Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.

Meanwhile, in English class, Mrs. Thelma Vanderweiss (not her real name) subjected us to a regimen of daily reading of verse in the sincere hope that “culture” would take root in our juvenile minds.  We read and committed to memory sections of “Annabell Lee” by the tintinnabulating poet Edgar Allen Poe and other “classics” of nineteenth century American literature.  She furthermore inflicted upon us one of her favorite “modern” compositions, Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.”  Mrs. Vanderwiess , a tiny woman with a tyrannical air, was the whitest woman that I ever met.  Her skin was pale, her pallor accentuated by her fashionably powdered cheeks.  She was, indeed, fair skinned from her high forehead to her diminutive feet, but I intend more than that; her air epitomized to me the aristocratic pretension that I thought Mobile’s white society espoused.  She always wore large diamond rings on her fingers, white pearls and a demur dress or business suit; and black pumps after Labor Day.   She seemed perpetually offended that she must attempt to instruct such uncultivated pupils as we.   She rarely smiled in my presence.  I recall how she drilled the class daily in the recitation of “The Congo” for weeks.  It was to be the centerpiece of a school-wide assembly.  The sound of her more than her image haunts me still; it is her pointed-toe shoe stomping the rhythm on the worn pine floors of the now razed Robert E. Lee High School building where we were holding classes.   “Stomp—THEN I SAW THE CONGO—stomp—CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK—stomp— . . . .   Do you feel the beat?  All together now! Stomp— CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST—stomp— WITH A GOLDEN  TRACK—stomp. . . .  That’s it!  You’re getting it!”

nicholas_vachel_lindsay_1913

Vachel Lindsay source: Unknown-Modern American Poetry website, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

The rhythm was exciting and, despite my aversion to the manner of Mrs. Vanderweiss, I fell in love with the power and music of the poetry.   Lindsay’s rhythms were intoxicating.  There was jazz in the meter.  I suspect that the poet was sympathetic to the plight of the inhabitants of the Congo, but his voice was not the voice of a black man even though it had the power of the beat of the human heart.  His verse was a minstrel voice dressed up in black-face chanting a white man’s song.  It was only pretending to be in the Style Africaine.  Even a young teen such as I could discern the patronizing and denigrating tone of the poem entitled “The Congo, A Study of the Negro Race” with stanzas named “Their Basic Savagery,”  and “Their Irrepressible High Spirits,” and “The Hope of their Religion.”    I was embarrassed but could not explain why when we chanted lines like, “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,” and “A good old negro in the slums of the town/ Preached at a sister for her velvet gown….”  I did not know any Africans nor did I really know any “colored people” in my town, and thus, I had no way to test my misgivings.  But something seemed odd to me about the characterizations and words I was chanting.

I might have marveled then, as I do now, if I had known of the African community around the corner. In a curious and ignored twist of history a transplanted African village existed for a century less than ten miles from where our map hung in my school room.  I might have felt more connected to Africa and to history if I had known of Africatown.  As it happened, in 1860, in the year before Alabama’s secession from the union and the subsequent “War between the States,” a swaggering Mobile ship builder, Captain Timothy Meaker, bragged that, although the importation of slaves had been illegal in the United States since 1808 and had been declared a capital offense equivalent to piracy in 1820, he had built a sloop fast enough to out run any Yankee gunboat.   He could defy the jack-leg Feds and meddling abolitionists.  He made good on his boast when he handed the Clotilde over to a Captain William Foster of Maine for the purpose of acquiring a cargo of humans.

Foster had no difficulty in securing the “merchandize.”  The Dahomey tribesmen who resided in what is present day Benin happily sold their Tarkbar captives to the captain for $100 per head.  Unfortunately for Meaker, when the Clotilde reached Mobile, the Federal troops were waiting.  He sailed the sloop up the Mobile River, herded most of his human cargo onto a barge, and shipped them to Montgomery.    Then he ran the ship aground and burned it.   Later the thirty-two Africans that he had reserved for his own use were cut loose and settled on his property, freed presumably to avoid his being caught red-handed.  When the war broke out, the displaced African nucleus was joined by others who had escaped their captivity up state.  Together, they established a discrete community with a distinctly African culture just three miles from downtown Mobile.  Known locally as

cudjoe_abache

Abache’ and Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis at Africatown. Mobile, Alabama in the 1910s. Source: Emma Langdon Roche, Histroic Sketches of the South (Knickerboker Press, 1914) Public Domain

“Africatown,” it persisted until World War II as an identifiable community.  This was the last instance in US history of the importation of slaves into North America.  It seemed so long ago, but the last survivor of the Clotilde “passed” only thirteen years before I was born.  Meaker was apprehended but was never convicted, the Civil War intervening.  African history happened next door and I never knew it.  Perhaps those who taught me did not know it either, or perhaps they ignored it since they thought it irrelevant.  I realize now that I really knew nothing about Africa or Africans until I met Duke Badejogbin in college.

Duke was a Nigerian.  He was a Yoruba.  He was my brother in Christ.  When we met in my second year of college, I began to learn something of what was Africa.  He was one of the first missionaries from the Nigerian Baptist Convention to the country of Sierra Leon, more than a thousand miles up the coast of West Africa.

“I realized that I needed more education if I were to minister to the people the way our Father wanted me to,” he said, pronouncing “education” with a precision that inspired in me a new appreciation for the word.  “But when I wrote to the mission board to ask to return home, they cut us off completely.  There was no more support.  We were marooned without enough money to buy food or a ticket for the boat home.  We sold everything we had, down to the pans as small as this,” he showed me the pink palm of his left hand as he made a slicing motion at his wrist with his right. “But God is good.  He brought us home and now He has brought me here to study.”

I learned from Duke how he had reluctantly left his children and pregnant wife in the care of his family and ventured to the United States.  I agonized with him and prayed with him when word came of the coup back home and how Elizabeth, his wife, had fled with their children to the bush.  Then I rejoiced with him when he learned of the birth of his son Ayo and at the news of their safety.  Soon Elizabeth and Ayo joined him while the older children remained with his parents.

yoruba_language1

Yoruba Ceremony Nigeria. Source: heartmendersmagazine.blogspot,com

He taught me rudimentary elements of his Yoruba culture, how his family name was a badge of honor signifying that his ancestor was the friend and advisor of the tribal ruler who danced the Jogbin dance with the chief, how his family did actually live in a mud hut with a thatched roof and no door.  Thus, I learned of the custom of clapping your hands at the doorway instead of knocking on the nonexistent panel.  He taught me that sanitized running water, air conditioning, electricity and automobiles that effortlessly rode on paved streets were luxuries that I took for granted without thinking.  It was no stereotyped lie; many Nigerians did not enjoy these amenities.  I found nothing to belittle him about.  Instead, I admired this short wiry man, his courage and resilience.

