The Last Plane Out of Chungking

The following is one of the short short stories from Barry Gifford’s Sad Stories of the Death of Kings. It was one of the best stories in the book, and I thought at once of sharing it with you. The first paragraph is a scene from the movie Lost Horizon.

The little plane was barely visible through dense night fog as it sat on the ground. Then the engine turned over and the single propeller started to rotate, scattering mist as the plane nudged forward, feeling its way toward the runway. Chinese soldiers suddenly burst out of the airport terminal and began firing their rifles furiously in an attempt to prevent the plane from taking off. Tiny lights from the aircraft’s cabin winked weakly from within its whitish shroud while the plane taxied, desperately attempting to gather speed sufficient for takeoff. The soldiers stood confused, firing blindly and futilely until the aircraft lifted into blackness and escape.

Roy fell asleep after watching this opening scene of the film Lost Horizon. He liked to watch old movies late at night and in the early morning hours, even though he had to be up by 7:00 a.m. in order to be at school by eight. On this particular night, Roy dreamed about four boys his age, fourteen, in Africa, who discover a large crocodile bound by rope to a board hidden in bushes, abandoned by the side of a dusty dirt road. A stout stick was placed vertically in the crocodile’s mouth between its upper and lower jaws in order to keep the mouth open as widely as possible and prevent its jaws from snapping shut.

The crocodile could not move or bite, so the boys decided to drag it by the tail end of the board to a nearby river and release it. As they approached the river’s edge, it began raining hard and the ground suddenly became mushy and very slippery. To free the crocodile, they placed the board so that the croc’s head faced the river. One of the boys tore a long, sinewy vine from a plant and cautiously wound it around the stick. Another boy had a knife and prepared to cut the rope. The other two boys kept a safe distance. The boy with the knife sliced the rope in two at the same time the other boy tugged forcefully at one end of the vine, pulling out the stick. The crocodile did not immediately move or close its enormous mouth. The boys stood well away from it, watching. After a few moments, the crocodile hissed loudly and slowly slithered off the board and wobbled to the water’s edge, slid into the dark river and disappeared from view. The boys ran off as the downpour continued.

When Roy woke up, it was a few minutes before seven. He turned off the alarm before it could ring and thought both about the plane fleeing Chungking and the African boys rescuing the crocodile. What was the difference, he wondered, between waking life and dream life? Which, if any, was more valid or real? Roy could not make a clear distinction between the two. He decided then that both were of equal value, two-thirds of human consciousness, the third part being imagination. The last plane from Chungking took off with Roy aboard, bound for the land of dreams. What happened there only he could imagine.

Waiting for the Train: A Dream

Combination Bus/Self-Propelled Railroad Car in Alausi, Ecuador

Last night I had a vivid but inconclusive dream, which I would like to summarize here. I was waiting in a suburban area for a train to pick me up. There were two tracks, for trains going in either direction. I was uncertain that the train to Sacramento would stop for me, as I was not sure where I was standing was a station. I was thinking that I should have caught the train in downtown Los Angeles, where it originated.

So, with several other people who were in the same situation, I walked southward through a railroad tunnel to what I hoped was a legitimate station. I noticed that, inside the tunnel, the two tracks had merged into one, and that there were only a few widely scattered indentations in the wall of the tunnel to avoid being crushed by any oncoming trains. I noticed that the walls of the tunnel were covered by what looked like tall pieces of perfectly straight bamboo.

Fortunately, no trains came while we were in the tunnel. On emerging, I noticed an area of large broken stones, like an abandoned quarry in which many others were waiting for trains. I was told this was the station for Newhall. (Actually, in real life, Newhall has a rather nice and very proper station.)

Suddenly, several adults were marshaling high school students, who were looped around with a large chain to keep them together. With equal suddenness, a number of self-propelled railroad cars painted yellow/orange and shaped like school buses showed up to take them to their destinations.

I continued to wait, but was cheered when tickets were being collected and shoved through slots cut into a large rock; and there were signs that my train was approaching.

Did the train stop for me? Did I board it? I’ll never know, because I woke up noticing that I had forgotten to set the alarm to wake me at 7:30 AM.

What, Me, Getting Lost?

This Image Is Practically Engraved in My Memory

Apparently, I have this phobia of getting lost. When my brother and I were in Ecuador last October, we could not find any street atlases; though, it wouldn’t have done us any good if we had them, because outside the central tourist area of the cities, there were no street signs. Dan made fun of me for my meltdowns when we wandered off what maps we had. There mus have been an incident in my childhood when getting lost from my Mommy and Daddy terrified me. I wrote a blog about this entitled Where the Streets Have No Name.  (Sorry, Edge and Bono!)

