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We have met the Enemy–Retroflash by
25
(38 Stories)

/ Stories

9-11 2001: over two thousand people dead in attack on the US.

It is not foreign terrorists who invaded the US Capitol, corrupted democracy, attacked the press, blocked voting, tried to install an unelected autocrat, attacked public health, imposed punishments with religious zealotry against women, or damaged the rule of law.

Bin Laden, the Saudi mastermind hidden in Pakistan: dead.

Untold Iraqis: dead for weapons of mass destruction they didn’t have.

ISIS arose: more death.

Afghanistan: twenty years of fighting and death. The Taliban is back.

A vast travel security surveillance system: installed.

Canadian border: hardened.

Results?

Twenty years on:  It is not foreign terrorists who invaded the US Capitol, corrupted democracy, attacked the press, blocked voting, tried to install an unelected autocrat, attacked public health, imposed punishments with religious zealotry against women, or damaged the rule of law.

 

 

 

Trying to work by
25
(38 Stories)

Prompted By Going to Work

/ Stories

After scrimping by on savings, sharing a summer sublet, eating from the weekly food conspiracy veggie box, and figuring out that I would probably stay for a bit in Berkeley, it was clear I needed a job.  Turning twenty, literate (two years of college behind me), energetic, and flexible—surely this would not be too hard.  But it turned out I knew nothing about finding work.

It was clear I needed a job.  Turning twenty, literate (two years of college behind me), energetic, and flexible—surely this would not be too hard.  But it turned out I knew nothing about finding work.

Oh, I had odd jobs, summer jobs, part-time work–babysitting, shelving books in the library, delivering the school newspaper to the dorms, assembling kalliroscopes (a novelty item)–but not work that would have to support me.

I looked in the help-wanted ads in the paper, most of which I was unqualified for, with no degree or experience.  Even the classic entry-level work for women was beyond me—no secretarial skills, no waitressing, restaurant, or retail skills.  And all I had was public transportation of course. I walked the thicket of stores on Telegraph Ave near my sublet, looking for signs and inquiring within.  Meagre results.

  1. Donut King.  A failing store off the avenue willing to hire me to clean tables, but I was let go after a few days for no apparent reason.
  2. Shaklee health products. A pyramid scheme a friend of a friend promoted.  I got a ride to the introductory meeting out in Hayward from the “friend”, but soon discovered I had less than zero ability to sell anything, and couldn’t force myself to hawk the products.  The only thing I ever sold was a can of protein powder to someone had bought the product in the past, and by happenstance found out that I could obtain it.
  3. Encyclopedia sales. The ad was vague, but I showed up to the Berkeley address.  The small anteroom of prospective applicants looked at each other warily, and when the first interviewee returned, he whispered “encyclopedias!” under his breath.  On that intelligence, I left along with the rest of the waiting room.
  4. SIMAS brothers gas station. Rumor had it they would hire women as gas jockeys!  (People didn’t pump their own gas then, and the guys who did it for you were all guys.)  I  made my way by bus and foot on a hot afternoon to the station on 14th Ave and 14th St in Oakland and asked a very indifferent employee about work, but never got a call back.
  5. Tijuana Taco. Score!  Minimum wage of course but just downstairs from my apartment.  I learned how to run the cash register, make burritos and tacos, bus tables, and clean up.  All went well until the area supervisor visited and started commenting on “all the pretty flowers—red, blue, yellow….” What?  I realized I had on the required white blouse, and also a colorful bra underneath.  Stunned, I stared at him, then threw the burrito in my hand at his chest, the sexist pig.
  6. The US Post Office. The big time.  I must have done well on the exam, because they soon called me for Christmas temporary work at the Oakland Sectional Center Facility—a huge central processing area.  Another employee, Molly, had an old beater car she let me ride share in for the price of gas. It took at least 10 minutes to warm up the engine to get going–and it is not that cold in the East Bay.  I swear that ships arriving in the Port from across the Pacific dumped their cargo directly onto the Post Office conveyor belts, as torrents of boxes with green customs labels tumbled onto those of us at the bottom, where we had to quickly sort them onwards.  It was more fun to “throw” the first class cards and letters (remember when people sent Christmas cards?), or the second class circulars and magazines.  The pay was at least double minimum wage, there was a union, and I learned how valuable becoming friends with the timekeeper could be when he took me for a long lunch at the soul food restaurant across the street.

