Serendipity: How Rat’s Family Got Rich

How to Make the Best of a Bad Lot

This weekend, I read Haruki Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. While it was not quite the level of his more recent work, it had some choice moments. The unnamed narrator has a friend called Rat, who comes from a wealthy family. It was amusing to find out how his family made its fortune:

Rumor had it that Rat’s father had been penniless before the war. On the eve of hostilities, though, he had managed, after much difficulty, to lay his hands on a small chemical factory, where he began producing insect repellent cream. There was considerable doubt as to its effectiveness, but, fortunately for him, the war spread to the South Pacific at that juncture, and the stuff flew off the shelves.

When the war ended, the Rat’s father moved his stock of ointment into warehouses and began marketing a sketchy health tonic; then, toward the end of the Korean War, in an abrupt move, he shifted to household cleaners. Rumor has it that the ingredients were identical in all cases. Not inconceivable.

In other words, the same ointment slathered on the heaped bodies of Japanese soldiers in the jungles of JNew Guinea twenty-five years ago can today be found, with the same trademark, gracing the toilets of the nation as a drain cleaner.

Thus did the Rat’s father join the ranks of the wealthy.

 

 

 

Serendipity: The Existence of Ghosts

My Belief Is: They Exist

The Original Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax is like a sort of souk for tourists and those L.A. natives who like to sit and reflect while drinking a cup of tea or eating a good lunch. I sat there this morning reading Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, when I ran across this passage:

“Well, yes. Everyone is attended by ghosts,” Iggy said. What matters is whether we begin to attend to them.”

“How do you mean?”

“With some people, the ghosts are transparencies, barely visible as they hover around, sit at the table next to them and so on. They are particularly hard to see in bright sunlight. Sometimes, when memories are revisited, there is a flickering of light and shadow, image and text across them, and for a moment they flare up and then vanish.”

“So are you saying that ghosts are our memories?”

“Ghosts are the things, the shapes we make with our memories,” she said.

“Ah. So if some are light like…”

“Like well-worn lace drapes blowing in the wind.”

Black smiled.

“Yeah, like that. Then what are the other ghosts like? The ones we attend?”

“Like thick black lines drawn in a notebook. They are visible, brooding dark clouds that we drag around with us like reluctant sulky children. We feed them and they grow big and their haunting dominates our lives. We love them and we hate them and we are always measuring them for a coffin, yet we cannot let them die.”

“Why?”

”Madness, my friend. Madness.”

 

 

Serendipity: London Fog

Waugh’s Ambrose Silk Misses the Old Days

The following is taken from a monologue by one Ambrose Silk at London’s Café Royal. It can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful satire of England in the first days of the Second World War, Put Out More Flags.

“The decline of England, my dear Geoffrey,” he said, “dates from the day we abandoned coal fuel. No, I’m not talking about distressed areas, but about distressed souls, my dear. We used to live in a fog, the splendid, luminous, tawny fogs of our early childhood. The golden aura of the golden age. Think of it, Geoffrey, there are children now coming to manhood who never saw a London fog. We designed a city which was meant to be seen in a fog. We had a foggy habit of life and a rich, obscure, choking literature. The great catch in the throat of English lyric poetry is just fog, my dear, on the vocal cords. And out of the fog we could rule the world; we were a Voice, like the Voice on Sinai smiling through the clouds. Primitive peoples always chose a God who speaks from a cloud. Then, my dear Geoffrey,” said Ambrose, wagging an accusing finger and fixing Mr. Bentley with a black accusing eye, as though the poor publisher were personally responsible for the whole thing, “then, some busybody invents electricity or oil fuel or whatever it is they use nowadays. The fog lifts, the world sees us as we are, and worse still we see ourselves as we are. It was a carnival ball, my dear, which when the guests unmasked at midnight was found to be composed entirely of impostors. Such a rumpus, my dear.”

Ten years after Put Out More Flags was published, in 1952, a killer fog hit London that killed 4,000 Londoners and hospitalized 150,000.

On a much smaller scale, I remember the smog of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, when I developed a nasty case of asthma, which appears only at rare intervals now. I remember hearing the foghorn from Santa Monica Pier when I used to live on 11th Street early in the Seventies. I have not seen fog in Santa Monica for almost 30-40 years now.

 

Serendipity: The Flip Side of Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp (Center) in Nome

I’ve been reading a fair number of books about Alaska lately and surprised to come across the following about famed lawman Wyatt Earp’s time in Nome. My assumption was that Wyatt Earp was a pretty straight arrow. After all, hadn’t Henry Fonda played him in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), and didn’t his pallbearers include William S. Hart and Tom Mix? Then I read this passage in Brian Keenan’s Four Quarters of Light: An Alaskan Journey (New York: Broadway Books, 2004):

“That’s Wyatt Earp’s old home,” Mike informed us. I knew from some background reading that the famous frontier marshal had amassed a fortune in Nome [worth $3 million in 2017 dollars] and had headed back to the States. I was surprised the cottage was in such a state and wondered why. “Image isn’t everything,” Mike replied, “and a lot of folk up here don’t look too kindly on Mr. Earp. The truth is, he arrived here in 1898, a bald, bespectacled, paunchy man in his fifties. Well past his prime. He was mean, tightfisted and malicious, and his wife was as ugly in looks as he was in personality. [Not so: See pictures below.]  He built the Dextor [actually, Dexter] Saloon in town and he sucked the life’s blood out of the 20,000 miners and their families who shivered and died in tents trying to scrape a few ounces of gold off the beach. He bailed out after two years with an absolute fortune. If Nome was ever a seedy, ruthless and ugly place to be in, it was because of professional con men like Wyatt Earp and many like him.”

