Monday, August 31, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez VI: Engine Room

Ear protectors hung on hooks outside the thick doors that seal off either end of the passageway to the engine room. It was only a 10 second walk along the bridge above engines, but the ear protectors were a necessity. The roar was enveloping, it penetrated into my bones.

This time I wasn’t just passing through to the galley, so I twisted in some earplugs in before I put on the protectors. Chief engineer Bart Stayton had offered me a tour of the ship’s bowels that I did not want to pass up.

The engines were as hot as they were loud. They smelled of metal and heated oil. It was the pleasing odor of a well-run mechanics shop, the smell of healthy machines.

Bart was leaned back in his work chair when he waved me into the control room.

Bart said something.

“What?” I thought I said. But I couldn’t hear myself.

Bart was wearing his protectors above his ears near the top of his head. I took mine off to hear what he saying. Even behind thick glass and the shut metal door, the noise was deafening.

“You could write a book about what goes on on this river,” Bart said.

I get the feeling Bart, like some the other crew, had been practicing his tales because someone told him I was here writing a book. Bart wasn’t the storyteller that Ricky was, but he made up for any lack of narrative with his enthusiasm for the material. He was a friendly man, about my age, from northeast Arkansas near Jonesboro. He has a thick and ruddy face under his blonde goatee, the kind of guy who wouldn’t mind teaching you a thing or two about fishing or duck hunting.

He knew needed a hook to get my attention, so he pitched a tale about bodies in the river. A couple of these bodies were casualties from collisions with the tow. The Coast Guard does its best to keep the river’s channel clear of pleasure boaters, yet every once while small craft will get in the way of a fast approaching southbound barge.

A pontoon boater once cut in front of Bart’s tow and had the not so bright idea to jump off the boat.

“Some people get ignorant when they are drunk.” Bart said.

A tow’s engine turns the wheels under the boat at 160 RPM, with an intake of thousands of gallons a minute. The presumed drunk disappeared. The Coast Guard closed the river for 12 hours while they searched for the body. They didn’t find it. The body surfaced only later when they were servicing the tow. The body of the man who thought he could out swim a 1,500-ton boat had been trapped under the hull.

Bart kept glancing at my little notebook, and seemed nervous when he noticed I wasn’t taking notes on his man overboard tales. He paused a moment, as if to recollect, then grinned. He looked like a poker player about to show his ace card as transitioned into his last body recount.

“We came up on Mud Island one morning and the pilot spotted long hair and shoulders floating above the surface.”

They fished the woman’s remains from the river. Her throat slit, her hands chopped off and her teeth knocked out, she appeared to be the victim of a gangland style execution. There was no way of identifying the professionally disposed of body. Side-wheel riverboats may have disappeared, the remaining captains may no longer booze, but death on the river was as seedy as in the days when Mark Twain chronicled her.

I jotted notes while Bart told the Mud Island story, which seemed to put him more at ease. He again offered a tour of the engine room.

If I had an inkling of mechanical knowledge, I am sure his explanations would have made perfect sense. Machismo did not allow me to ask certain questions that I knew I should know by now, a bit of Latin America had rubbed off on me over the past months.

Bart was a thorough guide and took pride in his engines and his responsibilities as chief engineer. He started out with the gizmos in the control room, explaining what the various blinking lights and gauges were measuring. One set of dials that were bigger than shinier than the others monitored the RPM of the three engines, train engines converted for marine use. One of the needles trembled more than the others, it showed a reading a little lower than the other two. Each engine turns a nine-foot wheel under the boat. One of the wheels is slightly bent, thus the drag on the needle, and the vibration that rattled the boat.

The more notes I took the more Bart explained. He described the mechanical features of the two-stroke, turbo charged diesel engine. I nodded after he shouted each sentence over the din of the machinery outside and below us. Bart explained how the engines are gear driven up to 700 RPM at which point they becomes turbine driven. In total they consume about 9,000 gallons per day, as a tow averages about 120 miles per day upstream, this boat gets a mile for every 75 gallons.

Bart had a great appreciation for the power plant of the boat.

“The guys who designed these engines were geniuses.” Bart said.

There is a reason the engine room is 120 degrees even in the winter. The engines run at over 1000 degrees. I asked Bart how it was safe to run an engine complex at such high temperatures. He drew me a diagram, called the fire tree. Each corner of the triangle had a label: fuel, air, and source. It takes all three to make a fire. With 130,000 gallons of fuel and 1000 degree temperatures, the only triangle point that can be eliminated is air. This is accomplished by powerful vacuums that keep air from rushing into the controlled explosions in the engines.

Bart pulled on his ear protectors and led me outside of the control room. There was no audio aside from engine’s constant roar, I did my best to lip read what Bart was yelling to me for the remainder of the tour. I kept close to engineer and was careful not to touch anything since some of the surfaces were as hot as 900 degrees. The engines were cased in enormous housings with pipes above and below, though which ones carried the fuel or expelled exhaust I hadn’t a clue. Spigots like little udders dropped down from the sides of the casings. The covers above them for all I knew were the lids of industrial barbeque smokers.

Bart walked me down the length of the three rooms back to the stern so I could see how far the turbines extended past the engines. They spun faster than the eye can perceive motion, though I imagined their revolutions accounted for the lightest and sweetest smells amongst the mingling scents of petroleum.

We climbed up to the pump room that regulates the steering and flanking rudders. Black hydraulic pipes worked to push thick metal rams that turn the rudders. Parts of the floor were covered in yellow paint to designate the pinch points, places where the dull edges of the heavy and powerful equipment could snap a man in half.

Back in the control room I thanked Bart for the tour, though I caught myself hanging my head the way my students in Marianna did after a new algebra lesson. Bart was proud of this equipment, machinery we both agreed was designed by geniuses, and he seemed to relish his responsibilities as the steward and doctor to the boat.

“All in all it’s a pretty good life,” Bart said. “Been at it for 16 years.”
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Friday, August 28, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez V: Captain Shinley

After a few minutes with Captain Dwight “Fred” Shinley in the wheelhouse of the Marty Baskerville it made sense why this tow was so well run. Shinley was a good commanding officer, a guy who is comfortable giving orders and maintaining authority in a friendly non-nonsense sort of way. A good manager can define expectations and then get out of the way while the people under him do their jobs.

His accumulated experiences on the river help Fred be such a comfortable manager. He knows every job on the boat outside the kitchen because he has done them. Fred has spent his working life on the river and worked his way up from being a deckhand. He knows what it is like to work out on the tow under a scorching August sun or with a February wind lashing his bones, and when a mate asks a deckhand to scrub a toilet for the first time, he remembers the humility involved. The instruments in the wheelhouse were just an extension of Shinley’s instincts, the river is constantly shifting and the maps drawn by the Army Corps of Engineers are only an approximation of what lay beneath the murky brown waves.

Knowledge and experience helps a good commander, but it also takes people skills. By all accounts this seems a genuinely happy crew, there is family warmth in the rhythms of their day.

When he was a boy, my father took a trip on a tow boat up that was supposed to take them St. Louis until a death in the family cut the trip short. The detail he remembers most clearly out of the machinery and all the sights and smells of the river were the hands of the river boat men. Almost all of the crew was missing a finger or two.

“There was a time when this used to be one of the most dangerous jobs in America,” the Captain said, “now it’s one of the safest. There used to be a lot more people falling off the boats.”

I asked him if that’s why they prohibited alcohol on riverboats. He remembers a time before the regulations.

“Twenty years ago there’d be a bottle of whiskey in wheelhouse and cases of beer stacked up to ceiling in the galley,” the Captain said.

