Alexander de Maubry
2 Trottingham Court
UK 12 July, '74
Forgive my haste but I must get to the meat of my story straightaway. It is starting to rain here and soon they will come for me.
As you know, few things arouse my passion as does big game hunting. I have been called cold, even ruthless, by certain Club members but it could only be true passion that would pull me halfway round
the globe to this damned red clay region. And that, old friend, would be the passion of the hunt!
I had been outsmarted in Shanghai and bloody careless in Benares, but by God, it would not happen here! I had hastened all the way to Georgia in America to hunt and slay the fierce Raisin Bagel.
To appreciate the challenge, one must first consider the catch. The Raisin Bagel, at first glance, appears like its close cousin, the Common Rye Bagel. They are the same size and texture and both are rather cinnamon-like in color. But there all similarity ends.
The Raisin is much more elusive, lurking in mucky places or hiding near larger game. You will recall, Alex, I bagged my first Raisin found cooling off with a herd of huge Bialys. Though small in stature, the Bagel is a born fighter and the Raisin especially can be ferocious when cornered. To approach one bare-handed is asking to be burned. Most chaps never get that close, however. Bagels can hear even small people in the next room and will quickly fade away. Stealth is called for. Stealth and a large helping of patience. The best rewards come to those who wait and it is true also with the wily Bagel.
But I digress. Shortly after my diminutive man-servant, Seymour, and I arrived in Atlanta, we began hearing promising reports. Hikers had recently spotted a trail of caraway seeds in a suburban park. And later, people reported smelling onions and chives near an ethnic deli. It all sounded quite extraordinary and with rising excitement we hailed a cab and hurried to the area.
After scouting the lay of the land, Seymour and I began our own sleuthing expedition. With eyes wide open and following our noses, we slowly made our way through fen and forest. No garbage can or trash bin was left unchecked. Finally, by mid afternoon the trail had led us to a posh Georgian manor house nestled amongst Dogwood trees. Looking all about, we quickly deduced that no one was home. Seymour, alert as ever, noticed a side door ajar. Mind you, I’m not one to enter homes uninvited but dammit man, this was possibly my last chance to nab a Raisin Bagel. We snuck inside.
I motioned for Seymour to check the back side of the home for more clues. I parked myself behind a china cabinet in the hallway and waited and waited. After an hour of that nonsense, I thought about chucking it all. Suddenly, trusty Seymour, rounded the corner quite out of breath. He had spotted fresh tracks on the terrace and there was still cream-cheese on them. We were closing in. Silently, we dropped to our bellies and inched our way down the hall to the parlor sofa. Crouching behind it, I ever so careful peeked round and nearly dropped my monocle. There on the dining room table, close by the preserves, sat the largest bag of Bagels I had ever seen. Heat shimmered off the brown expanse of paper. The aroma was quite overpowering. My heart pounded. Sweat rolled off me. Could it be possible! Might there be one or more Raisins nestled among the Garlics and Pumpernickels?
While relishing the possibility, I flashed on old Freddy Dinsmore, asleep by the fire back at the Gastronome Club. Freddy had hunted all his life; nothing could elude him for long. Fearless Freddy you called him. He was the only one of us to ever bring down the nocturnal Cheese Blintz. One night, in his cups, he confessed how he had lied, how one trophy had always eluded him. He had never bagged a Raisin Bagel. Now here was I with perhaps a whole bag of them not fifteen feet away. Poor old Freddy!
Enough! It was time for action. I motioned for Seymour to circle downwind the bag while I tried a ploy the natives sometimes use. On my signal, Seymour began whispering in Yiddish from behind the pantry door. Instantly, the bag seemed to move round in that direction, as if listening.
That was it! No time to dally! Go! In a wink I charged, knocking over a parlor chair in the process. Reaching the table's edge, I grabbed the still warm bag before any wee beastie could escape. Quickly glancing inside, I spotted a beautiful cinnamon Raisin hiding on the bottom. I raised my fork high and brought it down again and again!
Seymour entered the dining room smiling broadly. Then holding up our prize, I announced, “What say old fella’ to some hot Bagel and a smear?”
Your devoted pal Nigel
Yesterday was the first day of my hoped for weekly “Day of No Thing”, twenty-four hours of self-imposed solitude. With the world pushing in on all sides and society making increasingly restrictive demands, a period of time-out became necessary, even longed for. Instead of giving in to commercial culture’s seductive demands, I allowed myself the luxury of not leaving the house all day except perhaps to enjoy a cup of tea in the back yard.
Marked more by what I did not accomplish than what I did, I found myself with blessed very little to do. No yard work, no house work, no bill paying or cooking. No phone calls, instant messages, e-mails or texts. No lunch dates, neighbor visits, television, Facebook or even answering the door. In this state of suspended world engagement, showers, shaving and dental hygiene became unnecessary.
