Tag: diaspora

My Apology to France

I take back—if I may—what I said about the TGV (le train à grande vitesse) being a metaphor for why France—where my great-great-grandfather was born—could not conquer Mexico between 1864–1867. For those of you who remember anything about your U.S. History, that was roughly the time of our Civil War. And maybe the only reason we didn’t intervene against both France and Mexico.

I know that’s a lot of information to take in. Especially the part about my great-great-grandfather, whose place in my family tree grants me one thirty-second French blood, and therefore clearly the right to pass judgment on things French.

You can read the whole truth about my great-great grandfather at http://www.sterlingbennett.com, under the title “French Blood,” where you will learn that he owned slaves, traded in the Caribbean with chartered schooners, shipwrecked off the coast of Florida, swam ashore, and was shot full of arrows by Seminole Indians who thought they were getting too many immigrants in their area.

The trolleys of Montpellier run on the same nuclear energy produced électricité that the TGV uses, but do not stop or slow down for bad weather. Why I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because they do not aspire to de la grande vitesse. In fact, they poke along, for the most part, until the drivers—both male and female, I point out—see an open stretch, and then open up the throttle to as much as forty miles an hour.

Maybe this lesser speed has something to do with their shape: they closely represent California’s banana slugs, but that is the extent of their throw-back character, and my thirty-two parts French blood is immensely proud of their technology.

Any great city of the world would be lucky to have them crawling over their streets. They ding their bells a lot but otherwise progress with space age avionics. The drivers sit enclosed in air-conditioned booths with switches and levers and blinking lights and various digital readouts. Cameras point rearward on both sides to alert the driver that a passenger has only managed to get half way in—or out. The drivers’ seats are cushy. The trolley’s progress is coordinated with all kinds of outside track signals that say proceed or slow or proceed with caution. This is to prevent various kinds of collisions with other wheeled but un-tracked vehicles. It doesn’t help at all with passengers that get out and then cross the track right in front of the tram just as it’s about to start; or against the unlit cyclist at night who performs a daring fly-by, in front of the moving trolley, ignoring its three warning dings.

Very much like mating banana slugs, as many as three cars cling to each other. But unlike slugs, you can walk from one car to the other—and bring bikes and animals inside.

So, all in all, France is doing very well, judging by the trolleys of Montpellier. Every city should have a rout of them (group name for snails). And for between cities, maybe a TGV or two. But the type that does not build up static electricity and cause delays and explosions and mysteries for its passengers—and eventually become a metaphor, justly or unjustly deserved, for the country it breaks down in.

So much for my apology. No doubt the country is heaving a sigh of relief, having been redeemed by this one thirty-second of a countryman.

Rainbow Warrior

On Saturday, November 14, 1998 at 3:30 AM, in a relative calm, the strip-planked crabber “Rainbow Rainbow Warrior” picked its way through a thin fog, turned right at the end of the Bodega Bay breakwater, and took the shortcut between Bird Rock and Bodega Head–a gap about a quarter mile wide and known as a shortcut not to take. Even in calm weather, old swells from the northwest wrap around the headland and join other swells unaffected by the point, and together create two patterns thirty to fifty degrees apart.

Which is to say, when outward bound, it is possible to put your bow directly into the wrapping, more northerly swell, mistaking it for the only pattern, and then be struck from the left by the unblocked, much more westerly, predominant swell of the outer ocean. The unexpected swell can come from as much as fifty degrees to the left of the ship’s heading, resulting in an unplanned rolling motion.

The “Rainbow Warrior” may have had a search light on, sweeping it from Bird Rock to the Head just to get a sense of position. Maybe then, as a kind of headlight, it was aimed straight ahead, over the bow, to see what kind of water was coming. Usually the searchlight is fixed to the roof of the wheelhouse, with a handle extending through the roof, so it can be directed manually. A light positioned on the top of the wheelhouse also shines on the forward part of the boat. The resulting reflected glare can cause night blindness for the helmsman, making it harder to see what’s coming.

The “Rainbow Warrior” rounded the breakwater, turned right, swept Bird Rock and the headlands with its light to determine its position, steamed forward for probably a minute and a half–ninety seconds–plowed through the first swell or two, then rolled suddenly, in a roll that did not end, and sank so quickly that the captain, who was in the wheel house, had to kick out a window to escape. He floated on a hatch cover for fifteen minutes, and was then picked up by another crabber who was coming along behind, perhaps using his own search light, and by chance saw him in the fog and darkness.