Then they started clearing out the drunks by banning booze on the river and through a rigorous testing.

For a time the cook was exempt from the tests. Shinley recalls his boat’s cook from that era.

“You picked up her suitcase and you could hear the empty bottle clinking around. She’d come out of her room in the morning with a big smile and an ever bigger glass of OJ.”

Now, when a deckhand is injured on the job, the first thing a captain must do is administer a breath test or alcohol swab.

“Someone could lose an arm and I’d be out there with alcohol kit. It’s probably not something that would hold up in court, I’m not an expert with those things.”

Medication is also strictly regulated on the river. I filled out the standard forms when I arrived on the Baskerville and for some reason I listed a couple of tabs of Immodium that had been with me since Mexico that I had forgotten about until then. Ricky asked me if I had declared them before getting on the river. I hadn’t. He immediately called the dispatcher. He made it sound like he was covering for me on a potentially serious screw up. “He has a tablet of Immodium… you know what that’s for… he does not plan on taking it.”

I wandered up to the wheelhouse after breakfast to check when we’d be passing by Angola. I had wanted to see if Walker Percy’s descriptions still rang true. Shinley told me that unless the river was extremely high, you couldn’t see anything above the banks, the levees were a half-mile from the river in most places. A few towns and bridges, and Old River Control Structure were among the few sights on the Lower Mississippi.

Fred was right about Angola, there was nothing to see except a few rooftops and a tower that could have been anything. There were no prisoners sweating in between rows of cotton. The April fields were patched green and brown, and there was no sun to sweat under, just and endless leaden sky.

Fred did not try to sell me on river life. The tow was hard work, monotony and lonely nights away from your family.

“It’s kind of a double life out here. You have your life at home and your life on the river. You can do what you want back home but out here it is serious,” Fred explained. “There are always jobs for deckhands, most don’t last too long. It’s tough. It can be 110 degrees out on the tow during the summer and cold in the winter. Some will quit the first time they are asked to scrub a toilet, things they don’t do at home and have a hard time accepting the job.”

Captain Shinley leaned back in the command chair and looked out on the drab brown and gray horizon, another overcast morning on the river.

“The toughest part is accepting that this is your life, this is what you’ve chosen for yourself. You’ll be out here for a month away from home, your wife might call because there’s a water leak, what can you do about it on the river? Then one day you’ll wake up and there are your kids, older than you remember them,” the Captain said.

Then he almost betrayed a smile.

“My wife doesn’t call me when there is a water leak. She fixes it herself.”
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Monday, August 24, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez IV: Ricky Goes to Africa

Though it took almost a month, Ricky and his crew had delivered the vessels safely to the African shore. It seemed like everyone in the fishing village turned national port had come out to greet them.

“There was a crowd of people who had come out see our ships, it was like a hero’s welcome,” Ricky said.

They were a spectacle, if not exactly heroes. The businessman who had purchased the boats from Thibodeaux was in fact a chief. He was the leader of one of Ghana’s ethnic minorities involved in a slow burning dispute in the north of the country. The people crowding onto the docks were there in protest. It was rumored that the chief had bought boats in the United States in order to smuggle arms to fuel the conflict.

Ricky nor anyone aboard his boats could fathom what was going on. A detachment of the Ghanan army boarded the ship for the customs inspection, and Ricky walked them through the ship’s log and declared the contents of the hold.

The chief sent emissaries to bid Ricky and crew to disembark and took him to meet the businessman. Though he did not explain the situation that was unfolding, the chief assigned a shadow to Ricky, as he explained that this man would be able to help him with whatever he needed. He treated Ricky to an elaborate lunch of fresh seafood, grilled meats, and French wine. He promised Ricky would live like a king as long as he chose to stay in Ghana and all would go smoothly with the training of the new crew.

After the long lunch, Ricky and his new shadow went back to port to fetch his belongings from the boat. They were stopped by the same army detachment that had performed the customs inspection that morning. There had been a second search that afternoon, and this time they had found contraband in the ships’ holds. Ricky was now an arms smuggler.

Ricky steamed. They hadn’t found anything that morning, and with none of his crew was aboard the ship the army had suddenly found the rumored contraband.

Ricky was arrested on the spot and taken to the port’s jail. He hadn’t seen any of his crew before he was carted away, and all of his documents including his passport were on board the now impounded ship. He hadn’t checked in with the embassy, so there was no one who could account for his whereabouts. For a second time in a fortnight, Ricky knew he was fucked.

He wasn’t told anything further about his ship or his men. At least he was given his own cell. The door was solid, but he did have a single barred window set just above eye level that let in light from an interior courtyard. Ricky sat on the mattress they provided—no doubt as a luxury for the foreigner—and listened to coming and goings in the prison and to the birds in the tree near his window. Not counting his detour in Jamaica and unexpected detention in Barbados, this was Ricky’s first and what he vowed to be his last experience on foreign soil. He prayed that he’d survive to tell the story. Long after dark, when the jail settled down and last neighborhood radio switched off its rumbling bass, Ricky could hear the faint sound of surf in the distance..

At dawn of the following morning a pebbled skittered across his floor. Then another. He looked up at the window and whispered, “who’s there?”

In another moment he spotted young man the chief had appointed to be his shadow pulling himself up onto a branch in the tree near his window.

“I have no idea how he got inside that jail,” Ricky said.

Perhaps he bribed someone. In any case, this dedicated body servant, hired by the man who was likely responsible for Ricky’s imprisonment, wanted to know how he could be of assistance.

Ricky needed him to get his passport to the embassy so that someone in a position to help would at least know his whereabouts. The problem was that his passport was on the boat impounded by the Ghanan army. Still, he explained to the young man where the passport could be found in his cabin. It was the only thing Ricky could think of that might help.

Ricky had no idea how long they planned to detain him, what the official charges were, or whether his crew had also been detained. He had no one to talk to and nothing to do other than watch the shadows move across the floor. A guard came to fetch him in the afternoon. He was taken out into the courtyard and across to another room for his meal before being returned to his cell. Someone would have to figure out he’d gone missing before too long, he kept thinking to himself. If his shadow could get inside the jail to talk to him, surely he’d be able to get word to the right people.

Ricky spent another night alone in his cell. He had been too nervous to sleep the previous night, but on his second night he was tired enough and bored enough to get a good night’s sleep. He woke up to the sound of the key rattling in his cell door. The guard marched him to where he had lunch the previous day. At least he was now on the breakfast schedule. But this time the guard walked him past the canteen and into the jail’s office, where a suited official greeted him with a handshake and a smile and explained there had been a small misunderstanding. Ricky credited his new body servant.

“Somehow that bugger got my passport to the embassy,” he said.
There was no more mention of arms smuggling, so either the original accusations were bogus, or the chief had paid off the appropriate officials.

His shadow brought him to the chief, who apologized for the misunderstanding. They had another lavish meal together. After dinner, cognac and cigars, the chief offered Ricky one of his women.

“I think I insulted him by not taking her,” Ricky said.

But his head was still spinning was from almost disappearing on his first trip abroad, how could he be expected to pick up on the finer points of African etiquette? He and the chief could call it even.

Ricky agreed to follow through with training the chief’s new shrimp boat crews. They did things a little differently in Africa. The Ghanans managed to fit 25 people on a boat designed for a five-man crew. At night they set up hammocks in every cranny of usable space on the boat. And the crew worked almost for nothing. They were paid in trash fish, the bycatch that got scooped up along with the shrimp. They would trade their trash fish at the market for other goods.

Back in port from training the crews, Ricky had another run in with the same army officer who had arrested him on his first evening in Ghana. The officer accused of Ricky of not having the correct papers, and threatened him again with detention. This time Ricky snapped.

