Monday, October 12, 2015

HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD by Peter Nolan Smith


Distances around the world have dramatically shrunk with the spread of jet transportation. Columbus' voyage to the New World lasted almost two months. That trip from the port of Palos in Spain to Plana Cays in the Bahamas would now take about twenty-hours with a train to Madrid, flights to Miami and Nassau followed by a small hop to Plana Cayes. A long day, but a fraction of the time Columbus' flotilla spent on the Great Atlantic.

My great-grandaunt Bert traveled to Asia on her father's clipper ship during the 1870s.

They traveled across the Atlantic around the Cape of Good Hope to traverse the Indian Ocean to Singapore and beyond.

"The voyage took eight months.

In 1960 my father drove us down to visit Aunt Bert. Her house in Falmouth Heights, Mass. was a memorial to her journeys. The stately nonagenarian greeted us at the door with her Polish nurse. I had never seen a man or woman that old, but her ancient eyes dashed with life. She invited us inside and waved for my older brother and me to explore the house. It was a young boy's delight.

Tobacco stained hookahs, scrimshawed whale teeth, blood-encrusted harpoons, bet swords, and African fetish masks adorned the hallways. My older brother and I put on wicked masks to duel with narwhal tusks. We were pirates on a rage.

"What do you think you're doing?" My mother was aghast at our liberties.

"Don't mind them." Aunt Bert waved a weathered hand in the air. "All boys go a little mad seeing these 'things'."

"But they might break something." My mother came from a good Irish family. Children were carved into adults with the smack of a belt. She eyed out a warning. I cringed to decipher its meaning.

"This harpoon was used by a Samoan to kill a whale for my eighth birthday. We were off the coast of India. If a whale couldn't break it, then your boys can't either." My great-grandaunt would have been my age in 1868. She had never had children. Her side of the family was old New England blood.

"And those masks come from headhunters in Papua New Guinea. Their tribe ate people. I don't think that cannibals care about your boys breaking them. Maybe they would have like to eat their heart more."

No one spoke like this in 1960 and Aunt Bert lifted the masks from our faces.

"Make your mother happy. Put down those things and come drink tea with me." Aunt Bert led us into the sitting room. Her nurse brought us tea and ginger snaps. She looked at us, as if she was calculating the measure of our worth.

"When I was your age, I sailed with my father on a whaling ship."

"You told us that they killed a whale for you."

"Off the coast of Madagascar. You know where that is?"

"East of Africa." Geography was my favorite subject.

"The boats chased the whale. The whale fought for his life. After he was killed, the boats towed the carcass to the ship. The crew cut off the blubber into Bible leaves and turned it into oil in pots. The entire ship smelled of whale fat, but the fire from the oil was beautiful. My brother and I could see our shadows on the deck. It was almost magic."

I had fallen under her spell and sipped at the tea.

The ornately carved table had been transported from Siam. The cups were Wedgewood. The silverware came from Mexico.

"Would you like one sugar or two?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Of course you want two spoonfuls. Young boys like things sweet."

"Thank you." My mother had raised us to be polite.

Aunt Bert noticed our staring at the table's carvings of naked women snaking up the legs to honor a dignified king. She smiled and caressed the wood. It was more alive than dead.

"My father bought this table in Thailand. It used to be called Siam. The women there were beautiful but had black teeth from chewing betel nut. The weather was hot, but they loved sweets too. Lovely cakes."

Her clawed hand pushed forward a plate of pastries.

My brother grabbed a cream puff and I chose an eclair.

My father came into the room with my mother and their conversation with Aunt Bert was lost thanks to the heavenly taste of the chocolate eclair.

The next time I saw Bert was at her 100th birthday. President Johnson sent a telegram. Her family surrounded her. She was sitting in a wheelchair. Her smile blessed the younger generations. She called over my older brother and me. We were almost hippies.

"The men in Borneo wore their hair long. They had tattoos too. Same as the whalers." Her head drifted on her neck, as if she might be dying and I asked, "Are you okay?"

"I'm a hundred years old. When I was six, my father gave me a watch for a birthday present. I have it somewhere." She obviously couldn't remember where and I gazed at the sun to the west and said, "It's almost four."

"That how the whalers told the time. By looking at the sun." She closed her eyes and mumbled out a song in a low voice, "I want to be an angel and with the angels stand, a crown upon my forehead and a harp in my hand."

I kissed her on the forehead.

She was asleep in her chair.

We spent the rest of the afternoon with our cousins.

The last time we met was at a nursing home. She was close to death. Bert spoke our names with a gasp.

"I had a good life. I have seen many things. Things no one will ever see again." Her smile said what those were without her telling what. "You boys have a good life."

She died several days later. Her will left everything to the nurse. It seemed wrong that someone outside of the family should have the harpoons, but not fighting the wishes of the dead was considered good manners in Maine.

I often think about the curios from her house, especially when I travel to the Orient.

My last trip from Fort Greene in Brooklyn to Sri Racha on the Gulf of Siam was on the new Airbus 380.

JFK to Dubai on Emirates in 14 hours.

Dubai to Bangkok another 6 hours and after clearing customs an hour drive to the small house overlooking the harbor.

The total travel time from door to door 27 hours beat Aunt Bert's record along with the short voyage of Christopher Columbus, however the return trip was a marathon, thanks to an eight-hour lay-over in Dubai and a long queue at JFK.

The TSA was checking everyone as a terrorist candidate. The government flunkies searched my bag for contraband, while an Arab patriarch with 14 kids waltzed out of the customs terminal. Their bags towered over mine. None of them looked like Al-Qaeda, but the TSA weren't taking any chance with an American with a passport thick with immigration stamps.

"What were you doing out of the country?"

"Visiting my family in Thailand and drinking beer." I missed my son and daughter more than I was willing to tell anyone in a uniform.

"Sir, this isn't a joke." The TSA agent was too serious for my taste.

"I know that." I kept my answers to the point and soon exited into the terminal.

Taxi drivers were waiting by the doors. I wanted to be on the plane taking off. Fenway and Angie were halfway around the world. I walked past the cabs.

The SkyTrain connected me to A train, which was a straight shot to Fulton Street.

36 hours from door to hour.

I entered my apartment exhausted by the trip and fell asleep within minutes, but woke up at 3am.

I bet Christopher Columbus had never suffered from jetlag and neither had my Aunt Bert, but then they traveled at a different rate of speed, as I would come Christmas.

36 hours to Thailand was nothing to me or Aunt Bert.

We were world travelers and circumnavigating the globe ran in our family.

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