The World is Your Oyster
On January 13th, 1982. Socked in a blizzard, at the Pittsburgh airport lounge, after a redirect flight to DC.
The lay-over lasts forever. It gets down to pizza and cokes, while they last. Air Florida Flight 90 had just plunged into the Potomac, due to wind shear and wing-icing. Perhaps some of those passengers had been to or wanted to go back to the Kennedy Center. I had been and wanna. I'm en route to DC to provide music for Shakespeare's 'Henry IV Part Two'. It's a dark night in a curtain of a heavy snow flurry. I find a seat to nurse my cup of instant Joe. "Are you Van Dyke Parks?" "Yes I am....how much do I owe you?" It's David Oyster. He's seen me at the Palace Theater with Ry Cooder. "It was smokin!" he remembers. "Thanks Donald..." "David..." he insists. "...and what's your racket?" He lets me know he's a documentary director on his way to confab at PBS about a National Geographic Special 'Chesapeake Borne'. I'm interested. I admit to my admiration for film maker Robert Flaherty, whose 'Nanook of the North' shivered my timbers, and raised the documentary to an art form. "I've always wanted to score a documentary," I allow. "I'll call you when I get back to LA," he promises. Sure and as-if!
The Kennedy Center production of 'Henry IV Part Two' will star John Heard and Patti Lupone, with Peter Sellars misdirecting.
Wonting the reactive impulse, to avoid any hint of intrusive creativity, I scour the Library of Congress for any written record of Welsh music.
That's where I'm holding a trove of such thematic material. Within a book's binding, I find a signature: "To the people of the United States..." from the Prince of Wales. One day, if his mother would just die already, he would become George V. Pay dirt. The production sails along swimmingly, with its underscore of eral music configured for a small chamber group. A critical review in the Chicago Trib caps the short-run production: "....Can't Match Its Hype." Next.***************
Back in LA, an unexpected call from David Oyster. He's ready to show me his film. It plays into my emerging eco-consciousness, focusing on water quality and environmental stewardship. Those two issues complicated by the prevailing old Testamentary dictum, "Multiply and subdue the Earth", and the moderating Christian precepts that follow. Suddenly, a nonagenarian's talking head appears full-body, in a rapture about the Everglades. It's Marjory Stoneman Douglas, now age 92, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book 'The Everglades; River of Grass' ('47). With it, Ms Douglas stood up to Florida's cane sugar industry, the Army Corps of Engineers, and President Truman himself — all of whom buckled under to the heat of public opinion created by her outrage at the environmental destruction around her. In less than a year from that book's publication, The Everglades became a National Park.
Marjory had worked for womens' suffrage and civil rights, a vital investigative reporter for the Miami Herald, and then as an editor and curator/archivist for my mother's Uncle Fos at the University of Miami. (Bowman Foster Ashe, founded that school in Coral Gables Florida, in 1926. He remained its president, until 1952.)***************
1926. Incidentally, that same year, my wife's mother came out at Memphis' Peabody Hotel. A few months later she'd be in Biarritz, as "Sweetheart" of the Oxford Exhibition Team and christen a ship. At one tea dance she attended, the equerry of the Prince of Wales (who'd later abdicate) came to her table (she, in blue taffeta) and asked if she'd join his Royal Highness in a dance. By the time she got back from powdering her nose, his nibs had been carried away. He'd been over-served, it appeared. She believes, on reflecting, that she had seen foam on his mustache.
A perfect match for Wally Simpson, after all. Not the right fit for the Memphis society that was ma belle mère.***************
In that fine National Geographic documentary, Ms Douglas eluded to the courage it took to question authority, stop unbridled growth and environmental degradation. She quoted Horace: "....Man could die no better than by facing fearful odds for the ashes of his fathers and the altars of his gods."
So I fell in love with Ms Douglas. She'd been a part of the University's Academic coterie, a close friend of all the faculty. I visited many of them in Coral Gables in '55, when I went down to Miami with the boychoir. Mortared Coquina was the ubiquitous architectural medium of most of those Moorish Mediterranian homes. Coquina was an abundant stone, quarried from surrounding reefs, beautifully speckled and spackled with the remains of small shells of multicolored marine bivalves. More than a few of those walls hung with Audubons. One outstanding memory of such, the epic oil "The Everglades Kite", a rare bird adapted solely to the diet of the apple snail. In the draining of marshland, a creature built with a bird's-eye view to the excesses of man, and the short-sighted benefits of local zoning.
Ms Marjory, five feet two and weighing in at a hyper-active 102 pounds, had deep roots in Florida's 20th century coming of age. In fact, she pre-dated it. She's picked her first orange in Tampa at age four (1894), and then sailed to Havana with her parents. "Five feet two... eyes of blue... Oh what those five feet could do..."
My love affair for Ms Marjory would have to be platonic. By the time we met, she'd graduated from Wellesley, had love and lost, and developed a reputation as a rabble-rousing skeptic of The System. As for any thoughts for sex? She was quoted as saying: "People don't seem to realize that the energy that goes into sex, all the emotion that surrounds it, can be well employed in other ways."
I took the high road to her. I'd come to her from a literary journey starting with Henry David Thoreau, on a trail through transcendentalists and naturalist authors. I must meet her!***************
A call to my cousin Dorothy seals the deal. We go over to Douglas' simple home in The Gables. When we arrive, the now legally blind Douglas is 96, and writing a book on Patagonia.
Cousin Dorothy asks Marjory if she may smoke. "Certainly not! That'll kill you and kill us all. But I can offer you a sherry or some Scotch." Dorothy seizes on the latter, neat.
With a tongue defined sharp as a switchblade, Marjory recaps that Sunshine State history, through boom and bust, from stem to stern, with intimate portraits of JC Penny, PT Barnum, and other great movers and shakers. She recalls Uncle Fos' speeding ticket, when he'd hustled over to JC (James Cash) Penny's home during the Great Depression, to beg help in meeting a faculty-payroll dilemma.
Marjorie puts notable emphasis on Henry Flagler, (partner of John D Rockefeller in Standard Oil), who started erecting "The Overseas Railroad" in 1905. It ran on from the mainland for 128 miles, connecting the splayed necklace of islands all the way to Key West and dreams if Hemingway. When nights across that Biscayne Bay were truly gay, and Moon Over Miami would play in Palm Court Orchestras. Back in the day.
Marjorie died at age 108, having received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton.
As plans to dredge Miami's Biscayne Bay by the Army Corps of Engineers continue, I wonder how Marjorie would view Ecologists' appeasement to Industry would set with Marjorie. Knowing that in cutting into the coral rock bed to accomodate deep draft super-sized cargo ships coming through the Panama Canal will impact forever, the unique quality of the Bay and its natural order. Such mammoth ships need a depth of 50 feet depth to make Miami a viable industrial port of call. Somehow I suspect she would be appalled and unequivocal in her resistance. Once again, despite Progress of Profit may trump long-range considerations for environmental stewardship, its legacy... or, for that matter, the tourism industry that kept that moon over Miami on Biscayne Bay.***************
I carry my innate Floridian bent, still bobbing in unforgotten caves of a Venetian Pool to this day.
To punctuate that sense of place, and keep it in my work I commission a Mattingly guitar in '62, for my flamenco studies. It's cut from a cypress knee — a relic from wood stock for Flagler's railroad timbers and ties. Cypress produces a brilliantly bright tonal texture for picado guitar. It paves my way to the genre.
In 1963, nylon string guitar is all the roots I need, while the vast unwashed pick up on Dylan and the calloused ribaldry of steel strings.