Incredibly, I was able to live off the “bounty” of the Post Office for several months, while I volunteered at the Berkeley Free Clinic and the Women’s Health Collective.  It occurred to me that accessible and respectful health care was something pretty useful.  And, as I was handing out leaflets in the Safeway parking lot for the grape and lettuce boycotts, I thought perhaps it would be of more service to get a medical degree. The UFW (United Farmworkers Union) ran clinics near the fields.  Why not make the most of opportunities I was fortunate to have?

So I ended up returning to school and going to work in medicine– but still find myself in parking lots from time to time, handing out leaflets.

 

 

 

This Old House by
25
(38 Stories)

Prompted By Home Repair

/ Stories

Out in Western Massachusetts, just short of Cummington, is the tiny hamlet of Swift River.  If you turn off right past the bridge and wind down a tree-lined lane far enough to lose sight of the paved road, you might find an old white clapboard farmhouse and a barn by a meadow.  It belonged to someone in Jon’s family, and he had spent summers there; by 1973 the relatives had passed on, and he was charged with repairing the premises—I think under his father’s general aegis.

The house was a study in deferred maintenance.  Charming, with furniture, bedding, kitchen ware, and barn implements still in place, but old. He was a budding architect.  I was a friend of a friend with no repair skills to speak of, but had youthful enthusiasm, and came cheap.

The house was a study in deferred maintenance.  Charming, with furniture, bedding, kitchen ware, and barn implements still in place, but old. He was a budding architect.  I was a friend of a friend with no repair skills to speak of, but had youthful enthusiasm, and came cheap.

Behind me: two years of pre-med, political disagreements with the university administration, and college graduation.  Ahead: medical school on the West Coast, and a complicated plan on how to get across the continent.  The summer was a present of time without demands other than needing a place to stay and some pocket money.

The punch list of house repairs was long.  The multi-paned windows needed re-glazing, and the grout had to be prepared and drawn just so.  All the rooms, some with lots of built-in woodwork, needed paint, and I learned how much of painting is preparation–getting a bead going to make a good line and avoiding drips was the easy part. Everything needed to be cleaned and tidied and sorted, and the yard and garden needed weeding and mowing.  Laundry was done with the old wringer washing machine, and clothes hung to dry on the line. The old barn still had hay in it, as well as tangled piles of rusted nails, screws, nuts, bolts, and odd bits of hardware, all of which ended up in respective jars.  I assisted a lot on jobs that required more skill or brawn than I had, passing tools or holding a ladder.

We worked five days a week, enough to make progress.  It was an honor system; no one else was there to oversee the hours or the work and we had the house to ourselves.  On a hot afternoon, Jon would lead us down a tangled path on the other side of the road, where the river formed a swimming hole full of welcome cold water .  When Cummington had a fair or market day, we might check that out.  To catch cool night breezes, we set up on the screened-in sleeping porch on the second floor, hoping the no-see-ums wouldn’t get through the mesh.  I remember the green leaves, the sun on the meadow, the sense of suspended time, the physical work, the living history of the old place and small town.

On weekends, I might go back to Cambridge, where I was crashing with my city boyfriend of the time, and sometimes he would visit the greenery of Swift River.  No one had a car, but we had time and stamina, which came in handy hitchhiking back and forth on routes 2 and 9.

By the end of the summer, the house was looking a bit better.  Not redone, just more solid and a bit fixed up.  I now realize that I also became stronger by the time I left Massachusetts for the long trek west–the house wasn’t they only one to have benefitted from a bit of repair.

