Friday, August 29, 2008

What Dreams May Come Must Give Us Pause

"Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
and as he comes, so he departs."
–Ecclesiastes 5:15

Coming into the world "buck-ass naked", we leave it the same way. As far as worldly possessions are concerned, "We’re sorry, you can’t bring them with you."

Could there be something we do take with us– a recollection of our human experience, perhaps?
A cosmic karmic scorecard, or a shade embodying our emotional energy? Dare we risk the scorn of the empiricists to say it–a soul?

Relying only on physical senses and logical reasoning, we face a dilemma. We can’t know the truth about the "afterlife," until we’re dead, and we have no incontrovertible proof of anyone communicating to us from "the other side." The possibility of continued existence in the hereafter remains today a matter of scholarly dispute for some and personal faith for others, rather than an indisputable fact of human existence.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." --Corinthians 13:12

Of what relevance to today’s intellectual can any of this possibly be? Possibly none. What’s the point of endlessly contemplating infinity where there is much to be done in the here and now?

So I commended enjoyment, because there is nothing better for man under the sun except to eat, drink, and enjoy himself. –Ecclesiastes 8:15

Yet if we can aid in someone’s transition, it’s only right that we should do so. An older friend of mine, whose wife died a couple of years ago, told me he was greatly comforted by Don Piper’s book 90 Minutes in Heaven. Herewith my own contribution:

It started as a pleasant enough outing in fall of 1994. A bunch of friends made arrangements to watch the annual offshore powerboat races from a sailboat in Key West harbor.

It was a chance to go sailing again, something I loved, combined with something in which I had little real interest, seeing powerboat racing as a marine version of NASCAR. But still the same, it was an outing. We’d been working hard, and deserved some recreation.

I had a few misgivings when I saw the boat up close. Some of the lines were a little frayed, and the bottom hadn’t been cleaned recently. You can’t have sailing craft with a fouled bottom and expect it to perform decently. But it was a Wharram catamaran, something in which I had an interest, since two friends had built them. They are simple, a little heavy, but appeared to me to be functional and well designed.

The weather was good, but a little gusty. We’d had Hurricane Gordon come through a couple of weeks before. It was an unusual storm, in that it tracked all over the place. What had happened was that Gordon, or the remnants of it’s low pressure system, had worked its way north, then collided with a cold front, and elements of it actually came all the way back to Florida.
We were approaching the harbor. Things went ok. I was looking astern, admiring the way the cat cut through the water, fouled bottom or not. Then the lights went out.

An odd, violent gust of wind caused the mainsail to jibe, swinging it around from port to starboard, catching me on the side of the head with a force like a hard-swung baseball bat. It knocked me headfirst down a companionway. I landed face down in a cardboard box of soda cans.

The first thing I remember was one of the guys on board getting me upright. I spit out a lot of blood. Fortunately someone had a cell phone (they were a lot larger and bulkier back then) and the Coast Guard came, strapped me to a board, and took me to the hospital.

They stitched up a couple of gashes on my face, and checked for neurological damage. They told me that I had multiple skull fractures. Some cerebrospinal fluid had leaked out. A couple of teeth were broken, sinuses filled with blood, both eardrums bleeding, one eye-socket fractured. They hooked me up to an EKG machine, and took me to a side room to wait for a CAT scan. Semi-delirious, I kept saying I wanted to go home.
During this time I heard a lot of shouting in the emergency room. There was the noise of helicopters outside. It sounded like there was a thunderstorm, and the lights flickered and dimmed. Then all hell broke loose.

Tom Gentry, a wealthy real estate developer whose fascination with powerboat racing brought him several world records, was racing in Key West that day. The same freak storm that caused us to jibe earlier had flipped Gentry's 40-foot Skater Catamaran, Team Gentry, over, trapping him and his throttle man underwater.

They had been pulled out, but the rescue operation had taken several minutes. Gentry and the throttle man had just arrived at the emergency room. (The doctors were unable to save the throttle man. Tom Gentry never recovered from the crash that day, and died at his home in Hawaii a few years later.) Click here for Tom Gentry's obit in the New York Times.

In the meantime, I was still alone in the side room.

The next thing I remember is being able to be outside my body and being able to fly around the room. I remember being delighted with the ability to propel myself around. I went up to the ceiling, and looked at the light fixtures close up, noting the detail of them and how they were made. Then I looked down and saw my body still lying there, but there was a man that looked like a doctor leaning over it. I "flew" down for a closer look.

He was dressed in what seemed like a hospital robe, but it was yellow, as if it had gold in it. And he wore a "pillbox" type hat, which looked a little like the kind of cap a doctor wears in surgery, except this was more like a hat, and it had writing on it in an alphabet I did not recognize. It might have been Hebrew, or something related to it. He held objects that looked like crochet hooks, and they were also gold or bronze in color, and was using them to do something to the side of my head where I had been hit. Then he told me (something like), "Well, you won't get too many chances to recover from something like this again. You must be much more careful in the future, or you won't be able to do what you have to do, and that won't be good." It was as if he didn't say it in so many words, but I understood it as complete sentences.

Then he said, "Now stop fooling around by flying around like that, and get back into your body, and ask someone for water and a blanket." I did what he said, and in an instant he disappeared, as if vanishing into another dimension, and I could feel myself zipping back into my body. Soon a nurse walked by, and I asked her for water and a blanket. She brought the blanket (which felt really good) and let me wet my mouth with a little water. Then I went to sleep. Later they took me upstairs. Because of the confusion, I spent about nine hours in the emergency room.