From Duke, I heard of Schweitzer’s philosophy and ethic: that all life was sacred and we must exercise a grand reverence for life.  When a visitor was about to swat a mosquito, the Nobel laureate is reported to have cautioned, “Take thought!  Remember that you are a guest in this country.”  One Sunday afternoon, my fiancé and I were visiting Duke and Elizabeth in their apartment on Second Street near the black church that was sponsoring their stay in Waco.  Suddenly, Duke pulled off his slipper and flung it across the room.  I turned just in time to see a cockroach skitter behind a bookcase.  I asked him, “What would Dr. Schweitzer say?” He replied sheepishly, “That is philosophy. This is different.  I must think about Ayo now.”  Then he smiled.  His look reminded me of what he had told me, “Ayo means ‘joy’.  As Isaac means ‘laughter’ because Sarah and Abraham laughed when he was born, so we called our son ‘Ayo’ because he brought joy to Elizabeth’s and to my heart.”  At that moment we were not Yoruba and Alabamian, Nigerian and American; we were brothers.  I began better to understand Africa.  The inhabitants of the continent were people as we are, grown from a different soil but of the same seed, cherishing a different history and culture but with the same needs and longings.

A curious word “stereotype.”  We use a stereoscope to see things in the round.  We listen to stereophonic music to be immersed in the sound.  In stereo we better understand the reality of a thing and it seems more “solid.” But when we harbor a stereotype of a person or place, we substitute a counterfeit death-rigored lie for the living, breathing reality.   I have grown to distrust statements like “All _____ are _____.”

I still despair sometimes.  We cling so jealously to our tribalism and distrust of others not of our clan. “We belong to the European tribe, the Anglo-Irish clan, the Italian family, the French enclave, the Cherokee Nation,” I think I hear us mutter.  “They” are the Africans or the Indians; they are the Whites or the Hispanics, the Asians or the Arabian; they are all a different tribe.

I hear African voices, “We are Tarkbar; they are Dahomey. They killed our ancestors; they sold us to Captain Foster of the tribe of Maine who was just the agent of Captain Timothy Meaker of the clan of Alabama. . . .  We are ‘Kikuyu;’ we are Muingiki, the second Mau Mau; death to the European exploiters.”
I worry that the tyranny of the tribe survives too strong in our breast. Yet, opposing the rule of the clan, of the tribe, of the race, opposing “us or them” stands the Family of Man.  It affirms that we are one species, one humanity.  It is not “us or them,” rather, it is only “us,” or it is nothing.

Nasa Earth rise

Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

The real shape of the Earth is a sphere, and its net of latitude and longitude begins in the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Congo.  This is an appropriate convention of geography.   “Appropriate,” I call it because anthropologists tell us that humanity—Adam and his bride—began their pilgrimage somewhere in east Africa.  Thus, there is ultimately “home.”  Thus the proper map of Africa and of its place in the world would show it at the center of our view of a globe.  On the other hand, anywhere could be the center, for this planet is round.  In spherical geometry one place is as good as another.  What is more, when we look at it aright, we see that the coast of Africa is the complement of North and South America; West Africa fits neatly into the Gulf of Mexico, while the Gulf of Guinea cups Brazil comfortably.  This remarkable fact exists because once, as children are now taught, the whole of all the land was one great Pangean continent.  Later the waters and our history came between us, but the Earth still has no edge, no real border—no border at all, except that which we have drawn between us and the others—except of course for the great oceans and the rivers, like the Congo that yet spills blue across the map and into the sea of our imaginations.

Read Full Post »

As we grow, we draw our own maps of the world as we imagine it, gathering cartographic “facts” wherever we can, from what we are told and from what we see for ourselves on the journey.  At the end of the middle decade of the twentieth century—just as you might turn a calendar page or flip over a map leaf to discover hidden notes scribbled underneath—I turned over too.  In 1960 I began to understand for the first time that most issues of life and history are more subtle than they would have you believe who perennially view the world only in black and white and explain it all by a simple and comfortable paradigm and in a rigid stereotype.   The world is not peopled by identical copies of even a few types that are easily characterized as “good” or “evil.”

As I turned the calendar page to 1960, I began to suspect, as well, that ignorance was never an impediment to opinion, and uninformed opinion—no matter how emphatically affirmed or taught, or perhaps especially when it is chanted—is ignorance most blatant, most diabolical.  Moreover, ignorance is often chained in the darkness of its own shadow out back while prejudice hawks out front with midway barker shouts of “Hey! Rube!” but it is actually counterfeited knowledge and bogus light within.  I ultimately concluded that we do well to stand in humility before continents of human experience that are dimly known to us and reserve our judgment of those we do not understand.

 

map_africa_1960

A map of Africa ca. 1960 source: http://www.timemaps.com

 

The decade that began when I entered the second year of junior high school was one of world-wide political upheaval.  Colonialism and Imperialism, that had flourished for centuries, were rapidly dying in a convulsion of nationalism.  No object better represents that turmoil in my memory than a giant map of the continent of Africa that hung on the wall of my social studies and geography classroom.  I entered eighth grade with an eager expectation of exploring Africa, at least from an ancient wooden school desk, if not from an armchair.  I, like Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, had “a passion for maps . . . I would put my finger on [a place] and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’”  In my imagination I already had been there.  I put out my finger and traced the boundaries of Africa, of its coastline, of its rivers, of its colorful countries.

 

In profile the continent reminded me of the brow ridge of a skull—somehow human—like that of a brooding silver back gorilla or of a millions-of-years-old Zinjanthropus, like that which Louis Leakey had just reported in National Geographic, the Atlas Mountains marking the hairline, the Gulf of Guinea the empty eye socket.  Or perhaps the shape was more like a Neolithic axe, a war club, wielded by a gigantic unseen hand submerged in the Indian Ocean.  “It looks like a question mark,” I decided at last, albeit a crudely drawn question mark, limned in blue by the Congo and the Nile, and punctuated by Madagascar.  Africa was a stage of eleven and a half million square miles, a macabre circus for a tragedy of European colonies to play that comprised a cast of hundreds of tongues and thousands of tribes and clans, millions of people and a drama of global exploitation.  It had been explored, “discovered” by Europeans of the last century.  I had heard of the great explorers:  David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, especially the latter who famously, nonchalantly posed the inane query after a grueling search for the famous physician, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  There was, of course, a contemporary adventurer-missionary, even if he were a bit elderly by then: Dr. Albert Schweitzer

220px-bundesarchiv_bild_183-d0116-0041-019_albert_schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) source:wikipedia

—physician, theologian, virtuoso organist, Nobel laureate, and humanitarian.  We knew after his capturing the Nobel Peace Prize that this “Reverencer of Life” had returned from France to somewhere in the heart of equatorial Africa—we were not quite sure where—to serve the medical and spiritual needs of his black “junior brothers.”  He was universally lionized in Europe, the United States, and Africa for his unselfish service to—in the European mindset—the hopeless and childlike natives of the “Dark Continent.”  He was regarded as a champion of the “colored races” even though he publicly supported the oppressive French Colonial Government of Equatorial Africa and regarded the indigenous population as inferior to the civilized European “race.”

