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?