They kept me there for a couple of days, plying me with antibiotics to ward off any chance of meningitis. I wanted to go home as soon as possible, because like a fool I was without insurance at the time. Yes, I am a lot more careful about physical risks these day.

A few months later my dentist asked me, "Who pulled your cheekbone back out for you? They did a nice job." I told him that the later X-rays showed "fracture, but no displacement," and that there hadn't been any orthopedic surgery. He just looked at me in a confused way, and wouldn't talk about it afterward.

Upshot: "A blow to the head can cause remarkable hallucinations" or "the universe is a lot more complicated than any of us can possibly imagine." I personally opt for the latter explanation, no doubt about it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"The Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly, But...."

"The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones..."
-Funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

One wonders sometimes at the credulity of the American people, who appear to be manipulated by slick politicians and swayed philosophically in one direction or another. (Remember when conservative was a dirty word , but liberal was OK?)
Still, to our credit, in the end we’ve always managed to vote according to our pocketbooks, and this fact is one reason we have remained both economically prosperous and free from the ideological excesses seen in other countries-- Germany, Russia, China, Iran, and Cuba, to name a few.
Today it’s heartening to see that voters in the Florida Keys have begun disassembling a clique of "dinosaurs" that has long outlived its usefulness. They "gang of three" donned a cloak of self-anointed moral righteousness, but in their private conversations, and with increasing arrogance in public, revealed their contempt for the democratic process and for the "little people" who still believe in it. And now they have been defeated.
Oh, their public accolades will continue, and buildings and places will bear their names. But in the end they were weighed in the balance and found sorely wanting. They’ll now take their places with the true dinosaurs, who are, mercifully, extinct. The American voters finally saw the light, too late to put an end to all their shenanigans, but soon enough to stop them from doing more. Fiat Justicia.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sea Wolf Part (?)

In contemplating the workings of the human brain (see entry below) one must inevitably conclude, when looking at things in a purely scientific manner, that our entire lifelong memories, including the minutest details, are stored in a series of chemical processes contained in a fragile lump of tissue having the consistency of pudding.

Let me tell those few who have asked for more "Sea Wolf" that a great many more details miraculously continue to work their way out of that pudding, and must now be sorted, catalogued, indexed and filed in their proper order before presentation to the public.

"So," says one recent caller, "I see you changed some of the names...."

"Yes," replying jokingly, "'to protect the innocent.'"

"Ha!" comes the reply. "You mean 'to protect the guilty!'"

Test Your Right--Left Distinction( or is it Left--Right?)

A number of articles have appeared in the media lately concerning the "right brain vs left brain" distinction. The left brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. It's said some types of autism result from a failure of communication between the two sides.

It's also said that the left side manages the more technical, rational aspect of the personality, and the right side the artistic, intuitive aspects. So here is a short test designed to tell you which side dominates in your case. (Bob Kelly had posted this item on the Captain Outrageous blog site. Thank you, Bob.)

Right Brain/ Left Brain Quiz
The higher of these two numbers below indicates which side of your brain has dominance in your life. Realising your right brain/left brain tendancy will help you interact with and to understand others.
Left Brain Dominance: 13(13)
Right Brain Dominance: 13(13)
Right Brain/ Left Brain Quiz

Those are my results showing up as a 13-13 even balance between the two sides, thus proving that I am both well balanced and well rounded, despite the indignation and disbelief of friends, family, and former political opponents! Hi, Mom!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

President for Life

We’d been working hard laying the foundations for the new sugar mill over the summer. It was still the rainy season, and an occasional cloudburst would flood the whole site, obscuring the massive grade beams we’d installed.
It seemed that in Haiti the 22nd of every month was some sort of holiday. Haitian patriot Jean-Jacques Dessalines named himself Emperor of Haiti (in 1804) on September 22, so that week we finally got a day off. We still had to go to the mill site in the morning, to get a few things ready for the coming week. The place was never deserted. There were many people who lived nearby, and the whole site was open to anyone who wanted to walk in.

We had our own watchman, the local "mayor," Romer Destiné, who walked around with a machete. Although he usually had a broad grin on his face, his appearance was intimidating because his face was hideously disfigured with pockmarks from a bout with smallpox when he was younger. It was rumored that earlier that year he had beheaded a man who was stealing gasoline, but the corpus dilecti had been removed before sunup. Whether this was an apocryphal tale spread by Romer himself to enhance his reputation or something that had actually happened I never found out. As Doug Gaines used to say, "You can hear anything you want to hear in Haiti."

Beside Jim O’Brien and me the only other person from our company at the site that morning was a mechanic who had been sent out from Port-au-Prince to work of some of the equipment. He was a Korean fellow by the name of Yi. He was a man of few words, but I was told he was actually from North Korea, that he’d been in their military and had escaped to the south while on some kind of offshore military expedition. You could tell he’d had a hard life, and that he was one tough son of a bitch.

Toward the end of the summer a strange figure had appeared at the job site from time to time, standing silently with his back to a building, watching. He was large, more than six feet tall, and well-dressed. In spite of the tropical heat he wore a three-piece suit, a black fedora and dark sunglasses. He carried a small square leather case, and didn’t speak to anyone. He was a member of "Duvalier’s dreaded secret police," a tonton macoute. (More on this subject later.) I thought it was strange that this morning, when there were very few people around, he was back.