Where this is all leading to is a dream I had last night. I was traveling alone in the City of London. Having been there five or six times and having expended fierce amounts of shoe leather each time, I have a good picture of the city permanently resident in my head. I was trying to find a bookstore near Charing Cross Road, but had no idea where I was. And, even more peculiar, there did not appear to be any Underground or Tube stations on the inadequate map I had.

I had had some sort of meeting and was wandering around the city with some of the participants. At one point, they decided to stop and have an impromptu cricket match, which fortunately did not last long. When they stopped, we kept wandering in an easterly direction, coming on a square with a large Catholic church and a troupe of nuns ministering to the need of a large bump encampment. I thought to myself, “Gee, I had no idea there were so many bums in London.”

In the end, the dream just came to a stop. (Did I wake up at that point?) Although I jnever got to my bookstore nor to any other recognizable monument or building, I was more perplexed than terrified.

Thi9s is not the first time I got lost in my dreams. In none of them did my reaction rise to nightmare levels, but it is an interesting recurring theme—sort of like having to give a public speech while buck naked.


Serendipity: Graham Greene Dreams of Khrushchev

Graham Greene

Graham Greene

I have just finished reading a fascinating little book of dreams that British writer Graham Greene had transcribed and edited. It is called A World of My Own: A Dream Diary, which I had just picked up by chance yesterday at L.A.’s The Last Bookstore. Here are a number of short dreams the author had about former Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev:

In the Common [i.e., Real] World I always felt a certain affection for Khrushchev in spite of his invasion of Hungary. In the Cuban crisis I felt he had made a favourable bargain with John F. Kennedy—no further invasion in return for no defensive nuclear weapons for Cuba, which in any case would have reached no farther than Miami. I liked the way he had slapped he table with his shoe at a meeting of the United Nations. Perhaps I was influenced in my affection by the meetings I had with him in My Own [i.e., Dream) World in 1964 and 1965.

My first meeting with him was at the Savoy, with a group of Russians including Mr. Tchaikovsky, whom I had met in the Common World when he was the editor of Foreign Literature magazine. Khrushchev looked cheerful, healthy, and relaxed, and he was only amused when two of his party disputed noisily. We talked together about the method of financing films in England and the bad influence of the distributors. I said that this is one difficulty the Russians did not suffer, but Khrushchev told me that films in Russia were often delayed for six months as a result of overspending and then waiting for bureaucratic permission to increase the budget. He was very cordial and invited me to lunch the next day.

On the next occasion … I sat next to him at dinner and he spoke no word to me until near the end, when he remarked that I had left a lot of my chicken uneaten. ‘So much better for the workers in the kitchen,’ I said. ‘Surely a Marxist believes in charity.’

‘Not in Vatican charity,’ he replied with a smile.

At our last meeting he was personally dealing with visas for the Soviet Union. He noticed that my profession was listed as ‘writer’, and he expressed the hope that I would write about his country. I noticed how clear and blue his eyes were, and when I rejoined my friends I told them, ‘When you see him close, he has a beautiful face, the face of a saint.’


Dreaming of … London?

50327110. Tulum, QRoo.- Los voladores de Papantla y los Guerreros Mayas, dan la bienvenida a los más de dos mil turistas locales, nacionales y extranjeros, que día a día visitan la zona arqueológica, que es de un kilómetro, donde algunos prefirieren hacerlo caminando o existe a su disposición un pequeño transporte en forma de tren. NOTIMEX/FOTO/FRANCISCO GÁLVEZ/COR/ACE/

Totonac Voladores at El Tajin

Last night I had particularly vivid dreams. Was it because I had eaten watermelon before going to bed? If so, I might be in for more dreams tonight.

Martine and I were in London at a large museum. I noticed that a number of English dressed in red “Beefeater” costumes were flying in the air by their feet just like the Totonac voladores at the ruins of El Tajin in Mexico’s State of Veracruz. I mentioned to Martine that it must be a traditional English Maypole ceremony—though, God knows, the real Maypole does not involve anything quite so spectacular.

At the same time, I noticed that several large buildings in London were aflame. Since the fires were several blocks away, I didn’t particularly care. I was slightly miffed that Martine, as usual, was being too slow and meticulous about seeing all the exhibits. I, on the other hand, wanted to catch a particular train to the north.

Somewhere along the line, my desire to go was also to visit a particular bookstore. At that point, I woke up.



Dreaming of Proust

Alfred George Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

Alfred George Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

When you’re a hopeless intellectual like me, you, too, will have dreams that smack of literary criticism. This one is from last Saturday night. Despite the hot, humid weather we’re having in Los Angeles, I had just begun re-reading the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in the David Grieve translation called In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. (That title alone gives rise to dreams of a sort.)