 

We thought we knew Africa because we visited its jungles for half an hour every Saturday morning in the adventures of “Ramar of the Jungle” and in the film adventures of Tarzan the Ape Man.  I presumed that the entire continent was a dense tangle of vegetation crawling with snakes and crocodiles, ringing with the howl of monkeys and pocked with treacherous pools of quicksand.  In many ways the images suggested to me that Africa was very much like my back yard, my woods, and my swamp. Yet the human inhabitants of this alien world were both like and unlike those I saw in my country.

In the cinemagraphic jungle that I visited each Saturday, Jon Hal, also known by his other stage names of Charles Locher and Lloyd Crane, portrayed the intrepid Doctor Tom Reynolds in black and white reruns from the 1952 and ’53 seasons.  Ramar, whose name we understood to mean “Great White Medicine Man,” ever wearing a pith helmet, epaulet shirt, Bermuda shorts, and a stoic demeanor, weekly battled evil white poachers and thieves, as well as  black “jungle native” voodoo witch doctors.  He, like the real doctor Schweitzer, took care of his “child-like” patients with a benevolent patronage that demonstrated unequivocally the superiority of the European civilization to the savage “native” culture. Every show could be counted on for a leopard-skin-clad woman, some quicksand, or cuts of stock African wildlife photography—slithering snakes or snorting hippos.

The good doctor was assisted in his exploits in many episodes by his comical retainer and guide Willy-Willy played by Nick Stewart, a black actor who had given voice to the character “Lightnin’” on the Amos ‘n Andy radio show.  He was also the voice of B’rer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South.  It seems oddly ironic that Stewart would reach a measure of notoriety portraying such comically subservient and stereotyped roles, then spend the remainder of his career directing the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles where African-American actors performed serious drama and grand theater.  But much that I saw in popular culture regarding Africa, I now know, was a contradictory mixture of truth and fabrication, but that is the nature of entertainment.

Ramar and Willy-Willy did not actually move about the jungle, rather they performed their

juanita-moore-in-savage-challenge-ramar-of-the-jungle-1953-2

Left to Right: Nick Stewart (as Wiily-Willy), Juanita Moore , and Jon Hall (Ramar) in episode “Savage Challenge” source: it.wp.com/thebiggame hunter.com

exploits on a sound stage in downtown Hollywood, California.  Neither, to my knowledge, ever got within a thousand miles of the jungles.  The animal scenes were spliced in from “spec” shorts shot on location by freelance adventurers.  My more critical adult eye can discern today the different sources as obvious, but for us, the children, the television took us in reality to darkest Africa.  Every child was sure he knew the sounds of the jungle: “Bwana, listen to the drums.  I hear the drums . . .” and then a piercing “koo-koo-koo-kaw-kaw-kaw,” actually the song of the Kookaburra bird.  Unfortunately, the bird never existed in the wilds of the African bush, residing as it does in Australia.  Its sound was appropriated because it sounded “jungle-like” to an inventive sound engineer.  Curiously, truth and fiction melded everywhere.  Ramar, as well as Tarzan, was often called “Bwana,” a legitimate Swahili word meaning “Lord,” or “Sir” or just plain “Mister.”  Yet this appellation was often coupled to the interjection “Ungawa!”  The latter word is a fabrication reputed to have been the brainchild of screenwriter Cyril Hume, who was inspired by the sound of the answer to the question “Where is Paramount Studio?”  The answer: “On Gower”—Boulevard, that is.  Much of what I thought I knew of Africa was like that: a cauldron of dark ignorance containing much speculation, some fabrication, and a few craven lies, but with a pinch of truth just to make the brew palatable.

 

The map of Africa that hung on the classroom wall became an object of infinite irritation.   The multicolor rotogravure print of the “dark continent” was a continent of frustration to me and others who were trying to learn the political geography of the vast continent.  The inconsiderate Africans had begun, in earnest, the practice that they would continue for the rest of the century: continually changing the names; redrawing the boundaries of their countries; declaring their independence here; building a new nation there.  It was all too chaotic for a junior geographer to master.  Nothing seemed to be as tidy any more as the beautiful poster of colonial Africa would suggest.  If the nineteenth century had seemed a sweeping romantic symphony of discovery, then my century resounded with the melded syncopation of jungle drums and bar room jazz.  In a futile attempt at making sense of the splintering African political landscape, my teacher placed beside the brooding map a tack board headed: “Current Events.”   She awarded points for every relevant article we clipped from newspapers and magazines like the Mobile Press Register or Newsweek or Life.  As we entered the class room we would glance up to the board by the map.  “What is the name of the Congo, today?” I heard more than once.

Indeed, the names of the countries began to change that year, as did the geopolitical realities within the former colonies.  In particular, the Belgian Congo disappeared from the map and was replaced by the Republic of the Congo, or was it called the Congo-Brazzaville?  No, wait.  What about Katanga?  Was it a separate nation?  Was Kenya still a British colony or did it go independent over the weekend?   What about Nigeria?

“At least, they haven’t changed the rivers,” I whispered to myself and to anyone standing nearby as I ran my finger up the Nile from Lake Victoria.  Then I followed the blue, tortured track of the Congo west from the savannah near Lake Tanganyika below the heights of the Mitumba Mountains, crossing the equator twice before disgorging into the Atlantic Ocean.  This was then and is today Africa’s most powerful river and, only after the Amazon, the second most voluminous cataract in the world.

congo-river-2-1024x812

River Congo, Africa source:africa-facts.org

If I had picked up a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I would have agreed with Marlowe, “There was in it a mighty river that you could see on the map resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”  But Conrad’s masterpiece was not on our approved reading list, nor even in the school library.  Neither was Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy readily available.  We learned simply in our social studies text that King Leopold of Belgium had ruled the Free State of the Congo after the United States and thirteen European nations had met in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century and had agreed to permit him to become the protector and overseer of a territory larger than pre-world war Germany.  If we had read Twain’s scathing pamphlet as we can now via the Internet, we would have been scandalized at the atrocities perpetrated against the people of equatorial Africa—atrocities that rival in brutality those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Particularly savage was the practice of severing the right hand of Congolese men, women, and children as punishment for failing to meet the quota of the rubber tax.   They were required to feed the army that terrorized them.  If they failed to cooperate, they were slaughtered wholesale.  Twain’s final words on Leopold are a bitter epitaph that he hoped would soon be appropriated for use: “Here under this gilded tomb lies rotting the body of one the smell of whose name will still offend the nostrils of men ages and ages [hence].”  When I learned of the exploitation, murder, cannibalism, and abject slavery that Leopold’s agents practiced on the hapless inhabitants of the Congo basin, much of it brokered initially by Henry Stanley, I thought that, if I were Congolese, I would forever despise Europeans and hate the white race implicitly and always mistrust anyone not of my tribe.