Our office was on a slight hill where you could see the approach to the site. I saw Yi squinting in the distance. Then he said, "Oh, no. Oh, no. Big s–t coming! No place for me! I go! I go!" and he disappeared toward the area where we kept the equipment. In the distance was a caravan of vehicles approaching at high speed, led by something that is now more commonplace but at the time the first one I had ever seen, a white Mercedes SUV.

Taking a cue from Yi, I moved out of sight between two of the cinder block buildings. I decided to prepare myself for the coming excitement by taking a leak against one of the walls. To my surprise I looked up and there was the white Mercedes stopped in the space between the two buildings. A light-skinned woman was staring at me. At the wheel of the SUV was a chubby guy in a khaki shirt and trousers. It was Michelle Bennet Duvalier and her husband, Président à Vie de la Republique, Jean-Claude Duvalier himself. Uh-oh.

I zipped up hurriedly and walked around one of the buildings to watch the entourage. There were guys in military uniforms, business suits, and even a couple of what appeared to be clergymen. Amid much hoopla and discussion they began to inspect the site. Jim O’Brien walked over and shook hands with the president. Overall, despite the stories we had heard, he did not seem to exude evil, but gave the impression that under different circumstances he might actually have been a decent sort. (Some portray Michelle as an eager Jezebel to Jean-Claude’s reluctant Ahab, thus the source of his undoing). But as he viewed the scope of our work, he did not seem happy. Apparently he had been led to believe that progress on the project had advanced far more than it actually had. He came there expecting to see a sugar mill capable of full production within a matter of months. Instead he was treated to the bleak sight of a few rebars sticking up out of the mud.
Right after that visit things changed. We were authorized to hire more people, and to bring in several more Americans with the skills needed to put the project into high gear. The government finance people were ordered to cut loose more funds. And indeed within a couple of days one of the Ministers did deliver the first installment: a briefcase full of freshly printed Haitian gourdes.
Next installment: "The Wild West."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Rites of Passage

Vermont is known for maple syrup, colorful fall foliage, quirky politicians, socialist mayors, snowy ski slopes, high property taxes, rustic inns, and rugged individualism.

Among outdoorsmen and backpackers, it’s also known for its famous Long Trail.

Built by the Green Mountain Club between 1910 and 1930, the Long Trail is the oldest long-distance trail in the United States. The Long Trail follows the main ridge of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts-Vermont line to the Canadian border as it crosses Vermont's highest peaks. It was the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail, which coincides with it for one hundred miles in the southern third of the state.

Although the Long Trail is known as Vermont's "footpath in the wilderness," its character may more accurately be described as backcountry. As it winds its way to Canada, the Trail climbs rugged peaks and passes pristine ponds, alpine bogs, hardwood forests and swift streams. The Long Trail is steep in some places, muddy in others, and rugged in most. Novice and expert alike will enjoy the varied terrain of the trail as it passes through the heart of Vermont's backwoods.With its 270-mile footpath, 175 miles of side trails, and nearly 70 primitive shelters, the Long Trail offers endless hiking opportunities for the day hiker, weekend overnighter, and extended backpacker.
Today there are numerous diversions for a young person–soccer camps, x-boxes, television, motorbikes, and summer jobs, but for a good number of years a standard rite of passage for a young Vermonter was to hike the Long Trail, all of it if possible, and alone if he had the moxie, over at least one summer in his teen years.

For those who did it, the experience was definitely what you could call formative. I know, because I had the chance to do it. As a preteen my parents sent me to a Y camp in upstate New York. Many of those camps were first-rate and had great reputations statewide. Ours was not quite in that league. Some of the kids were middle class, but a lot of them were what in those days we called "underprivileged." Some came from inner city families, and a few actually lived in orphanages. I’m not sure exactly why they sent me there. It may have been because it was inexpensive. It may have been to toughen me up. It definitely had something to do with the fact that my dad was on the board of our hometown Y. In any event, I had a great time, and it’s probably one of the reasons I vote Democratic to this day.

It was a big deal to be among the chosen few who got to go on the Long Trail. The camp truck took us to a place in southern Vermont for the beginning of our four-day, three-night trek. There were at least twelve kids and two adults. We had to carry all our food for the three days with us. I remember the first days in the woods as days of heaven. Few places are as beautiful as the Green Mountains, especially in summer. We camped along rushing streams and quiet ponds. We sat around campfires and regaled each other with stories of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, comparing our exploits to theirs. We dined on hot dogs and canned stew, seasoned with that most savory of spices-- fresh air and keen hunger from a long day’s hike.

The second morning, however, I noticed a couple of the inner city boys arguing. The World War II knapsacks we were using weren’t as comfortable as the L.L. Bean backpacks today’s "generation x" hikers use. Nor was our footwear the equivalent of that with which today’s gilded youth are shod–more likely they were worn out keds with floppy laces. Some of the guys were already complaining about blisters. And now a couple of them were fighting about how much food each of them was expected to carry.

As the gang set off, I stayed behind for a while to use the outhouse. Running to rejoin the group I noticed something in the bushes. It was a can of spam! Someone must have accidentally dropped it. I fitted it into my pack, making it a lot heavier, and hurried along to catch up with the others.

We hiked that day through forests of birch and maple, through bogs, and up and down hills. We stopped for a lunch of kool-aid and spam sandwiches. For a while it rained lightly. That evening we arrived at a lean-to shelter alongside a mountain pond. We set out to make dinner. Apparently there had been some miscalculation. We were light on supplies. Something had gone wrong. We were out of grub.

