Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 63 – PLANET OF THE APES

I came out of the past and appeared to myself once while living in Beirut. It was one of those awful times in this life of high adventure, this life in hopefully wonderful exotic places, when everything had gone wrong – living in Beirut, surrounded by the very worst sort of non-Arabs, the Arabist anti-Semites and pack journalists. I had to admit that there were people I knew there who could seem alive and decent and even entertaining, yet their presence served not to change the picture but, by being so outside the picture, make its awfulness even more clear. Here in a tunnel of hopelessness – and also broke – down and out in this nowhere place city whose pretentious French façade was about as convincing as my family’s British façade had been.

The English couple downstairs in the Sinno building in Ein-mreisse say that for their party they would like everyone to bring a childhood picture. I have just recently received in the mail, out of the blue, a small slightly dog-eared and fading Brownie snapshot of myself at maybe 3 years old sitting with an expression of abandonment all alone in a rowboat on what is clearly Echo Lake where the highway meets the foot of Cannon Mountain at the entrance to Franconia Notch. This picture sent to me from Littleton, New Hampshire, by Aunt Alice in this time I am in what is feeling like a dangerously deep mire – which I am just beginning to see always comes when family seems to surround me – even when via surrogates and from a great distance.

At the party I stay drunk on the most outlandish of alcoholic beverages – Lebanese rosé alternated with arak. No one else brings a childhood picture to the party, so, with relief, I take mine back upstairs, where I will lose track of it, pleased that I have been a good enough sport to have been ready to go along with this unpleasant childhood picture plan.

But well over a dozen years after Beirut in this time of travel into the White Mountains, this time on the hunt in my Aqua Mustang time machine, I am suddenly, as I drive, thinking of that picture – and now also of Aunt Alice with shiny smooth skin suckling her baby, back when I could not have been more than 7 or 8, but not too young to notice wonderfully smooth female nakedness. Pretty Aunt Alice, the black sheep of her generation as am I in mine, which maybe was a part of why I had been so ready to think of her as being what I was told she was, my favorite aunt. Maybe also that she was warm and that she liked me.

I drive through the Notch now. I see lying by the side of the Notch road an old broken sign. Its scratched and faded letters say “ROBIN’S NEST, See a tree growing through a restaurant.” And then another old sign rotting near the shoulder, “DRINK AND JEST AT THE ROBIN’S NEST.” When I was a child we never went to the Robin’s Nest, even though it should have been a proper place since it was in the Notch, which was family approved, but nonetheless the Robin’s Nest was damned as a “tourist gag.”

Now decades out of literal childhood I will go to look for the first time. I turn off on an overgrown driveway that is what I think was the entrance, and suddenly it is like the Planet of the Apes when they come upon the century’s old ruins of New York city. The restaurant building is all loose and rotted boards and broken windows, with a live tree poking out.

I continue on to the edge of the Notch where I come to Echo Lake, where when we were boys and girls starting to live on the exciting side of puberty we went swimming at midnight with hormones wonderfully raging, and I had been sure I had escaped childhood forever. But it is cold today on Echo Lake. There is a familiar cold wind in August. There are no swimmers. The only sign of anything human is a muscular man wind surfing, something that did not exist back in the past I am exploring. Round and round the lake he goes.

I get out and walk on drizzle-soaked path that follows the lake. Clouds are coming down. I nearly trip over a long, partially crushed green megaphone. Planet of the apes. It has to be the very megaphone that used to hang from the arm of a high pole and you would shout into it across the lake and your voice would come back to you.

I hold it up, and I make noises. It is more intact than I had realized. I hold it up. I have no words, just noises. But it works. The noises come back to me from across the lake where once, in ancient times that might, I think, have been present times if I had not taken to the road – where once I was a hopeless child alone in rowboat aware that the worst was probably happening.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 62 – HOME TO DIE?

The first time I was in Beirut I was traveling with my girlfriend Vannie and our friends from New York, Steve and Berta, who had met us in Athens, where we were living in a house with no plumbing on the side of the Arcropolis. I had been writing, in marathon bursts, a novel I thought might get published. Our friends came in a Volkswagen they had just picked up in Germany, and we all drove off through Turkey and Syria and down through the mountains to the far eastern end of the Mediterranean. I had some vaguely romantic ideas about Beirut, though not enough to keep me there, for I was about to head off alone by ship to Alexandria, and then down into the Sudan, on my way to the sort of adventures I thought should be at the core of my life – across Africa through Darfur and what was French West Africa and down past the Congo into Portuguese Angola, which was in revolution. The very best sort of situation.