That is not to say I descended into stinky slothfulness because I continued to make my bed and wash the food bowl. And, of course, I attended to my two feline friends because not to do so would have marked me a cruel unfeeling oaf.
I read and wrote, drew and painted, listened to music and enjoyed the excellent pastime of staring into space. Joining the cats in an afternoon siesta did not cause the least bit of guilt.
In this blissful way, I passed the day in contentment with a full belly and rested brain.
But oddly, by day’s end I had not physically recharged and lay exhausted like a beached whale. One could only conclude that some type of exercise is the fuel for physical stamina. Right then I decided that next week I will change my routine and add some exercise. I will pick up my socks or perhaps walk to the mail box.
My 2018 Captain Marvel 16 month calendar just informed me that today, June 21, is the first official day of summer. Yeah right! Those of us who live in the Sunbaked State know better. What we call summer first arrives in these parts with the buzz of Cicadas and the low hum of countless air-conditioning units. And that would be sometime in May, depending on how close you live to the Coast.
Sitting in the cool comfort of this climate controlled home, it’s hard to remember a time without the miracle of air-conditioning. But such a time indeed existed in the sweltering Florida summers of my youth.
We lived in an old rental house with few amenities and although public buildings and people of means enjoyed air-conditioning, we did not. Window-fans, wet towels and sweating were the methods we employed to make living a bit more tolerable. But sleeping in such hot and humid conditions became nigh impossible. Waking from nights of fitful sleep, I often discovered sheets and pillowcases as wet from sweat as I was. Something obviously had to be done.
That’s when my resourceful father decided to put his inventive abilities to good use. He was, after all, a drop-out from Rutgers University’s Correspondence School of Engineering. Looking around with keen eye and mind, he hit on an idea to use three things we already possessed; window-fans, water and an abundance of Spanish moss hanging from backyard trees.
As my sister and I watched in silent amusement, Dad affixed sturdy metal racks to the backs of each window-fan. Onto the racks he draped several layers of fresh Spanish moss after first removing any little bug critters lurking therein. Finally with everything in place, he let hoses trickle water down over the moss and turned on the fans.
To our amazement and perhaps also to Dad’s, the contraptions worked. Air that the fans sucked into the house was cooler by several degrees, just enough to make living more pleasant and sleeping more peaceful.
Dad’s cool invention never caught on but for a short time in 1956 his ‘air-conditioners’ were more important to us than the ones built by that other Florida inventor, John Gorrie.
Last Friday for a large part of the day I got to hang out in the Imaging Center of Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. I had come with a friend who was scheduled for two MRIs. Anticipating a long wait, I made sure to bring along plenty of snacks, some illustrator pens and a well-worn sketchbook.
The waiting area filled up quickly with mostly older couples who busied themselves reading, texting, watching tv and in one case knitting. Then a young Spanish family sitting in the corner caught my eye. A thirty something husband and wife with two children, I figured they were waiting on an older relative, perhaps their abuela.
I was surprised later when an assistant called the husband in for an MRI. And shortly after that my friend got called in for her own tests.
Faced with several hours of wait time, I settled in as best I could, took out my sketchbook and began to draw. It didn’t take long before the two children took notice. They stopped chattering, put down their I-pad and began staring at me. The longer I drew the more curious they became until presently, the brother, the bolder of the two, moved to a closer chair with his sister soon following.
As I continued drawing, their curiosity could not be contained. In order to get closer, they soon took seats directly across from me. I kept drawing for a while longer until growing hungry; I closed the sketchbook and decided to check out the Center café. The children’s smiles changed my mind and on a whim I held out the sketchbook to them.
“Would you like to see my drawings?”
“Oh yes!” answered the brother and he and his surprised sister thus began a delightful journey of discovery through a year’s worth of my sketches. When one or the other came upon a drawing they especially liked, the sketchbook was held up for their mother to see.
And with that unusual introduction all of our imposed reservations soon evaporated. The boy asked if I was an artist. Did I go to university? He told me that his mother’s brother painted pictures and he and his sister once took an art course back home in Puerto Rico.
By then I had become encouraged and started asking my own questions. What were their names? Were they visiting Florida on holiday? Had they gone to Disney World? The sister, Malaria, spoke little English so younger brother Gariel became translator for both of us.
They were refugees from Hurricane Maria and had come to Moffitt from the little town of Trenton west of Gainesville. Before that they stayed for a while in Ocala and before that Orlando. They liked Florida but were eager to go back home.
At that point, Malaria retrieved her I-pad and with new found courage began using the pad to ask questions.