There was one guy I didn’t like; I think his name was "Skip." The year before I suspected he had ripped off my favorite pocket knife. And now, when I lifted his pack, it was as light as a feather. It was empty. "He must have thrown his stuff out to make his pack lighter!" I shouted.
Skip was from a tough neighborhood near the railroad tracks, an address that was always showing up in the crime reports in the local paper.

"I told you my pack was too heavy!" he said, spitting through a gap in his front teeth. I proceeded to get into my second fistfight that summer. One of the adults broke us up.
That night each of us got a box of cornflakes doused with some instant milk out of a canteen. (Apparently Skip wasn’t the only one ditched his loads that day, when no one was looking; we were essentially out of food.)

The next day we had to walk another ten miles or so through the mountains with no food and little water. It was the hottest day that summer. Sometime in the afternoon the camp truck met us on a highway above Manchester, Vermont. On the way back they stopped to pick up groceries from a farm in upstate New York. They threw a crate of lettuce in the back of the truck. We opened the crate, took out a couple of heads, and before the adults could stop us, we tore the lettuce apart and ate it by the handful. I’ll never forget how good it tasted.

Even today I’ll hear some presumptuous liberal expound on the ills of world hunger by saying, "None of us have actually been hungry."And I always have to beg to differ. Everyone who chowed down on those few heads of lettuce that day has an authentic notion of what real hunger is all about. I don’t care what they say.

Another Rite of Passage

The fellow who broke up the fight over the ditched can goods was a Vermonter who had made a genuine rite of passage. (He later told me he wished he had let me give Skip what he deserved. ("I thought you wanted me to stop!") He hiked the complete Long Trail by himself at the ago of fourteen, starting out from his home in southern Vermont early in the summer. (Can you imagine a parent letting his kid do that in this day and age?)

At our campsites we had encountered a couple of creatures that were wild enough for us suburban and city kids. We learned that a porcupine makes a grunting sound like a pig, and a raccoon makes sort of a chirping sound. As we sat around the campfire one night, he told us about his most terrifying experience: hearing a screech in the woods that sounded like a wounded human. Just contemplating such a thing was enough to make us huddle around the fire, as he explained that it was the call of a bobcat.

He said he had never been so scared in his whole life, before or since. Little wonder then, that Vermonters of the day considered a solo hike of the Long Trail a necessary step along the path to manhood.

A Group Rite of Passage

A friend who grew up in Connecticut told me about an experience he had while making a trip on the Long Trail with some high school buddies. One summer day in 1963 they set out from southern Vermont to hike fifty-some miles north over the course of a week. These guys were of the generation that had practiced "duck and cover" drills in elementary school. The teenage angst of the time was regularly amplified by events seen on the evening news. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in people’s minds. (John Goodman made an interesting movie about very this subject at the old Strand Theater in Key West back in 1993: ).

After four or five bucolic days in the woods, isolated from civilization and the comforts of home, the hikers emerged at an overlook on the crest of a mountain. The valley below was filled with clouds. Above, in the distance, were rolling thunder heads that looked for all the world like the dreaded mushroom clouds of an atomic blast. There was no sign of civilization below, just the steamy clouds of the mist-filled valley.

Someone had an I-pod of the day, a little plastic AM transistor radio slightly larger than a cigarette pack. Every hep New England teenager had one--with a little luck you could hear the top forty from WPTR in Albany as far away as Maine. But the little radio couldn’t pick up a signal. They tried turning the dial to one of the ominous CONELRAD triangles. For a few seconds they thought they heard a voice reading numbers like some kind of a code. Then the radio was silent.

Who knows what thoughts went through the minds of these mere boys, isolated from their normal surroundings and confronted with the inexplicable? Who can blame them if, stripped of comfortable reference points, they took counsel of their fears? They were convinced that the world that they had left a few short days ago was now in ruins–parents, sisters, girlfriends, their hopes for the future all lay under a cloud of total mindless nuclear devastation.

We can imagine one or more of them counseling the others. This can’t be happening. And another, falling apart emotionally. We’ll all gonna die! Perhaps an older brother telling them all to get their things together. We have to hike out and find out what happened!

They shouldered their packs, and with grim determination headed silently down the misty mountainside through the woods, each deep in his own thoughts and worries. At length they reached the trail head, and came out on the highway. There, at the prearranged spot, was a station wagon with familiar blue Connecticut license plates, and Mom in her raincoat, right on time. "Hi, guys! How was it?"

The rest of the story is pure conjecture. We can only imagine the dissembling among our group. The fellow who told me about it said that, looking back on it, the whole thing was "annoying." We can but guess what role he himself played. But we can be sure that after a week on the Long Trail, there wasn’t one of them who was not in some way a better man than he had been the week before.

Nap Boule! Passing the Test

Once again we woke up in the dark and at breakneck speed headed down the hill into Port-au-Prince for the first real day of work. I met the carpenters I’d be working with, all of whose names seemed totally incomprehensible to me at the time. I tried to write them down. Just recently I discovered an old tattered notebook I’d tucked away. In it was the simplified list I’d made that day: Stripe Shirt, Green Cap, Red Hard Hat, Cowboy Hat, Blue Cap, Straw Hat, and Blue Shirt, and so on. And of course there was the interpreter, Bobby MacBean, an impish fellow in his fifties who had lost all his teeth along the way. The men called him S.D.N. They said it stood for sans dents net, "completely without teeth."

Eventually I mastered all their names, however difficult they seemed at first. This was something that stood us in good stead months later, when some serious labor problems developed.