Some things looked intriguing in Beirut. Land rovers full of police would dash around the city, stop, let out a bunch of club waving thugs in red berets, who would pile into some place where you knew something bad would happen. One evening we were in a café on the Corniche watching a nightclub raid across the street, watching guilty looking, shifty eyed men walking briskly away – some, as in the recent movie Beat the Devil, looking about as convincingly innocent as would Peter Lorre, some more like Robert Morley.

And at our table we had a boor who had inserted himself on our party, a tightly wound little Levantine guy who was holding forth on the human condition, telling we raw Americans how everyone, whoever they are, wherever they are from, will always late in life, or at the end of life, go back to where they started out. You’ll see, he said. This idiot. That I, a world adventurer, would ever think of retreating to a Connecticut suburb.

That was when I was in my mid-twenties and I am thinking of that evening in Beirut now in 1986 as drive, at almost 52, across Vermont to St. Johnsbury, and then over to Hanover, and turn into the old territory, the towns of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, seat of so much that was real and mythical in my family, those big formal houses in the midst of what their denizens thought of as quaint rural poverty – those grandiose houses in what they called restricted towns, which meant Christian towns in a social if not spiritual sense. Most of the prominent summer families had several of these houses – in this place where for me it was not just family myths but also the place where I came into my own, first fell in love, first gloried in nature, decided to be a writer like my grandfather, and a socialist too, hated and loved and became determined to be a certain kind of person, not unlike what I was planning back when I first passed through Beirut before setting off without friends for essentially uncharted territory – literally uncharted for, with the most of the Congo closed by war and the Sahara not seeming to count, the place where I crossed Africa had no roads, just shifting tracks in the sand made by market trucks such as those I rode, and military caravans, which I sometimes rode in too.

I think of this now in 1986 as I drive in New Hampshire in this time when everything in my life is changing and everything in my past is become something different from what even quite recently it was. This time when the landscape of my past has changed so rapidly, black becoming white and vice versa, trusted elders becoming molesters or at the very least betrayers. Not that I had ever accepted their snobbery and their bigotry, but I had felt the presence of these people, so many of them dead, for until quite recently they had given me tacit, unsolicited comfort.

As I drive into the White Mountains – where now I do not have another kind of comfort that I somehow sometimes had in intervening years from getting into danger in Angola, Laos, Cuba. As I drive into the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire was in so many ways always more important to me than that part of childhood and youth spent in Connecticut. Am I proving the boor in Beirut to have been right. 1986. Am I coming home to die in the White Mountains?

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 61 – EVERYONE

The summer people’s houses contrasted with the bare bones farms in this rocky windblown landscape. These houses were so perfectly decorated and so formal and the people in them dressed up every evening – and yet they were part of the countryside in the sense that so many of the people in them, including older people, climbed in the Franconia Range, which we saw towering over us, and sometimes in the Presidential Range too, using the “huts” of the Appalachian Mountain Club, where the men and women hikers slept separately on bunks in dormitory rooms and everyone ate great hearty meals at long, unfinished wooden tables, the food carried up the mountainsides by healthy college boys, who were what we might become one day. People who went to the same boarding schools and colleges, had relatives in the summer communities, and shared a love for New Hampshire’s mountains that started in infancy. This was the outdoors and we were part of it and so not completely separate from the world beyond the family houses.

But when Peter and I were walking on Davis Road, past the driveways for all our family places and also for the places of our grandfather Gaga’s old Princeton roommate Otto Mallory, we would often imagine ourselves in worlds that went beyond the summer places. We fantasized about how when we were older we would make it be more like pioneer days here, for we would open a roadside log inn and restaurant right among the birches on Davis Road, and in the inn we would wear and also sell heavy boots and black and red checked flannel shirts – and the place would be open not just to family but to everyone.

And anyway not everything about our life outside the formal summer world was fantasy. I was amazed that tucked away here in the midst of our houses, down a bit from our dark, circular, ominous House on the Hill, in sight of our rambling old Farm House, across from the long winding driveway through woods to our main house, White Pines, and just up from yet another of our houses, White Wings, quite close the Poole Playhouse, which had once been for dances and theatrical shows, right here near the middle of all this was the Caretaker’s Cottage, which was heated with a pot belly stove, and, even more amazing, out in front was the pickup truck the caretaker used. Our truck!