Sorry retroflash by
25
(38 Stories)

Prompted By Senior Moments

/ Stories

Oh joy!! It doesn’t matter anymore—getting into college, a program, a job, a promotion, a relationship.  What’s done is done and the rest is bonus.

Oh joy! Oh f#ck! Oh crap! Sorry.

Oh f#ck! The math is undeniable.  Better do whatever you have been putting off now.

Oh crap!   Born under a nuclear cloud, our generation has shambled into the anthropocene and sixth extinction—not in some remote distance but now. Will human brilliance and adaptability outshine our collective self-destruction?  Or will our legacy be a failed future—our Sisyphean efforts and this beautiful earth, all turned to dust?

I’m so sorry.

The Computer Date Dance by
25
(38 Stories)

Prompted By Dating

/ Stories

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a high school far, far away, there was a computer date dance. Before dating apps, before apps, before smartphones or cell phones or personal computers.  Think FORTRAN and computer punch cards.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a high school far, far away, there was a computer date dance.

The U.S. had an active space program and the future was clearly cyber.  What more important new frontier than digital dating?  And so, the student council embarked on plans to have a computer-matched dance.

This may have been promoted by a friendly, playful and extremely geeky fellow named Bob, a senior with intense computer interests.  He would be able to pull off the computer match magic. Bob was a friend of mine through the Unitarian youth group, a year ahead of me.  He had let me use his car to take the Maryland driver’s license test; unfortunately it was a old stick shift station wagon I had never driven. Unsurprisingly, I failed parallel parking in it—but the gesture was sweet.

In any case, he took on the dance project, and developed a questionnaire for each participant.  The answers were key-punched onto the computer cards, which were fed into the computer (he must have access to one somewhere—certainly not at school).  He programmed some algorithm to optimize answer matches for what must have been around a thousand students.

The entire school awaited the results with both hope and trepidation.  The results were to be posted the morning of the dance.  Who would be matched with whom?  When the list came out, rumors rippled throughout the school, along with disbelief.  How had a popular cheerleader matched with the schlumpiest guy in the class?  Something seemed wrong with the results of the all-knowing machine.

Bob later confided in me that (predictably in hindsight) the computer program had crashed, and he was in a panic.  In the end, he resorted to a backup plan that that was essentially a random match, and hoped for the best. The dance proceeded, but was somewhat of a fiasco, and as far as I know the school never tried that again.

I lost touch with Bob after high school, but he ended up becoming the ninth employee at Microsoft, later founded Quicksoft, and maintained an interest in psychedelics.  He died unexpectedly at age 53.  His Wikipedia entry (Bob Wallace 1949-2002) is a good read.

Oh, and my computer date match?  Was it a random match, a true match of answers, or a deliberate manipulation?  I don’t know, but I matched with Bob.

The Summer of our Discontent by
25
(38 Stories)

Prompted By That Summer

/ Stories

That summer of 1970, the family fractured.  The postwar, white middle class nuclear family.  Ours wasn’t too atypical. We had traveled, both parents worked; they raised three daughters stair-stepped two years apart, and sent them to college. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were scattered from New York to California, and we weren’t close.

Our family culture was one of conflict avoidance.  However, stories were told and opinions voiced over the dinner table, so there was no doubt about parental values. We were expected to become independent, and took it to heart maybe more than they realized. The biggest motivator was guilt. My mother was a legendary school teacher whose stern face and “I’m so disappointed in you” cut deeply—nothing more was needed. When our independence conflicted with their expectations, the lesson learned was: what the parents didn’t know, they were probably happier not knowing, and we were happier not discussing them.

Dylan had it right—the times they were a-changing, as were the sons and daughters.  Civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam, women’s rights, politics, sex and drugs and rock and roll, the generation gap. There were many times it seemed that everything important in my life  fell into the “parents don’t really want to know” category.

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.

That summer:

Older sister—graduating college, decided to join the Peace Corps (ultimately stationed in Senegal).

