Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hallowe'en, 1963

President John F. Kennedy with his children
Caroline (l) and John (r) in the Oval Office
of The White House on October 31, 1963

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Apocalypse Now

The 1938 New England hurricane

I know I harp on a lot about weather in this blog, but where I live, not far inland from the Eastern Seaboard of the Atlantic coast of the United States, it’s a constant looming presence in everyone’s life. Washington D.C. is still recovering from the freak derecho storm that knocked out power across a huge swathe of the Midatlantic earlier this year. The area was rendered post-apocalyptic for several days – no gas stations, no cell phone or internet coverage, no emergency 911 service, and – of course – no means of escape from the 105 degree heat.
Now, a mere four months later to the day, we’re awaiting the arrival of what we’re told will be the most destructive storm of the century, Hurricane Sandy. The region has been under the most stringent of weather alerts for several days and the storm is due to hit us with its full force tomorrow (Monday) night and throughout most of Tuesday. Schools are closed, thousands of flights cancelled, stocks of bread, water, batteries and flashlights are depleted – we’ve even been warned to have plenty of cash on hand in case the ATMs are knocked out. It sounds like the derecho was just a rehearsal for Armageddon.   

But these are all tedious adult concerns. Our neighborhood children are looking forward to the excitement of living by flashlight and having to wear all their clothes at once to stay warm. For them, this will be an adventure, pure and simple, something to look back on as a milestone of childhood.

This perspective was beautifully captured by Sylvia Plath in a 1962 essay called “Ocean 1212-W” that appears in her posthumous collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. In the essay, Plath wonderfully described the devastating New England hurricane of 1938 through the eyes of her childhood self:  

"The sulfurous afternoon went black unnaturally early, as if what was to come could not be star-lit, torch-lit, looked at. The rain set in, one huge Noah douche. Then the wind. The world had become a drum. Beaten, it shrieked and shook. Pale and elated in our beds, my brother and I sipped our nightly hot drink. We would, of course, not sleep. We crept to a blind and hefted it a notch. On a mirror of rivery black our faces wavered like moths, trying to pry their way in. Nothing could be seen. The only sound was a howl, jazzed up by the bangs, slams, groans and splinterings of objects tossed like crockery in a giants’ quarrel. The house rocked on its root. It rocked and rocked and rocked its two small watchers to sleep."
Isn’t that wonderful? I leave it with you until I re-emerge - après le déluge.

Postscript (Tuesday, October 30, 2012) - We in the Washington DC area emerged largely unscathed from this one. Sandy gave us a good battering but saved its worst for elsewhere. We feel for those in NYC, my home state of New Jersey, and all along the Atlantic seaboard who weren't so lucky.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Queen of the South

Queen Pomare IV of Tahiti by Charles Giraud

In May 1842, when Ariitaimai married her young Englishman, her beloved adopted sister Queen Pomare IV was at her side. It was a difficult time for the young Queen who was coming under great pressure from two directions – from the French to cede her country to their protection and from the resident British consul to resist those pressures.
The American author Hermann Melville who encountered the Queen at about that time:

“She wore a loose gown of blue silk, with two rich shawls, one red and the other yellow, tied about her neck. Her royal majesty was bare-footed. She was about the ordinary size, rather matronly; her features not very handsome; her mouth, voluptuous; but there was a care-worn expression in her face, probably attributable to her late misfortunes.  From her appearance, one would judge her about forty; but she is not so old.” 
In fact she was only 29, but she had already been Queen of Tahiti for 15 years.

