Thursday, May 22, 2008

Road Trip: Pelicans Without Briefs

A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His beak can hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week;
But I don't see how the helican.

-- Dixon Lanire Merrith, 1910

Pelican sans briefs.

-- Ella Morris, 2008

Part Two: There and Back

Fourth Day Out: It's not often you drive over a thousand miles to meet someone, and then discover that person was born in the countryside less than five miles from your own birthplace.

Ella and I had arrived in Sebastian, Florida, on the Atlantic Coast around midday after spending the night near St. Augustine. Ella's mother's family -- the Websters -- were a close-knit clan of eight brothers and sisters who lived on a farm near St. Albans in the Kanawha River Valley of West Virginia a few miles downstream from Charleston. Nevertheless, half of the family decided to move to Florida within a relatively short time period, all settling in the Sebastian area south of Melbourne, while the other four, including Ella's folks, stayed on in West Virginia. All of the siblings are dead now, and only two of the sisters in law, one each in Florida and West Virginia, have survived.

Survived? No, that may not be a strong enough description for Aunt Bella. She has endured. We are sitting now in her living room, having carried our bags into the back bedroom for our two-night stay here. While we sip sweet tea, Aunt Bella sits in front of a needlepoint frame, and there are crochet hooks nearby. Crocheted lace doilies for table tops and the backs of couches (sofas) were standard issue in country homes when I was growing up, and Bella still creates lovely ones in both all white and in mixed colors.

Bella was born a Canterbury, and Canterburys were as plentiful as fleas on a beagle along Sandy Creek north of Charleston where we both had our childhoods a generation apart -- she at Frame and me a few miles away on Aaron's Fork. She left the creek in the 1940s and met Herman Webster. I left the creek in the 1960s and met her niece, Ella Alford. So, for a while, Bella and I play the "do-you-know?" game. We discover I went to school with some of her nieces and nephews, and she knew some of my aunts and uncles on both sides of my family.

Later that evening, we drive a few miles to Micco to visit Ella's favorite cousin, Connie, whom she played with when both were children in St. Albans before Herman and Bella migrated south. Their relationship is one of those where they might not see each other for years -- decades even -- and they pick up where they left off. Ella has met Connie's husband, Bob, before, but I have not. I like him immediately. He was born near Sebastian and was the first person Connie met when she was sent from the family car inside a small grocery store to ask directions to her uncle's new place. A few years later, she married Bob, and they now have grown children and grandchildren.

Like the Websters, Connie and Bob's family is close-knit, but even if they weren't relatives, they all share the same passion -- hunting and fishing -- so they would have crossed paths somewhere outdoors. They all know the same ponds, lakes, beaches, woods, streams and canals and what moves within them. Vacation and weekend retreats is a hunting camp a couple of hours drive away. They have hunted deer, alligators, frogs, and all the fishes in the deep blue sea. So with just a little urging, Bob brings out a venison sausage from one of the deer someone in the family shot that is densely packed and delicious. One link would provide chewing for a day. We also discuss gigging frogs and the best parts of an alligator and how they should be cooked.

The other thing we talk about is hurricanes. The Sebastian area has been the target of a few recently, and Connie and Bob tell stories about fleeing storms that have person first name or of hunkering down at home to wait them out. Perhaps even more horrendous are the stories of rising insurance rates, when insurance is available at all.

Fortunately, as we leave to go back to Bella's for the night, there is not a breeze stirring.

Fifth Day Out. Today, the Pelicans aren't flying. The wind has picked up this morning, so they are comfortable to perch on piers or hunker in the grass at Pelican Island National Wildlife Reserve. We have driven here with Connie and Bob from Sebastian across the bridge and causeway across the intracoastal waterway and past the multimillion dollar estates of John's Island. Bob remembers when there were dirt roads here and how he and his buddies would sometimes get stuck in the sand on their way to a fishing boat.

Ella loves pelicans and scurries among them taking pictures. Who knows why -- modesty, perhaps? -- but they sit with their wings gathered in front of them and peer between them like medieval warriors looking out at an enemy from behind metal shields.