Middle sister (me)—finishing two years of college which had included a university strike, march on Washington, bombing of Cambodia, ROTC protests, and endless political discussions and study.  I was taking a year off after sophomore year, as even before entering college I had told myself (but not my parents) I would, to learn from the “real world”.

Younger sister—graduating from high school, lonely without her sisters and chafing at home, was hoping things would improve once away at school.

Parents—blithely thinking this summer would be a good time for family, booked a place at Bethany Beach for a few weeks.  They had good memories of a summer there when sister #1 was a toddler.  They didn’t consult the kids.  And we didn’t tell them our plans either.

We all converged in Bethesda after respective schools were out.  Surprise!  Sister #1 was leaving in a few days for friend’s wedding in Michigan, then heading to the US Virgin Islands for Peace Corps orientation.  Sister #2 was taking her meagre savings and leaving for the West Coast in a week.  Ergo: No family vacation together at the beach.

The dashed expectations and conflicting plans created an eruption of emotion. Voices were raised, accusations made and tears shed—rudely rupturing our paradigm of polite non-confrontation, tapping into hidden resentments. It was a “scene”.  We didn’t do scenes.

Sisters # 1 and 2 left.  Sister # 3 spent a couple of miserable weeks at the beach where she and my mother spent a lot of time crying and wondering how everything had gone so wrong. The upheaval in the family seemed to mirror the upheaval in the world around us.  Our nuclear family diaspora—inevitable but suddenly stark—was definitively underway that summer.

Epilogue:  Family dynamics evolved over the years.  Rapprochement of sorts occurred. Growth is painful. The kids, and parents, were alright.

All is Fair by
25
(38 Stories)

/ Stories

Ingham County, Michigan had a fair, but I never went to it.  Maybe my parents didn’t think looking at prize vegetables, embroidery and livestock were that enticing, not even the guaranteed sugary and fried food that fairs provide special dispensation to eat.  Or maybe it wasn’t worthy of discretionary funds, or it didn’t sound like fun to keep track of three little girls in a crowd.  We never had the conversation.  Neither parent grew up on a farm or was part of 4-H; they were aspiring academics.

And yet, somehow, I have experienced cotton candy, apple fritters, kettle corn, corn dogs, Indian tacos and bannock, and have roamed through outdoor venues with crowds of young people milling around midways, carnies, pavilions with exotic chickens, beer fests, dog shows, food trucks, music stages, lumberjack contests, and barrel races.  Not to mention street fairs and parades of all stripes. I just can’t tell you where and when.

However, my father was teaching at Michigan State University, one of the Land Grant colleges (known as “Cow College”, “Moo U”, and then “the Udder University”—or so the joke goes), with a degree in agricultural economics, so he might have had some curiosity about the fair.  Of course his interest was in international development, but still.

My mother’s father had been raised on a farm in Colorado, and he ran away at an early age from an abusive home life.  Although he lovingly tended his flower garden, he made a point of never growing any food crop, lived in cities and and pursued his own academic career instead.  There was no nostalgia for farm life imparted to his children.

And yet, somehow, I have experienced cotton candy, apple fritters, kettle corn, corn dogs, Indian tacos and bannock, and have roamed through outdoor venues with crowds of young people milling around midways, carnies, pavilions with exotic chickens, beer fests, dog shows, food trucks, music stages, lumberjack contests, and barrel races.  Not to mention street fairs and parades of all stripes. I just can’t tell you where and when.

Fairs celebrate food in many ways.  Sally had contractor client who grew up in rural Oregon; he would go to the 4-H shows each year and pick out a nice steer with a name, raised by a doting child, and buy it.  And have it slaughtered of course.  He knew it had been well taken care of, and that was how he got his meat. Something to be said for that—better than a feed lot.