And in the direction of our tennis court there was a barn that was our barn, and with a cow, our cow, that supplied the milk Peter and I drank, the others put in their tea and coffee, and our housekeeper Mrs. Miner used in cooking. The caretaker’s old wife taught Peter and me to milk the cow. It was hard at first, but soon we caught the rhythm and while I worked, pulling the udders just firmly enough so as not to hurt the cow, the warm milk zinged against the side of the milking pail, and I was one with a big world.

When we were very small our nurse, Ann, took us one day to the caretaker’s place. Lying on a bed in the cottage's small, low-ceiling living room was his old father, who was unshaven, dressed in long underwear, and apparently unconscious, so out of touch with what was around him that big black flies were alighting on his nose and eyelids. Not for the first time in my experience in this otherwise idyllic summer world, I felt the nearness of death. It was so often in the air here in the White Mountains where so much of the talk was about better days. And I had felt it the only time I ever saw my great grandmother, Mrs. Winterbotham, who one day was in a bathrobe standing in the doorway to the Farm House, which had been the first of the houses belonging to our family.

When we were a little bit older there was a caretaker who had a son, Teddy Noyes, who was our age and became our friend, along with Teddy’s friend Herbie Whipple, who became our friend too. Together we built a tree house on a path through the pine woods. We were aware that Noyes and Whipple were big names among the year-round people. At this point I saw no real barrier between the them and the us.

Mother and Dad were in the mountains for two weeks, driving around with Peter and me in our Plymouth convertible – which Dad, to Mother’s disgust, had purchased just before the auto plants were converted to making war machines. It seemed to me that by now, with the war ended, we had had that Plymouth forever, and that it had become dowdy and old hat. But when we all stopped in front of the caretaker’s cottage to pick up eggs before turning down to White Pines, the whole Noyes family came out to greet this fancy car, and watch how Dad could make the top go up or down by pushing or pulling something on the dashboard.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 60 – ENOUGH?

Maybe I have told myself enough – not just today but since I went back to writing in 1991 after a glorious period that began in 1986 when I had decided to stop writing forever, for words at that time were of no help to me – not like scenes in nature and in painting, sounds in nature and in music – as if even thoughnature might connect with Wordsworth and Keats, as it did with visual artists and musicians, there was no such connection for me that I could put into words without falsifying what I felt with conclusions, premature or otherwise – as if nature were safely fortified against the forces of the tyranny of words.

This freedom from words must have been part of the lightheartedness that kept sweeping through the aqua Mustang that summer – that spirited vehicle in which I was spending so much time, driving and driving and driving though not bothering much with maps, stopping to park and breathe and think in thin, pine-scented mountain air, or lie beside a lake – there were lakes everywhere in the summer of ’86 when I had passed 50 and was finally young, and it was as if it were forever since I been by a lake, certainly never the way it was now wearing the earphones of my new Walkman. A Walkman, which was not an our-kind-of-people’s device. They would edit out Walkmans just as they had edited out Jean-Paul Belmondo. I could think of these careful editings out of experience as something that had affected all in the family, even at times me myself.

And sometimes as I drove I wondered why it had taken me so long to burn bridges – as everything I remembered now I remembered in a different way than I would have before I started speaking before groups about what and how it had all been, the life in that family. The way it has been before what I had taken so long to identify as a depression had lifted, a depression bad enough when assisted by alcohol, and worse without the alcohol – fighting it by trying to set off fireworks, as someone once said of me to my then girlfriend Vannie. Don’t you see he’s always setting off fireworks for you – as if sparkle and substance could never meet and Vannie should run fast. This guy was just out of Yale and thought he knew how far a person should go.

But now since the previous autumn I had been again setting off the rockets and pinwheels and whistling bomb-like things. It was the first time, I realized that, though I had always seen what was wrong with them – the caution, the Anglo envy, the bigotry in the world I was supposed to be in – the first time that I was choosing sides with no way back, crossing enemy lines to hand the enemy my people’s secrets.

This was more complex than my stated, to friends, conclusion years back that there must be bad blood in the family I came from since they were all doing so badly. Not me, since I did not hold jobs, but my brother and father and uncle, who had been fired from jobs by which they defined themselves – and their wives who were sunk in something so deep you did not ask questions. Bad blood.

More recently my mother, though unhappy with her state, had been talking about what, as she put it, separated us from all of them outside the family. What it is, she said, “is that we must have good genes.

