Captain USN Onofrio F. Salvia, Kapitän Langsdorff Shoots Himself & I Get A Haircut
Saturday, January 19, 2008
I have experienced enough in the last two days, (see yesterday's two-part blog here
) that I feel that my life at this moment is an old style library card catalogue with all the drawers out. I have to neaten them, one at time, and close them. Perhaps yesterday's events will finally close a few drawers definitely and with a satisfying thud.
Captain USN Onofrio Salvia (left) was my boss (besides my superiors on the Argentine Navy side of things). I translated documents from English into Spanish and the other way around. I advised him on Argentine naval protocol. In the beginning when an Argentine admiral would die, Salvia would right a short letter of condolence which I had to translate into Spanish. He could not understand why my translation was twice as long. He caught on quickly to the idea that we did things differently. A sincerely yours, became: Lo saluda con la mayor consideración y estima,
Before I was sent to serve the American captain who was head of the US Naval Advisory Group in Argentina I had started my days with a haircut at the Arsenal Naval Buenos Aires. Angel, my barber had asked me how I wanted it. I gave him my instructions which he then gleefully ignored with a corte doble cero
, or a "double zero cut". He clipped it all off. As bad as I felt I had the small relief that at least I was alive as not far, in that very arsenal, Captain Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, of the scuttled German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, had shot himself in the head with a Luger on, Tuesday December 19, 1939.
The folks of the Argentine Navy asked me to fill out a questionaire where I was to inform them of my talents. I knew that they would surely not put them to use. I mentioned that I played the alto saxophone and wrote I did not know how to type even though I did. But I was sent to work with Captain Salvia. It seems my English was useful. Since I could not type I was given a secretary. She was a lovely blonde Argentine woman of Irish extraction called Edna Gahan. You will have to suffer with the only photograph I have of her which I took in 1964.
My job was pleasant. I was pretty well able to sidestep many of the perennial boot camps. The Argentine non commissioned officers hated my guts and my swagger. I had obtained permission to smoke my pipe at work (Salvia provided me with lovely tins of Edgeworth Pipe Tobbacco) and I was able to avoid greasy kitchen bell cleaning routines as my job was supposed to be important. Suddenly I was hit by a wave of arrests and I had to spend many a night in the nearby brig of the Secretaría de Marina. I stopped these most efficiently by pinching a glossy 8x10 photograph of the head of the Argentine Navy, Almirante Benigno Varela from Salvia's files. With a fountain pen I wrote in Spanish, "To my friend Conscript Jorge Waterhouse-Hayward," and I signed it with my imitation of the man's signature. I placed the photograph under the glass of my desk. The arrests ceased.
But that situation did not last long. The Argentines wanted me to translate some documents they did not want Salvia to see so I was to do this in another office. A Lieutenant Commander ordered me to report every day at 6am. Since I had the priviledge of not having to live on the barracks (and be at the mercy of martinet corporals) this meant that I would have to stay at the barracks in order to arrive at that time. So I told the commander, "I refuse to obey your order." He asked me to repeat my statement. I did. He then told me, "In war I could have you shot for your insubordination or I could send you to rot in the Argentine Antarctic. your only relief would be sex with penguins. But I will hand out a house arrest for a month and you will report tomorrow at 6. You can complain to your friend the admiral if you want. It will do you no good."
Captain Salvia came up to me and said, "It is fruitless for you to rebel. It is obvious that a military career is not in the books for you. I will give you advice which I hope you will accept. Do nothing, obey all orders. And leave when your time is up. Then rise in position in the world and then, when you are able change the system you so abhor, change it." I never forgot those words and I respected the man. I can almost say I might have loved him. And he did have a sense of humour. Something that according to Gahan I did not have. Some years before I lost touch with her she sent me a letter with a cartoon with her comment on what it was like to work with me.
One day I asked Gahan (she was a saint as she was able to read my horrible handwriting) how she was going to spend the next day's holiday. She told me she was unaware that the next day was a holiday. I told her, "Tomorrow Friday is Benedict Arnold Day. He was a famous American patriot." That afternoon when she said goodbye to the Captain, instead of saying "until tomorrow, "she said, "see you Monday." At that point I left the room. The next day when Captain Salvia came in he looked in my direction and said, "Why don't you and Edna take the day off?" We didn't. We were too afraid.
