Dots and Dashes
“Once Morse code gets hold of your soul, buddy,
it gets ahold of your soul and gnaws at it and never lets go.”
Here I am, a kid, I’m twelve years old and I’m a tenderfoot in Troop 41. I was in the moose patrol. Laurence was our patrol leader. The troop met in the gym, and hanging from both ends were basketball hoops. Laurence would come in early. He was on the freshman basketball team. The rest of us came in with our knots and stuff. Laurence was out there practicing fade-away push shots. Wow, was he cool! We tenderfoots, me and Schwartz and Flick were all impressed by Laurence.
So one night we were coming home from the Scout meeting and Schwartz says the following, which I did not know at the time was to change my life. Schwartz said, “Hey, can you guys stay out about a half an hour late?”
I said, “What for?”
“Laurence has invited me over to see his short wave set.”
I said, “Short wave? What’s that?”
“Laurence invited any of the kids in the troop to watch him work his short wave set.”
Wow, anything Laurence did had a certain golden aura about it, so I said, “Yeah, I’d love to go.”
So that night me and Schwartz and Flick went to Laurence’s house and there were three or four other kids from the troop. He had a room with all his high school trophies there. He had a silver basketball, great stuff. He had a flag up there, he had a sweater from the old school he went to where he won his last letter. Oh wow!
And there in his room he had what I thought was “a short wave set.” But now I realize that what he had was a ham station. He was an amateur. I thought he was going to sit there and talk on this thing. But he had a key, like you see in the movies when the ship is sinking and they’re sending out the SOS. Out of this loudspeaker came this fantastic sound—beeps and stuff. And Laurence was sitting there writing it down. My god! And from that moment I have never turned back.
Morphos in Rio Amazonas
I have many fond memories of my four months in Peru in 1980, living and working on a Fulbright Grant, teaching a course on exhibit design in Spanish at their national museum of archeology and anthropology, and helping with some of their exhibit projects. I enjoyed interacting with the Peruvian people and getting to know a bit of Lima and other parts of the country. I spent time in the former Inca capital of Cuzco, spent three days and nights at Machu Picchu, flew over the Nazca Lines in a three-seater plane that had no working altimeter or gas gauge, and had a life-and-literature-changing time in the Amazon.
Returning to New York, I brought back many souvenirs, including a pinned morpho butterfly in a two-sided glass box that provided a view of the top of the wings, and also the bottom side.
Blue Morphos are not really blue. The effect of their shiny blue comes from the tiny scales on the wing tops that have ridges that reflect blue light. It’s said that when predator birds are attracted by the intense blue, the morpho closes its wings, hiding the blue and revealing the underside brown that, appearing to be a mere dead leaf falling, discourages the predator’s interest–and the morpho escapes. So, really, I don’t know if the blue is real or unreal, but, to the morpho, it has real importance.
I also brought back my infatuation with the young woman I spent just two days with in the Amazon. Also back home in New York I spent much of my free time for the next several years writing of that passion in a true/fiction, self-published novel for which I designed my own cover: Rio Amazonas.
In my Rio Amazonas, I intersperse true bits of my Amazonian adventure with fictional chapters that are influenced by those events in my life, in the climactic ending, the morpho plays a major role. The protagonist (not coincidentally, a museum exhibit designer as I was at the time), a timid fellow out-maneuvered by prestigious American museum scientists studying Peruvian cultures, finally possesses the young woman of his fantasies as they escape from Indian warriors and float downstream toward safety. I call myself Ernest and I call her Darcy Denby. The morphos, blue iridescence aglow, swarm around their small inflatable boat where they lie, love-enthralled.
I really did meet and travel to the Amazon with a young Canadian woman I’d met in Lima. We flew to the Amazon city of Iquitos where we had separate bedrooms. That night, as I looked out my screened-in window, there was a small salamander flat on the outside of the screen with a street light shining through it. I could see the little animal’s red beating heart as I thought of my Darci. I really did have fantasies about her. The next day we rode in a four-seat tour company’s boat up the Amazon and spent an somewhat authentic day and night in a tourist hut.
But, in real life the sexual dream never did come true. Such conscious ironies, with their unhappy realities, have bedeviled and inspired novelists of every ilk. Hemingway failed to win his army nurse after his World War I injury on the Italian front, but he used her as the model for his heroine in A Farewell to Arms. At the end, she fictionally dies in childbirth. My fantasy woman has the ecstatic pleasure of floating down the Amazon to a happiness-ever-after with the heroic protagonist (me) in her arms.
Left: Hemingway with his real army nurse,
Agnes von Kurowsky, “Catherine” in AFTA.
Right: The real “Darcy Denby” in our tourist
hut in the Amazon.
Helen Hays and Garry Cooper in the Hemingway movie.
“Darcy Denby” in the Amazon, crossing a bridge, her back to me
on the cover I designed for my fiction.
Text near the end of Rio Amazonas:
FICTION: Let’s pretend. Blue morphos….Two travelers, E. and D. will flow swiftly deeper into unknown jungle toward the wide River itself….Blue paradise clouds of morphos glittering ahead, flecks of flickering blue wings shining and flashing in clusters, shimmering flights, flowing, filling air in iridescent sheets; flights of angels….
TRUE: I am obsessed with a moment she had her back to me. We were on our jungle walk, she ahead of me and thus facing away; about to move deeper into the undergrowth; suspended above an abyss and stepping across a simple log bridge: this is my Rio Amazonas. Some say that souls are caught in photos: surreptitiously I captured her in a Kodachrome.
In New York I had the slide enlarged to a color print. I cropped the print, overlaying it with my carefully designed title and author, and had that book cover mockup color-Xeroxed. Now at my desk, with colored pencils, I work on this photocopy, enhancing the image’s hues closer to my graphic design’s desire. And thus with it—and with her—I have my will: I have my equivalent.
Ah, yes, isn’t fiction wonderful ?