An excavation crew had already dug out the spaces for the grade beams of the huge main building for the sugar mill equipment. Concrete workers had laid down a "mud slab" of low grade concrete as a base on which to set the reinforcing steel.

I discovered that since Haiti is theoretically prone to earthquakes, the Haitian government had ordered the specifications for the building to be increased for that possibility. It was obvious that a tremendous amount of steel and concrete would be needed to build this thing. And as might be expected, the concrete and steel were to be supplied by companies connected to the Haitian government.

Our job was to set up the forms for the first run of grade beam. That was simple enough. We had plywood and 2 x 4's, So far, so good. Then I found out that all the blueprints were in the metric system. So a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood would measure 122 x 244 centimeters, or close to it. We set to work to build some forms.

MacBean was helpful getting the message across, and the men seemed to know what they were doing. I wondered at one point how they felt about having a foreigner telling them what to do. I was soon to find out.

I’d basically been just working alongside them, as we built a dozen or so forms, supervising the cutting of the 2 x 4's in an economic manner, and showing them to set them at 40 centimeters on center, more or less. A couple of them seemed to be grumbling about something. Then more of them joined in and I noticed that they were looking over at me. I asked MacBean what was going on. He said, "Oh, Boss, you got a problem now. The say the way this work, you the big s–t, and they the n----rs!"

Hoo-boy, the defining moment of any job: the moment that will determine how things will go with your co-workers from then on out, a fork in the road leading to heaven or hell. I prayed for the right words. Suddenly I remembered the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. The murmuring stopped, and the crew waited for my reply.

"Tell them this," I said. "If any one of them can show me that he knows more about building a building like this than I do, then he can show us how to do it, and I’ll be one of the laborers. No problem." They seemed satisfied with my answer, and the crisis passed.

One other thing happened that increased my "props" with that crew, and I still don’t completely understand how it happened. A couple of them (Red Hard Hat and Straw Hat–wow, I just remembered their real names: Yves Caillot and Andre Decaille) were very large men, and a couple of years older than I was. Now it’s a psychological fact that we humans, no matter what our condition, feel superior in some way to the majority of the people we meet, even if it’s through a contrived comparison of our own devising. I noticed that Andre Decaille was about to replace a circular saw blade the wrong way, and pointed it out. He turned to the others, and although I couldn’t understand him at the time, you could tell he was probably saying I was just about the dumbest son-of-a-b---h he’d ever met. I stood back and watched.

To prove his point, he picked up a piece of wood, lifted the saw with a flourish, and started to cut. Of course the blade was in backward. What happened next was something I’d never seen before, or since for that matter. The blade heated up and the teeth melted right before our eyes. He stopped the saw. The teeth had extruded out into elongated points with a gob of molten metal on the end.

I don’t know where the company got those saw blades. When installed properly they seemed to work fine. I had never seen a piece of steel melt from the mere friction of running it through soft wood. I shook my head in wonderment and moved on to something else.

I’m sure Andre must have thought that I’d worked some voodoo on the blade just to prove a point. Even though he turned out to be one of our best workers, he never had much to say after that day.

For an informative look at Haitian customs and religion, check this out.

Things continued smoothly for the rest of the summer. Although we were working six 12 hour days per week, I eventually got to know some of the locals. Most of the grade beams for the main building were now in place. We’d actually done a great deal of work, although little of it showed, because most of it was below ground level.

The job site was in a rural area, and unfenced, so there were always people we didn’t know on the periphery. Some of these were job seekers, wives of the men, or people trying to sell things. Toward the end of one week a strange figure appeared several times, each time standing silently with his back to a building, watching. He was a large man, over six feet tall, and well-dressed. In spite of the heat he was wearing a gray three-piece suit, a black hat and dark glasses. He carried a black leather case, and didn’t speak to anyone.

We were about to get a visitor.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sea Wolf Part III

Before continuing I should clarify the dramatis personae of our group. Bill, the owner of the trimaran on which we sailed, had been a professor of chemistry at our local junior college. He was taking a year’s sabbatical to do some sailing. The first part of his trip was interrupted when his longtime lady friend, having found that at sea he was more a Captain Bligh and less the bearded professor she had known in the classroom, had jumped ship.

To continue his adventure he signed on "Memo," (this is what the Mexicans called him), a former New York City cop, and his wife, whom he had met at a marina in Key West, and me.
Memo’s wife, more of a passive observer than participant in all this, is now remarried and a respected educator, and shall remain nameless.

Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
Ecclesiastes 5:10

I should have known, and did know on a certain level, that it was a mistake to tell them about the exact situation of the Sea Wolf before they left to go diving. There was a certain look in both their eyes that smacked of dollar signs and boded ill. So it was with a sense of apprehension that I rushed back to the Sea Wolf and the command that I had abandoned by leaving the ship to go on my flying excursion with the Escuadron Aereo. By the time I got back there they were all over the ship like a plague of locusts, Bill, Memo, the wife, and a hippy girl they had picked up on the island, a possible replacement for Bill’s former lady friend who had jumped ship.

After a while I was able to apprise them of the situation, and pointed out the watchers on the hill. The previous day’s visitors returned one by one. Antonio came by for a few minutes, and I introduced him to the others.

Shortly after that I heard loud voices. Someone was arguing with Bill at the rail. Roberto had come back with the two goofy American girls. I told Bill that Lefferdink had said it was OK to let him on board, and he reluctantly backed off. I got the impression, among other things, that Roberto had been planning a menage a trois in the master stateroom, and wasn’t pleased to see the new additions to the "crew."