Yesterday I spoke for almost an hour with the 90 year-old retired Salvia
who had just returned from a bowling tournament with his wife. He plays in a senior's league in Reno. He told me that his eyesight was degenerating and that he had not been able to drive since he was 80. We talked in Spanish and his voice (his diction was perfect) had not changed in the least. I could only address him as "Sir," anything else simply did not seem right. I had to tell him of his influence on me and how lucky I felt that I was able to thank him. I told him how I had been strangely affected by the sight of Argentine A-4 Skyhawks being shot down when I watched the Malvinas war on television. I told him that I did not feel for the pilots. They were professionals and they had chosen their career. They knew of the consequences. But I felt different about the A-4s. I told Salvia that I felt possessive over the A-4 Skyhawks. They had been purchased by the Argentines during our tenure and I had translated the operating and maintenance manuals. I told Salvia, "How did those Brits dare shoot down our planes?" My guess is that Salvia must have smiled and then he said, "Alex, you have made my day." I could not begin to tell him how he had made mine.
The colour photograph posted here was taken by David B. Parker/RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL in 2004
Five Sailors, The Perfume Shop & Forrest Gump
Friday, January 18, 2008
Today's blog is a tough one to write because there are so many directions it could go. In times past, before the hyperlink, the internet version of the magazine sidebar was fashionable one could not write in any or every direction. My friend John Lekich, who has given me so much advice on writing, would have told me to stay centered and keep to one theme. I do not know if I will be able to do that here.
My story today begins with this one picture that was taken in 1966 outside the office of the Senior US Naval Advisor to the Argentine Navy. I was the aide and translator to my boss (I was seconded by the Argentine Navy), Captain USN Onofrio Salvia. I had clearance to view and translate top secret documents. These top secret documents usually involved money and how much money the Argentine Navy was spending in purchasing obsolete US equipment. By looking at those figures I could extrapolate how much more the Argentine Army was spending as the navy was more frugal and had less influence. Another top secret document involved a joint (Argentine, Uruguay, Brazil and the US) naval exercise, Operativo Unitas
. The US document requested separate floors for black US non-commissioned personnel. The US Navy in the 60s did not want white and black non-comissioned officers hanging out together.
From left to right: Felipe Occhiuzzi, Jorge Waterhouse-Hayward, Victor Corrales, Carlos Alberto Santoalla and José Luís Alvarez.
Occhiuzzi was Italian and was over 6 ft tall. He was so poor that he wore his navy shoes even when he was not in uniform. He had worn them out so he put carboard on the inside to cover the holes. He was studying civil engineering. Even then he had these droopy eyes and with his extremely loud voice he would tell us the ills of the world. Occhiuzzi was used a messenger. One of his tasks was to pick up and deliver US spare parts from radars and other electronic equipment. He would deliver them to Electrónica Naval where the admirals ran a racket in which noncomissioned officers and sailors built TV sets from scratch and made a tidy profit.
Corrales was a Spaniard who loved to eat and on Mondays (we were usually given the weekends off and we had the privilege of not having to live in the naval barracks) he would tell us of the meals he had eaten. We were acomodados
(an Argentine term denoting that we had friends, higher up, and we had comparatively cushy jobs). Corrales was in charge of purchasing snacks and sandwiches and making the coffee for the staff of American officers and the Argentine liaison officers.
Carlos Alberto Santoalla and José Luis Alvarez were both of Spanish origin. Santoalla was always depressed. He was extremely left wing and believed in all kinds of conspiracies involving the CIA. Only now have I come to realize that he was mostly right. Alvarez kept to himself and told us of his conquests (married women). He worked part time in a perfume shop. We all thought he had been born for the job. Both Santoalla and Alvarez cleaned around and served the coffee. Santoalla found it so demeaning to serve those American and Argentine brutes that he would look sickly and pale. We suspected that he sometimes pissed into the officers' coffee before serving them. After the navy, Santoalla went to work for a huge insurance company and he had a desk in a cavernous structure full of desks. He had always reminded me of an Argentine version of Kafka so I thought his job was perversely appropriate.