When we moved in 2004 to Summerland, a rural (but not remote) community of around 11,000 people in BC’s Okanagan Valley, we found ourselves pleasantly back in time, in a town with a real main street.  A restored stretch of railroad track runs a vintage tourist steam train that carries you along a valley with apple and peach trees, sheep and llamas and horses.  It rounds the curve of the hill to pass by the small industrial area and on through vineyards to the trestle behind the agricultural research station.  The train toots its whistle, and people wave as you pass.  It’s like a Playskool setup—here’s the forest, here’s the river, here’s the mountain, there’s the lake, here’s the meadow, here’s the farm, here’s the horse, here’s Farmer John.

The Summerland Fall Fair started in 1909, and evolved from being the “Apple Fair” (but not very far), and has been held most years since then.  We had to check it out.  It was held in the local Curling Club building (of course there is one), and it took very little time to make the rounds of the prize zucchini, pumpkin, pies, preserves, needlework and handicrafts.  There was a ride for the kids in some cylindrical cars pulled by an ATV in the parking lot.  No livestock I could see.  Crowds were thin, but we did make new friends–who turned out to be from Chicago. Maybe the tradition was fading, as apples have given way to cherries, which have given way to grapes, and there are fewer farmers and more commuters in the town.

And yet, there is new life, as the fair is being revived this year after COVID , with fresh energy, a photography contest, and community-minded younger organic farmers making an effort.  And after all, isn’t celebrating the community really the heart of the fair?

Astronerd by
25
(38 Stories)

Prompted By Hobbies

/ Stories

The guilty truth is that I am an eclipse-chaser, admittedly an expensive and indulgent thing.  I can claim that I am just along for the ride, but I go willingly, so that isn’t really an excuse.

Okay.  We were definitely eclipse-chasers now. 

There has always been a bit of astronerd in me.  How could you not be intrigued by the enormity of the universe and how things work—physics, relativity, chemistry, biology, the genetic code, the periodic table? I toyed with the idea of being an astronaut–abandoned early on—but still chose introductory astronomy (Nat Sci 9) as my required science in college.

I remember looking out the window one night when I was in grade school in Michigan, and thinking how strange the moon looked, all orange.  And later it looked normal again.  My first lunar eclipse, I later found out.  In 1972, I saw my first solar eclipse from the steps of an MIT building where people had gathered with special protective glasses.  Pinhole image projectors made from a perforation in a piece of cardboard, fingers held closely together, or even leaves of trees, created shadow crescent suns on the pavement or paper.  The eclipse was only a deep partial in Cambridge, but it was total off the coast of Nova Scotia (as per Carly Simon’s song “You’re so Vain”).

Much later, in 1994 in Oakland, there was a view of another partial solar eclipse, but it was far from total; most  eclipses paths are over water, since that makes up most of the Earth’s surface, and often are nowhere near where you are. But in 1999, a total solar eclipse was slated to cross most of Europe and the Middle East, where a huge number of people could see it. We were already planning to go to a family reunion in Europe around that time, so add on a few days and maybe we’d be in luck.

The weather was not cooperating over most of Europe. That was bad, since you can’t see the eclipse through dense clouds and rain, though it will get dark.  Most people were disappointed that day. We pored over the weather reports searching for a break; it looked as if there might be some chance in northwestern France, so we hazarded driving in that direction, only to find that all the rooms near the path of totality were booked up.  We lucked into a place near Falaise, birthplace of William the Conqueror, though a distance from where we needed to be.  So, early the next morning, we headed northward, referring to giant fold-up Michelin road maps.  As we raced to reach the path in time, every few minutes I would look out the car window with welder’s glasses and report on the narrowing crescent sun peeking through the clouds.  At last, we hoped we were close enough and pulled off the road by a field, where a few others had stopped–soon to be joined by others who perhaps thought we knew what we were doing.

Looking up, we could just see the last sliver of sun through breaks in the clouds, the light got very strange, and it was definitely darker and colder.  And then in an instant, there was a brief flash, and everything changed.  Where there had been light, there was an exact, round, pitch-black hole in the sky, with a halo of corona around it.  The field erupted in cheers and cries of “ooh la la la la la la”, everyone at once.  It was surprisingly emotional.  It contradicted what we tacitly understood as normal, while the true spatial relationships of the earth, moon and sun were revealed in breathtaking clarity.