Antonio told me later he didn’t like Roberto. "I don’t know where he is from, but I think he is from somewhere near to . . . " he spat on the ground, "Cuba!" In fact Roberto was from Puerto Rico, and had lived in Brooklyn for a number of years.

"When I was in Brooklyn, I was in your ball park," he said. "Now you guys are in my ball park. And we’re going to play ball my way!"

That evening I heard another commotion on deck, and came up from my berth on the trimaran. Once again Bill was holding someone off at the rail. This time it was a drunken charter boat captain from Islamorada. He had been buddies with the crew that had left, and apparently liked to hoist a cup or two with them. He was totally upset that there were different people on board. I sized him up, and having run a marina in Marathon, knew exactly what we were dealing with. The only thing to do was to let him come on board and have a drink, in this case tequila, which we were drinking out of coffee cups. Plus, he had another bottle of tequila with him.

We spent rest of the evening drinking shots out of the ship’s teacups, garnished with a few slices of key lime. The captain took a shine to Bill’s hippy girl, who was starting to get on Bill's nerves by this time. He turned out to be a "masher," and pawed her pretty good. No one offered to save the damsel in distress, and expediency won out over chivalry that night. It seemed a good way to kill two birds with one stone. We never saw either one of them after that night.

The next day the old crew arrived back in town. From my bunk on the trimaran I once again heard angry voices. Bill was arguing at the rail with someone. I climbed up on the Sea Wolf and saw him having a pushing contest with another big goon. When he saw me, he said, "Here’s the guy who is officially in charge." Great. When there was no outside threat, Bill was the big enchilada. Whenever there was a problem, I got my captain’s hat back. There were four of them, the former captain, a couple of mates, and the ship’s engineer, the guy who had disabled all the systems on the ship. I asked what was going on.

"Look, here’s how it is," says the one identified as the captain. "This guy owes us a lot of money. We’re coming on board and we’re going to take off the Loran set, and a few other things as collateral. And you’re either going to get out of our way, or we’re going to go right through you!"

I had read enough of the ship’s log to know that this guy was a hothead. I said, "Well, since you put it that way, and since we’re in a foreign country (and since there are at least two groups of ‘watchers’ up on the hill reporting everything that’s going on here), you can go ahead and take what you want. Just leave us some kind of a receipt that we can show the guy when he comes back."

They thought this was reasonable, and came on board and took the Loran set and a few other things, leaving a list. They also took what they said were personal possessions. In the meantime Memo "pumped" the engineer for information as to what he had done to screw things up.

I talked with one of the mates, who was from Houston. He’d gone home after the crew had left en masse. His brother worked for a newspaper, and had photocopied a few pertinent pages from a book, The Fountain Pen Conspiracy by Jonathan Kwitny of the Wall Street Journal, which told about what Lefferdink had been up to.

We continued to do what we could to get the ship’s systems working again. Then Memo took me aside, and said, "I gotta tell you something. This morning Bill went into town and sent Lefferdink a message. He said that the Mexicans were about to seize the boat, and that there wasn’t much we could do, unless he wired us $1000 immediately."

"That’s pretty heavy," I said. He’s some kind of international swindler, he leaves me a book about Meyer Lansky, and here we are trying to extort money from him? "What the heck is he gonna think?"

"That’s not all," Memo said. "He signed your name to it."

I went ballistic, and made Bill promise to go back into town and send him a message clarifying the situation. He resentfully went into town and came back saying that he had taken care of things. I found out later that he hadn’t done anything. (I also found out that he had left the message by phone. Memo said that the number rang at a Miami address, where there were at least two phones. A woman dialed another number, and then put the receivers earpiece to mouthpiece, so to speak, so that there would be no direct link between the two phones, thereby preventing someone from being able to trace the call to the second phone. Not for nothing did they write books about this guy.)

The next morning, thinking all was in order, I went was coming back from town on foot. Near the road from the airport, a car screeched to a halt, a door opened and a voice said, "Get in." It was Lefferdink, and he was clearly unhappy. He didn’t seem about to hand over any $1000.

I explained that I hadn’t make the call, or whatever, but that the situation was basically as Bill had said. What he needed to do was to get a generator to get the bilge pumps and other essential systems up an running, just to buy time to figure out how to get the ship operational again. We went back to the ship, and the others explained the situation in basically the same way. He agreed to hire Bill and Memo to get the ship up and running again.

Like an archer who wounds at random
is he who hires a fool or any passer-by.
Proverbs 26:10

The next day a brand new Onan generator arrived in a crate, flown down from Miami by a young man Lefferdink said was his stepson. The stepson, looking fairly amused at the whole situation, left the same day.

Lefferdink, as far as I knew, never found out that we knew there had been a book written about him. He explained that the source of his riches came from something he had invented: the automated teller machine. He claimed that he had sold the franchise to every bank in the United States, had cashed out, and was now embarking on a world tour to sell the "Money Machine" in every country in Central and South America. He even had brochures describing the product and showing the address of the corporate headquarters in California. If we hadn’t know about his other activities, it would have seemed totally plausible and believable.

Bill and Memo still had dollar signs in their eyes, and went along with everything he said. Lefferdink had his doubts about me, probably because he still thought I was the one who had tried to extort the thousand dollars from him.