After our two years we all went our separate ways but somehow Occhiuzzi, Santoalla and I managed to keep in touch. Occhiuzzi graduated (in spite of overcrowded classrooms and numerous coups) and obtained a very good job building automobile plants for Ford Motor Company of Argentina. When Ford left Argentina he was laid off and was never able to find a new job. He had some savings and land investments that saved him in the end. Santoalla kept disappearing but we always managed to find him. His last job has been to sell, door to door, supplementary medical and ambulance insurance.
This now brings us to our story.
When I last saw Santoalla (around 1998) he told me that in his office he had a nickname. It was Foregún. It seems that while trying to sell insurance he was accosted by a thief who pointed a gun at him. Santoalla turned around and ran away. The thief was not able to catch him. He smiled when he told me the story. But I could not catch on and had to ask him to elaborate. "It had all to do with the fact that I was able to run away because I can run quickly like that actor in that movie." Finally he was able to explain the the movie and I realized it was Forrest Gump
. About a week later Occhiuzzi, Santoalla and I met for a Pizza.
Five months later the doorbell rang at Occhiuzzi's house. A man with a Hitler moustache and large briefcase and a smartly dressed woman were selling ambulance insurance. Occhiuzzi told the man, "I would not let you in my house dressed as you are. You look a mess. You are as much an embarrasment now as you were when you served ungloriously in the Argentine Navy. As for you, young woman, I will let you in." The man in the moustache (Santoalla who had not recognized Occhiuzzi) turned around, grabbed the woman and both ran away. Occhiuzzi ran after them and with his loud voice called out Santoalla's first name. They stopped and a spooked Santoalla recognized his erstwhile navy buddy.
In 1994 Rosemary, Rebecca and I went to Argentina and we met up with Occhizzi on the beach in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Rebecca instantly liked the loud and lugubrious looking Occhiuzzi. She noted his large hands.
But we never connected with Santoalla. He was moving and he told me of many problems and said he was simply unavailable. He also told me that he was a private person who really had not much interest in seeing anyone from his past.
Three Former Sailors, Technological Advances & Skype
It was in 1968 watching 2001: A Space Odyssey
that characters in the film ever so casually had video conversations with their families from remote areas in space. It was so realistic, so matter of fact that the excitement of reading the explanation in Dick Tracy's comic strip every time he used his video/wireless watch was not necessary.
My 85-year old first cousin and godmother, Inesita O'Reilly Kuker, who lives in Buenos Aires, used to grudgingly send me, perhaps a letter a year where she would use up the small sheet of writing paper to tell me how she hated to write. Los avances tecnológicos
finally lured her to the use of a computer and not a week passes without some missive from her. A renewed sense of stuff shared through the years finally brought Rebecca, Rosemary and I to visit Inesita, my half brother and family in 2004.
But the usual communications gap happens. Time passes and the emails fade and before you know it the connections are gone. But I make my efforts and I prod them and send them emails or call them on the phone. I sometimes wonder if it is at all worth the effort. Should not one put emphasis on those physically near us? It is my wife who often says of people with whom I shared a freelancer's profession at Vancouver Magazine in the 80s, "You may have had something in common with them then, but no longer. It is of no use to call them up or visit them and try to make things as they were."
I recently talked to one of Inesita's grandchildren, José O'Reilly in spite of the cross platform situation (a Mac versus a PC) that had separated us when we tried to use MSN video calling. Skype solved this and we were able to see each other in that suspicious off-camera look (the video cam are positioned over the monitor) that nags me about MSN/Skype communication. But it was great!
I called Inesita (she has no camera) my computer to her phone and the sound fidelity was amazing. I talked to my former heartthrob (and first cousin) Elizabeth Blew with the same method. We talked for over an hour. But it was with my favourite nephew (Inesita's eldest son and José's father) Georgito where I felt some sort of a strain. He said, "Here we are talking and after some time we have nothing to say to each other." His statement left me saddened. Could it be true? Is video communication better than none? Can a snail male relationship of perhaps 8 to 9 letters a year suffer the rapidity and compression of a one hour Skype?
Rosemary and her older sister never had much in common. Her sister Ruth was into sports and eventually became a Physical Education insructor.Rosemary was never into sports. Their relationship was remote and more so with the geographic separation between Vancouver and Brockville, Ontario. They now talk and see each other for hours on MSN. They talk about who died, who is sick, the gardens and Ruth's vacations in Cuba and Florida. MSN has brought them closer when they weren't close at all.
