Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Dark Water (Iong ramble)

I grew up just a couple of miles from the Mississippi River. I remember taking paddlewheeler cruises with my mother and watching barges pass through Lock and Dam No. 15 at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' visitors center. It was a huge deal when the Delta Queen would stop and dock in the Quad Cities. And the day that Jacques Cousteau came through on his boat, the Alcyone, in 1986, it was like a rock star had come to town. My parents' gravesites (along with those of some of my mother's confederate prisoner relatives) sit on an island in the Mississippi.

My family's little ranch-style house was on the high ground between the Mississippi and the Rock River in Moline, Illinois. Every year, without fail, the Rock River would flood out the houses along its banks, along with the oddball restaurant, Harold's on the Rock, which could serve you exotic African game, if you so desired. Harold's is gone now. I understand the location is being developed into a boat launch. I have to wonder what happened to their freezers full of lion and zebra meat. It must have been one hell of a weird going-out-of-business barbecue.

The Mississippi didn't flood our area every year, but the spring thaw and accompanying rains always bloated the river and weighed it down with tons of silt and refuse and carcasses. I always found it a little evil and I had no problem staying away from downtown Moline when the river did overflow its banks.

Periodically, the river ate up the shoreline in Davenport, Iowa, breeching the leaky levees and turning downtown into a lake. The image that sticks in my mind most is of a wall mural of Davenport native and jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke. Bix was painted in a classic pose with his horn. When the water overtook Brady Street, Bix was left in water up to his nose. His horn was completely under water.

Charlie don't surf and Bix don't swim.
The Beiderbecke mural in its unflooded state.

Even in the years when Moline was spared any major flooding, Davenport would get slammed on the opposite shore. The Triple A baseball stadium, next to the park where the annual BixFest jazz festival takes place, was sometimes deeply submerged in bad flood years.

That's the baseball stadium above. If that date FEMA notes is correct, that flooding took place the week my mother died. It's weird, as I was so dazed, I don't even remember anything being flooded then. I do remember flooding later that year, when the Sasquatch flew out from Washington with me to sort through things at my mother's house. I took the Sasquatch to downtown Moline, which was sandbagged and awash in dirty Mississippi muck for a few blocks inland.

We didn't stop to take pictures. Sandbags and sloshing brown water is enough to stop me from being Madame Adventure. But we did stop at Lagomarcino's, a tiny old ice cream parlor and sweets shop that produces marvelous handmade chocolates and still serves phosphates at its old soda fountain. (And if anyone reading this blog actually remembers what a phosphate is, I'll be amazed!) Lago's was lucky to be two blocks up from the edge of the flooding. We got some chocolate, and I bought the Sasquatch a funky yellow Lago's t-shirt to commemorate his visit to my hometown, which I wish had happened under happier circumstances.

That was a rough weekend, going through family photos in our dank basement. I'm glad the Sasquatch was with me, and I'm glad I have such a fine circle of friends out in Moline, including HoyaMEB and the rest of the usual suspects. I think my head would have exploded without their support. (I feel the same way now, deep in Month Five of unemployment...)

But, I digress... back to the river...

The Mississippi is wide, deep, and murky at the curve it cuts through the Quad Cities, dividing Iowa from Illinois. Before I was born, the sand bars there were much more prominent, and the girl scouts had an annual walk across the Mississippi. Imagine a troop leader trying that one today, taking safety laws (and the level of contamination) into account! Some of my sisters remember crossing the big river in their socks. This was in the days before swim shoes, mind you. It sounded incredibly cool when I was a kid. Now, it just makes me shudder.

All throughout junior high and high school, I rode my bike along the Mississippi River. I used to ride out onto the Arsenal Island (the territory of the Rock Island Arsenal, where my father and part of my mother's ashes are now buried) and circle the grounds with a friend. She and I would have contests, pitching rocks at dead fish, to see who had the more accurate aim. Small town kids. Cheap entertainment. What can I say?

I miss that friend, by the way. I was really surprised when she got married. Not that she got married, but that I wasn't invited or at least informed of the nuptials. I sometimes wonder what I did to get persona non grata'ed. I'm still not sure. I'd love to know. I'm still good friends with her sister. We e-mail back and forth. I saw her the last time I was in the Twin Cities on a quickie work trip. We arranged to meet up for dinner by my hotel, but her sister didn't show. It was her birthday, so I can dig that she might not want to hang with someone she hasn't seen in years. But, still, it was disappointing. She's a screenwriter now. I try to follow her career by watching a Minnesota artists' website. She's extremely talented, has won a few awards, and I hope someone buys her screenplays. I don't ask her sister for updates. I'm just not comfortable going down that path.

And hey, I digressed again. Seriously, I have the attention span of a gnat.

The river, the river...

Even though I spent a lot of time by the river, I still found it creepy. I have a problem with water I can't see through. If it's opaque, I generally don't want to put my feet in it.

Andaman Sea? The waters off the Florida Keys? Fine by me. But dark, muddy rivers or lakes or oceans? They give me the willies. I remember swimming in the Black Sea near Sochi on a weekend trip out of Moscow. I am an avid swimmer, and I will work very hard to overcome my issues with dark water if it's my only option for swimming. But god forbid anything brush against my leg. I will start to panic. Quietly. The waves were high on this particular Black Sea visit. I started out and got caught in a fairly strong current. I knew not to fight it, and let myself drift out to get out of the heavy pull. But then I felt it - something weird and inorganic tugging at my swimsuit. I caught my breath and choked on a mouthful of water. I didn't want to, but I felt around with my hands. It was huge piece of ragged rusty wire that had gotten tangled in with the end of a nearby pier.

I quickly swam away, still in panicky mode, and got out, all noodle-legged, with huge scrapes on my hands and legs. Never again. That was my last trip to the Black Sea.