When she came to the throne in 1827 after the deaths in quick succession of her father and young brother, she’d been only 14 - too young to assume the mantel of responsibility for her people. In those early days, young Aimata (her given name) was a wild child –  always surounded by a horde of drunken followers, swimming out with her ladies to ships in the lagoon to flirt with the sailors. In defiance of the English missionaries who had been a strong moral force on the island during the reign of her father, she sanctioned the traditional dances that the missionaries had banned, including one in which young girls would be untwirled from their long cloth wraps until they were dancing completely naked. (It is unlikely that Ariitaimai was present during these debauches because, being eight years younger than Aimata, she was still living among the children of the court.)
But gradually Aimata began to mature and settle. In 1833 the missionaries succeeded in enrolling her in a temperance society. The following year they reluctantly agreed to allow her to divorce the husband to whom she’d been married at the age of only 9 and marry Ariifaite, a handsome young chief from a neighboring island. In 1833, both Pomare and her new consort asked to join the Church as communicants, and from then on the Queen was a faithful and devout believer for the rest of her long reign.  
Her second marriage was to be a success, but the early days could be turbulent. In his book Omoo, Melville gleefully recounted tales that he’d been told that dated back to that time:

Six or seven years ago...the town was thrown into the greatest commotion by a conjugal assault and battery, made upon the sacred person of Pomare by her intoxicated Tanee [consort].” Ariifaite, who had been “dismissed contemptuously” from his wife’s presence, had been drinking and, egged on by his companions, he decided he’d had enough.
“Near the outskirts of the town, a cavalcade of women came cantering toward him in the center of which was the object of his fury. Smiting his beast right and left, he dashed in among them; completely overturning one of the party, leaving her on the field, and dispersing everybody else except Pomare.  Backing her horse dexterously, the incensed queen heaped upon him every scandalous epithet she could think of; until, at last, the enraged Tanee leaped out of his saddle, caught Pomare by her dress, and dragging her down to the earth, struck her repeatedly in the face, holding on meanwhile by the hair of her head. He was proceeding to strangle her on the spot, when the cries of the frightened attendants brought a crowd of natives to the rescue who bore the nearly insensible queen away.”
Before one can feel too sorry for the queen, Melville describes another occasion on which Pomare was “giving audience to a deputation from the captains of the vessels lying in Papeete, he [Ariifaite] ventured to make a suggestion which was very displeasing to her. She turned around, and, boxing his ears, told him to go over to his beggarly island....if he wanted to give himself airs.” 

This was the Wars of the Roses Tahitian-style. Fortunately, both parties mellowed as the years went on and Ariifaite became the most loyal of husbands, though he still had a tendency to indulge in intoxicating spirits rather more often than was good for him.

After several years of struggle, the French took over Tahiti as a “protectorate” and thereafter there was peace on the island for the rest of the Queen’s 50-year reign. Under her sister Ariitaimai’s influence, Pomare became more devout as she grew older. She had to endure much sadness over the years – the early deaths of two of her sons and the alcoholism of two others, one of whom became a violent madman, not to mention the death of her beloved 6-year-old granddaughter, Maona, of tuberculosis.

In 1872, the French writer Pierre Loti described Pomare “in the massive ugliness of her old age” but with a “bright frank smile” and a motherly warmth. When she died of a heart attack in 1877, Ariitaimai walked at the head of the cortege and the representatives from all the clans of the island gathered en masse behind their funereal drums in a procession that stretched for almost four miles. The Queen’s coffin lay on a gun carriage that was pulled by 30 sturdy Tahitians. An observer noted, ”The sea breaking on the reef provided a muted accompaniment to the wailing of an entire people.”  

Queen Pomare IV in 1869

After the death of Queen Pomare IV, she was succeeded – after a few days of negotiation and consultation – by her dissolute eldest son, who from then on was known as King Pomare V. In return, the new King had to promise the Tahitian Legislative Assembly and the French governor that he would reconcile with his 17-year-old wife Marau Salmon who had fled home to her mother when she discovered the full extent of her husband’s dissipation. The consequence of this rapprochement was that the granddaughter of a penniless London Jew became the last Queen of Tahiti.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Showing the Way

Tati Salmon in later life

The world is divided between those who believe in an afterlife and those who don’t. And even those who are believers are divided about whether the dead reach out to us from beyond the grave. I used to be a skeptic on that point but I am no longer. The older I get, the more I recognize those signs when I see them. Here’s an example…

When my husband Mike and I were in Tahiti in December 2007, I was very eager to find the site of the Salmons’ famous house in their ancestral village of Papara. The house itself had been swept away in a flood in 1926, complete with its priceless contents – artifacts dating back to ancient Tahiti as well as many family letters and other important papers. The thought of those lost letters is enough to make a biographer turn pale.