I Skyped Felipe Occhiuzzi and we talked for an hour and a half. He is finally beginning to warm to technology. His youngest daughter hauled the computer away. His older and married daughter in Italy told me, "If that computer were still at my father's it would have gathered dust and he would have placed a pottet plant on top."
I tried to needle him into losing his temper by telling him that his approach to life was a negative one. "It is negative only from the outside, I smile within, " he explained. When I broached the subject of technology he told me, "No quiero quedar colgado de la palmera." I had never heard this bit of porteño
logic. To be left hanging from the palm tree (there are many in Buenos Aires) means to have life pass you by. I have sent emails to Occhiuzzi via his daughter explaining what a hyperlink is. My emails are full of them and for someone who writes longhand on paper it will be a revelation.
If portable digital books are to become a reality they will have to adopt the concept of hyperlinks or such features of being able to click on any word (as in NY Times articles) and get a dictionary definition. I think that Occhiuzzi will understand the potential.
Not so and not yet Carlos Alberto Santoalla. I Skyped him and he has as an excuse to not communicate that he was an inward person and that he liked it to be like that. I asked him if he had a computer. "We have two or three but I don't think they work. I don't know if we have a connection to the internet as I perhaps have not paid." He told me his wife had email but he could not remember her address. The same excuse was given when I asked for his son's emails. He did tell me that one of them was a web designer. He told me his name was Federico. While Santoalla gave excuses for not remembering his email I Googled Federico Santoalla and obtained his email address. With vague promises that somehow he would keep the lines of communication open I hung up and wrote to Federico. Federico replied and explained how his father rejected all efforts to seek technological advance.
It was Occhiuzzi who explained it best. "Santoalla never recognized me when he saw me at the door because he is a bat. He uses his sonar to avoid looking at people and he moves out of their way. That is the way he is." In spite of it all I have not given up and perhaps soon I will Skype Santoalla. Could it be possible that there is a relationship of friends there?
Asymptotes, Sine Waves, Bell Curves & Beverly D'Angelo
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Not too long ago I had a Vancouver choreographer of note in my studio and I asked the choreographer how things were. The reply was startling and dismaying, "I had my moment years back."
In the early 60s I studied mathematics and statistics and learned about curves. I have since then come to the conclusion that just about anything related to human nature and human relationships can be defined by three curves.
2. bell curve
3. sine wave curve
I wrote about the sine wave here
and about asymptotes here
Of the asymptote I would like to write further. Lucy will not take away the football so that Charlie Brown will not fall when the asymptote finally (inexorably?) hits the X or Y axis. My wife Rosemary will stop worrying when all our problems, our children's problems, our granddaughter's problems, our cat's problems, etc are solved. And that will happen, in the best of all possible worlds when that asymptote nudges that X or Y axis as it nears mathematical infinity.
Around 1980 the careers of Sissy Spacek ( a sine wave with its ups and downs) got in phase with Beverly D'Angelo's career sine wave (with its ups and downs). For that brief moment in time both would shine in that beautiful 1980 film, Coal Miner's Daughter
and then both actresses would go their way and out of phase.
If one were to investigate D'Angelo's career one would guess that Coal Miner's Daughter was not the high point of her career (the top of a statistical bell curve) but her role in 1983's National Lampoon Vacation
By the time I photographed her in 1988 when she had come to Vancouver to publicize the film Cold Squad
with Martin Sheen
her moment and her position in that bell curve (over that top hump) was gone.
Can our lives possibly be so depressingly mathematical?
A Fasting Coyote - Mike Harcourt & Homelessness In Vancouver
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Homelessness can be solved by building homes for them.
Mike Harcourt - 2007
There is nothing more self-evident than that which is self-evident.
Willoughby Blew - 1994
When Rebecca and Abraham Rogatnick and I go to the baroque concerts on select Friday evenings at St James Anglican on Cordova Rebecca invariably asks me to drive by Main and Hastings. "I want to see all those drug and homeless people," she tells me.