I have to admit that I did have one good Black Sea experience, but it was nowhere near the Sochi shoreline and I never actually got into the water. It was on a special trip to the closed city of Sevastopol in Ukraine. The Soviet Ministry of Defense flew a group of embassy folks down to the port city to greet two U.S. navy ships. Interesting side note - if a U.S. Navy ship is in port for fewer than a certain number of hours, the normal restrictions don't apply. This meant that Navy guys were streaming off the ships and hooking up with Ukrainian woman right and left. And I'm serious when I say that women were grabbing these guys, and they doin' it in alleyways in broad daylight. It was freaky and embarrassing. (And I wonder how many Ukrainian-American friendship babies were born nine months later...)

After a massive banquet with lots of Soviet naval brass, a group of Ukrainian sailors took a few of us for a short drive outside of Sevastopol. I'm sure we were breaking a ton of laws at this point in a closed military zone, but it was worth it. If you don't know this part of the Crimea, this is just about 20 km from the hillsides where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place. It's also the site of the ancient city of Khersones, the northernmost outpost of the empire of Alexander the Great. And, sunken in shallow water just off the shore, are Greek ruins - temple pillars and statuary. The Ukrainian guys took us to where the ruins are. They had bottles and bottles of wine and waterproof flashlights.

My drunken embassy friends shucked off all their clothes, grabbed flashlights, and plunged into the icy water with the Ukrainian guys. They'd tried to convince me to join them, but, I'm a really fat chick who doesn't like nekkid moonlight dips in alien water right outside Soviet seaports. I passed on the offer. I wanted to see the ruins, but I couldn't imagine that you could see jack shit in the middle of the night, and I didn't want to know what lived in that cold part of the Black Sea.

I stayed on the shore with one sober sailor who just shook his head. "They're going to freeze and they're not going to see a thing," he said. "Glupost'!" Stupidity!

They were all back out in a few seconds, shrieking, gasping for breath and with some major shrinkage going on. They hadn't seen a damn thing, but I got a helluva show. You could hear their teeth chattering all the way back to our hotel. Fast way to sober up, kids.

The next morning, I bought my colleagues postcards of the ruins. They were not amused. (I was.)

Back in 1983, when I was a junior in high school, an angry chiropractor, Jim Klindt, took a chain saw to his unhappy wife Joyce and unloaded her parts into the Mississippi. A month later, she started to drift into the shore. After that, I always wondered just how many "people parts" were floating along with the rest of the spring flood detritus headed for the delta.

Once, taking a long walk along the beautiful path that was built along the Illinois side, I found what I thought was a kitty cat that had fallen into the Mississippi. Walking without my eyeglasses, I saw this poor thing trying to shake off the stinky river water, and I went over to it, saying, "Oooh, poor kitty!"

It was a goddamned river rat. Large as a full grown house cat.

Lesson learned. Wear your glasses. Don't try to rescue large vermin.

A few years back, I started writing a story about the Mississippi and the unpleasant secrets held in its dark spring water. I connected it to a murder and that the same dark flood water you'd see in Moscow in the spring. (A co-worker at the embassy once saw a bound and gagged body bobbing along in the Moskva. He came back to the office pretty freaked out. And, after that, I had the same unpleasant creepy feeling about that river, too.) I never finished that story. But now, I think I might.

Watching the flooding and the chaos and the death and the coming pestilence in New Orleans, I think I'm ready to finish that story. It might be a good way for me to channel the frustration I'm feeling watching the news. I have no money to donate, and all I feel is irritation that I can't do anything to help these people. And, considering my feelings toward dark water, I wonder how I would survive this, were I trapped in the city. I'm pretty sure I'd be dead or badly ailing by now, between the heat and the foul water, and the lack of access to medication.

I think about things like this when I watch a show like "Lost." How would the people who needed critical medication to live survive? I mean people who take daily "maintenance" medication to live. How long would they survive? What would you do when you knew that, unless a miracle occurred, you were going to die? Would you do something heroic? Would there be something valuable you could offer? Some sort of sacrifice or gesture you could make that would at least bring meaning to your death?

I'm watching too much TV news.

I'm going to finish that story tomorrow. I need to exorcise the dark water from my brain.


Anonymous said...

Dark Water.

Those two words provoke so much feeling in me. Not only in the physical sense but also as an analogy of the dark side of human behavior in dire times such as those in New Orleans at this moment. There is much dark water in that city right now.

I am having such a difficult time witnessing the looting. People that LOOT and resort to VIOLENCE make me feel embarrassed to be a human being.

Human DIGNITY and a sense of community CAN guide an individual and elevate their actions above animalistic behavior. People have done it successfully in the past, it is not beyond our ability.

Abandoning complete "PREOCCUPATION" with the needs of only oneself is possible and is what is needed in a time of crisis. A society begins with only a handful of people. People with intergrity don't need a policeman with a gun to make them behave.

Regardless of one's financial status or race, such character CAN be shown, as a matter of fact some of the most "self-less human beings" that have walked the face of the earth were neither rich, nor white.

The people that stayed behind in NOLA had the opportunity to show the best of humanity.

"Together we stand, divided we fall" - I am sickened to know which manner of behavior has been chosen.

I hope that order is returned soon to that devastated city and that some sense of community can be restored too.

Hang in there...


Anonymous said...

I too grew up in Moline and remember stopping at Lago's with my sister before we rode our bikes across the bridge to Arsenal island...great times! What memories! But can you talk about the Quads without mentioning Whitey's or Belgian Villiage Inn? Happy Joes? Cruising 23rd avenue? OK, sorry...getting carried away. Great blog to stumble upon..

-Colleen in Phoenix