“Hell if I’m going back to jail in this country. I’m an American.” Ricky said, “I’ll take your biggest guy and your next biggest on, right here, right now.”

Ricky went back to jail. Apparently the officer had no appreciation for his John Wayne impression. This time Ricky did not get the VIP treatment—there was no mattress on the floor or courtyard window for his next five more nights in jail.

Though they hassled him at customs, Ricky did manage to get back home. In the end, tre trip was not a total disaster, he got some good stories and his father managed to break even on the deal.

That was 20 years ago. Ricky has no plans for leaving US shores again. He his happy running up and down the inland waterways, occasionally telling his tales of adventure on the open sea.
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Friday, August 21, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez III: The Stowaway

A calm day’s sail followed the detour to Montego Bay. Ricky plotted a course that would take his vessels to Trinidad before heading south then west through the Doldrums, the equatorial waters known for their lack of winds or storms. Perhaps it was a good sign, Ricky thought, to survive a storm as intense as Gilbert so early in the voyage, whatever went wrong the rest of the way, it would surely seem minor by comparison.

Then Ricky got a message from the captain of the other ship.

“Ricky, they are going to kill somebody!” the captain said.

The other boat’s crew was talking mutiny. This wasn’t the worst news. Possible cause for the discontent was that second boat had taken on a stowaway.

“You’ve got a what?” Ricky shouted into radio.

In the confusion surrounding the aftermath of the storm, a man either slipped into the hold of the second boat or bought his way on board by bribing a couple members of these mutinous merchant marines.

Ricky saw no easy solution. The stowaway put him in violation of international maritime law, and he would be in serious trouble if customs in the next port of call discovered a passenger not accounted for on their logs. The heavy fines and inevitable delays would wipe out the profits the Thibodeaux had dreamed of making on this venture.

The best Ricky could do was to tell the other boat’s captain to make the stowaway a deal. If the man kept silent and out of sight when they refueled in Barbados, they would supply him with an inflatable raft and put him to sea off the coast of Trinidad where he could make landfall without detection by the coast guard. The stowaway consented.

Ricky held his breath as they put into port in Barbados. Everything went smoothly with the inspection as the boats refueled and took on supplies for the final leg of the voyage, though there was also the problem of the mutinous crew.

Ricky had informed his father of the new troubles and the elder Thibodeaux was rounding up new sailors to be flown to Barbados. He ordered Ricky to fire the existing crew and advised his son to investigate whether a compromise might be reached with customs agents to solve their other problem.

Perhaps coaxed on by one of the soon to be fired crew, the stowaway forced the issue. He emerged from his hiding place and made a dash for the docks. He was nabbed by customs. The game was up. Ricky was fucked.

The customs officials threatened exorbitant fines for the presence of the stowaway, that in addition to the money Ricky had to pay on the spot for the man’s lodging while in detention, his court costs, and his return airfare to Jamaica.

The threatened fines would have made for a money-losing venture. They were already taking haircut on additional costs of flying in a second crew. Ricky’s only hope of salvaging the business deal was by reaching some sort of agreement with the customs chief.

But how would he manage this? Bribery involved its own set of risks, and Ricky wasn’t skilled in the arts of international diplomacy. If he was too blunt in making the bribe he could find himself in detention right alongside the jackass stowaway that put him in this predicament. He needed an angle, but he had no contacts in Barbados and was a long way from Southern Louisiana.

Then Ricky got his first break in weeks. He was escorted to the customs house to fill out paperwork on the stowaway incident. Inside, he noticed a Masonic symbol in one of the offices. Masons! Now he had his hook, and a plan tumbled into place. Before long he was able to negotiate new terms of release.

Ricky’s father was a high order Mason. Ricky set to work on finding the relevant official, then got his dad to place a phone call.

Two days later a Masonic sword arrived with the new skipper of the second boat, a token of apology for all the trouble the Thibodeaux’ ships had caused. (The sword must have been of more value to the Barbadian Masons than the bidders on Ebay.) Ricky found himself free to go after settling the detention fees for the stowaway.

With a new crew and a second fish tale in hand, Ricky sailed for the West African Coast. They crossed the Doldrums without drama. A week later Ricky set anchor off the coast of the fishing village turned port town of Tema, Ghana.
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Thursday, August 20, 2009

N.O. to Natchez II: Shrimp, Hurricane Gilbert, and the New World Order

Ricky Thibodeaux, the pilot of the Marty Baskerville, knew his hurricanes. While I sat in my childhood living room glued to the Weather Channel, Ricky was busy surviving what at the time was the strongest hurricane in recorded history.

I first met Ricky in the galley as he was tucking into some chicken pot pie. It was my first meal on board, and I had managed to fill up my plate in a way I thought might pass inspection.

As soon as I sat down Ricky took one look at my plate and asked me if I was a vegetarian.

“I eat seafood,” I said in my defense, “just no land critters.”

Ricky chuckled. Terry the cook overheard and declared that we’d be having fish tomorrow. Ricky assured me this was a treat.

Just like that the situation was diffused. I hate being a difficult guest, especially among strangers, but my confession went much better than I had feared. Turns out Ricky had a quite a few opinions about seafood. Once we were out of earshot of Terry, Ricky advised me on the next meal the flounder was the fish to go for, it had tastier meat than that on the catfish.

Ricky was a river pilot by trade but a fisherman, or more accurately, a shrimper at heart. Though I’ve never really cared for Winston Grooms or his Forrest Gump, I have to give the author credit for doing his research on shrimpers.

Finally I had met someone who might be able to demystify the world for crustaceans for me. Though I felt I knew my share about the varieties of edible fish, I knew almost nothing about what makes for good shrimp. I asked Ricky how could I tell if a place is serving high quality goods, aside from its proximity to the ocean?

Ricky reflected for a second, I had struck on a good topic with a guy who could have run a shrimp seminar. I was already anticipating holding court with my foodie friends during our next trip to Pacific Cafe.

“You’ve got many kinds of shrimp, you’ve got Brown Shrimp, White Shrimp, Rock Shrimp, Dry Shrimp, Red Shrimp, Tiger Shrimp, sea bobs…You know the size of the Shrimp by how many make a pound. 10-12’s mean ten to twelve shrimp a pound. 16-20’s mean…”

And on. The shrimp topic had unleashed Ricky’s inner Bubba.

After the impressive list of varieties, size and descriptions, Ricky gave me some useful guidelines. White shrimp typically is of a higher quality than brown shrimp, and when rock shrimp make the menu they are a must order. Though if it’s true crustacean delicacy you seek, according to Ricky, then look no further than Louisiana crawfish.

The November to June crawfish season represents Louisiana’s gift to the world (though I am also eternally grateful for Crystal Sauce). Almost all of the crawfish in the United States, and up to 90% of the world’s catch, are harvested in Louisiana. Creole state natives consume 70% of this total. Ricky’s eyes grow distant in his fleshy, bearded face that reminds me vaguely of Paul Prudhomme. He recounts one of the epic crawfish boils of his youth, large pots where crawfish, potatoes, garlic, corn, and sausage mingle before they are dumped out directly on the table in a delicious free for all. Maybe I am missing something in my diet, my eyes don’t roll back in my head when I talk about tofu.

There is a lot of time pass on the river, especially for a guy like Ricky who spends eight hour shifts alone in the pilothouse. We passed the hours talking hurricanes, seafood…and creeping world government. I had been in South and Central America for four months and missed the conservative backlash to Obama. I hadn’t yet heard of the tea parties that had been staged on tax day.

