch. The captain needed someone new to hear about being shipwrecked in the 1920s off the China Coast, and about his adventures, before he was a ship’s officer, going up to Greenland to club baby seals to death.

Nominally I was working for my passage. I was given the job of painting around the portholes in the officer’s quarters. And I was put up in their part of the ship in what amounted so a suite – something called the owner’s carbin, which they said had never been used by any of the line’s owners but every norwegian ship had one because it was tradition.

Once I actually was doing a little painting and the ship’s stewardess, a tall and tight, though technically Venus-like, Nordic woman – I had never imagined that a non-passenger ship would carry a stewardess – started talking to me like an angry schoolteacher, about what a messy job I was doing, and why was I spending so much time talking with the men rather than working? The others told me the story on her. She had just moved into the first mate’s cabin, which was a scandal in this life at close quarters. The first mate told me that what he had done meant he would never ship out as a first officer again but he didn’t care. He did not look like he was having fun. He did not even look like he was getting laid, though he must have been.

The ship's engineer was a wiry right-winger. He invited me into his sitting room – they did live well on this ship – so he could rail at Socialists everywhere, especially those in power in Norway. But he would get off track and start telling me about the war, about his days in the underground, the chances he took, his friends whom the Nazis and their collaborators caught and executed.

There was abundant mealtime food of the meat and potatoes sort, and at all hours an assortment of cheeses in the officers' dining room, which benefited from a behind-the-scenes cook I never met, just as I met few on board who were not officers. And there was sometimes plenty of good Norwegian beer, which was important to me at that time in my life. How they got Norwegian beer in the obscure places they visited was a mystery. No place was quite so disconnected then as Luanda – which strangely was an all-white Mediterranean looking city – white buildings and white people – even the shoeshine boys and lottery ticket salesmen were white Portuguese. My friend and his wife, though both anti-apartheid liberals, left margarine in the kitchen for the servants, and had real butter at their own table, the only sign that they followed local custom. My friend had complained to me that there were people in the Foreign Service who had told him he was being sent to Africa because his experience growing up in Georgia would help him in tough dealings with Negroes.

I was actually kind of depressed most of the time on the freighter. It was feeling like I belonged nowhere. I had been living high with my lovely artist girlfriend in Greece but I did not speak the language there. Before Greece I was all over Yugoslavia, a young man alone in strange towns without Serbo-Croat. In Africa there were many new languages I did not speak.

When I ran out of reading matter I went to the closet they called the ship’s library, where almost everything was in English, which is the official language of the sea. And there was a paperback of an historical novel that a few months ago my mother, strangely, had written me about. Strange that she should give me literary advice. But maybe not so strange that she did not know me well enough to know how much I disliked historical fiction. She said I really should read this one.

This novel was about Dumas or Hugo or one of those old-time best-selling French writers – musketeers and pretty girls in lacy long dresses and evil cardinals and galley slaves and that sort of thing. This novel about this writer starts when he is an inexperienced young man. It is his first night in Paris. He is just in from some dull provincial place.

On that night, knowing no-one, he by chance meets Major Dreyfus, and then by chance meets Toulouse-Lautrec. I put it down before finding out if by chance he slept with Colette, I was that depressed.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 53 - MONGOLIA

Although Walter did most of the talking, he did seem fascinated by my experience of the world, which was so different from his –the foreign adventure part, and even more the part of my life when I was very young, a child, up in the restricted part of New Hampshire and also in Fairfield County Connecticut. And as my past came into focus, I was proud that from the very start I had rejected the family’s nasty bigotry, even though I had usually kept silent and seethed rather than go openly on the attack.

Such silence was becoming untenable in this time when everything was changing – this time when I was about to head up to northern New England to go on the hunt, feeling ready to kill as I gathered evidence against the villains and information about what had really happened, on the hunt for what had happened to all these cousins who were coming to such bad, often violent, ends now in the present, and not least what had really happened to myself.

Maybe on some level I had wanted to play the game. Why else Princeton? Even though I hated that shoddy Republican place, I did stay for all four years. And as for continuing to play the game: Why else give that “Twins in the American Century” shit a chance. Now I had to fight my way out of some maze I was in. Whether I had created it or been placed in it were irrelevant matters. But the fact that I might have a hand in it – me so opposed to so much of their awful nonsense from the time I was first aware of what they were doing, which started when I was about seven years old – that I might have had a hand in it somehow made logical sense – and made me even more want to kill.