I drove through the summer, still based in Vermont but gradually spending more time over the border the land of the White Mountains, which now seemed black with menace, and I felt like a knight riding into battle, a little scared but gleefully ready to take on all foes, natural or supernatural. And time became compressed.

I kept on driving, but in September I was not alone in the car, and this long-haired blue eyed girl/woman with me now in what had become an intense trysting time, she had, by god, one of those mysterious English American supposed upper class accents, and she knew the Wasp world, and her pedigreed mother had set her up for sex with older men when she was still a child, and so she knew these worlds full of fake correct people, and she knew what I was hunting.

We based ourselves at Jason Bacon’s other house, which he called a camp, in a Wasp enclave on Lake Champlain. At first, before it shattered, before betrayal and counter-betrayal – so surprising and so familiar – it was all more like a hopeful kid’s wet dream, she was that good at what we were doing. I stared at her from above and below in wonder as if I had never seen a naked woman before. Maybe not so young as she looked, but young enough to look the way she looked. In bed I could imagine her covered in a 1950s prom gown that was strapless and about to slip down – this dreaming taken place right there in Jason’s camp and played off against her actual nakedness.

And still I was not finished. As the hunt continued and the last part of the year unfolded, in the first snow now, I was back again, this time to rescue my favorite cousin, the one who had been a dancer until they had had to flee New York ahead of the law. My favorite cousin, who was just now back in the mountains, just sprung from a battered women’s shelter in northern Minnesota.

The Aqua Mustang 59 – BEYOND DANGER

So I had this ill-gotten check from Penthouse for a piece bringing up to date the exposé of what was happening in the Philippines – which, to my discredit, I had been almost hoping would be another Vietnam now that Marcos and his bloodthirsty relatives had gone wild, right down to the Constabulary staging village square beheadings. A quagmire would serve these awful people right – Ronnie and Nancy Reagan and their cruel jet set friends Ferdy and Imelda Marcos. Not to mention what it would have done for my career to have gotten this one right.

Every night on television in Manila there would be a rerunning of a video of Reagan’s errand boy, the silly and angry little Yale guy who changed his principles from minute to minute, this Vice President Bush, whom nobody except journalists and the more insecure new money rich took to be a classy aristocrat. In the nightly rerunning of the video he would stand up at a banquet table, wearing Philippine formal national dress, which was a long sleeve transparent shirt that looked as much like something synthetic as it was possible to achieve with pineapple and banana fibers – this costumed twerp holding high a glass of something and toasting Marcos, testifying to the seedy dictator’s love of democracy, this nightly show convincing so many in the Philippines that if they rebelled against Marcos the Americans would come in and kill them.

This awful four-name Bush was the sort of person I felt I had known from earliest times and may not yet have shaken off. This pompous little twerp so familiar to me, as was so much else everywhere, including my just ended marriage to a girl from Quezon City whose mother, who had immigrated illegally and moved in with us in New York, was a professional gambler, a non-cliché part of a situation that went on too long. This I thought about as I drove around green Vermont, and began forays across the frontier into the granite state of New Hampshire, where a some people crucial to my coming of age years could still be found – including summer people who went back to stay.

In Vermont I had two old friends, Jason Bacon and Peter Cooper, who had both been in our commuter town during the big part of my growing into adolescence that took place in Connecticut, and they had both of them been rebels of sorts who remained my friends later, Jason and I sharing a place for a year in what was not yet called the East Village when I first was free to live in New York, and Peter, a major drinking companion from that time. Peter was now in Rutland, which he had reached in hippie times and where he had apparently come to dead end – then pulled himself up. He was now running a state alcoholism unit, and had just published a not bad if sentimental novel. Further up the state, Jason was also living, he in well-heeled early retirement, splitting his year between London and a big log place near Middlebury. We had taken separate paths from the East Village, and he had retired in his forties rich from investment banking. It was a try at respectability that was meant, I expected, to blot out the past. A big scandal in Connecticut way back, after Jason’s father went broke, was his and Peter’s parents going off with each other’s spouses. And I imagined the guys in the next generation had to have been attracted to their sisters-in-law.

Me, I was rerunning my entire life this summer in Vermont in this light time of something that felt like happy drifting – this lighthearted, life-filled time when everything l saw – a stream, a barn, a pretty girl on a village green – seemed something wonderful that I had never really seen before. Drifting up and down and around Vermont in this lighthearted aqua Mustang with lighthearted music always playing. Especially Judy Collins, who was about as dangerous as I really wanted anything to be in this time of heading into deep dangerous places from a past I had not realized until recently was dangerous. I had thought the dangerous parts had only been my times later on hiding from the Tontons Marcout in Haiti, or from the Portuguese in the revolution in Angola, or when caught by sweaty men with tommy guns while looking for Castro in the last days of Batista’s Cuba, or roaming in Laos, or Beirut when the serious killing began, or Panama.