I was told nothing about the “unpleasantries” of the genocide for which Leopold was culpable.  The similarities to the exploitation of Kenya by the British should have been plain, but we were preoccupied with news of other atrocities.  The seven-year-long state of emergency in Kenya ended that year.  To our great relief, the Mau Mau Uprising was over.  The Mau Mau or the Muingi were primarily of the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya.  What made the Mau Mau seem so horrific and frightening was the “oath.”   It was a magic ritual in which the blood of an exsanguinated goat was blended with that of the adjurer who, standing before a fearsome idol of the old god Ngai, and the mingled flow was sprinkled over banana leaves and raw earth, recited a vow of obedience to the movement and an eternal, lethal hatred of the British.  Refusal to take the oath meant instant and fatal reprisal by the Mau Mau.  Consequently, it has been estimated that over half the indigenous population of Kenya had taken the oath by the end of the insurrection.  Oaths are not taken lightly in Kikuyu culture, and, despite the criminalization of the oath as a capital offense by the colonial government, the populace had little choice but to comply if forced to swear allegiance to the rebels.

Based on the lurid newspaper accounts, we imagined wild-eyed, dread-lock coiffed, machete-wielding butchers running amok from Kilimanjaro to Nairobi, slaughtering whites wherever they met them.  In actuality only thirty-two Europeans were killed by the insurrectionists in the seven year revolt, while 11,500 “Mau Maus” perished at the hands of the British often without trial; one thousand of them were hanged.  The colonial government’s practice of mutilation of the corpses by amputation of the right hand (“for finger print identification” was the official explanation) is bizarrely reminiscent of the Congo a half century before.

I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.

(to be continued)

Read Full Post »

Straw Stars cropped

Straw Christmas Star Ornaments, purchased at the Wien Kriskindlmart in Vienna, Austria in 1978 by the Matteson family. Photo Credit; Sam Matteson

Sitting beside my son of thirty-seven years, I bit into the grilled bratwurst and was instantly transported to Vienna, carried there in the same way that Proust was prompted to recall his youth while tasting a Madeleine and tea in Remembrance of Things Past. The salty and smoky taste of the sausage coupled with the tang of the spiced mustard filled me with a sense of inexplicable joy. To me this is the undeniable flavor of the advent season.

A little less than thirty-seven sevens before, a time when I looked very like my child does today, my family and I had completed our sojourn in Budapest, Hungary. The gray days of late November in Communist-era Hungary added an oppressive air to the already gray cityscape. We were well treated by our hosts, who earned our life-long friendship by their kindness, but we longed to return home to the United States, more and more as the months dragged by. At last, the day arrived for our scheduled departure. The day before I had shipped the majority of our clothing to Munich by train.

I experienced firsthand the frustrations of navigating a rigid bureaucratic state that day. Only dollars would be accepted for international shipments I learned after standing in a long queue. The station shipping department could not accept traveler’s checks even if in dollar denominations. That was the job of the bank. At the bank in the station I stood in yet another line to have the checks cashed with a 3% fee, of course. The bank would only dispense the cash in Hungarian Forints, however. “But I need the cash in dollars,” I complained. I was directed to yet another line at the monetary exchange where for a high fee and a highly unfavorable but centrally determined exchange rate, I ultimately obtained the requisite cash to pay for the shipment. After nearly three hours of exasperation this task was accomplished.

I had heard the Hungarian quip that if you see a queue protruding from a shop you should get in the line. There was bound to be something good at the end of it. I also heard that a certain Gabor had been in a line so long that he said to the lady behind him that we was going to go to the ministry of commerce to complain. He left, only to return a few minutes later and reenter the queue with the explanation, “The line at the complaint department is even longer than this line. Mit tudok tenni?” The latter was a phrase meaning “What can I do?” that we heard often both as an offer of help and as a cry of resignation frequently rendered with a shrug. I understood the feeling well and experientially after my time in the shipping department.

 We Had a Plan

On the morning of our departure, we mapped out a plan and then proceeded to execute it. We cleaned the apartment, collected our three children, and packed all the remainder of our belongings into the Simca sedan we had purchased from a friend in Germany a few months before. It was a decent if modest conveyance, even if the floor board was rusting out from too many Bavarian winters and their salt. It would not have passed the TUV the next year, I fear. Since we had no garage, we had left the white car parked out front of the apartment building where it gradually had turned gray, as it acquired a thick coating of Budapest grime. I was concerned once when I came out to the car one morning a few weeks earlier to find a word drawn by a small finger in the dust on the rear window. It read, “PISZKOS.” I asked my host the meaning of this graffiti, to which he replied, “It’s dirty.”

I responded, “It’s okay, Peter, you can tell me what it means, I am a big boy.”

He then laughed and continued, “No! The word is not vulgar. It means, ‘I am dirty,’ you know like ‘Wash me!’ in the US. The school kids on your block were just giving you some advice.” Unfortunately our time was up before I could learn enough Hungarian to have the car washed so we traveled in a piszkos autó.

Our first stop the morning of our departure was to check out with the local police at their neighborhood rendőrőrs (guard house) as required by law for resident aliens such as we. For months we had been aliens all the while I had been a visiting researcher in an exchange between the United States National Science Foundation and the corresponding entity in the Magyar Koztarsasag (Hungarian Republic, what Hungarian call their nation).

Next we motored through the crowded streets of the capital city, dodging honking Ladas and Vilamos electric trams as well as thousands of pedestrians. We pulled up to the Intourist office and returned our keys to the manager and signed more paperwork.We now were officially homeless. We had also expended almost all of our Hungarian currency and dollars, since we were prohibited from “exporting” currency from the country. Thus, we were nearly penniless. We hoped to replenish our cash reserves by cashing a personal check at the AmEx office in the Austrian capital. This was in the days before international banking and the convenience of widely accepted US credit cards in Europe.

One Last Stop

The Ministry of Culture was our final stop before embarking up Bécsi utca (Vienna Road) for the 250 km (150 mile) trip to Vienna and the approximately three hours of driving (plus one hour at the border station at Hesgeshalom). We were, we had been told, to return our “staying permits” and reclaim our US passports at the ministry offices. Thus, as properly documented aliens we could depart by vehicle. When I was able, after several minutes of futile inquiry, to reach an English speaking official, I was told that the request was supposed to have been made two weeks prior to our departure, a fact nobody had informed us of.

I told the assistant that that was unfortunate, indeed, since we had been informed otherwise and that we now had no apartment, no money, and must drive to Vienna before the American Express Office closed so that we could find accommodations for the night. The image of Carolyn sitting with our three children in the echoing hallway is seared into my memory. I gave my long-suffering wife a hasty brief of our situation, then added “If little Peter [our six month old] starts to cry don’t try too hard to pacify him. You don’t have to pinch him or anything, but the more annoying we are, the more motivated they will be to get us on our way.” Anyway even a communist bureaucrat cannot be unmoved by a crying infant, I reasoned. Whether, our desperate measures were the reason or not, we will never know, but the passports eventually materialized hours later and we were on our way, but well after noon. All that lay between us and Vienna were two hundred fifty kilometers and a heavily armed border.

In the days of preparation before funds were exhausted, snacks and juice had been purchased for the trip at the local fruit stand and at the government-run ABC market at the train station. These victuals fortified us as we sped through town past empty shop windows. I noticed an irony: finally a shop was displaying clothes pins for sale that had been unavailable for the nearly four months of our visit. As we headed out the Vienna Road, I also recalled a story my host had told me. István and Gabor were chatting.