Ricky told me all about the tea parties. He was a rabid Ron Paul enthusiast who identified the coming world currency as the next step in the New World Order’s usurpation of American sovereignty. At a company conference in Nashville last year Ricky had cornered Xxx Ingram to ask him what he thought about the Federal Reserves’ complicity with the Chinese in fomenting the push for a global currency.

“He didn’t even answer me, he just looked at me with this smirk like I was a complete idiot.” Ricky said.

Right then I was hoping I wasn’t looking at Ricky like I thought he was an idiot. I didn’t think he was an idiot. Even if he bought a little of what talk show radio was selling, Ricky didn’t regurgitate the moronic half-logic of a Rush Limbaugh program. He was articulate in his small government, live-free-or-die conservatism, and if he fell in with the latest N.W.O. theorists, he did so with realization of his own limited knowledge. That’s why he asked Mr. Ingram the currency question, figuring surely a rich guy like that would know something about currencies.

“I don’t normally talk politics,” Ricky said. “But I could tell after talking to you that here’s a guy that knows what’s happening. I knew we had a lot of views in common.”

I nodded. It’s funny how people assume you share their views as long as you are willing to shut up and listen. Even if we didn’t have that many views in common, I found Ricky’s take on the world fascinating.

Ricky had spent most of his life on inland waterways, but his greatest story involved the one time he ventured into the open sea, almost 21 years ago. That one trip was enough for a lifetime.

“I’m done with open water. And I know you can never say never. But I am never going back to Africa.”

A shrimper might not make the same exaggerations as his fishing cousins. Still, this pilot knew the art of the fish tale.

Ricky perked up as he settled into his story. The long Louisiana vowels filled the spaces left by the gaps in his memory.

His father, a shrimp boat captain, was looking to sell his two shrimp boats so he could update his fleet. The best offer he received was from a businessman in Ghana. The elder Thibodeaux was skeptical, but the African was willing pay a huge premium for Thibodeaux to sail the ships across the Atlantic. There was also money in deal for the Thibodeaux to outfit the boats in Louisiana and train a local crew on how to operate and maintain the vessels once they reached Ghana.

The African, whom Ricky called the “Indian chief”, was offering too much money for the father and son to turn down. They agreed to the venture, and the chief flew to Louisiana to purchase the boats and oversee their outfitting. Ricky helped procure new equipment for the vessels, the nets, resin and maintenance items the new operators would not be able to buy locally in West Africa. The holds in the vessels, designed for large shrimp catches, easily accommodated the nets and other supplies. The Chief filled the remainder of the space with durable goods hard to come to come by Ghana—Mercedes Benz tires and empty baby food containers according the Ricky.

The boat was loaded in Morgan City and the Thibodeaux had their crews lined up ready to depart at the beginning of September 1988. Ricky would captain the first boat and his father had hired another captain to man the second.

The voyage was ill-fated from the beginning. The morning of the third day it became clear that a tropic depression off the Windward Islands was gaining strength at the eastern edge of the Caribbean. There was nothing but the warm, shallow waters of the Sargasso Sea between Ricky and the gathering storm. By the next evening Gilbert had reached hurricane strength and from there rapidly developed into a major category 3 hurricane. Luckily, Ricky had been tracking the storm and had time to harbor his boats in Montego Bay, off the northwest coast of Jamaica.

On the morning of September 12 Gilbert’s eye began its east to west assault along the backbone of the island. Before the tempest reached Jamaica’s western edge, Gilbert had strengthened into a monster category 5 storm.

Ricky docked the boats behind a large containership that had also made an emergency stop in the harbor’s partial sanctuary. Tucked in behind the broadside of the larger ship, Ricky’s smaller boats would be shielded from strongest volleys of the on coming hurricane. As the winds continued to strengthen, sustained gusts of 150 mph, Ricky heard a sickening screech that sliced through the hurricane’s jet engine roar. Ricky listened as Gilbert’s inner storm bands twisted and ripped the container’s metal ties. The winds overpowered the moorings that bound the larger ship in the harbor. As he feared, the container ship became unbound, and thrashed about as Gilbert hurled it across the harbor and into the shore. The shrimp boats were lucky the larger ship hadn’t plowed through them, but now they had lost their shield from the worst of the winds.

“Then we really took a beating,” Ricky said.

Local shanties were flattened by the onslaught. Corrugated metal roofs stripped off into deadly frisbees. Flying coconuts struck with the force of cannonballs. Glass shards were also a danger—the winds knocked out every window in Montego Bay.

By the time the tropical force winds resided, the 12-hour nightmare had claimed 43 lives on Jamaica. The 19-foot storm surge had swept away boats and deposited them as tree houses in surrounding hills. The infrastructure of the island lay in tatters, but the Thibodeaux’ vessels were still afloat, and after some repairs they were able to set course for Barbados.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hurricane Bill

Hurricane Bill is approaching the Leeward Islands today.

I am a weather enthusiast, and hurricanes are the Super Bowls of weather watching—up to two weeks of build up for the diehards before several hours of sustained violence watched by the masses, a few actual spectators but most from the safety of their living rooms. Sometimes the hurricane never shows, kind of like the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990's.

There is no other weather event that approximates the excitement surrounding a hurricane. Tornados can wreak similar havoc at a local level, but never threaten entire cities, and they strike with little forewarning. Tornados lack the build up of a powerful hurricane.

As a child I spent hours glued to the Weather Channel, back in the day when they still had isobars on their weather maps. My father was convinced I’d become a meteorologist, and he set up this weather station on our roof where I could monitor wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.

During childhood there was a weather event that eclipsed the hurricane, the snow day. The afternoons when the temperature started dropping and a bulge of isobars backed a front on the horizon, I start working on my own forecast for the neighborhood. The nights when the weathermen concurred with my predictions for snow, I'd sneak out of bed and tiptoe downstairs to my weather station. Was the air temperature right for freezing rain (surefire school closure), would the ground be cold enough for the snow to stick, would the pressure fall enough for likely precipitation? With so many variables at play a boy could not sleep.

I have only experienced one hurricane in person. I was nine years old on summer vacation in Naples Florida when Hurricane Bob took a turn in the Gulf of Mexico that put Naples directly in its path.

These were the days before overzealous parenting, the kind that robbed the generation below us of fun times like pressing your nose to the plate glass of the beach house to watch hurricane force winds howl through the palm trees and lob bits of branches and debris into the windows. The adults even let us in on the betting pool, how high would the tide come in, to the yard, the porch, over the foundation of the house? A grade school friend had been through a major hurricane in Jupiter, Florida and told the class at show and tell how everything suddenly got calm and the sun came out for a moment when the eye of the storm passed over town. I was hoping we’d get to see the eye. I imagined swimming in the back yard after the storm.

In my parents’ defense, Bob turned out to be less than hurricane force over Naples. The yard didn’t fill up with the sea, though when we went for dinner some of the parking lots along the inland waterways were under water.

I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for a hurricane in my name. A college friend informed my that in July 1997 there was another hurricane Bill, but it was a fleeting storm that did not reach land, and that was before the days of ubiquitous internet. I didn’t even have a television that summer of night shifts at the Aloha club, day games at Candlestick Park, and lunches of booze and Ben and Jerry’s. 97 was the summer of my Junior 30.

