gall and gumption

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Close Thing

My scattered extended family is all a little rattled today. If you look at a map of Jamaica you will see that Kingston Harbor is bounded to the east by a long narrow peninsula. It's called the Palisadoes Peninsula "Palisadoes" for short, which is what we also called the airport before it was named for Norman Manley, and the city of Port Royal was at the very end of it (half of Port Royal sank into the sea in the earthquake of 1692). The airport is out near the end of it. At the point where the peninsula attaches to the mainland is a roundabout. Because of the crash, police had stopped all traffic to Palisadoes. My cousin got to the barricade on her way out to pick up her son, who was arriving on that flight. The plane landed but for some reason couldn't stop and would have shot right off the end of the runway into the sea except it got stopped by a sort of embankment. The water is warm, of course, and it's also quite shallow--I doubt that right there it's even as much as five feet deep. So probably if they had skidded right into it they would have been all right too. But still, this was quite as bad as it needed to be.

Niko Hurley, who was travelling from San Francisco and connected in Miami, told the Observer that the lights in the plane went out, the overhead bin opened and luggage fell onto his head.

"We smelt fuel and realised that some people were injured and we began to help them out of the plane because we weren't sure if there was a bomb or something," he said.

His mother, Bambi Fowles, who was on her way to pick up her son, cried as she told the Observer that she heard about the accident when she got to the Harbour View roundabout and saw that it was blocked by police.

"I begged and begged the policeman to let me through," she said, her voice cracking. "I'm just so relieved because I feared the worst."

My Dad gave me my first driving lesson on a stretch of tarmac that runs parallel to the runway out there. I was eleven and we were waiting for someone's flight that was delayed. The site is also near where we used to go in my father's first boat, a little old wooden powerboat that he had bought used when I was about seven; we'd pile everybody into it (including my cousin Bambi) and go creeping through the mangrove that grows all along there--there's actually a gap in it along the airport waterfront)--the water was shallow and clear and clean, not like now, and my Dad and my uncles would swim among the roots and pick oysters off them for us to eat. That was how I first ate fresh oysters, small and gritty and tasty. Beyond the airport on the way to Port Royal was a forgotten graveyard that my parents, my brother, and I used to visit when I was very small. We'd drive out there on a Sunday morning usually. Almost everyone buried in it had died of yellow fever in the 18th and 19th century. They were soldiers and people who for one reason or another were associated with the garrison. I suppose someone must have figured out that the reason so many were dying was because they were posted to a garrison on the edge of, literally, a fever swamp. But that might have been one of those things where the interested parties thought it was worth the risk. During slavery days the planters liked having lots of soldiers around in case of insurrections. Reading the gravestones was extra entertainment; what we really went there for was to pick and eat sea grapes, which grew abundantly there. My mind roams along that Palisadoes shore, place of so many memories for me, because right now I miss the places and I think of my cousin Bambi and all of her extended family on her mother's side; we were all just sort of the family when I was growing up; we all played together, spent nights sometimes six of us crowded into a bed (sleeping crossways) chatting and laughing and just being kids way into the night; later, in my last few years I remember how being picked up after school was this major undertaking as the driver would sort of do this tour of Kingston picking up the various children from the various schools, and then the car, practically bursting from the sheer numbers of us, would then go to my father's office where we'd sort of wait to be redistributed to our various houses. And I remember how just decent they all are, of their simple dogged loyalty and unfailing kindness and gentleness to one another. I can call up the images of them as children, all of them, their faces as they were then, and I can remember outings and adventures and sometimes just long boring visits to the country, where some of them lived, and I cannot remember among the whole gang of ten or twelve of them a single unkind act or word. Bambi and I more than made up for the deficit in bitchiness though, and we spread it around liberally. And what was the result? Nothing but a lot of time wasted between me and her, quarelling and misunderstanding each other, only to learn at last that neither of us is quite what the other thought we were. Now we can talk; we share that Jamaican childhood and all the family memories from that time, not all of them as pleasant as all our messing about in boats. We don't so much explain as compare notes. I have really only two or three people I can do this with about that period of my life. So this all came close to home, and I wish I wasn't quite so far from them just now.

How did that happen? Well, some of us just have to leave home without knowing if we'll ever really get back or how. To quote the Stanley Brothers, it's "the price I have paid, to live and to learn."