For the next few days “The Rainbow Warrior” broke up, and pieces came ashore on Doran Beach, the stretch of sand where I jog each morning. The ship’s stern section washed up first, some twenty feet in length, the ten-foot beam, a stable platform for work, curved at the transom, the exposed floor joists carefully arched, so the deck would shed water through the scuppers, if green water came over the gunnels and threatened to overwhelm the ship. It was a well-made piece, massive and at the same time small compared to the sweep of the sea. Perhaps one ton in weight.

The “Rainbow Warrior” was loaded, perhaps over-loaded, with hundred-pound crab traps, each attached to at least one hundred feet of line, with a buoy at the end. A deck ten by twenty feet could have been carrying three hundred crab traps, and thus an additional above-waterline weight of fifteen tons. The unnoticed west, south-westerly swell, probably a sleeper wave, maybe twice or three times its average size, struck the left side of the hull.

The boat rolled, pitched, and yawed. The combined weight of the keel, the lead ballast, and the engine were not enough to counterbalance the additional fifteen tons of crab traps. The boat reached its maximum roll angle or “frozen position.” At the same time, its buried downward gunnell created a pivot-like effect. The crab traps, stacked eight feet high, pitched in the direction of the roll and collapsed on two young Mexican deck hands.

The tangle of traps and lines drove the two men down into the dark cold water, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 feet. Perhaps at 60 feet, they heard the sound of pirules in a warm afternoon wind–the smell of pepper corns–in Calderones, high above Guanajuato. Perhaps they saw burros moving over paths bordered in September by marigolds, children in a pueblito built of green stone–cantera–a small town, where there is no work, or eucalyptus, on a hill near a white clapboard house, that sway in a cooling afternoon wind that arrives just ahead of the fog. This is their new home, far above the border. A woman waves from a window. They feel her caressing hand, their mother, who came up from Michoacán to be with them.

I do not know how long one sees these things, or whether at all, at 60 feet, at 25 years of age, after fifteen seconds of struggle–holding one’s breath.

On the first morning, the Sheriff’s helicopter made great circles overhead, replaced later by one from the Coast Guard, then fixed-winged planes, a Coast Guard cutter, and fishing boats–all looking for bodies. From Bird Rock, close by, came the smell of harbor seals, sea lions, and sea elephants, their muffled throaty gossip, the smell of seaweed and their shit.

The next day the surf built. The “Rainbow Warrior began to breakup. I jogged their each morning. The stern came ashore, then two survival suits, which I told the Coast Guard about, so they could return them to the families. Then the front of the wheel house, with one window kicked out. Then sections of planking, with the wiring still attached, then rubber work gloves, sweaters, a rubber boot, and a slicker.

The day after the sinking, someone placed a bouquet of flowers in the sand, up near the dunes, facing seaward, perhaps to honor the dead, and invite them to come back from the sea. Parts of the Rainbow Warrior decorated all two miles of Doran Beach.

On the third day, another bouquet appeared in the sand at the water’s edge. The Coast Guard refused to dive for the bodies, because it was not part of their charge, and they would not send their young men down into dark water to become tangled in the wreckage.

On the fourth day, fishermen gathered on large dragger, steamed out the channel, turned right at the end of the breakwater, and stopped over the “Rainbow Warrior.” They wrapped the floating crab trap buoys and their lines over a hydraulic pulley and brought up the tangle–in one mass, minus the hull, along with the two young men, boys really, dangling and pale, and not entirely untouched by the crabs they had gone to hunt.

And after that, nothing appeared on the beach. The stern piece of the “Rainbow Warrior” still sits on the beach, two-thirds of the way from the breakwater, a mile and a half, to just where the golf course begins. The flowers reappeared for a while. In all likelihood, I think, a mother may still wait. Burros move across the slopes of Michoacán and Guanajuato. The sun releases the smell of pepper from the pirules. I suppose a young woman looks northward–remembering. She sees someone waving, from there in the north, but after a while, less and less. The Germans have a word: Trauerarbeit, the work of mourning, which describes hearts trying to heal, waiting for the knot in the chest and the heart to loosen and go away.