Josephine Marcus, Mrs. Wyatt Earp

Below is a picture of Dexter’s Saloon, which Earp ran in partnership with C. E. Hoxsie:

The Dexter Saloon Owned and Operated by Earp and Hoxsie

There is an interesting article about Earp in Nome entitled “Wyatt Earp’s Alaskan Adventure” that appeared in True West Magazine in 2014. You can find it by clicking here. Apparently, Earp also ran a brothel on the premises. Below is another picture of Josephine Earp, which leds me to suspect that her services could have been used in this other venture as well”

Josephine Earp—At Wyatt’s Brothel?

Serendipity: ¡Viva La Muerte!

Some of the Issues from the Spanish Civil War Seem Very Contemporary

I am currently reading the First Edition of Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).  Many issues between the Nationalists (Franco’s Fascists) and the Republic (very like our Democratic Party) seem to ring equally true for today’s overcharged political environment. On August 15, 1936, the Nationalists adopted the flag of the Spanish monarchy and made a number of speeches. After Generalissimo Francisco Franco and Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Serra, there was a third speaker:

Next to speak was [José] Millán Astray, a man from whom there seemed to be more shot away than there was of flesh remaining. He had but one leg, one eye, one arm, few fingers left on his one remaining hand. ‘We have no fear of them [the Leftists],’ he shouted, ‘let them come and see what we are capable of under this flag.’ A voice was heard crying‘¡Viva Millán Astray!’ ‘What’s that?’ cried the General, ‘no vivas for me! But let them all shout with me “¡Viva la muerte! ¡Abajo la inteligencia!”’ (Long live death! Down with intelligence!). The crowd echoed this mad slogan. He added, ‘Now let the Reds come! Death to them all!’ So saying, he flung his cap into the crowd amid extraordinary excitement. [Page 272]

Fascist General Millán Astray

How like the Fascists to praise death and downgrade intelligence. “Don’t think too much,” they seem to be saying. “Just follow orders!” The Spanish left was like our Democrats: A Circular firing squad. There was the CNT (Anarcho-Syndicalist Trades Union), the FAI (an Anarchist secret society), POUM (Trotskyites), PSUC (the United Catalan Socialist-Communist Party), and UGT (the Socialist Trade Union). On the Left were militias, propagandists, the International Brigades from all over Europe and the Americas, and a whole plethora of irreconcilable beliefs and opinions. On the Right was the Spanish Army led by Franco and supplies and manpower from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

Serendipity: Raven Brings Death to the World

Tlingit Myth: Raven Swallowing the Sun

Now that I have resolved to explore the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, I have become interested in the many native peoples along the route. And also that means I have a renewed interest in Franz Boas, who spent so much of his career studying the Kwakiutl, the Tlingit, the Bella Coola, the Salish, and others. From Boas’s (edited) Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes (1917) comes this tale, from the Nicola Valley, of how death came into this world:

Coyote was travelling, and came to Raven, a bad, selfish chief, who wanted to make everything difficult for other people, and easy for himself. He wanted the game for himself, wanted long winters, and he did not want man to be immortal. Coyote questioned him as to why he wanted people to die. He said, “If people were immortal, there would be too many. Let them become sick and die.” Coyote said, “Why should they die? Death will introduce sorrow into the world, and sorrow is very hard. If they die, what will become of them? Where will they go? Let them be sick, but not die.” Raven said, “No, they must die. I do not wish our enemies to live forever. If the people should become too numerous, there would be no food, and they would be hungry. It is better for them to die.” Raven’s people supported their chief, and clamored for the people to die. Raven, Crow, Fly, Maggot, and many others wanted people to die, so that they might feed on corpses. Coyote said, “Let people die for a while, and then come back to life again. Let death be like sleep.” Raven said, “No, if they die, let them die for good, and let their bodies rot.” At last Coyote agreed, and said, “Well, it is ordained that people shall die when their time has come. Their bodies shall be buried, and their souls shall go to spirit-land; but this will only be until the world changes again, when they will die no more.”

Shortly after that, Raven’s daughter became sick and died. She was the first to die. Raven tried to restore her to life, but failed. Then he wept because of his daughter. He went to Coyote, and said, “Let us change what we said before. Do not let people die and remain dead forever. Let us change it!” Coyote answered, “No, it is settled now, and cannot be altered.” Thus it happens that people die and are buried.

Serendipity: My Hovercraft Is Full of Eells

The Eells in Question Was the Reverend Myron Eells

In preparation for a projected trip along the Inside Passage to Alaska, I am reading Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999). The book is full of delightful historical anecdotes about Captain Vancouver and other early explorers and settlers. Some got along well with the Indians: Others didn’t. One in the latter category was the Reverend Myron Eells, known for his “garrulous moralism.” More than fifty years after he passed on, he was still remembered by old people who, as children, been on canoes with him. In 1934, William M. Elmendorf interviewed a Skokomish elder who spoke of Eells as “that awful man.” The elder went on to say:

People didn’t like him very well. He was collecting Klallam words from some Klallam Indians who were visiting here one time. I had to translate for him. So he would ask them for words like father, mother, house, dog, and so on. And those people didn’t think much of Eells, so they would give him all sorts of dirty, nasty words, and he would write them down in a book. Then he would try to use some of these words. thinking he was talking Indian, and people would just about bust trying to keep from laughing.

If you have any interest in primitive languages, it would help first to see whether one is on the same wavelength as one’s interviewees. (Oh, and my apologies to Monty Python’s Flying Circus!)