“That is a beautiful coat you have on Gabor. Where did you buy it?” István asked.

Bécsi utca, the Vienna Road.”

“I was out that way yesterday. I saw no coats like that for sale.”

“Ah!” said Gabor, “”You went to the wrong end.”

We were on our way to the other end, now. But the clock was ticking. Would we make it by 1700 hours?  That time, 5:00 p.m., was when we though the American Express Office would close. If we arrived too late. what then? My mind reeled at the potentially awful scenarios.

To Be Taking Picture, Forbidden!

Photo TilosAt the border, the cars lined up waiting to be searched, for what I was never certain. The scene was intimidating. Gray flannel clad soldiers carrying machine guns paced before the barbwire-topped fences. Nearly an hour passed as we incrementally crept forward. We have no photographs of Hegeshalom, by all accounts a lovely village. On the highway were posted signs of cameras with a forbidden slash symbol that we had seen before near Soviet military posts. We learned that this Hungarian phrase Fényképezni Tilos means the taking of pictures forbidden! We complied as quickly and courteously as we could with the instruction to completely unpack the car, then repack it when none of our suspected contraband or our hidden defectors were uncovered.

Vienna, At Last

We roared into the Stadt Mitte of Vienna a few minutes after 5:00 p.m. and ran as fast as a couple, two toddlers, and an infant can move to the AmEx office. They were open! Until 1800 hours, thankfully. We cashed a check, learned of where we could book accommodation, and what was happening in the city center that evening. Across the cobble stone square we made reservations for that night at one of the most luxurious hotels of our entire European adventure. All the Mattesons were exhausted by our headlong flight from Eastern Europe and the adults decided that it was foolhardy to ask the children to submit to sitting in a civilized restaurant in our condition.  We strolled the Wien Kriskindlmart (Vienna’s Christ Child Market), a wonderland of glittering lights and Christmas festival foods that runs daily during advent. We marveled at the opulence of objects in the shop windows of Austria’s jeweled city. The lights and the tree shed a soft and welcoming glow across our path. Hot tea and cocoa warmed us. Pretzels, strudel, and cookies satisfied our hunger. Indeed, it was for us Wiener Adventszauber (Viennese Advent Magic). Among the ornate and expensive items we found more humble but equally delightful ones. We selected traditional straw stars that even at this Christmastide adorn our tree. I found my grilled bratwurst and senf (spicy German-style mustard), and it tasted of joy, the joy of freedom, the joy of knowing that we had completed something significant in our lives, and the joy of a faith affirmed that though the way may be hard, by God’s grace we can triumph over hardship. This I feel again every time I taste once more my Viennese Advent. May your advent be filled with joy also.

Vienna Christ Kildl Mart

Vienna Rathaus Kriskindlmart 1978 Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Read Full Post »

Church Towers

In Europe one cannot avoid the presence of ancient church houses. Their towers dominate the skyline while the influence of the congregations who built them has waned. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978.

I saw much of the public kind of religion growing up. I saw it put on like Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, but it did not always fit well like the too tight dress shoes you out grew not long ago. I saw. I was not blind. I could tell that it was a show that made no difference most of the time. But many of us for “Momma’s sake” or “old time’s sake” or just for “Pete’s sake” went through the motions. I wondered if some folk were touchy about religion because the one they had was not really theirs. They must have borrowed it, for even bringing up the subject made them feel a sham, and a good thump from a question was enough to produce an echoing hallow “thud” from the empty shell of their faith.

Even I went dutifully to church despite such considerations. In defense I cultivated strategies to endure the deadening weight of stultifying music inexpertly rendered with pretension and immodest but undeserved pride; I sat through endless pompous orations delivered with stentorian rhetoric that seemed so interminable, irrelevant and beside the point of my life. I found that I could entertain myself with mental games that only occasionally were disruptive. For example if I stared at the podium, spot lit with a single bright light, I could burn into my retinas the image of the scene so that I could erase the figure of the sweating evangelist and he would disappear. I could still hear his voice however.   I counted the holes in the tiles and did mental arithmetic calculating the average number of holes per tile and per square foot. As much as I could I often went elsewhere in my mind.

Despite the boredom I complied with my parents command to get ready every Sunday morning without audible protest partly because of the guilt I felt whenever I was apostate and partly because of the deep-seated hope that flickered in my breast that perhaps I would at last meet God in the church and that He would begin to answer some of my most troubling questions. But I was taught to look with suspicion on novelty in matters religious; questions raised by science and “Higher Criticism” were dismissed by most as new fangled and suspect. The “old time religion” we sang about that was “good enough for Paul and Silas” had to be “good enough for me.” Unfortunately and paradoxically, the religion of my fathers I learned was a twentieth century contrivance, and I suspected that the novelty of the first century Jesus-way would have shocked the congregants and parishioners of my church with its alien form and Middle Eastern subtlety.

All Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds

Now don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of things that I liked about the church, but they mainly had to do with the people, imperfect as they were. We were a family, or a community at the very least. I felt loved and cared for by people who did not have to give a care about me, but did nevertheless. This community of a few hundred souls was nowhere more evident than when we had “All day singing and dinner on the grounds.” The church potluck was something I looked forward to with the pleasure of a healthy adolescent appetite. Of course there was an etiquette and morality that was not spoken of in public nor declared explicitly but that you learned at home. I can still hear my mother’s admonition: “Never take as much as you want. If there is only a little left in the pot take no more than half. Remember the people in line behind you. Don’t embarrass your momma or your God. You don’t want to make God or me blush, now do you? Instead make them both proud of you.” I perversely dreamed of an all day dinner (and singing on the grounds) when we could have as much as we wanted. When I heard stories about heaven this metaphor always leapt to mind. I wondered about what was the church, at the first. I hoped it was like what I dreamed of.

The study of the origin of words that we daily use tells us much about how humans have used (and misused) them over the ages and what we are unwittingly saying when we speak them. The etymology of the word “church” in English versus the New Testament word “ekklesia” (the called out ones) that it translates is informative in this regard. Scholars of language tell us that “church” originates in the non-Biblical Greek word “kyriakon” (literally “of the Lord”) perhaps also a contracted form of “kyriake oikon” (Lord’s House). Over the centuries the word slipped into Gothic dialects as kirche that, in turn, migrated to “church” in English. How different is the current meaning and connotation of this word from the original meaning it translates! It seems that “church people” have mistaken the church house for the “called out ones” that assemble there, substituting architecture for biology. The Apostle Paul likens the ekklesia to the body and bride of Christ, a living entity, not a brick and mortar edifice.

Over the decades of my life, as I wandered from place to place, I came to understand more of this reality. I saw empty church houses throughout the world: beautiful buildings dedicated to God but that had no life within them any more. I have also observed ecclesiastical institutions that still functioned but were as empty of real vitality as a deserted kirk on the moor. Gratefully, I have known exceptions.