I was 9 when I first got a glimpse that there was something not quite right with my world. My father had taken me to downtown Buenos Aires to see a documentary (in living colour) of the Jívaro Indian headshrinkers. As we left I was feeling mixed emotions after seeing those miniature heads with their sewn up eyes and mouth. There was a woman outside holding a baby and she had one hand out. "Who is she?" I asked my father. His answer, "She is a Bolivian beggar," was much too complicated for me to comprehend. At the time and even now many Argentines believe there is no poverty in their country and only Chileans, Bolivians, Paraguayans and Peruvians who drift to Argentina are poor. By 1954 I knew a bit better and I heard my mother telling my grandmother how Perón had built high walls to cover the sight of shanty towns when important dignitaries came to town. The walls were then painted with slogans about a Plan Quinquenal
, a Stalin type five-year plan, or such sayings as "En la Argentina los únicos privilegiados son los niños"
, in Argentina only the children are deserving of privilege.
Thus I never really got to see Argentine shanty towns or villas miseria
as they are called. By 1955 we were in Mexico City and poverty and beggars were much more evident. I observed pepenadores
which is a Náhuatl word for scavenger. These people pushing makeshift wooden carts picked up cardboard and whatever other potentially valuable stuff they could find. This was taken to huge mountains of rubbish in the outskirts of Mexico City where it was distributed into piles and eventually sold to early Mexico City recyclers. The pepenadores and their families lived in and around these dumps.
A couple of years ago retired Provincial NDP cabinet minister Bob Williams went to Buenos Aires to investigate how people live in the huge villa miserias of the city. One of the biggest, Villa 31 is located between tracks of the central train station of Retiro. Williams came up with a solution that would greatly increase the income earning capacity of those who live in the villa miserias, many of them being cartoneros
who collect carboard. He told me that small and efficient garbage compacters would make it easier for residents to recycle.
On the northeast corner of Mexico City on what was once lake Texcoco, in the early 60s there was only a dry lake bed of what had been a lake during the time of the Spanish conquest. After years of draining it to satisfy the thirst of the growing Mexico City metropolis it was now a waste land. Squatters moved in little by little and in 1963 the growng shanty town was officially designated as the municipality of Ciudad Nezahualcoyótl named after a poet king of the 1400s whose name in Chichimeca means Fasting Coyote. I would think that this would be a most appropriate name for people whose drive to feed themselves every day was no different and no less bleak than an Innuit attempting to survive a winter in the 19th century.
By the time Rosemary and our family moved to Vancouver in 1975 Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl already had a population of one million. In the dry winter, winds from the north would blow past the shanty town lifting fecal matter that the rich in the southern parts of the city would breathe. It was then that respiratory diseases became endemic in the area. Today Ciudad Nezahualcoyótl's population exceeds 4 million. In the early 70s Rosemary and I taught English to the personnel of the Westin hotel Camino Real. We taught the room service, housekeeping staff on how to deal with their interaction with American guests. We taught them to reply to such things as, "I have no hot water," Can I please have a grapefruit and some apples and pears?" We soon found out that many of our students, some who rode in rickety buses for two to three hours to get to the hotel lived in Ciudad Nezahualcoyótl. Most had never seen a pear, an apple or a grapefruit. Rosemary and I started to bring fruit to the class to show them what a mysterious grapefruit looked like.
Argentines have villa miserias
and the Brazilians their favelas
. Most countries have them and find euphemisms to soften the stigma. In the 1980s my wife used to make business trips to Los Angeles. I remember her calling me up one evening and telling me that there were people outside the hotel living in cardboard boxes. It sounded surreal, almost as surreal as the Tren Blanco
The Tren Blanco
(white train) would leave the Buenos Aires station of José León Suárez around 5 pm. People boarded the train with empty pushcarts. Like a rápido
, the train would then speed to the downtown central station of Retiro without stopping. I saw it many times in the late 90s. In Retiro the people and their pushcarts would pick up cardboard and stuff left outside buildings in the business district of the city. They would then return around midnight when the Tren Blanco would take them back to José León Suárez for the eventual re-distribution and recycling of the stuff. It amazes me that the railroad company (now privately run) would charge these Argentine cirujas
(the Argentine term for a Mexican pepenador) for the use of the train. Waiting for a train at the station of La Lucila (coming back from visiting a relative there) I remember in 2004 seeing the white train pass by with its cargo of cirujas and carboard. It was a ghost train and to many who live in Buenos Aires the story of the train is an urban myth. From the high vantage point of my brother's apartment that overlooks the Retiro rail yard I was was able to see in 2004 the vast and sprawling Villa 31. It is no myth.
