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Galveston and me

 

postcard

In New York City I thought about two novels. I was eager to explore Central Park and within its savannah we took in the summery games on Heckscher Ballfields and weaved around the picnickers sprawling in the sultry heat.

Of interest was The Pond given the fascination this held for Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. He was inquisitive as to where the ducks went during the frozen winter, and like many teenagers was troubled about his future and our shared vulnerabilities. I could picture Holden watching his sister Phoebe on a carousel, tears streaming at the happiness he’d finally found.

Nearby on 5th Avenue is The Plaza Hotel. Hosting the toxic quarrel between Gatsby and Tom in Scott Fitzgerald’s famous savaging of selfishness, The Plaza’s a grand building in this swirling city. Seeing it amplified the novel for me, and I could almost hear Daisy protest from up in one of the elegant suites, “You want too much!”

However, there’s an ignored American town in which I’d love to immerse myself while contemplating another significant work. My favourite intertextuality: locale and music.

Galveston.

The opening line is as euphoric as any sung. At, “Galveston, oh Galveston” we’re elevated by the combination of soaring string-section, guitar and Glen Campbell’s impossibly-honeyed voice. This proclamation is so joyous, so devout; it’s an irresistible invitation but also a prologue and an epilogue. Then, of course, there’s darkness to follow.

Galveston picture

Jimmy Webb’s genius presents as achingly exquisite simplicity. In three lines he engrosses us with evocative place, love and foreshadowed dread. And this is it: an entire story, captured haiku-like with all the fictive elements required for a comprehensive saga, or epic cinema.

I still hear your sea winds blowing
I still see her dark eyes glowing
She was twenty-one, when I left Galveston

The lyrics are almost deceptive with their innocent rhyme and sparse vocabulary. Here the repetition of the adverb still conveys the protagonist’s endless torture and hauntedness. We wonder if he’ll ever return. His torment is ours, too.

Galveston record

Debate centres on the historical context. Is Webb referencing the American Civil War, the Vietnam War, or the Spanish-American war?

while I watch the cannons flashin’

While of interest to those with a military bent, the superior reading is that it’s any war, and indeed, every war.

“Galveston” is an anti-war declaration, but there’s a deeper premise at play. Ultimately, it’s pro-love, pro-life and celebratory. Our main character is a soldier, so hopeful, so eager to re-embrace his former world’s vitality that this amplifies his terror. He misses his girl, home town and old life. As we all would. He wants to live well.

The sonic qualities intensify this triumph with strings by the Wrecking Crew that are majestic; stirring; elemental. These lift the song ever-skywards, investing it with golden light. Tellingly, they’re only silent in the instrumentation when Campbell sings, “I am so afraid of dying” and their omission here bequeaths the necessary desolation.

sea bird

Then there’s the remarkable vocal performance. With perfect phrasing it’s Sinatra-like, while displaying an enveloping, earthy warmth, and a weighty authenticity. Campbell is both the central figure and also each of us, and like a Sampras backhand, a Richard Ford sentence, or a Barossa Shiraz, there’s an outward effortlessness that leaves you sunny, but also gasping at the beauty within.

Along with “Wichita Lineman” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” Webb set these in decidedly unregarded parts of America, for he considered it best to lyrically escape the famed metropolises. The world agreed. While this particular tune uses an inconsequential resort town it speaks timelessly. The cycle’s other towns in Kansas and Arizona are now invested with an imaginative, cultural gravity. These owe Webb and Campbell.

Common across these is dislocation. They feature a man who’s someplace else; jettisoned and in disequilibrium. Briefly but profoundly, we’ve glimpsed the characters’ lives at a nexus. Do we dare guess at how they turned out? Did he get back to Galveston? Did he again experience those sea winds?

How is all this achieved in one hundred and eleven words? When the vocals are done in two minutes? It seems a bigger song: more Guernica than minimal art.

Our youngest, partly primed for his musical voyage by his Dad’s captaincy, has, in the bath and while getting dressed for school, started singing snippets of “Galveston.” In time, I reckon he’ll also want to come on our literary tour to this minor Texan town.

Locale and music.

We’ll stand on that windswept shore by the Gulf of Mexico and imagine lives other than our own.

Galveston music

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1-800 RINGO’S RV RENTALS: Washington DC and New York City

building

‘Welcome aboard this Continental Airlines flight from London Gatwick to Newark, New Jersey. We expect a little turbulence south of Greenland and our flying time today is six hours and sixty-five minutes.’

Spilling over their seats, a couple from Kalamazoo enjoys peanuts and orange juice when, I imagine, George declares to Martha, ‘That’s a pretty quick flight.’ Martha nods, ‘Yeah, I couldn’t stand being on this plane for seven hours.’

Distressingly, our Washington DC hotel room stares at the US Department of Education, festooned with banners proclaiming Dubaya’s policy- ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Marginal communication skills have not impeded the 43rd President, who, with twit-faced sincerity, once announced that, ‘Increasingly our imports will come from overseas.’

Walking the two mile National Mall, we enjoy its bookends of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument; at 555 feet the world’s tallest structure- until the Eiffel Tower. The Jefferson and Roosevelt monuments are majestic, but we’re smitten with the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool- through which splashed a uniformed Forrest Gump and hippie child Jen-nee, before embracing in front of a protest crowd.

Stumbling across the US Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue is wonderful, but I’m unsure if I’m chilled or amused by the Explosive Ordnance team- whose divers dispose of mines and other underwater weapons. Their motto summarises perfectly their work- ‘Initial success or total failure.’