Next: A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge,
but the simple keep going and suffer for it.
Proverbs 22:3

Thursday, August 7, 2008

King Neptune Slaps Steve Upside the Head

"The engulfing waters surrounded me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was
wrapped around my head."
Jonah 2:5

A phone call a couple of weeks ago reminded me of one of my youthful misadventures, and inspired me to write an account of it, which I posted as "King Neptune Slaps Me Upside the Head." I have been waiting to hear the rest of the story related to me in that phone call, but it has come forth only in bits and pieces. Not that I blame Steve for not spilling his guts. He’s proud of the fact that he’s learned a lot more about handling small boats since he moved to Florida from landlocked Kentucky fifteen years ago.

A couple of years ago he sailed with his father down the Pacific coast of Mexico, and periodically sent back notes detailing his adventures–encounters with pods of whales, venturing ashore at remote fishing villages, and fighting the unusually powerful storms that made sailing along the Baja coast so formidable that year.
The climax of that voyage was a heroic crossing of the Sea of Cortez during a gale, when Steve, like a young Ulysses, single-handed the Manatee Sol for twenty-four hours, as his dad lay disabled in the bilges, a victim of a combination of mal de mere and South-of-the-Border cuisine. Steve was rightfully proud of his seamanship. His friends told him that his landlubber status was now officially a thing of the past.
"Pride goes before destruction,
a haughty spirit before a fall."
Proverbs 16:18

This summer he became part-owner of an entirely adequate 23' sloop. Steve has always been a diplomatic sort of fellow, so it was not out of character that he invited a man (let’s call him Jonah), whom he had recently laid off, for a libation, just to show that there were no hard feelings. One thing led to another, and although the hour was late, they decided to go for a sail. Somewhere beyond Hawk Channel the boat slowed up. A line from a lobster trap had wrapped around the rudder. Steve wrapped another line around his waist as a safety device, and dove into the murky water to unwrap the trap line. Just as he got the trap line off, he felt the "safety line" also slip away, and the boat shot forward. He shouted to Jonah to head the boat into the wind to stop it.

Who knows how humans will react in times of emergency? Some stay cool and act seemingly without thinking. Others freeze up like a deer in the headlights. A soldier is trained through innumerable drills to act without hesitation at a time when a quick decision can mean the difference between life and death. But the reaction of a civilian, especially one who is essentially a stranger, is completely a matter of chance. Jonah froze up, and the boat sailed off into the night.

O God, Thy sea is so great,
And my ship is so small!

It’s safe to say that there was a lot of shouting and blistering the air with curses. As the vague outline of the sails moved away in the darkness, Steve thought he could hear the words, "I don’t know how! I don’t know how!" Are we to believe there are those who lack the ingenuity to move a tiller to port or starboard, if only to see what effect it might have on the slow-moving craft? Or should we look into the darker recesses of the human heart, and see retributive justice as the father of this most grievous omission? In any event Steve now faced a dilemma. Continue to swim in the direction of the disappearing craft, thereby depleting his already waning energy, or to make for shore in the blackness of the waves?

He decided to swim for shore, and headed toward the intermittent flash of a distant beacon at Key West International Airport. What thoughts went through his head as he slowly stroked his way toward land? The occasional splash of a large fish, or a breaking wave made him even more aware of his predicament. Maybe it’s only a school of tarpon. But aren’t they often followed by hammerheads, especially at night? Somewhere during the three-hour swim, exhausted, he took off his shorts in an attempt to ease his drag through the water, and let them fall to the bottom.

At daybreak he dragged himself naked onto the sand of Smathers Beach, like the archetypal castaway of film and legend. Down the beach there was a startled swimmer, and Steve asked him for a towel, then hobbled to a seawall to rest and ponder what to do next. A passing police cruiser screeched to a halt. Someone had seen him come out of the water, and called the cops.

Steve tried to explain what had happened to the officer, but he'd have none of it. He’d seen plenty of cases like this. Too much to drink, and they end up on the beach buck naked in the morning. Fell off a boat. Sure! Indecent exposure, plain and simple. Another amusing Key West story in tomorrow’s Crime Report. He prepared to take Steve out to the jail for booking, and called into dispatch.

It's what we learn after we know it all that counts!

--Leo Cooper

"Yeah, there was a report of a man overboard." In fact, the Coast Guard still had a boat and a helicopter out searching. Exactly what happened after that is unclear. There was an exchange of cell phone calls. Somehow Steve got home, and somehow he got back to the boat. Jonah was still on board. It seems after a while, he had found Steve’s cell phone on board. He called his girlfriend(!) and told her what had happened, and she had the good sense to call 911 and report the incident.

It’s been hard to get Steve to talk about it, but maybe when he sees this, he’ll volunteer to fill in the blanks! Or maybe not....

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Sea Wolf Part II

I woke to the smell of diesel fuel and the sound of fishing boats motoring out of the marina. I was still on board the Sea Wolf. I opened my eyes and looked around. The main salon was like an upscale living room, with richly upholstered couches, chairs, and settees, and a round table for dining or playing cards, a far cry from my cramped, slightly soggy v-berth aboard Bill’s trimaran, the Search.

On one side was a fancy wet bar, opposite that a door led to a bathroom with a regular flush toilet, not the hand-operated "head" usually found on smaller yachts. The water system was not working, and the smell from the unflushed toilet blended with the diesel fumes from the departing craft. I quickly shut the door. Forward were two carpeted staircases, one leading up to the bridge, the other leading below.

On the bridge were the ship’s wheel and controls, all sort of navigation and communication gear. I took a quick look at the ship’s log. She had been heading south and ran into some kind of mechanical problem during a storm. They had put into Corn Island, which was off the coast of Nicaragua, and then returned to Cozumel with two Corn Islanders as additional crew members. There they had run into trouble with the Mexican authorities. I was beginning to understand part of the picture.