Bill isn’t forecast to make landfall, and will likely be soon forgotten. Tomorrow back to Baskerville and the story of Ricky Thibodeaux and Hurricane Gilbert.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez I: Deck Hands on the Mississippi

At 2 pm Downtown Baton Rouge was a ghost town. The city center with its drab office buildings and vacant storefronts, any of a half dozen of which could have been the old Woolworth’s, reminded me of the 70’s even if my memory does not quite stretch back that far. The empty sidewalks and those southern skyscrapers that do not scrape evoked memories of taking the bus with Laura on one of our trips to the Shoney’s in downtown Nashville. Those rides were as early as 1979 or as late as 82, it doesn’t matter, I choose to think of that time as a connection to my birth decade.

I used to love riding the bus. I still do when they aren’t crowded with commuters and I’m not going anywhere in particular. I’ll take the bus on 10 hour trips when I’m anywhere outside the USA—Greyhound is dreadful. If I didn’t have a boat to catch I’d take a few buses in Baton Rouge, sit on the last row and watch the elderly, the domestics, the veterans, the DUI’s, and perhaps the occasional commuter catch the bus home from work. You can learn a great deal about a town from the people that ride the bus.

Baton Rouge had gotten stuck somewhere long before the 70’s, maybe in those bullet holes still etched in the marble halls of the state capitol. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Huey Long himself waddled out of one of these squat towers, his entourage in tow.

The Ingram port was upriver from the bridge over the Mississippi and just a couple blocks down North St. from the center of town. Jack dropped me off at the gravel drive that sloped over the levy and down to the river’s edge. The office looked like a barge from the land as the office is on the water. As the guy with a new bike, an overstuffed saddlebag, and a south of the border moustache, I must have looked ridiculous to the deckhands waiting for their tow ride to work.

I tried not to think too much about the kind of figure I cut out here. If the bike and my back-story weren’t enough to do me in, I was hoping I could get through the next 48 without anyone noticing I’m a vegetarian.

The dispatcher in the office was a friendly guy. He had me sign the standard waivers that said I wasn’t taking any medication, wasn’t drunk or planning to booze, and would abide by the rules of the river. It’s a good thing I didn’t buy a bottle of scotch for the captain. All the presents I had thought to bring on board had been bottles of something, some stereotypes die hard. It hadn’t occurred to me that a riverboat captain might be prohibited from drinking.

I asked again about the bike.

“As long as you don’t try to ride the bike on the boat you’ll be fine,” he said.

I had to take a fleeting boat out to the Marty Baskerville. One of the crew checked my ID and I signed into the logbook. They had one stop before delivering me, to drop off a brand new deck hand on a tug bound for Houston.

I sat in the kitchen with the giant mate who had signed me in. I was hoping to make some small talk, to figure out what people talked about out here before I got on the bigger tow where I’d be spending the next 40 hours, but the mate made himself busy smoking and playing a computer game.

I went out on the deck and up to the bow where the tow’s deckhand was talking to the guy about to start his first day on the job. The new guy couldn’t have been a year out of high school, if he had finished at all. He couldn’t have been more than 18 as he still did not have cause to shave. The greenhorn was already taking the older deck hand’s lead, when the older guy took a step back or pursed his lips to spit, the new guy followed whether by good instincts or good sense or both. He was well behind his partner in looking the part, he hadn’t put in the same hours growing his biceps or padding his beer gut, and he lacked evidence of any spontaneous tattoos.

I was nervous at the prospects of spending a couple of days with these guys, or guys like them on the tow. Country boys don’t scare me as much as they make me uncomfortable. I was born in the South, which might give me a slight advantage over any of my New York or Boston born Wesleyan classmates in the same situation, but I was born in suburbs, went to private school, and never killed anything bigger than a crow. My best attempt at a southern accent probably just gave me away for a rich boy.

I must have made them uncomfortable too. The younger hand deck was probably just a step behind in mimicking his partner’s hushed tone as I approached them at the front of the boat. I couldn’t blame him. I’d be suspicious too of such an obvious city slicker carrying a bike on a riverboat. I tried to strike up a conversation. This didn’t go anywhere, so we stood near the bow and watched the tow cut through the carpet of brown wake shook out by the large tows pushing up the muddy Mississippi.

We wished the deckhand good luck, and before long we pulled up to the larger tow I’d be taking up river. The veteran deck lifted my bike over the railing and down to he other deck with arm, and he wished me a good ride.

It was a great relief when I got aboard the Marty Baskerville. The tow was three times as large as the fleeting boat I had come over on, and to my relief, the deck hands weren’t white. I don’t know why this should have mattered, but it did. I already had something in common with the junior deckhand on the Baskerville. Dexter had come from Elaine, Arkansas, a Delta town just a 20 minute drive from where I lived in Helena the year I taught special ed.

If the guys on the fleeting tow had suspected I was a weirdo, Dexter knew it. Who in their right mind would choose to live in Helena? At least he could place this weirdo somewhere in time and space. Dexter was a polite young man and like me didn’t have anything else to do for the next couple of hours so we couldn’t help but get along.

As former residents of Phillips County we had plenty common ground to cover: the King Biscuit Blues Festival, a few teachers whom I remembered having taught at his old high school (incorrect on my part, my roommate had taught at a school north of Elaine), and the eternal twin cities debate, West Helena vs. Helena, Wal-Mart vs. Kroger, Burger Shack vs. Burger Ranch. We were both punched straight tickets. Dexter was a West Helena man, which put him in the Wal-Mart and Burger Shack camps. As a Helena partisan I supported Kroger and the Burger Ranch, though it took all my Helena allegiance to block out memories of the produce rotting in the bins at Kroger and the urban myth about Helena high’s missing lab rat later discovered in the fryer at the Ranch. The latter episode, if true, was clearly a West Helena sabotage.

Our conversation reminded me of the song my homeroom students at Lee High School sang some mornings. The first verse was “Wal-Mart,” then they’d sing the name of another local store, say “Sonic.” The verses would continue to alternate between Wal-Mart and something not Wal-Mart, “Wal-Mart… Dollar General…Wal-Mart…Cleo’s…Wal-Mart… KFC…Wal-Mart.” It is a song but also a bit of a contest, who can keep the beat going by thinking of enough businesses that aren’t Wal-Mart every other verse.

Once my homeroom managed to keep the Wal-Mart song going until the bell, though they had to reach beyond Marianna to the businesses of West Memphis and the Helena twin cities. They threw in an extra Dollar General or two to keep afloat, a legal move because any town like Marianna too small for a Wal-Mart was sure to have a Dollar General. I only got 15 minutes in the mornings with my homeroom of regular students, the rest of the day I taught special ed. Maybe it was by contrast that I found their song so clever.

Because what else do you have to talk, or sing, about in a small and beaten Delta town besides the stores and the people? There were stories to tell about the people, but we were both being polite. So we talked Wal-Mart. I had to dig for some Helena standouts, my only regular was the Pizza for Less inside the gas station just on the Helena side of the twin city line.


If he had brought up the Chinese restaurant next door to the Pizza for the Less on West Helena’s side of the line, I might have conceded West Helenan superiority right there. I was leaning over a plastic dish of Kung Pao canned peas and carrots at the August Moon when the only good idea I ever had in Delta flashed into my brain, a plan for a working bong made entirely out of kitchen supplies—from Wal-Mart. Even my Pizza for Less experience involved the younger twin city, and Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart was only place in town to buy Kalamata olives, until I noticed, one precious jar and agonizing week at a time, that I was the only buyer in town. By January there were only 4 jars left. I went to the customer service counter the week before the Super Bowl to add a suggestion they restock the olives. I didn’t have much going for me that year, those olives were one of my few creature comforts aside from the grocery bag of weed I bought from a friend of a friend in Memphis. I finished my one man run on decent olives by groundhogs day. They never restocked.