I had gathered some clues about the house’s location from the many accounts written by visitors to the house in the 19th and early 20th century. The fullest descriptions were left by the American painter John La Farge and the American historian Henry Adams on their world tour in 1891. During their four-month stay in Tahiti, they came to know and love 38-year-old Tati Salmon, the genial oldest son of the family, a man whom Henry Adams described as being big and handsome with “an overflow of life.” Ever hospitable, Tati twice hosted the two Americans at the Papara house, with its wooden frame covered with lime and with a roof of thatched pandanus leaves and shady verandahs on the front and back.
Here’s how the visitors described the house’s location: “The house stands flat on the seashore… a sea that came close up to the grass, and had three lines of surf rolling in through an opening in the reef, and rolling close up till they sent small waves into the entrance of the little river that flows close by the house” (Adams). “The little river runs rapidly a few yards off, hidden in part by trees; at which women go down to wash, and which men and boys cross to bathe, and in which splash the horses when they are washed in the morning. It is all delightfully rustic” (La Farge).  

La Farge also wrote this lovely description of the local children swimming in the river. “I looked this morning at the children playing in the water of the little river, or in the surf that rolls into it or along the shore… It was a pretty sight, the brown limbs and bodies all red in the sun and wet, coming out of the blue and white water like red flowers.”
But neither man divulged the name of the river. Tahiti has many rivers (there are at least four in Papara alone), and each one can have several different names. So it was going to be tall order for us to find the exact site of the Salmon house.

Mike and I arrived in Papara and quickly found the church and the chapel where manyof the Salmons are buried. At the town hall, we were lucky enough to meet a great-great granddaughter of Tati Salmon, but because my French was bad and her English non-existent, I could not find out if she knew where her ancestors’ house in Papara used to stand. So we said our au revoirs and headed back to the rental car. I decided we’d better continue on our way round the island as we still had a lot more ground to cover that day. So Mike pointed the car southwards and I sat beside him, nursing my disappointment.
But as we left the outskirts of the town and passed over a small bridge over the Taharuu River, I happened to glance to my right and to my astonishment saw the very scene La Farge had described 116 years earlier. Sun-splashed children were frolicking in the river’s mouth where it opened out into the lagoon.  


“Stop the car,” I yelled. Startled, Mike pulled over. I leapt out of the car and ran back along the bridge, and headed down a dirt track in the direction of the sea. For a second my attention was diverted by a pair of puppies shambling through the mud. But as I paused to watch them, wondering if I was trespassing on private property, I felt a pressure at my back pushing me forward. I swear it felt like exactly a pair of hands in the small of my back pressing me on, keeping me on track. I could almost lean back against the force of it. Propelled by the invisible hands, I kept going all the way down the dirt track to the very edge of a wide black sand beach where a deserted sandwich bar looked out over the bay.
It wasn’t a very prepossessing building, but this was the view it commanded (see photo below). It was the very view described by Henry Adams as he sat on the Salmons’ verandah and looked up at “velvet-green mountains, streaked by long white threads of waterfalls.”  

Almost five years later, I still have no absolute definitive proof that the Salmon house was located on the banks of the Taharuu River, though I have accumulated a few more bits of evidence that suggest as much. But for myself, I have no doubts at all that on that day in December 2007 Tati Salmon gently but firmly steered me to the spot he loved better than anywhere else in the world.