When we arrived in Pasadena for our sojourn in a postdoctoral assignment we, as was our custom, visited the local church house on Sunday early in our stay. When we walked into the meeting room we were immediately embraced by the group that included (to our surprise and delight) friends that we had known years before and thousands of miles away. The seminarians in the small gathering of the Sunday School, who were as transient as we, showed us that we must “love in a hurry.” Strangers no longer, we went deep and were loved well even to this day.

A Sojourn in the Desert

Our assignment called for a time abroad in Germany and Hungary. Despite our best intentions, we were unsuccessful at connecting with a local congregation in the six months we were abroad. Surrounded by kind but secular friends and coworkers, we were nevertheless “on our own” spiritually. It was a sojourn in the desert, dry and difficult. We felt the presence of God as we traveled but we missed the encouragement and fellowship that we had known in Pasadena. Great was the rejoicing when we returned. I resolved never again to live in isolation.

Thus, as we have relocated the several times in our itinerant life, we have sought out where God would have us graft into His body, the church. There were occasions of heartache, for sure, on this journey when human imperfections caused hurt in the body. There were times of desperation that drove us to our knees, as when our long-time faith family came close to shuttering the church house doors. But from our humbled position God amazed us and filled our hearts with joy as we realized that it was not “our” church but His. Yes, it was a Lazarus moment when the congregation roared back to life as satellite a “campus” of a larger, healthier body. Ultimately, the resurrected congregation became again a separate and independent entity, unique in its context and membership. It was then that I re-learned that a real church was not a social club but a living, breathing collection of Christ-following but not yet-perfected-saints committed to Christ and one another.

It was there I was known most intimately for the first time outside of my family and—wonder of wonders—loved anyway by my brothers and sisters in Christ, a terrestrial example of heavenly grace. When we were led at my retirement to leave the college town to be nearer our children, we grieved our separation from the dear saints we had come to love. In our annual migrations to and from our summer retirement home in the Colorado mountains, the pull of this faith family is irresistible. We inevitably find reason to deviate a few hundred miles from a direct route just to worship again with our sibs there, for it was there we learned that church means “doing life together,” complete with mutual accountability and encouragement. You cannot long mutually care deeply about others and appreciate them without it becoming habitual and natural.

Church Mosque Pecs

 

The church/Mosque in Pecs, Hungary that was constructed as the Pasha Gazi Kasim Mosque during the century-long Turkish occupation, demolishing the original Gothic church to obtain stones to build the mosque. Then in the 19th century, the building was rededicated for use as a church. In the foreground the Matteson girls pose in the late fall of 1978. Photo credit: Sam Matteson

 

 

 

 

So now that we have moved in retirement to two new locales, we as genuine “snowbirds” we have identified two congregations where we can do life. As we alternate seasonally between the two ranges, the Rockies and the Cumberland Plateau, we have endeavored in each venue to invest in the lives of our Jesus-sibs and be shepherded and nurtured in return. Thus, we hope that in a real sense we can continue to partake of an appetizer of the banquet that awaits the church, the All-day-singing and dinner-on-the-grounds.

Read Full Post »

Howdy Doody was Sammy Gene's favorite TV Star in the 1950's. Photo credit: Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Howdy Doody was Sammy Gene’s favorite TV Star in the 1950’s. Photo credit: Volkan Yuksel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D,, via Wikimedia Commons

I was born in the century when the world shrank. Television came to my home in 1954 with Howdy Doody and Edward R. Murrow, Milton Berle and the Hit Parade. Through the magic window that flickered in black and white lines, I glimpsed a wider world than I had ever known existed before. I was a faithful acolyte of the new broadcasting cult. I learned by heart the times and names of all the offerings of our one television station, channel 10, WALA, an NBC affiliate, launched only the year before. I could recite the schedule flawlessly from the test pattern at six a.m. to the closing mediation of “High Fight” at midnight even if I were not permitted to sit transfixed before the screen all day, as I surely I would have done had I had been allowed.

A Faithful Peanut Gallery Member

How I admired my fellow member of the “peanut gallery,” my schoolyard chum, Johnny Simms! He possessed a phenomenal and encyclopedic knowledge of automobiles. He even could identify them with his eyes closed as they passed by the playground on Cedar Point Road, correctly identifying the make and model, year and specifications of all the roadsters and coupes and sedans by their sound alone. But I countered in my way and held my own in the schoolyard cluck, preen and strut. I recall my pride as he and I reclined against the warm trunk of a vehicle one day during recess at South Brookley Elementary School, our heels locked into the rear bumper, our backsides comfortably and impertinently resting on the sloping deck of somebody’s incidental automobile, as I recited to him the offerings of the evening’s broadcasting or answered scheduling questions. He was properly impressed at my unique and hard-won knowledge. Ours became a cycle of mutual, reciprocal admiration, even if founded on dubious distinctions.

Although I was acquainted with all the evanescent events of the air, I had my particular preferences. Until the age of nine, of all the snowy programs that danced in half-hour increments before my eyes, my favorite was “The Howdy Doody Show.” I waited patiently to hear the question, “What time is it, kids?” and then to answer along with Bob Smith’s voice, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!” and to sing along with the theme song that inevitably followed. His was a world of wonder and adventure. This wooden-headed red-haired freckled cowboy marionette with his assorted stringless side kicks—Buffalo Bob, wise and kind, Clarabelle Hornblow, who never spoke but honked “her” answers and was lethally armed with a seltzer bottle canon, Chief Thunderthud, the initiator of the interjection “Kawabonga!” and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Tim Tremble, Bison Bill, and other occasional visitors —took me and millions of other children to a world of technological fascination and slapstick comedy. His perennially smiling and forty-eight freckled face (one dot for every star in the flag) became an icon of the energy and hopefulness of mid-century America—and its naiveté. He showed up not only on Saturday morning but also other places, even in the test pattern that began the broadcast day for NBC. His smile encouraged us; the worst of history, it said and we hoped, was behind us, both for us and for the rest of the world, a world of which I was only dimly aware.

A Skip Across the Carribean

It began to dawn on me like a Saturday morning that the world was wider and more complicated than I imagined when I chanced to hear a familiar tune as I cranked the tuning knob of our Motorola around the channels passing the number 4; a crackling voice that sounded familiar sang out “Hola, cabritos! Es tiempo de Howdy Doody!” I stopped and stared through the electronic snow as a dark-haired puppet, my very own “Howdy,” cavorted on the screen. But he was speaking Spanish! A rare atmospheric phenomenon had occurred and the television signal had skipped across the Gulf of Mexico and reflected from the ionosphere beaming over the curve of the earth from Havana, Cuba to Mobile, Alabama. He was speaking Spanish, so I concluded that my wooden friend must be in Mexico, just like the extended family of my human friend, Johnny Hernandez from Birdville, the only person I knew who spoke “the Español.” I watched until the sound grew too scratchy and the broadcast image too indistinct to make out, but the sights and sounds in my imagination never faded. I had seen, for the first time, over the fence of the horizon to a place where children like me laughed at silliness and seltzer shots yet sang in Latin-nuanced voices, “Es tiempo de Howdy Doody! Es tiempo de Howdy Doody! . . .”