And all too soon, totality was over, leaving behind the big question:  When is the next one?

The following year, Sally got a “go-to” telescope for her fiftieth birthday, and we brought it on a camping trip to Baja California.  For its inaugural observation, we hauled it out at the beach at Pabellon, north of Guerrero Negro, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the desert to the east—and a completely clear and dark sky. Magical.  However, we were so far south and the sky so full of stars that we could hardly identify the ones we needed to calibrate the instrument.

On return, we started going to adult classes at the Chabot observatory to learn the night sky.  Ryan would maneuver the planetarium’s Zeiss projector to teach us how to star-hop.  After each session we got to look through the historic 20 inch “Rachel” and 8 inch “Leah” refracting telescopes, and “Nellie”, the new 36 inch reflector scope.  When the 2001 total solar eclipse passed over Zambia, Chabot live-streamed it on their big screen.  Not quite the same as being there though.

And so, in 2002, when there was a chance to see the tail end of a very short eclipse in Australia, we found a way to get there.  This was in spite of my boss’s wrath, who didn’t want me to take so much time off (though I had it on the books)—he thundered that I was never to do that again!  But we needed all that time for our journey to the other side of the world and no regrets.  We camped our way across to the edge of the outback at Lyndhurst, where the Strzelecki Track and Oodnadatta Track intersect, and an eclipse rock festival was underway.  We set up a few miles away, overlooking an ancient aboriginal ochre mine of many colors, and were treated to an astounding, sparkling 27-second eclipse with brilliant chromosphere, prominences and corona low in the sky, followed by the crescent sun sinking below the horizon.

Okay.  We were definitely eclipse-chasers now.

Since then, we have continued to learn about the night sky and the universe, enjoying comets, meteor showers, aurorae, and deep sky objects through various scopes.  Eclipses have been the excuse for more trips than I like to admit, to places we would not otherwise have thought to go, and we have observed from land, sea, and air. We have met fellow eclipse-chasers, and I have written eclipse songs for most of them.  We can bore friends with the details of eclipse mechanics, but only if they insist. Technology has made planning much easier, and there is even an eclipse tour industry.  And since you can’t guarantee success if weather doesn’t cooperate, you might as well plan a darn good trip around it.

COVID and climate change have affected future travels, but in 2024 there is another eclipse crossing the U.S. and probably near enough to you.  Don’t miss it.

 

.

Happy Anniversaries Retroflash by
25
(38 Stories)

Prompted By Anniversaries

/ Stories

Sweet young things

When we met June 1974.

Circa 1974

So many to choose from, and what a long, strange trip it's been...

When we met again March 8, 1981.

When we were an item October 2, 1981.

When we moved in together Spring 1983.

When we celebrated ten years together October, 1991.

When we became domestic partners October 9, 1996.

When we eloped to Niagara Falls August 6, 2003.

When we officially “entered” Canada October 16, 2004.

When we became permanent residents July 1, 2006.

When we became citizens January 13, 2012.

 

When it will be forty years together October 2, 2021.

Diminished expectations by
25
(38 Stories)

Prompted By Family Trips

/ Stories

I suppose most memorable family vacations have something that goes wrong.  And so, I remember our trip in 1962.

I suppose most memorable family vacations have something that goes wrong.

It must have been something my father planned.  We had arrived a number of months earlier in Dacca (now Dhaka), and it could have been a December school break, but I think the trip was mostly designed to make my mother happy.  She had found her life since arriving there stultifying–no job, hard to find a crack in the male-centric culture where some women wore burkhas, a tiny ex-pat community in a poor, struggling and crowded land of heat and flooding.  Although she prided herself on doing the unusual and getting to know the world, this was not going well.

Why not explore, maybe something a little out of the way?   The plans sounded great–a train ride, a trip to India with a rich heritage of festivals, an ocean beach. And so we headed off to Puri.