Earlier in the day, we have met Cherie, Connie and Bob's daughter. Cherie's husband, Garrett, has build a thriving electrical business here, up from nothing to outfitting cell phone towers across the state. Of course, his business success is nowhere nearly as important to the family as is the fact that he is from Louisiana -- a Cajun -- and therefore loves to hunt as much as his brothers-in-law and father-in-law. Their two teenage daughters, both young beauties, have already bagged deer.

Cherie has for years been a quilt collector, and Ella has brought her one that Ella's mom and a sister-in-law created together some years ago, an heirloom that Cherie places in her special quilt cabinet, something that originated in West Virginia -- a hazy place already to the grandchildren -- and will now be passed along to generations in Florida.

Connie and I have a discussion about an article I wrote for Saveur magazine about a Thanksgiving in West Virginia. I brought a copy down for Bob because the family I profiled, who live near the New River in Monroe County, are also steadfast deer and squirrel hunters. But it is Connie who is most interested because the mother in the family is a Canterbury who was born in Kanawha County. Was there a link between this lady and the Canterburys in her mother's family? She is sure there must be, and she decides it is time to put on her genealogical hat and some time soon track that down the potential relationship.

Our visit is coming to an end, so we have a final dinner out at a rambling seafood restaurant along the waterway and say our long goodbyes. What a delight to have finally met, and spend a couple of days with, what we have referred to for years as "the Florida relatives." We agree to host Bob and Connie when they decide to take that long-planned trip north to visit New York City.

When we get back to our room, Bella is already asleep.

Sixth Day Out. It is about a six-hour drive from Sebastian to Seabrook Island, south of Charleston, SC., where Tom and Linda live. Like Mike and Patty, whom we visited in Wilmington, NC, on our way down, Tom and Linda are part of our old wine group that flourished during the late 1990s while we all had corporate jobs in the Delaware area (except for Ella, who was commuting to one in New York).

Along with three or four other couples, we would set aside one Friday night a month to sample 10 new bottles of wine and briefly discuss them. However, somewhere about the four or fifth bottle, side conversations would pop up. Randy, another camper, would thunder out, "Focus!" and Linda, in her East Tennessee drawl, would command, "Shut the shit up!" to restore calm. Almost as important as discussing the wines was guessing each bottle's price, with a door prize going to the best guesser. The wine tasting was followed by a communally prepared dinner, and more bottles would emerge from the cellar of whoever was hosting that evening. The group was so tight -- in more ways than one -- that we even went on road trips together to visit wineries and vineyards in Virginia and Long Island and, on a couple of occasions, even Bordeaux.

But, like the Websters of Ella's family, the group eventually split up. One couple moved to Philadelphia, close enough to still join us on an occasional basis, but Tom and Linda and Mike and Patty ended up in the South, although each family has a son still working in Delaware where they still see childhood friends. Tom is slightly younger than I am, but we have different philosophies -- often discussed -- about how to spend post-corporate life. He decided to retire cold-turkey -- no consulting, no "just for the fun of it" job as a part-time barista at a coffee shop or as a bookstore clerk. Instead, he lives as hectic a life retired as I do as a marketing consultant and writer. Tom does charity work, serves on committees for the community, keeps fit with lots of kayaking and golfing. Neither of us, we have decided, could be happy with the other's lifestyle.

Their house is within walking distances of beaches, yet it and the other are tucked along neat streets where trees outnumber lawns. Were it not for the fact that the house is raised above the garage to protect against storm surges and that an alligator patrols the canal out back, the community could be in central Ohio. As the day slips away, we go out to a nearby beach to view the sunset, as those of us on the East Coast seldom see sunsets over water unless we live on an island or on the east side of a bay.