“Do you draw the colors?” “Do also you paint the pictures?”
Through the genius of technology I showed this inquisitive girl my web site and videos. As image after image scrolled across the screen, Malaria and Gariel became more excited, pointing at their favorites and holding up the I-pad again for their mother to see. Now she too seemed more relaxed and after a while joined in the conversation. Finally I felt comfortable enough to ask a question that had been on my mind.
“Is your husband ok?”
She spoke at length to Gariel who then turned to me and repeated one word, “Tumor.” His mother pointed at her head and nodded when I asked, “Brain tumor?” In the most convincing voice I could muster, I told her that her husband was in the very best medical facility and not to worry, he would be fine.
The conversation trailed off after that and all of us sat in silence. When their father finished his MRI and returned, Malaria and Gariel were quick to show him my sketchbook, occasionally stopping to point at me.
As they turned the pages together, I marveled at how, for a short time, art had been able to bring strangers together. That refugee family had been through so much sadness yet I could see what a strong bond of love they had for each other. Would Malaria and Gariel still have their father’s guidance as they faced the difficult task of growing up? Would his wife have the privilege of growing old with her loved one by her side?
Their long ordeal over, the family gathered their belongings and prepared to leave. A sadness swept over me and I searched for comforting words to say before they drove back home. No words came.
As they filed past, Gariel handed me a candy cane and smiling, wished me a Merry Christmas. Malaria and their mother and father smiled and also wished me a Merry Christmas. And then they were gone.
In 1950 my grandfather passed away and for the first time in her long life, my grandmother found herself alone and needed our help in getting over the awful emptiness. So, my dad, looking for an excuse to escape summer’s heat, fired up the old Chevy and drove my mom, sister and I up to Virginia to stay with Grandmother Alice for what we thought would be a couple of months. My sister and I were sure we had been dropped down in a magical land of mist shrouded mountains, hollers and for five months of the year, snow. For us Florida flatlanders it proved to be a vacation wonderland.
‘A couple of months’ turned into a year, way too long for two young kids to lay about. Some adults decided we ought to continue our formal education and the schooling would take place at Finney School, the local seat of learning, just down the road from Grandmother’s place. Our vacation was officially over.
The faded old school was fascinating to us in its stark simplicity. Grades 1-6 were in one room and 7-12 in another one. The cavernous class rooms were heated by small fuel-oil stoves but the warmth never seemed to make it back to where I sat. With no running water or plumbing, trips to the water pump or outhouse were, especially in winter, acts of shivering courage.
With time on her hands and tired of staring at chickens, my mom signed up to be a substitute teacher in some of Russell County’s underserved areas. No teaching experience needed, just show up and manage to stay until 2 o’clock. Then one day someone didn’t show up and they asked Mom to sub at one of the most remote schools in the County, Possum Hollow School. She kept me out of school that day to go with her and I believe it was to teach me another kind of lesson.
Up a winding gravel road and wedged into a cleft sliced out of the mountain, Possum Hollow School made Finney School seem like a palace. Small, dark and cold, the school had seen much better days and I marveled that it somehow managed to stay upright. Mom and I sat alone for the longest time and she wondered out loud if students would show up at all.
But slowly children began to wander in one after the other until finally all eight desks were occupied and drawn close to the wood-burning stove. I saw no school bus or heard any cars delivering students and it dawned on me that these kids had walked all the way.
I don’t remember any of the schooling that took place but the lunchtime has stayed with me all these years later. I eagerly opened my brown paper bagged lunch and surveyed what my mother had prepared- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk. Just before laying into the sandwich, I glanced around to see what other students were eating.
Gathered around me were three of the saddest looking children I had ever seen. Two boys and a girl, perhaps brothers and sister, they were dressed in torn and faded clothes and in obvious need of basic hygiene. They stood staring at me, saying nothing and occasionally wiping their runny noses on tattered sleeves.
What in the world was wrong with those kids? Then I realized they were not staring at me but at my lunch. They did not have their own lunch boxes or brown paper bags and it hit me that the reason was because those three children had no lunches. Not one apple or piece of cornbread, nothing. At my young age, I had no clue why, but knew for certain I could not eat lunch while they ate nothing. I motioned for the three to come over and then divided the sandwich and apple into equal parts and gave it to them. With big smiles they wolfed down the offered food and finishing, turned and returned to their desks. I drank a carton of milk for lunch that day.
My visit to Possum Hollow School was the first time I ever witnessed poverty or even knew about poor folks. I never once thought about my grandmother or people in the valley being poor. I believed it was simply the way they lived. The gut-wrenching poverty of families like those in the hollers taught me a lesson I never forgot. Whenever possible, help a neighbor out.
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