The train:  My mother and father, younger sister (ten years old) and I (twelve) set forth on the short, bumpy airplane ride to Calcutta, where we were to take the overnight train.  We would eat on the train, bunk down, and then awaken to the oceanside town.  Unfortunately, the reservations we thought we had, we didn’t.  If we wanted to get there, we could go in the second class car however.  Some eye rolling and exasperated looks ensued, but with no real alternative, we did.

The car we boarded was crowded, but it did have seats, and we found two wooden benches facing each other with everything else crammed in helter-skelter.  People had brought along food and bags overstuffed with assorted possessions; we stuck out with our Western dress, luggage and pale faces.  As far as I knew, everyone was friendly enough, if bemused.  This would be a long, long, long trip.  At every stop, vendors would thrust bits of food through the windows, and we might have bought something (I seem to remember oranges), since there was no dining car option and we hadn’t planned ahead.  It was hot, of course, and so the windows were open, but the precious breeze also bore smelly soot and cinders from the smokestack as we screeched along.  We didn’t talk much and tried to make the best of it.  My travel outfit of cotton plaid skirt and weskit, and everything else, was coated in gray grime by the time we arrived.  As hours wore on and darkness fell, we tried to sleep sitting up, while those around us settled in, leaning on each other, and took over every spare spot, be it the floor or the luggage racks.  Finally my sister was able to squeeze in a spot in the rack above us, and I dozed on and off.  I doubt either parent slept a wink.  There must have been a toilet option; I think I remember seeing the railroad ties passing underneath it.

The town:  At last, sleep-deprived, grumpy, and definitely worse for the wear, we arrived.  It was morning; streets were bustling and full of color.  We took a taxi through town to our hotel, as my mother took pains to educate us about the fabulous yearly Jagannath parade, famous for enormous (“juggernaut”) floats to honor the gods.  The dense crowds would press in and people would throw themselves under the giant wheels and be crushed, according to European descriptions she had read. (Although, according to Wikipedia, it seems most likely that deaths would be accidental, not sacrificial.)  In any case, it made a big impression on me, and I was horrified.  We weren’t there at the time of the festival, but I cast a wary eye as we drove through the streets, just in case we would run into an unexpected crush of people and gargantuan rolling floats.

Puri temple

What I did notice were many people with enormous limbs, grotesquely enlarged to several times the normal size.  This was elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis), the result of endemic parasites that block lymph drainage, and a local scourge.  At some later point, we visited the Jagannath temple, but were disappointed that we were only allowed on the outside, where a scattering of people begged, many afflicted by the parasite.  No parades, no colorful temple interiors, just a suggestion of what might be, tempered by the reminders of earthly sufferings.

The ocean:  The hotel was a sort of low whitewashed colonial-style bungalow with exuberant bougainvillea in front of the verandah, its charm not completely making up for the heat.  Of course there was no air-conditioning, although it had big, slow ceiling fans in the darkened rooms.  Across the street was the wide expanse of dirty sand, stretching off in both directions.  The ocean air was a relief. The beach was fairly empty, but there were some very persistent hawkers who came by every few minutes with simple beaded necklaces, woven hats and bags, which we dutifully purchased.  It turned out that the ocean in these parts was known for its fierce undertow, and we were advised to hire one of the fellows with the strange pointed white caps that identified them as lifeguards.  My mother had never been much of a beach person, and this did not convert her.  She knew about undertows from living in San Francisco–the Pacific Ocean there is also famous for its treachery–and she spent most of the time nervously eyeing her children in the waves with the guardian white caps, fearing they would be swept out to sea at any moment. This was not turning out to be a vacation to cheer her up, and she was not one to hide her opinions.

Puri Lifeguard

We stayed there a few days.   It was, indeed, a break from Dacca, and we kids were fine, and we did take away memories.  I imagine that my parents found their main source of enjoyment in their cocktails on the verandah–in truth, no small comfort.  Words may have been exchanged. I remember little of the return trip, but am confident that it did not include cinders flying into the open windows.

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