I have been giving all the above some thought as I try to grapple with Rebecca's obsession with passing by Main and Hastings. Except for an occasional makeshift structure under the Granville Street Bridge I am not sure that Vancouver has a shanty town. Unlike other cities of the world is Vancouver truly not only a nuclear weapons but also a shanty town free zone?
What would happen if the Finning Tractor land were razed and fiberglass or corrugated metal roofing were piled in one corner with scrap wood and other building stuff? Would the homeless come and build? Would a shanty town solve our homelessness? It would be easy enough to build high Perón style walls around it to hide the potential eyesore from Olympic visitors. Would Vancouver, at last, boasting a real shanty town, be finally that world-class city it strives to be?
Architect Abraham Rogatnick has explained to me that Federal and Provincial building codes stipulate how small a bedroom can be. A homeless person wants a room with a bathroom. A prison cell is surely a room with a bathroom. And surely the Federal laws that regulate the "humane" dimensions of a prison cell could be ammended so that rapid, prefabricated housing could be built in Vancouver and prove that Mike Harcourt's solution isn't all that untenable. Is it self-evident?
Oblivion - Olvido, Pirandello & Epicurus of Samos
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.
Fragment II, Epicurus of Samos
I have had a Mexican made Astor Piazzolla record (Real LPR-2025) Oblivion/Olvido
since the late 80s. I never bothered to read the brief liner notes. I never knew that the music (very lovely it is) was from the sountrack to Marco Bellocchio's 1984 film Enrique IV
which was based on a play by Luigi Pirandello. Of Pirandello I know next to nothing except I saw Vittorio Gassman
perform at the Vancouver Playhouse some monologues (in Italian) from his plays in the mid 80s when Gassman visited Vancouver. I never saw Henry IV, and should have as both Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale are in the cast.
Last year my friend Marv Newland, a city animator (of the classic kind) called me up enquiring about Astor Piazzolla's milonga Oblivion
. It was only then that I noted that the double name of my record and that olvido
is not at all an accurate translation of oblivion. I have been thinking about the problem since. It came back full force when I used the word oblivion here
a few days ago. I searched for the Epicurus quote (above) in my Man and Man: The Social Philosophers
Edited by Saxe Commins & Robert N. Linscott(Modern Pocket Library 1954).
I remembered Ramón Xirau
who introduced me to Epicurus in 1964. Xirau, who spoke the languages of all the philosophers (ancient Greek, Latin, German, English, Italian, French, etc), always stressed how many words and concepts in Greek, as an example, had no exact translation. Ancient Greek nous
could only loosely be translated as soul/spirit.
Perhaps a good example is the impossibility of translating into Spanish, in few words such sentences as:
1. I was being tailgated
when I was suddenly rearended
2. The professor, in the beginning of his lecture, gave handouts
to his class.
I think that the best idea of oblivion has to be the Epicurean concept of death as seen in fragment II. Olvido in Spanish simply means a state of forgetfullness. There is no one word in Spanish for oblivion. I have not been able to nail down if Piazzolla himself (who spoke good English) gave his lovely composition the double name.
If anything I remember that Xirau taught his class in English and in Spanish and when he impressed on me Epicurus's idea of death he must have used the English word oblivion.
In the play a man falls off his horse and believes he is the Holy Roman Eperor Henry IV (lived at the time of the Norman conquest). The Countess Matilda and others, including a psychiatrist, try to cure him of his amnesia/madness. Some years into his disease he confesses to some of his caretakers that he is not mad and knows who he is but simply comes to the conclusion that we all wear masks and we are all crazy so therefore he is not insane in the least. The film has an ending that twists Pirandello's version. I will have to find this film to verify which meaning Piazzolla had in mind, oblivion or olvido.
The photograph above is a seascape I took from the ferry to Port Townsend, Washington using Kodak Infrared film and a Widelux
, a swivel lens panoramic camera.