It was 1956. It was the year I also first heard of the Russians—and of the Hungarians. Halloween was coming with candy and scary fun, but something more menacing than jack-o-lanterns and goblins intruded into my living room without invitation with broadcasted images of the Hungarian revolt. I saw newsreels of frightened families fleeing through the snow with suitcases in hand. I stared as teenage boys, Budapest youths, only six or seven years older than I, flung rocks and brickbats in anger and frustration at the inexorable Russian heavy armor. One image burned into my visual cortex of such a scene: there in the foreground a young man, uniformed in a sweater that could have been mine and armed with stones alone, opposed a tank painted with a red star with hammer and sickle beside. Behind it was a semicircular colonnade with bronze statues. It was a drama that frustrated me. I was a child and was impotent, yet I was outraged. Here was a nation enslaved but struggling in futile obstinacy alone as I stood by wringing my hands. “The Hungarian Revolt” they call it. It never had a chance to grow into a full-blown revolution. It was over in less than two weeks. America, the savior of Europe, could do nothing.   We were as powerless as children to intervene. But we had seen of what Communism was capable. We had seen what oppression looked like. And we feared that it was possible to happen on Government Street if “they” were to wrest the power from our leaders’ hands by guile or by force.

I gave up on Howdy Doody. I turned instead to Mister Wizard and to Continental Classroom, especially after Sputnik frightened and fascinated me when it tracked overhead the next year. Year by year more of the world filtered into our living room than ever before. Strange-sounding names like “Budapest” and “Debrecen” were replaced with different but equally strange names like “Saigon” and “Da Nang” and “Hue.” I grew to young adulthood seeing with electrons well over the horizon, even though the line of my eyesight was ever blocked by a swampland forest screen, even though my travels as a youth were bounded by waters and my parents’ lives: the Atlantic, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi.

Irány Magyarország Welcome to Hungary

At last I left the swamp and at long last visited Europe for a time with my wife and my own children. We made Budapest our home for three months while I worked as a guest researcher at the national laboratory. The People’s Republic of Hungary was still “socialist,” in 1978 but its leaders had warmed to tacit capitalistic partnerships between individual enterprise and governmental investment.   A thawing breeze blew in from the West in the “Cold” of the war of ideals. The National Science Foundation had seized the opportunity to nudge the scientists of the two nations closer together. But the old hated images came again when we crossed the border with Austria: Hedgesshalom with machine-gun-wielding gray soldiers and suspicious, jealous eyes; the word, “Tilos!,” “Forbidden!” everywhere.   We soon learned that a cartoon of a camera with a line slashing across it meant: “to be taking pictures— tilos,” or more practically there was a post of Russian soldiers around the corner.

I was apprehensive, but I did develop a deep affection for many of Buda and of Pest, even if the saying “one must have sharp elbows to be Hungarian” is true. I had met them in empathy as a child and, now, I appreciated them for the kindness and generosity of true friendship. Riding one day in the auto of my host, Dr. Joszef Gyulai, I was trying to memorize the way from our apartment on Eagle’s Hill to the Zoo at Vidam Tér for a hoped-for Saturday excursion with my young family. Down the boulevard we sped when he pointed out a shop front that he identified as a puppet theater where he had such fun with his daughter Sophie. I thought again, of course, of the televised marionette that danced for me as a child. I thought also of my own puppet Howdy Doody that my parents had purchased for me and that I had loved nearly to pieces. I wondered where Mother had put it.

A Flash of Recognition

Suddenly, I shuttered in a frisson of recognition as I do now while I recount it to you. I glanced ahead to Husok Tér, Heroes’ Plaza. I recognized the colonnade. I had been here before. It was more than déja vu.   I had actually viewed this very scene, from this very spot, but vicariously from my living room in Alabama, twenty-two years before. How the scene had changed; how I had changed; how the world had changed! Gone were the tanks and brick throwing teens. Gone was the cold light of October displayed in stark black and white. It was early September and the sun was shining on the last of the Austrian and German tourists of the season. The scene was washed in golden light and a warm glow. The world had shrunk, indeed, and had revolved as well.

We now belong to a neighborhood where we can stand at the fence of a backyard thousands of miles, half a world, away and see with electronic eyes what triumphs and tragedies are unfolding in Darfur, or Syria, or Sudan, or Rwanda, or Beijing, or Budapest.

I see “migrants” fleeing for their lives from the insanity of war in Syria, and I am witness to a great atrocity. And if we see what is happening next door, I wondered then are we—no, I—not accountable? If we are witnesses, then we must be part of the scene, as well. And if I am part of the event, then am I not culpable? Can I now so easily turn aside to slapstick comedies or “reality TV” or simply change the channel and ignore it all? Do I justly think, “CNN is just good TV”? Can I do this and remain part of humanity? I wonder.

I was born in the time when the world shrank, and then, sadly, I discovered that I had other neighbors, people who were like me whom I had overlooked. The Cyclopic box with a glowing singular eye has brought them into view, my fellows with invisible strings who are not made of freckled wood and who do not always have reason to smile perennially.

The iconic Chain Bridge from the Buda tunnel. Note the popular Russian vehicle the Lada in the foreground. This was the spring of Glosnost. Photo credit: S. Matteson 1978

Read Full Post »

Popeye the Sailor man Fan Art by Avantika Srinstava http://avantikasrivastava.blogspot.com/2011/08/popeye-sailor-man.html

Popeye the Sailor man Fan Art by Avantika Srinstava http://avantikasrivastava.blogspot.com/2011/08/popeye-sailor-man.html

My first friend was a Mexican. It was early in a long life, so it was well before I learned that this detail should matter. Before I was informed that “they” are not “us.” Johnny Hernandez, or Juan, if I were to speak more precisely, was a few years my senior and befriended me, the skinny one, “El Flaco,” during my days in the Birdville housing projects. I recall very few images of his face, the memories of early childhood corroded by decades. Only the back of his head and neck are vivid. They remain a vision of a fine round shape studded with the short black stubble of a crew cut and topped by a blazingly white, perpetual navy seaman’s cap, its upturned cuff of a brim carefully pulled into an oval and worn slightly canted to the right. When I think on it, it brings to mind the cap worn by Popeye the Sailor Man of the cartoons. But Johnny was more than a cartoon.

I say that Johnny was a “Mexican,” although I really never knew on which side of the border he was born, whether in Alabama or some other US state or in one of the states of Mexico like Coahuila, Chihuahua, or Sonora. It never occurred to me to ask, so we never spoke of it. It would not have mattered anyway since I had no concept of a state or a country then, nor of the significance of the information.

Johnny was just my big friend who looked after me in the communal meadow where the neighbor kids climbed and swung from the ancient oaks, played chase and ball and roamed. I was his “Swinn-fendered” friend too who rode on the back of his bike up and down Flamingo Drive, my legs outstretched to avoid entanglement in the spokes or sprocket and chain. It was he who picked me up when I lacerated by calf on a broken bottle in the commons and who carried me bleeding on his back, nearly soiling his pristine cap in the process of my rescue. I still bear a white line of a scar with four pair of pale dots as outriders where the staples went through the skin to effect a closure of the muscle and other tissue. It is a constant reminder that my memory of the experience is real and of the reality of Johnny’s kindness and friendship.