The twin city debate was a matter of taste. I preferred Helena’s ghostly beauty, the abandoned big houses swallowed up in Kudzu. Dexter preferred West Helena’s newer ranch houses, the apartment buildings, the Wal-Mart.

You see Dexter and I had real stuff to talk about. I had no common ground with the rednecks.

It’s the people that make a place, and I wouldn’t have lasted six weeks in the Delta if hadn’t been for the immediate acceptance from my colleagues at school, an, “it takes a village and we’ll take all comers” approach. If Dexter had a lower opinion of the people of the Delta, he didn’t want to disappoint me, “They’re ok down there.”

Dexter had been an honor student at Elaine and followed his girlfriend to the University of Pine Bluff Arkansas. College classes were tough, and after a semester he dropped out and moved to West Memphis.

“Hard to meet somebody down there,” he said.

Being an honor student in Phillips County is no guarantee of adequate college preparation. In my first year at Lee High School, only six seniors met the State of Arkansas’s test of basic proficiency in English, Math and Science. I would imagine that the definition of honor student in Elaine was similar to that at Lee High School, or to the standard in Tom Wolfe’s fictional South Bronx school Jacob Ruppert High from Bonfire of the Vanities—an honor student attended class, wasn’t disruptive, and did all right in reading and arithmetic.

Dexter was well aware that he hadn’t received the best education in Elaine.

“I wasn’t good at English, I talk the way I write, which ain’t good,” Dexter explained. “It sounds right, but it don’t look good.”

Though college did not work out for Dexter, he was a Phillips County success story. He got out of the Delta by way of employment and not incarceration.

Dexter wanted to know if I’d been to Brazil, he had heard the women are beautiful. Though I had admitted I had never been to that part of South America, I told him I had never heard a traveler’s tale that didn’t confirm Brazil a country of beautiful women. I told him about Colombia. He smiled and said he’d like to visit there one day

Dexter was 23, with the prospects of a life on the river ahead of him. I asked him if he ever worried about getting injured in an accident. He smiled again and shook his head.

“I’m going home if that happens.”

I wondered if disability was as good a deal as Dexter imagined. Apart from living with a serious injury, how long would checks continue to roll in? Dexter wasn’t sure either.

Dusk was settling in on the river and the Marty Baskerville was facing up to the 24 barges she would be pushing upriver. This meant that Dexter and the other deckhands now had plenty of work to do, checking the wires that secured the barges to the boat and to each other, checking and rechecking the convoy of covered containers so there would be no mishaps that might send Dexter home early to southern Phillips County.

I hopped up to the second deck where I was staying in the guest cabin, accommodations far better than I expected. The cabin was like a hotel room, with twin beds, television, and an en suite bathroom and shower. Next-door was a rec. room with a computer, a weight lifting machine and a couple of lazy boys in front of a satellite television.

It was still quiet when I lay down the first night on the boat. I had been warned about the noise and rumble of the engines, but we wouldn’t be heading upriver until midnight, and though the noise would be considerable, the tow wouldn’t rattle so much now that it was weighted down with a full load of fuel. I looked out the windows for a last view of the Baton Rouge skyline, the capitol tower its only icon. When took off my glasses I could imagine the casino on the river with its paddlewheel and twin smokestacks was docked just for the night and would join us in the early morning as we churned north through the swirling brown waters of the Lower Mississippi.
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Monday, August 10, 2009

Mormons XIII: Saints Along the Watchtower

I am finished with the Mormons. If you found the series interesting, then I highly recommend this article by Josh Levin in Slate Magazine. Josh has just finished an excellent series that ponders various long-term scenarios for the decline of the United States.

In the article linked to above, he contemplates American decay alongside that of Ancient Rome and speculates that the Mormon Church may be the institution best positioned to preserve aspects of American civilization after the fall. The Mormon Church would serve a function similar to the Roman Catholic Church as it preserved literature and culture through the Dark Ages.

I don’t have much to add here, other than I agree with notion that it is a good bet Mormonism will outlive the American state as we know it, not just as an institution, but as a time capsule for values once considered, for better or worse, American. While the rest of us slide into degeneracy or fractal out into ever tinier splinters of Protestantism, those guys wearing the black and white name tags will be out there going door to door with a handshake, a smile, and another testimony of Jesus Christ from a new and promised land once called the United States of America. Their settler values and strong connection with the Exodus of Biblical times will steel the Saints in their struggle through any of the calamities Mr. Levin presented.

Make sure you also check out the Choose Your Own Apocalypse application. Fun times.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mormons Twelve: Prophets and the Printing Press

As I parted ways with Zarate—her partner had long since wandered off, probably down the street to the mall—I felt a creeping depression. I sat under the statue of the seagulls and tried to think of what did make me different from those condescending BBC fucks who seek out the bizarre to mock it.

Then I remembered the dream, that dream of the tempest, my question about the one and true faith, and the answer in a bolt of light that struck me with the force of a1000 orgasms. That was six years ago. It had taken me four years to admit the story to anyone, and then another year to get that nonsense down on paper.

Even then I wasn’t comfortable with the episode.

Though I believe in the value of artistic license, I consider myself a journalist who happens to be a storyteller and rarely just make something up. At the end of my last Mormon cycle, I did exactly that. I chronicled the highlights how they happened (as best I could from my own perspective) right up to the point Elder Lee declared I should be baptized.

I wasn’t comfortable with the truth of what followed. I will try again, that summer afternoon now a year farther in the distance is no less hazy.

Elder Lee had been emphatic about my baptism. Yet there were no fanatics in Temple clothes waiting in the room behind. I imagine now the white robed Mormons were inspired by the dancing clansmen number from the Jerry Springer - The Opera. When Elder Lee said I should be baptized immediately, he had meant as soon as possible, not that same afternoon. It wasn’t Lee who had shaken me, I expected he would have gone to great lengths to dunk me in the water.

It was the persuasiveness of his quiet partner that had thrown me into spiritual vertigo.
Elder McFadden’s rebuttal to my objections was thorough and heartfelt. I was a pretty good debater in my day. It used to be that my words came quicker the bigger the hole I had to dig out of. But this quiet boy from Idaho had left me without a clever escape.

All I could do was say, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it.”

Then I got up and left. I don’t recall either of them bothering me after that day. All three of us had reached the end of that road together.

Absolutely nothing about the Mormon Church has called to my wakeful self since, not the ├╝ber social conservatism, the authoritarian theocratic structure, and certainly not the teetotaling. No, none of it appeals as a framework for understanding my life’s purpose.

But what was it about that fucking dream, and where did it all come from? Maybe my first missionary friends had planted a seed through some sort of subliminal trickery, or maybe there was a subtext I was missing—the storm and the bolt of light could have represented something other than the obvious message from God commanding me to become a Latter-day Saint.

Why else would I be here, in Salt Lake City, almost six years to the day of my nocturnal vision, the creepiest, most irrational episode in my adventures to date?

I am still looking to close this chapter and move on. In a way Sister Zarate was the person I had been waiting to meet. Here was a young woman who believes in a book that tells her she still bears the mark of God’s curse on her ancestors. Here I sit, in the Zion of her religion, learning about a spirituality that may or may not have called me through vision, not accepting this curse, or any of the tedious rubbish written by a charlatan, however charismatic.

I recollected my thoughts in a safe space, a shabby used bookstore a few blocks south of the square. Peter, the 50 something shaggy haired man behind the counter, looked something like Ron Kovic without the wheelchair, though he looked a bit too young to have served during the war. I browsed the shelves of second hand Mormon offerings, Discourses on the Holy Ghost, The Aaronic Priesthood through the Centuries, Faith Like the Ancients Volumes 1-8. With a few of these titles on my bed stand I would never need another sleeping pill. I asked Peter if he had any controversial books on Mormonism, and he waved me away.