Marcel has finally won the right to go to the theater to see the great actress La Berma (thought to be Sarah Bernhardt) as Racine’s Phèdre, albeit chaperoned by his grandmother. Feeling he is about to be exposed at long last to the holy grail, Marcel awaits the magical moment. It comes, but, alas, the lad is disappointed. Although he claps and cheers madly with the audience, Marcel feels that the actress did not live up to her hype.

That’s where my dream begins. I am thinking: Well, now, the entire heptology is full of disappointments: In the first volume Swann is cruelly deceived by his love, Odette de Crécy … but marries her anyhow. Marcel idealizes the ancient nobility of the Oriane, Duchesse de Guermantes, but gives us ample opportunities throughout the series to see how trivial her decorous life has become. As for Palamède, Baron de Charlus, he is given to affairs with lower class young men and, in the final volume, ends up being flagellated by one of them in a male bawdy house. Albertine does wind up in a relationship with Marcel, but he agonizes constantly that she is bi-sexual. Besides, she dies young.

Again and again, it almost seems as if Proust’s grand theme is either “You can’t always get what you want” or “Nothing is as good as it seems at first.”

And that’s where my dream left off. In the end, though, I rejected my dream interpretation. Marcel’s inner life is so vivid and intense that all the disappointments still make it all worthwhile. If that negativity were the only thing I got from reading Proust, why would I be reading the seven volumes for a third time? (Er, aside from THAT, I mean).

Incidentally, the original Stevens portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (above) is at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, near my place of work.


At the Hotel in the Desert

It Was Another of My Strange Dreams

It Was Another of My Strange Dreams

Don’t expect this to make any sense: It was another of my strange dreams. I was trudging with a friend across the sands of a desert when we came up on a hotel surrounded on all sides by sand dunes.

Naturally, the first thing we looked for was the check-in counter, but we couldn’t seem to find it. There were rooms, restaurants, pools, and lounges scattered almost randomly. We wandered down endless corridors, passing restaurants with sumptuous-looking fare. But we felt we had to check in first.

Like almost all of my dreams, it was well short of being a nightmare because of the dreamlike acquiescence with which we accepted the illogical design of the hotel. At any time, we could have asked someone where the front desk was located, but that possibility didn’t enter our heads.

As I write this, it strikes me that our wanderings through this hotel are a lot like life. We have to check out before we ever figure out where to check in.

The Talking Llamas

Not Only Talking, But Shopping As Well

It’s Not Exactly Bloomingdales, Is It?

I was restless last night, probably because my left arm was hurting more than usual. At one point in my dreams, I found myself at UCLA just outside the Ackerman Union, where there is a statue of the Bruin mascot. To my surprise, two llamas accompanied by two girls walked by. Oddly, the llamas were talking like Valley Girls about their shopping experiences at Bloomingdales as if it were an everyday occurrence. Cut to me doing a double take.

Considering that so many of my waking thoughts are occupied with planning my upcoming trip to South America, it is not surprising that llamas, in many ways emblematic of the entire continent, walk through my dreams. They are most welcome, even if they shop at Bloomingdales.

The Fruits of Luigi

It Does Not Appear in This Illustration

It Does Not Appear in This Illustration

No one can be held responsible for his dreams, even as wild as mine were last night. Various attractive women were offering me their breasts to fondle, when—quite suddenly—a physician wearing a stethoscope and white lab coat informed me that the underside of the female breast is so soft because of an internal organ officially referred to as the Fruits of Luigi.

I know I’ve been under considerable pressure because I’ve been working seven days a week, interspersed with nasty arguments with my boss, who is not aging well. So I am grateful I was informed via my dreams of this useful organ.

Accounting Nightmares

Some Things Just Won’t Reconcile

Some Things Just Won’t Reconcile

Even though my first memories are of childhood nightmares, my dreaming has, over the last few decades, been remarkably free of anything scary. Those first nightmares, however, were real wowsers: In response to toilet training, I would be stuck in the bathroom with the walls closing in on me with the sound of a steam engine. Or there were the times I was being chased around our home on East 120th Street by a lion.

Since I started working in accounting, I have had a different type of dream—particularly when I am facing some problem of whose resolution I am uncertain. Right now, I am trying to analyze the sales of government securities that just don’t seem to reconcile. First of all, there are Fannie Mae investments with a monthly Return of Principal, which I am not sure is being accurately registered in the brokerage statements. And then there was the mistaken sale of three securities that had already been sold earlier that month in the same statement. What was even stranger was that, when the sale was canceled, in each case it was assessed at a different value than the value at the time of “re-sale.”.

When I have trouble dropping off to sleep, I occasionally revisit these technical problems; and the numbers swirl around and around in my head. Sometimes, in my half-sleep, I come up with brilliant solutions. Almost always, I gain some insight, even though I lose some sleep in the process.

If you were to ask me, I think I would prefer the extra sleep.