Later, we reprise an evening with the old wine group on a scaled-down model. We drink wine, then drink more wine, as Tom grills and Linda prepares the side dishes, then more wine comes from the pantry. There are few true underground wine cellars on a barrier island. We talk about their trip to Machu Picchu a few days ago and ours there last year. Linda does not once admonish us to quietude, although once, for old time's sake, I sample Randy with a "Focus." And, like boys at a fraternity party, we decide to call someone -- Jennifer and Michael -- back in Delaware, not sure if they would still be up or asleep. The next day I can't truly remember the purpose of the call.

Seventh Day Out. Do you know Philip Roth? Ella and I both have read a lot of current fiction over the years, especially her when she was taking those daily train rides to New York, but I've always had trouble with Roth. I like the idea of his fiction often more than I actually enjoy reading -- perhaps only one book read to the end and a couple started with the bookmark permanently stuck somewhere around Page 83. The lure is his intelligence and wit, the fact that he is one writer who still discusses ideas and philosophy in his novels. But at what length! Try reading Roth while you're in bed, and you're asleep before the first page is turned. Read him at the beach, and you find yourself flipping through pages of ideas in search of action -- or even a plot. Would someone walk by topless to detract our attention from the page?

But Roth is perfect, we find, as a road book, even if his obsession with body functions (or lack thereof) surpasses even the levels of my late mother-in-law. (I give you Mrs. Portnoy's liver.) Anyway, we are now into the second or third disc -- one would never find an abridged audio version of a Roth book -- of Exit Ghost. Roth's lengthy ruminations on the human condition (including stains) seem perfectly delightful as we weave our way through rush-hour traffic around Charleston en route to I-95 north. Zuckerman's dilemma -- or one of his dilemmas -- of wanting to pursue a young lady even though prostate surgery has left him both impotent and incontinent seems fascinating when you're starting off on a long drive. And how fitting it all seems when we have to temprarily stop the disc after finally finding a suitable rest stop on the long drive through the woods along I-26.

We have decided to power through on the 10 or so hours that it will take us to get home tonight, and not stop in Virginia for an early evening and a two-hour final drive on Saturday morning as we had originally considered. We want our own bed and to reunite with our six yard cats, whom, we are convinced, can't wait another night without us.

As we turn off I-95 on US 301 then merge west of Annapolis with US 50, we begin to encounter weekend traffic from Washington for the Eastern Shore and the Maryland and Delaware beaches. Years ago, when there was only one two-lane bridge crossing the Chesapeake Bay, traffic would back up for hours. We find that it still does -- or at least the better part of an hour -- although there is now a second, multi-land span. Then the traffic gradually starts moving, first in fits and starts, then in a mad rush like a drain clog that has been loosened by the plumber's friend. I hate the new bridge -- it is higher and more exposed -- but traffic going east crosses the old one, so I am not too concerned about my acrophobia kicking in.

But as I go rapidly through the E-ZPass lane, we are diverted as a reward unto the right lane of new bridge, overlooking the cargo ships miles below heading for their berths in Baltimore. Meanwhile, west-bound traffic hurtles toward me inthe adjoining lane. Where are the distractions of Zuckerman's complaints when I need him? Several minutes later and safely across, I am sure than my fingerprints could be lifted from the underside of the steeing wheel without the need for any forensic dusting.

Finally, the road trip is over. I have managed to take my pilgrimage to Florida and back without getting a traffic ticket. For this week, the roadside alligators have snapped someone else's wallet. Nor have we brought back any cypress knees or Spanish moss, as my ancestors would have done, but more precious are a couple of Aunt Bella's handmade doilies, one which will in time grace our dining room table, the other a windowside wooden stand.

On the back deck, I give a whistle, and the cats slowly emerge one-by-one from under the steps and out of the woods. First Harvey, then Alfie, then Lyle, Clint, and Ernie. And, hanging back at the edge of the May apples that have popped up while we were away, there sits Mama Chester. They cluster around to rub our ankles or be rubbed as we admonish them as "bad cats." As they can attest, John Lennon was right -- "all you need is rub!"

"Where have you been?" they demand.

"We have stories to tell," we reply.

Until the next time....

Roger Morris

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