Southeast Asia and Latin America and the Middle East. Was it too much like a hack written story to suppose that there was some connection between my growing up in the White Mountains and what I was drawn to later?

I thought all this as I drifted around Vermont, which was what I was drawn to now, Judy Collins singing about love and sweetly deferred happiness.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 58 - ILLUSION OF SAFETY

Only on occasion did it seem that we were very close to a world I knew from comics and radio dramas in which everyone was an ordinary person, everyone open to everyone else, worlds where there might be no fortified barriers between standardized people and us, which was so unlikely since we were descendants of the great writer, us in our big houses, us with servants to bring in the platters of food as we sat around the long shiny dining table being served by women from the village who seemed not to hear the talk about the good old days before World War II began, the even better days before World war I, talk of other big houses from Lake Forest to Europe, talk of cousin this and cousin that in Chicago, talk of cousins alive and dead, and famous people who had come here to White Pines, us dressed up, never casual at the dinner table, us so unlike the them in the villages who farmed and made things and repaired things, the them that I knew inhabited almost all of the world except for our tiny corner that was said to be so safe, the them I knew when in New Hampshire mainly from comics and radio serials, the them out there in the rest of the world where fairness, the comics and the radio told me, might win out in the end. The them, the fictional version of them – though sometimes I could feel safe in this family by the very fact that I was surrounded by people who knew that the them of the outside world were probably not people we should trust.

Peter, who never had a bad word for anyone in the family except Dad, spoke once when we were ten of contempt he felt for our grandfather Gaga because we had been in a public school and Gaga did not know worlds beyond this world that was fed by very private schools and equally private imitation English colleges. We knew more than Gaga did, he said, though he quickly rewrote what he had just said, and spoke of how kind Gaga was. Peter so controlled and determined, wearing glasses that seemed to underscore how wise he was, or how wise they all took him to be.

And Gaga with his floppy summer sun hat that had green isinglass in the brim, Gaga with one of the many canes that were in the rack at the high ceiling entry room in White Pines, that led out to the big main room that seemed to go on forever, or at the right of the entry room to Gaga’s study, meaning you had to tiptoe when near that door, or to the left to a wide stairway, halfway up which was a landing that contained only the telephone room, needing no explanation, for in this world it was as if every house had a telephone room. Ours contained a framed genealogical chart and also, strangely, for the very idea of sexy naked women seemed alien here, a small framed print of an old painting of an unclothed woman rising form an oyster shell.

I had never been happier getting to the mountains than late in that summer when we were nine and the parents for unexplained reasons had send us away for six weeks to Camp Saugatuck, a bare bones camp that was not far from where we lived most of the year in Connecticut but was as distant from us in our Connecticut town as was the world of the presumably uneducated year-round people up here in the mountains. Peter had hated that camp, he said, but he had not, it seemed to me, been hurt by it. He had not been one of the spindly, slow, less than human boys whom the other boys tortured with wet towels and fists, urged on by the camp counselors whose main duty seemed to be to line everyone up outside a toilet shack each morning, the line going on for hours it seemed, and to sent a kid back if after he came out the counselors saw that there was no B.M. in the toilet. The whole camp seemed to smell like that toilet. And we wore uniforms that were like died green underwear except that they were made of scratchy wool, here where everything smelled of B.M.'s, where the water was so muddy you could not see the bottom even where it was shallow, where you were likely to come out of an enforced recreation period with blood suckers attached to your back and legs.

The last part of that summer was spent up in the mountains, for which I thanked a God who had not seemed very interested in me. Certainly had not seemed to notice when I hid that I had a burning throat and high fever and, shivering in the summer heat, I kept on going into the disgusting lake water, for I was so afraid of what could happen to a sick person transferred to the camp owner's house. And there seemed no God interested in explaining why in that time at camp I would suck in my cheeks and clamp down on the inside with my teeth until the pain was excruciating, which somehow gave me comfort, especially when the inside of my mouth had the consistency of raw meat.

And there was nobody in the White Mountains to advise about the horrors of Camp Saugatuck. Gaga, who usually seemed so indulgent, was telling everyone how the twins had never looked so healthy, this has been such a wonderful experience for them.