“Whatever I got is on those shelves,” he said.

I was surprised by his surliness. Surely a place like this housed some worthwhile reads on the Saints. When I got to the back of the store I found Peter’s real interests were comics and vintage pornography, not scandalous religious treatises. He had an impressive collection of old Hustlers that included Larry Flynt’s bizarre Christian period, who else but the Horatio Alger of porn would have thought it possible to market an evangelical skin magazine? Peter knew his market. The June 1978 issue with the iconic cover of a woman torso deep into a meat grinder was priced at $35 bucks.

I opted for a five-dollar paperback from the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card talking about his relationship with the LDS Church. I bought it for the chapter where Card objects to the western world’s defense of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses on the grounds that a man from the Muslim background who deliberately defames Islam should know better and deserves what is coming to him. Blood atonement, anyone?

I had the pleasure of hearing Rushdie speak in Cartagena this winter, and because he always gets the question, he spoke at length about the fatwa against him and his great joy when the writers of the world and the defenders of free speech rallied to his defense. Who would have thought the creator of Ender’s Game would abandon humanism and side with the jihadis seeking a return to the dark ages.

When I got up to the counter a guy was unloading boxes of his comic collection from his truck to sell to Peter. The guy said he was just out of the service, and showed us a couple of psyops comics he had brought back from Iraq. I asked the soldier about the psyops comics and he explained that the DoD had servicemen draw them and then had the language experts translate them into Arabic.

I asked Peter if I could take a look at one. He shook his head and said not until he had sorted through them. I had just asking out of respect. I gave him a “what is wrong with you?” glare. He changed his mind and let me look at one of the psyops comics. They seemed pretty dark, gritty stories where the good guys looked just as scary as the bad guys. Probably a good pitch as Iraqi kids have seen more than their share of grit in the world.

The soldier said he needed 200 bucks for his collection. Peter wasn’t buying, so the soldier reloaded his truck with the boxes. Before he left he came back into the store and handed me one of his psyops comics. I followed him out of the store to shake his hand and give him five bucks.

I still had several hours before the train, where I’d spend my last night on the road. It was too early for dinner, so I hit the free Imax film at the Lion House, Brigham Young’s other palatial residence a block from the Beehive House on the corner of Temple Square. The film covered the life of one of the more fascinating characters from the 19th century. But it left out all the good parts: his early days as a diviner and treasure hunter, his ingenious if fraudulent real estate and currency scheme in Kirtland, Ohio, his trials with infidelity and eventual revelation of plural marriage, his run for President of the United States of America. The massacres were tedious affairs, so predictably one-sided. Granted these were the original Saints, but the filmmaker didn’t have the decency to color them human or paint their adversaries as anything more than God hating mongrels.

After an hour of pious cheek turning and a meticulous preparation for martyrdom, the heathen mob finally graced the screen. I wanted to cheer as they stormed his second floor cell, not because I didn’t feel for the real Joseph, but because this piece of shit was almost over. The film had the gall deny us the gratification of Joseph’s bullet ridden fall from his cell’s window. The frame froze just before he plunged to a mortal death, and the image tilted skyward to where God was waiting to welcome his lamb home.

When the screen went black I sprung from my seat, earlier than appropriate judged by the sour looks I got from the withered church ladies on the way out. How can they watch this bilge three times an afternoon, five times a week?

An old man seated outside the entrance asked me what I thought of the film. I told him I was disappointed.

“It’s a great story, but they left so much of it out,” I said.

“Yeah, there’s a lot to cover,” he said. “I sure am glad I’m not the one that has to make the decisions on what goes into those pictures.”

What did I expect from a free IMAX feature? Of course they couldn’t make Joseph Smith an interesting character, the church has to deify him. In this respect the film did a pretty good job creating a religious story that fits into the America's own national myths. The brawny, blue-eyed leading man guided his flock to build godly communities. Their cities on the hill out shined the evils inherent in the New World wilderness surrounding them. It was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown pumped with steroids and stripped of irony and ambiguity.

But LDS is a young institution, and must get the most out of modern media as it builds upon its foundation myth. It has got its hands full on this one. It’s an uphill fight creating myths in the age of the printing press, lot less the internet.

Joseph Smith knew this as well as anyone in his time. The irony—one we won’t see portrayed in a church sanctioned film—is that the lynch mob pursued Smith for the sin of destroying a printing press. Smith the presidential candidate could not palate unsavory truths about the church elites and their polygamy then being published in his fiefdom of Nauvoo. Joseph’s greatest political miscalculation, that he could get away with destroying a press in a city where he was more powerful than the sitting President, ended up providing the miracle by which Mormonism survived the loss of its prophet. Rank and file Mormons, many of whom had crossed the Atlantic to be with the great Joseph Smith, were horrified when the polygamy of their leaders came to light. Smith’s martyrdom was the glue that held the church together in the face of the ugly truths the press exposed in the month of Joseph’s death.

Mormonism is not the only religion to come out of 19th century, but it was arguably the most successful. The Bahai, the Unitarian Univeralists and other transcendental churches, the new religions of Japan, none of these faiths were as successful in grafting contemporary struggles onto the framework of ancient practices and beliefs. Ages of economic and social upheaval beg for spiritual tonics, and there was no better snake oil salesman to deliver them than brother Joseph Smith.

Perhaps the Mormon God does have a streak of the Old Testament in him. I had contemptuous thoughts all through the shitty movie, and I was not a block away from the theater before I notice a sharp pain in the back of my throat. I started coughing. I never cough. There was nothing I could do but medicate with some Indian food that I ordered South Asian hot. The spices along with an excellent Chai seemed to keep the Mormon wrath at bay.

I managed to cough and wheeze my way back to the station in time for last leg of the Zephyr. Worn down, (was this pig flu?) I went in for my first sleeper cabin. I coughed myself to sleep above the syncopated rhythm of a passenger car clanking over the aging freight rails laid on the same track as the first transcontinental rail road. 18 hours to summer in San Francisco.
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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mormons XI: Jesus Speaks Spanish

The Economic History Department at the London School of Economics takes pride in the international scope of its department. They have had students from just about every country in world over the past twenty years. Over beers at department’s local near Holborn Station, trade historian Patrick O’Brien explained why the program would likely remain one country short on the global map.

“I doubt we’ll ever have a student from North Korea. It’s hard enough finding one qualified student from a country like that.” O’Brien said.

North Koreans cannot leave the country without an escort. Students only travel in pairs, and must constantly keep records on their partner, the only place free of mutual surveillance is the toilet. The Economic Historians are not willing to ask the LSE to spend its scholarship funds subsidizing a spy.

Mormon missionary teams work much the same way as the North Korean travel partners. Missionaries are paired in teams where the two individuals must eat, sleep, work, and pray together. Like the Koreans, they are only permitted alone time to use the restroom.

This makes for trying situations when two poorly matched personalities are paired together, or when one missionary begins to have doubts about his calling.

Part of the mission experience is about building character through hardship, and whether or not it’s an intended corollary, many missionaries come home and immediately seek a spouse. It is an overwhelming sensation to be alone after two years of constant companionship. Intentioned or not, a missionary returns to fulfill the Mormon commandment—go forth and multiply.

For all its secondary benefits, this buddy system is designed to provide young missionaries mutual protection from an intimidating world of unbelievers. Whatever doubts an impish skeptic like this chronicler might sow, and I’ve dropped them all—details of the racist recruitment tactics used by the LDS in the Civil Rights era south, the timing of the prophet’s proclamation that God had downgraded caffeine from prohibited substance to personal choice just in time for Coca Cola’s sponsorship of cash strapped Salt Lake City Olympics—the youngsters have each other to buttress their faith.