Our first glimpse in the Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum is unforgettable. Hanging like artwork from a Land of the Giants-style classroom ceiling are authentic planes and rockets. My favourite is Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 which in 1947 became the first jet to fly beyond the speed of sound.

Cruise missiles, MinuteMen and Tomahawks are strewn about the museum like toys, which, I’d advocate, is exactly what they were. Peering up their towering coldness makes me feel very small. The Apollo 11 Command Module seems minuscule and primitive; its welding, riveting and instrumentation, less sophisticated than a modern three-burner barbeque.

Years ago in Queensland, Kerry’s Uncle Alan poured me a glass of his homebrew beer- and still my mouth hasn’t offered forgiveness. Given that he’d only just met me I was bewildered that he so clearly wanted to kill me. McDonalds’ McGriddle cakes are unquestionably worse. Naively trying one, I began convulsing; purple whirls blinding my eyes. If you’re in the US, avoid. In ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’ John Denver enthused about ‘the sun’s comin’ up I got cakes on the griddle.’ I pray McDonalds’ McGriddle cakes weren’t JD’s last breakfast before his Cessna tipped into the Pacific.

Arriving in Manhattan I immediately ticked the boxes on two distinctively New York experiences: arguing with a taxi driver and spotting celebrities. United Airlines bumped Kerry’s parents in Washington so we caught a shuttle-bus to The Beacon on Broadway, confident that our transfer booking reference would be sufficient. It would not, my Hispanic hombre assured me and thirty dollars cash was needed. Both my receipt number and I assert that the company has been paid and yet we to and fro like a grumpy tennis match – to the bemusement of a full foyer. ‘I haav theese guy ‘ere from Inglan’- or France,’ he tells his useless office. France? Now I am upset. I think, I can stand here arguing all afternoon. You’re a taxi driver. I’ll bet you can’t.

And he couldn’t so I then head out along Broadway, into the promise of Friday evening, and within a block hear some familiar voices.

Pardon my French, but Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond

from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes to mind as I turn and see Matthew Broderick. His equine wife, Sarah Jessica Parker has her hoof in his hand and is braying about something. Probably sex. Or shoes.

I continue through Mid-Town past the bars, the Citarella market and a Barnes and Noble bookshop. A Marine approaches. His t-shirt says, ‘Pain is weakness leaving the body.’ The Marines take nothing as seriously as, well, being Marines.

Sunday morning we’re 1,050 feet up atop the Empire State Building, squinting out into the smoggy heat and disappointingly, the Statue of Liberty is shrouded. The skyscrapers and canyons are mesmerising but, for me, the deep drone, punctuated by urgent sirens and horn blasts, is also remarkable. Maybe this is what U2 meant by America’s ‘rattle and hum.’

Surely, however, Manhattan’s most handsome is the Chrysler Building with its Art-Deco aesthetic, hubcap designs and glittering gargoyles. A soaring tribute to the wonder of the motor car, it was the world’s tallest before the ESB and possesses more charisma yet little of its fame. Why escapes me.

Grand Central Station is gorgeous. Golden light, marble and space suggest infinite excitement- grand voyages and romantic destinations and in this honeyed cavern – 120 feet wide, 375 feet long and 125 feet high, the clacking of the arrivals and departures boards exaggerates the seduction.

Leaving via the sumptuous Vanderbilt Hall, we come to a street market on Madison Avenue; I have a Chinese massage that’s like eating tofu- beneficial rather that enjoyable. More amusing is the entrepreneur on Lexington Avenue sitting behind his sign

Tell me off – $2

Of course I should have yelled, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself! That’s too expensive! Why, back home folks only charge a dollar,’ but it was lunchtime and Bubba Gump’s in Times Square beckoned.

Inside is predictable but huge fun. On our table is a stand with two license plates that we flip- ‘Run Forrest, Run’ if we’re content and ‘Stop Forrest, Stop’ to grab the waiter. Sipping our drinks he quizzes us. ‘What was Forrest’s Vietnam War wound?’ We chorus like kids, ‘Butt-tocks.’ The food’s good and we buy shirts in the gift shop before emerging into the humid glare. Having paid homage to one fictitious character I’m keen to visit another mythic individual’s environs: Central Park.

Holden Caulfield is the anti-hero in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and this 843-acre space is significant in the novel. Entering, we hear percussion and whistles as the Dominican Republic parade passes like a jolly serpent and, the cacophony evaporating, we sit by the Heckscher Ballfields.

As with all sports, baseball’s best moments occur when beauty thrillingly replaces danger. I like its egalitarianism- all ages, shapes and abilities strut about. Ball players talk constantly. Having struck out, one jogs over to first base and coaches the new batter.

‘Come on baby.’

‘Ducks on the pond’

‘You drivin’ this bus, baby’

The innings complete, we amble towards The Lake where Holden and his girlfriends ice-skate but the dinosaur rumbling, aubergine sky splits and we’re instantly soaking. Near the Cherry Hill fountain a fire engine puts out a lightning strike and I say to Kerry, ‘Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields.’ She replies, ‘it’s nothing to get hung about.’ In the tropical torrent, the Imagine Mosaic (a gift from Naples) and its flowers is a sodden John Lennon tribute so beneath the American Elms we scuttle.

And then we slosh westward along 72nd to our hotel and dry towels, laughing, like youngsters, at how wet we are.

ferris