Friday, 22 May 2009

Letter to Joe

via Joe Bageant

Dirt and family, sea foam and fate
Dear Readers,

On the back side of the small resort island Caye Caulker, offshore from Belize City, Belize, is a beached two-man sailing vessel which has been lying on its side in the Caribbean sun and winds for fifty years. That was a long time ago, yet the poor Black Carib people who occupy the back side of the caye ("bakkatown," the Black Caribs call it), the ones who wait on the tables of the rich and pilot their fishing boats, still fondly remember the man who once sailed that old wooden boat. "He wah English, a man of da watah an de soul," one old bakka town fisherman recalled to the younger ones, who invariably ask, sometime in the course of their lives, about the old boat resting so prominently there at the end of the sandy road leading to the lagoon.

Today I was fortunate enough to receive a letter from a similar soul, a seafaring man from Nova Scotia. As to the letter writer's question, Why can't media and political figures form genuine sentiment or thought? My suspicion is this: Those who grow up in the childrens' wading pools of America, entranced by their toys and watched over by nanny capitalism in suburbia or Gotham, never glimpse the deep waters, and therefore live out their lives as children, capable only of childish perception. And in dispensing their perceptions as reality from their positions of power, they further infantilize our entire nation.

-- Joe Bageant

Dear Joe,

I'm humbled by the quality of discourse regarding a "sense of place" and beyond that, its use, its importance in the coming unpleasantness. I've read the letters from the Norwegian, whose eloquence and clear thinking were inspiring. Then, I followed the links to the young fella who just didn't get it. He, also, is a writer in full, and his words struck me because of the "American" content of his pain. I will attempt a short statement of where I'm coming from.

I'm a Canadian. My father was a psychiatrist. When I was four, we moved to Pendleton, Oregon, a nice little cow town, because it contained a large "mental hospital", in the argot of the day. As a result of this, I said the pledge of allegiance every morning until I was twelve. I know how it feels to see the stars and bars marching down the street on the Fourth of July as a good brass band plays John Philip Sousa. I know what it feels like to be an American. I still get goosebumps thinking about it, even though I know, and I know it like few do, that America, that shining light on the hill, that beautiful revolution, that democratic wonder, is about to take us down. Hard. And I'm sorry, but I'm really pissed.

No one can claim righteousness. The very claim negates the truth of it. I'm not saying I know anything you don't, or Americans don't, but I am saying that my life, my voyages (I own and sail a Nova Scotian schooner), and my experience have given me an angle on things that might be useful to the conversation. Let's get down to essentials. When the shit hits the fan, it's the poor who will survive. They're used to deprivation, they know how to live on sparrow farts and dirt. They've been doing it forever.

As fervently as I hope that we'll figure things out and not destroy this beautiful blue planet, I'd really like to see a Wall Street trader try to get through a day when a dollar won't buy diddley squat. And there's the rub. There will come a day, not long from now, when the whole financial shiteree will come down, and it will come down because it makes no sense. None at all. It's a wonder to watch all the bloviators and politicians try to explain how everything's going to be O.K. when they have no idea what happened in the present unpleasantness. One can be forgiven for taking some small measure of pleasure in it. One never had any money anyway, so one looks smart for once.

As you have, Joe, I've come to know the third world and its rare beauties and baffling contradictions. I sailed my schooner to the Caribbean in 1980, and returned every winter for ten years. I was poor myself, though young and thin and pretty (remember that?) and blessed with a ravishing wife/partner in the undertaking, and I was sailing a traditional and beautiful boat that the locals understood. Think about that.

When I first sailed into Anguilla, there were three old black men on the beach watching me. They knew and loved schooners, and could see that I was bound to sail to the hook. Yachtsmen generally drop their sails at the mouth of the harbor and steam in. The cowards. They also had developed the opinion that what they were looking at was a "Novi Boat". This is a forty-seven foot gaff rigged schooner, fifty-three counting the bowsprit (I include this because Americans are size queens) with a crew of two. Me and my beautiful wife. It was an artful piece of sailing, through a fleet of anchored boats, and it all worked out perfectly. (If you'd like a catalogue of my nautical disasters, gimme a call.) Lissa was at the helm, she brought the boat into the wind so she wouldn't sail, I dropped the jib, deployed the anchor, dropped the foresail and used the mainsail to back us down on the hook. I saw the three old men, and was ever so proud that they were watching.

That night, we sat in "Doodah's Delicate Bar", which was a small concrete block building on the main road out of Sandy Ground. Doodah was a warm woman of traditional build, and her clientelle included the three old guys from the beach. While the Anguillian argot is difficult because it's so fast, I was starting to get onto it, and they knew I was understanding them. The conversation got rich, and we got very drunk. At one point, I said, "Did any of you know Captain Kennedy?"

Beltoe, Doodah's white West Indian husband replied, "Kennedy. Sea Fox. He was good for fighting and good for sailing. I did three trips with him."

My mother babysat Captain Kennedy's children. He was the last man to carry freight under sail in the world. His home port was a half-hour sail from where I am as I write this. And Beltoe had him dead to rights. And he knew and I knew, and everyone in Doodah's Delicate Bar knew that we shared something close to blood. Maybe closer. We shared -- what? It covered thousands of deep water miles, and the skill to sail them, and family and history, and many many years, and there we were. Two men, one thirty-five and the other sixty, one a West Indian fisherman and sailor, the other a Canadian writer and sailor, and we had something in common! We both knew Kennedy! The explosion of delight when this was understood was like gasoline on the fire of the party.

Beltoe and I watched the sun rise together on the beach in Sandy Ground. We still had moments when he didn't know what I was saying, or I didn't know what he was saying, but when these happened, we'd be quiet. We'd rest our tired drunken brains, and chuckle a little, maybe hold hands or stroke one another's hair. We were horizontal on the beach. But time would pass. And we'd try again. We'd tell each other our truths. And when we got such things across, there was the sweetest recognition, the most glorious peace between us. We worked our way from sailing, the language of which we share, to life, what it means, why it is how it is, and what it would take to make it fair. Make it fair. What a sweet notion.

I remember that night so vividly. I remember Beltoe, his hard hands, his blue eyes, his far away look when he thought about things. Later on, I went fishing with him, I fixed a deep rent in the keel of his boat so she'd stop sinking, shared many a meal, and spent many hours just sitting with him after Doodah died.

Now, I'm a Nova Scotian, and a Canadian, and I love my home place. I'm crazy nuts about it. But I don't love it any more than I love what Beltoe and I shared and share to this day. I respect, and revere the notion that the "abiders" have something that the "leavers" don't. They do. But the leavers, if they're lucky, might find themselves drunk on their backs on a Caribbean beach, on an Island yet unspoiled, holding hands with a new friend, watching the sun rise, heart exploding with the simple notion that what is transpiring is what it is.

What it is. Sing it children. Sing it pretty.

And the rest is just noise. Most of the discourse in the great thundering, flailing around like a drunken dervish American Empire, has nothing to do with humanity. My question is, why? Why can't people smart enough to get themselves big time political or media careers form a sentient thought? Huh?

Your faithful correspondent,

Tom Gallant
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

PS: Here's a photo of my schooner.

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