The Enigma Of The Woman In The Dunes
Monday, January 14, 2008
In 1964 I saw in Buenos Aires Hiroshi Teshigara's film Woman in the Dunes
(Suno no ona) about a young Japanese widow Kyoko Kishida traps a vacationing entomologist (Eiji Okada) who traps him in her sandpit house. This is the first film I ever saw where a woman was in charge from beginning to end and played a black widow to the hapless scientist. The lovemaking is charged by a woman who takes more than gives, yet gives more. The scenes confused my young, inexperienced and mostly ignorant mind. I wanted to look away but I could not. I was to experience this electricity years later, and sand almost had its role.
By the late 90s I had photographed many women, been married for over 30 years and had two daughters. I thought I knew a lot about women. I was to be proven wrong by my photographic association with Japanese/Canadian Helen. The more she opened to my camera in a startling progression of years, I came to understand that I knew even less about women than I thought I had. She was an enigma. She had eyes, whose colour to this day I cannot exactly describe. She had a way of looking at me and when I thought I would vaporize she would look away and I could feel a relief.
With Helen I tried all sorts of photographic methods including a pinhole camera (first photograph, above left). Helen always rose to the challenge of the difficult. I did not in the end rise to that challenge when she suggested we cart sand ( two floors) into my studio and replicate some of the scenes of the Woman of the Dunes. To this day I regret my stupidity but I am thankful for having been allowed a partial entrance into the unknown.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Saturday evenings are full of pleasure. Hilary, Rebecca, Lauren sit across me at our dining room table and Rosemary to my left. I relish moments that one can never take for granted. They will soon pass and only a fond memory will remain perhaps with the little girls and oblivion for me. We retire to the den and sit by the fire. We scavange bits of wood from the nearby houses that are being built in our neighbourhood. I am careful to supervise Rebecca who insists on lighting and tending the fire. I often tell her (what my grandmother used to tell me), "Niños que juegan con fuego se mean en la cama." Which translates exactly to, "Children who play with fire will piss in their beds." This makes her smile and I can understand her attraction to fire. I have had it all my life.
I take them home around 8:30 and by the time I come back Rosemary is almost asleep. She often says, "I am only resting. I will get up in a while," but she never does and I am left in house that is as
quiet as a house with two humans
(one asleep) and two cats (both asleep) can be. I read but sometime around midnight I get to think while being distracted by the detritus that one can accumulate in 65 years. There are pictures on the wall, Mexican plates that belonged to my mother, Mexican masks of a collection that I only managed to begin, but invariably I look upon the wall to that facón or gaucho knife given to me by my Argentine navy colleagues when we made our farewells and parted ways. Perhaps I looked at it since we had watched five minutes of Rebel Without a Cause
which featured a knife fight. Knives always make me think of the poems of Jorge Luís Borges. I go to my book shelf with books in Spanish and pick up Jorge Luís Borges Obra Poética 1923-1977
and go to the poems (there are many) that feature knife fights.
Last night I went a bit further and consulted one of my photo files which I know feature my facón. The file, an extremely thick one, is called Linda Lorenzo. I photographed this cromo
(a word we use in Spanish to describe a beautiful woman where adjectives fail), in a joint project with Nora Patrich and Juan Manuel Sanchez (two Argentine artists). We photographed, sketched and painted Lorenzo (also Argentine) and imposed (as if she were a blank canvas) on her our childhood and later fantasies related to our homeland of Buenos Aires, Argentina, its pampas, the tango and yes, Borges and his knives. But Borges was far away from my thoughts when I photographed Lorenzo with my facón and one of Nora Patrich's black ponchos.
As a child of 7 or 8 I listened to the radio. Sometimes they were live broadcasts of Juan Manuel Fangio racing in rural road races. But more often than not I would listen to Tarzán, El Rey de La Jungla
or El Poncho Negro
. El Poncho Negro was an Argentine super hero part Zorro and the Lone Ranger. I can still remember the horse galloping (no Rossini's Overture to William Tell here) and the voice that would slowly say "El Poncho Negro."
So with poncho and facón (and a rastra which is a gaucho belt) we dressed up Lorenzo. I took many photographs and Sanchez and Patrich sketched and sketched. Here are some of my favourites (there are others). These will not unduly affect the eyes and minds of young persons who might take a peek here. And if you do want to ask, during the hot Argentine summer, Poncho Negro did remove his poncho...