Going below, I saw the galley, a complete kitchen with walk-in cooler and freezer. Both were empty. There were several large staterooms, beds fitted with expensive linens with flowery prints, and a master stateroom with a king-size bed. Forward were rooms for the captain, engineer, and first mate, and a bunk room for the crew. A companionway led down to the engine room, which was dimly lit by a couple of portholes.

Going back to the main deck, I made a sandwich from the food I’d brought from the Search, and looked around at the situation. It slowly dawned on me that I was a prisoner in a somewhat defiled gilded cage. I had taken on an obligation which kept me a virtual prisoner on board the boat. The "watchers’ were still on the hill above. There now seemed to be two separate groups of them. As luxurious as the yacht was when it was up and running, unless I broke my promise to keep an eye on things, I was stuck there, like a ship becalmed at sea. Or was it in the eye of the storm?

The visitors began arriving. First to show up was a big guy named Antonio. He was all business in the beginning, but seemed mollified when I told him that Lefferdink told me to expect him, and to tell him that he would be coming back in a few days, and had left me to watch the boat. I got the feeling that Antonio had come directly from the airport. If he’d been on the island, he would have known that Lefferdink had flown out the day before. Cozumel was not a big place in those days. I noticed him giving money later to one of the watchers up on the hill. So some of them were his people.

After Antonio there was a steady stream of gawkers. Most of them seemed to be tourists from other parts of Mexico. A young guy who looked more like an American came by on a bicycle. He spoke unaccented English, but was from Mexico City, on vacation with his family. His name was Jaime.

The next "player" who arrived was the second one I had been told to expect, Roberto, who showed up with a couple of goofy American college girls in tow. He seemed a lot more aggressive that Antonio, and told me that the Sea Wolf had violated Mexican immigration law. (The entry in the log about the Corn Islanders began to make sense.) A group of local entrepreneurs had fronted money to pay the fine, and had a lien on the boat. They were planning on seizing it and turning it into an offshore gambling casino. The plot was thickening.

In the afternoon a well-dressed man with two kids came by. I invited them on board, and took the kids up on the bridge, and let them play with the wheel and pretend to steer the boat. He wrote down his name for me, Major Buenfils, head of the Air Force squadron there on the island. As he left, he invited me in broken English to come to the airport the next morning to go flying. I didn’t see how I could leave the boat, but couldn’t explain that to him anyway, so just smiled and nodded.

Jaime came back with his parents and sister, to get the "grand tour" of the yacht as well. We were definitely a tourist attraction. Jaime stayed around for a while after his parents left, and was there when the port captain showed up, the first of several visits. The port captain was an older man, and always had a couple of lieutenants with him, something I noticed was de rigeur in the Third World. He seemed relatively agreeable, something I hadn’t expected, after what I had heard from Roberto. I had the feeling that Lefferdink had made some kind of financial arrangement with him, before he left. He didn’t speak English, but seemed to hit it off with Jaime. I had no idea what they were talking about. Jaime told me later he was pretty sure the old man was soused all the time. Maybe that’s why he needed the two lieutenants on each side of him, to hold him up in case he fell down drunk.

By nightfall I had run out of food. It had been a busy day. The watchers were still on the hill. I secured the boat, and fell asleep on the settee. The next morning was the same scenario with the boats going out early and the smell of diesel, but the watchers on the hill were gone! I figured it was safe enough to leave the boat for a short time, even though I felt vaguely uneasy about it. I needed to get some supplies, and, hey, I had been invited to the airport at six o’clock. So I left.

Before I left, I looked up the words "I am looking for" in my Spanish book. So when I got to the airport, I went up to the first uniformed man I saw and told him I was looking for the Major. Within a few minutes I was standing with him in a military formation, looking like a fool in flip-flops and Florida bonefish guide hat, as they played the Mexican anthem and saluted the flag. Within a few minutes someone strapped a parachute on my back, and led me into an old T-28, a prop-driven trainer. We flew in formation with four other planes. They didn’t have radios, but communicated by hand signals. The view over the Yucatan Channel was magnificent.

Since the major was the best pilot, he had taken the worst plane. In order to get the landing gear to go down, he had to wave the other planes off, then go into a dive and pull up abruptly. The g-force would push the wheels down, and then he could lock them in place. We tried twice, but each time a buzzer went off, indicating that the wheels weren’t locked. After the second time, I realized that a lever was hitting me on the leg. I shifted over, and the third time the lever went down all the way, the buzzing stopped, and the wheels locked.

The major signaled the other planes to get back in formation, and they all landed together. After we landed, men came out to refuel the planes, and the major and the other pilots met under some trees to discuss the flight and to have some cold horchata, a drink made out of rice and sugar. They were surprised that I had never heard of it. After hanging around for a while, I thanked them heartily and made my exit. I had to get back to the marina. Something was bothering me.

Just before we started the landing process, the major had shouted something and pointed down. We were over the marina. There was the Sea Wolf, along with an ominous surprise. Before my friends had left on their fishing trip, I had told them what I little knew about the Sea Wolf. As I explained the situation, I noticed something vaguely disturbing in the back of their eyes. I now realized what it was–dollar signs. They’d come back early. The trimaran was tied up alongside the Sea Wolf, and they were on board her.

Next: Like an archer who wounds at random
is he who hires a fool or any passer-by.
Proverbs 26:10