Because I could not sit in silence anywhere now, I was spending almost all my time with people I knew only in this new time – people who were getting really organized now – people who were also on the hunt for family horrors in the present and especially in the past.

One reason I could not keep going to these hospitable Sunday gatherings, which had actually been a big part of life for me, was that nothing about me was explained there. I realized, as I began what I felt could be a fight to the death, that I could no longer listen to anyone’s nonsense.

One thing I had learned in those years of Sunday afternoons at Walter’s was that to people I consciously cared about, which more and more meant non-family people, the world I came from was as strange and forbidding and exotic too as would be the world of someone from Mongolia. And I realized that they would understand Mongolia better than they understood Waspdom.

For I knew William Buckley, who everyone thought so smooth, was a fraud. I just knew it. I was delighted when someone wrote that Buckley proved that old saying that if you give an Irishman a horse he will vote Tory. Buckley with his fake English accent – so like the fake English accents of my supposedly nearest and dearest, who also would know Buckley was a fraud even as they tried themselves to make accurate British sounds. No one in my family was nearly so cool as the Anglophile Irishman Buckley. My family’s model was non-existent.

I did not at this point, want to spend another Sunday afternoon with people who thought that what I came from was classy.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 52 - AT WALTER'S PLACE

Often during the last four years of my failing first marriage when I was living with my wife, her son and eventually her mother too in a cramped place looking out on an air well on West 81st Street, often during that time and for two years after I moved out of the place and the marriage and into a bright place on 25th Street that had a view, I would still spend most Sunday afternoons in an old and solid West 79th Street apartment where my very old friend Walter Karp and his sparkling second wife Regina, lived. Walter still did most of the talking, as he had in the 20 years I had known him. He was still trying out verbally before he wrote them the latest chapters for the latest of his political theory books for which he was becoming known. Sometimes it was just Walter, Regina, me and Walter’s younger brother Richard. Sometimes on these Sunday afternoons we would be joined by old friends of Walter’s from his days at Columbia, where he was Valedictorian of his class, and shocked them all by refusing to go to graduate school but instead took a position writing picture captions for show-biz stories in Pageant Magazine. And sometimes there would be some well-known editors too, who had come into the picture after his writing became respectable.

Often on these afternoons I would feel more like an observer than a participant, but this had been going on since childhood.

My childhood was something I rarely talked about, so I was surprised when, one Sunday, Walter brought it up. I noted that he had my last book, the one on the Philippines, displayed on what looked like a dictionary stand. He had this great idea, he said for my next book, which he said should be a light autobiographical work about me and my foreign adventures, my grandfather who Walter knew of as a novelist and internationalist, and my twin Peter, whom I occasionally referred to as someone who worked for the C.I.A. The book, Walter said, should be called Twins in the American Century.

That was one of the rare times that my family came into actual conversation on those Sunday afternoons. On one other occasion the family appeared, but I did not let on. It was when Walter was speaking with humor about a time he had been a Scarsdale girl’s date for a country club dance. Before the dance started he was asked to leave town because the grown-ups had discovered he was Jewish. I shook my head and remained silent even though I knew Walter would have been amused by my experience with the same event.

It was one night when I had fled college, as I often did, for the pleasures of the city. Being broke, but maybe more obedient than I realized, I took my grandmother up on dinner at her New York apartment, which was a tiny replica of their big houses up in New Hampshire that were so much a part of my early years. That night at the dinner table – as formal as in the mountains, right down to careful servers and the finger bowls, she talked about what she said was an awful thing that had happened in Scarsdale to her son Nick and his wife Peggy (who sometimes came up in conversation to be put down for being too careful about appearances). What had happened was that some girl in Scarsdale had invited a boy to their country club dance and it turned out he was Jewish and so of course had to leave. But the worst came afterwards, she said, for at the Episcopal church (which I knew from Scarsdale funerals) the minister had railed against the country club – and so the congregation had asked the minister, too, to leave Scarsdale. The point seemed to be how awful for Peggy that not just the girl but the minister too had behaved so badly.

That time at that dinner table was yet another time when I kept quiet but seethed. At certain times I knew of nothing between violent ranting and silence. And, worse than silence, I actually did make a stab at that book Walter suggested. I took the idea to the point where Macmillan just needed a sample chapter for the record before making an offer. Of course it was impossible to write even a fake chapter of Twins in the American Century.