I have come across some poorly matched missionary pairs, but nothing like the two who were to be my guides for a second tour of Temple Square. Sister Zarate hailed from the south of Mexico. Zarate radiated wholesomeness, and not just the typical salt of the earth aura of Mormon missionaries the world over. Zarate hailed from a poor village in Michoacan where years ago two young Americans, from Boise and Provo, cornered her parents at the market and baptized them when she was a young girl. She still remembers her parents’ baptism, and the reflection of her first crush shines in her midnight colored eyes. She had never seen blonde hair or blue eyes before meeting the two Americans. Now she was the first person in her immediate family to travel outside of Michoacan. If Zarate was the pride of her village for serving in far off Salt Lake City, she bore the honor with humility.

If I had met Sister Guinare on the street, only her name badge would have kept me from guessing the tri-Delts at Berkeley had dressed her like a missionary and dumped her on the square as some sort of sorority prank. She was the first missionary I had met who was wearing make-up, her hair looked like her kidnappers had taken her to a salon as part of the Utah ruse. Her thin smile did not reach her eyes. However Guinare had begun her mission, she no longer wanted to be here.

Though their personalities, well, Guinare’s personality, might have challenged their partnership, the two young women also suffered a language gap. Zarate was still studying English and though Guinare said she had taken some Spanish she didn’t want to speak. When I asked her a question she simply shook her head. She was content to be the nail examining silent partner on this tour.

For me meeting this pair was a stroke of luck. I finally had a missionary all to myself without having to corner one in the bathroom. There is just no way to corner a girl in the bathroom without being a creep. I got the feeling Zarate would answer any reasonable questions I put to her. She didn’t have her partner taking mental notes about her responses, and there was very little risk of another Saint eavesdropping.

As we made our way through the visitor’s center, my second trip through the Prophets’ Hall of Fame in an afternoon, I asked Zarate about her conversion to Mormonism. There was no story. Her parents had converted and when she was eight she followed. I got the impression they were among the few families to stick with Mormonism in her region.

“How many Mormons are there in your community?” I asked.

“There are still several Mormon families,” she said.

“But before the ward was larger? Why is that?”

“There were a lot of baptisms the last time we had missionaries that visited our village,” she said.

“Are they not still with the Church?” I asked.

“Some yes… but there are many sects in Mexico, especially among the poor. When the Mormon missionaries come there were many that wantrf to be baptized. When the Jehovah’s Witness come, many of these people want to join them. These people take communion when the priest makes his visit. But there are some who understand. With them the Church will always be strong.”

“Do you think the other sects follow false prophets?” I asked.

Zarate thought about her answer, I looked over at Guinare who lifted red nails over her matching lips to cover a yawn.

“I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of Jesus and the Holy Father.”

Zarate seemed to speak from the heart. She was certainly not speaking from the script I had heard so many times in my encounters with LDS abroad. I had put the same question my missionary friends in Slovenia and Elder Lee had given me the official line. That the Latter Day Saints were unique because they were the only religion with a direct covenant with God maintained through a continuous line of apostles dating back to the prophet Joseph Smith. The Jews, along with the Roman, Eastern, and Protestant Church in all its denominations, had lost their direct link with Jesus.

Mohammed, I asked? Mohammed was not a prophet, according to Lee. And the Jews are no longer special. The Latter Day Saints are God’s new chosen people.

But Zarate was more reflective on the subject of a one and true religion. She had grown up witnessing the various missionaries competing in the marketplace for souls. Her family had chosen well, but their choice wasn’t any better or worse than the family that signed on with the Baptists or stuck with the guilt plagued Catholicism of the Spanish and their gold-lusting, small pox bearing conquistadors.

We ascended the wide spiral staircase to the celestial room with the Jesus statue. This was my chance. The statue had been silent on the last tour, and I had been too embarrassed to ask if the statue could talk. A girl in San Francisco had told me about a talking statue in Salt Lake City, I’m pretty sure of Jesus, and I recalled that the story ending up with security guards asking her friend for the film in her camera. That conversation had taken place well after last call. In my experience any story told in San Francisco after 2 am interesting enough to remember the next morning is a good bet for the urban legend file.

Before I asked the question I thought about how I could play this one off, “I mean, if he could talk, what do you think he would say?”

Then again, it wouldn’t be that weird a question for a sister who came from a land where the statues of saints are expected to perform miracles.

So I asked. Zarate motioned to Guinare, who looked bored as she walked out of our little solar system to toggle a hidden control panel.

I sat on a waiting room couch directly in front of the statue. Jesus welcomed me to Temple Square and explained something about his father’s miraculous creation of the cosmos painted on the walls around us.

The Jesus statue talks! I was in awe. I’d like to relate the details of his revelation, but his words escaped me. A giant marble Jesus speaking Spanish in the middle of Utah, and it all washed over my head as if he had been speaking Aramaic. I thought about asking if there was an Aramaic button. But I only had 12 minutes left to interview Zarate, so I took a quick photo with JC and followed the sisters into the next room.

Zarate seemed impressed with my questions. I decided to go a little deeper.

“These are the plates that Moroni showed Joseph Smith?” I asked, pointing to a wax reproduction of Mormon writing out his book before burying it in the woods of upstate New York.

“These are reproductions of those plates,” she said.

“Where are the real plates?”

“The originals were taken back by God,” she explained.

“The Book of Mormon speaks about two tribes in the New World,” I said.

“Yes, the Nephites and the Lamanites.

“The Lamanites were wicked, they turned away from God,” she explained.

According to the Book of Mormon, these two groups were both descended from the lost tribe of Israel that sailed to the Americas 600 years before Christ. The Nephites remained true to God, the Lamanites strayed. War ensued, and evil triumphed. The last good guy, the prophet Mormon, chronicled this ancient America and buried his work in upstate New York. God punished those wicked Lamanites by darkening their skin.

This was the Mormon’s historical explanation for the origin of the indigenous peoples of North and South America. It provided convenient explanation for the cultural inferiority of Native Americans, African slaves, and later for Jim Crowe blacks. In accounts from the old days the Saints seemed to really got off on this skin color business. If Brigham hadn’t had so many wives to please—the biography by his one ex-wife details his miserable failure as a lover—I’d say that all that Stanley, Livingston and Conrad weighing down the upstairs bookcase doubled as a porn collection.

As I looked into a face that might have given Cortez pause had girls, not gold, given him a hard on, I wanted to ask the next question. She lacked the defensiveness of the other missionaries constantly on guard against their godless inquisitors. If she saw where I was going, the serenity of her expression kept the knowledge of my wickedness well hidden.

I couldn’t do it. I felt like one of those Channel Four journalists who seek out the perversities of America by befriending fat swingers, leeching invites to their parties, and then laughing at everyone the moment the subjects are off camera. Sorry as they may look on camera, the fat swingers are at least honest about the whole thing. It’s the journalist with his mocking asides who grates my nerves. Those smug English pricks.

Was my curiosity about sister Zarate’s faith no different than the cheap-shot voyeurism passing for documentary on British television? It’s not my business how she reached spiritual resolution with a book that says her dark coloring was a curse on her people. Though if her brownness was the ancestral mark of Cain, how do any of us think we should get born with white skin?

She probably would have given me fascinating, soul-searching answers for any of the questions my sudden false-politeness would not allow me to query. They weren’t questions for her, or anyone else, all esoteric works have their shortcomings. That the Book of Mormon has so many of them need not concern our last minutes together.
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