Maracas Phot credit: ruskin.mysdhc.org

Maracas Photo credit: ruskin.mysdhc.org

The truth is that Johnny is a friend from the dawn of memory when all things that I still retain are mist-covered and rose-hued; he was part of the days before I went off to school and learned the cruelties of the playground, the will to power that is the feckless desire of nations. Thus, only later did I conclude the country of origin of Johnny’s family from reconstructed evidence: the souvenir maracas that always rested on the telephone table by the stairs that exulted in colorful painted and fluid script, “Mexico!”; the strange way Johnny said the word, “Meheeko” when I asked about them; the sweet but indecipherable speech he used when he spoke to Senora ‘Ernandez; the exotic aromas of onion, garlic and cumin that wafted like a halo around her as she stood in the doorway of her cocina next to the hand-tinted print of Jesus of the sacred heart that hung above the dinning table. She was a short, very tan lady who reminded me of a younger version of my beloved grandmother. She never said a word to me, only smiled when I came calling on Johnny.

Señor Hernandez I saw only on the weekend and always in a cotton-ribbed undershirt and khaki twill pants. Often he held a newspaper in his hand when he greeted me at the door, his smile barely visible through a black moustache peppered with graying hairs. “Hello, Sammy. Johnny will be down in a minute,” he would say. Then turning to the stairs he would shout across the maracas something that I could not understand that could have sounded like “¡Oye, Juanito! Ven aquí! Tu amiguito esté aquí.” Then he ignored me as he returned to his newspaper. In a few minutes I would see the white seaman’s cap sail down the staircase with my friend suspended underneath.

Despite his friendly demeanor, Johnny’s father frightened me a little, as did all of the unfamiliar Dads in the neighborhood. His mother I did not know at all since she never spoke to me. Thus, I was never invited to sample any of the dishes she always seemed to be preparing in the back room of the apartment. Not until I had moved on from Birdville and out to the swamps on the Bay and had deserted my Spanish-speaking friend did I even taste “Mexican food.”

My first taste of Mexico came from Mrs. Adams, known behind her back as “Mrs. Atom Bomb” for her volatile temperament, who was my desperate sixth grade teacher at South Brookley Elementary School, and who was the unlikely source of my initiation into Latino cuisine. She opened a small tin can of tamales and warmed them in an electric skillet she had set up next to the cloakroom door during an otherwise forgettable social studies unit on Central America. It was my first and only taste of Mexico for many years. Her culinary experiment unfortunately missed the mark as I and my classmates were put off by the nondescript taste of the greasy pork blobs held together with translucent corn husks and masa glue. I looked at the faces of my peers and saw there the same repulsion that I felt. Nevertheless, I knew better than to hold my nose as I had done to impress Mary Louise Thompson of the long platinum hair when Mrs. Adams had read the story of Lazarus in our morning Bible reading a few weeks earlier. “Sammy Mat’son, meet me in the cloakroom!” She had demanded. My penance: to stand alone, banished for an hour after a severe chastisement for irreverence.  I was unimpressed by the food, not only by its taste but also by its unhappy association with the nearby closet.

On the other hand I was very much impressed by the appliance she had brought to school for the occasion. I had never seen such a device before nor had Juan, I suspected. I wished he were there to see it. The skillet was manufactured by General Electric whose motto—“Progress is our most important product”—was emblazoned just below the trademark. From the demonstration I concluded that if tamales were all a Mexican chiquito had to eat, it was no wonder why he was starving. It was also clear to me why he surely and earnestly longed to emigrate northward across the river to find real food such as I enjoyed.

For a long time afterward I thought of Johnny’s nameless cousins whenever I was admonished by Mother to eat everything on my plate. “Remember all of the starving children who are going to bed hungry tonight while you throw away food.” Thus, I internalized the lesson of nonsensical consumption on behalf of the huddled and hungry masses of the world. I learned to feel a sense of global obligation whenever I sat at table, one I discharged faithfully with “Please pass the mashed potatoes and the gravy” and by manfully cleaning my plate.

It would be necessary for me to abandon the South and migrate west before I could really taste the flavor of “Tex Mex” and fall in love with chili peppers. During my college years, however, I subsisted on Tuesday night enchiladas at El Chico Mexican Restaurant. What is more, summers—while I was in college—were spent in Texas, too, where I received basic training in extreme “southern” cooking, that is, cuisine that came from south of the Rio Grande. The city of San Antonio was where my palate acquired its affinity (at five for a dollar) for the crisp, delicious melded flavors of meat, corn tortilla and greenery. I crunched contentedly and  I audibly blessed the unknown genius who invented the taco. I thanked God for my good fortune to happen on the crispy Mexican sandwich at last. In the Alamo City one can not escape the scent of Latin spice, but in Mobile in my youth we did not know of such “ethnic” or “immigrant” cuisine, Mexican, Chinese or even Italian.

I have reflected on the oft-asked question: what does it mean to say “I am an American?”   Almost all of the people I meet are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Only some have come to North America earlier than others; only some under more affluent or respectable circumstances than others.

The “Mexicans” and other Spanish-speaking Mesoamericans, as well as Middle Eastern speakers of Arabic or Farsi surged to our republic at the end of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century it was merely different peoples: the Irish, and the Italians, and other Middle Europeans. A century earlier the British and the Spanish and the French came to the “New World”—and Africans. Some immigrants came willingly; some were compelled. From the first European colonization of North American until the trade in human life was outlawed in the United States in 1802, twelve and a half million persons were forced to immigrate to this continent as slaves, 10.7 million surviving the journey.

“El Flacho” a.k.a Sammy, Johnny’s amigo. Family photo ca.1953

By whatever means we came or whenever was the day, none found a welcome from the “others” who had preceded him. I have read of the resentment of the Irish Catholics who dared to settle in Protestant New England.   I have heard of the scorn of freed men in the hearts of their former masters during the “Reconstruction” of the South. The first inhabitants of America who had themselves immigrated here ten to twenty thousand years earlier did not welcome the avaricious “white” men and apparently for good reason. Inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them” and in the process miss out on so much, I fear. The thought saddens me and I wish for all, the same innocent friendship I knew in Johnny, joyfully ignorant of our irrelevant respective and divergent patrimonies.

In the succeeding post next week I will examine why the human compulsion to tribe is both natural and immoral. Until then, I offer this sweet comradeship that many would disdain: my first friend was, most likely, an alien but also a most kind human child, who befriended me without condition.

The intangible gift received by the skinny kid (pictured above), now a man grown old, he will forever treasure just as surely as if he still held his friend’s hat in his very hands.

Read Full Post »

Welcome to my Blog.  Today I begin to share some of my story.  I hope that it will enrich your spirit.

Read Full Post »