The Collector

THE COLLECTOR

By John Stewart

 

I collect stories.  I am not alone in this old-fashioned pastime, there are many members in the association to which I belong.  We meet regularly, much the way  ancient explorer’s clubs used to, though not as often.  We meet once a year.  We also have some differentiation in the group.  Some of us collect stories about terrestrial beings and post-life encounters.  Others collect  stories about watery disasters,  desert travelling, and so on.  The one element that runs through our collecting is that the stories we share are seldom about great heroes.

There are no  Jonahs or Odysseuses.  No Beowulfs, Abrahams, Gilgameshes. We don’t pointedly discriminate against great heroes, but stories about ordinary folk are the substance of our collecting.  Ordinary people, after all,  do carry the salt of the earth, so to speak.  They send up great heroes to ready acclaim and transition while staying off-stage themselves.  We think there is genius in that.  My collections consist  mostly of stories about  “dissolved” communities.   “Lost towns,” “ghost towns” where men and women braved great hardships and dangers in search of benign territory,  precious metals, or other mineral wealth, then moved on when unforeseen elements intruded, promising lodes played out, or some secret lead that sucked them in turned out to be mere hoax.

Stories about places like Allatoona and Auraria get good audiences and reviews at our meetings,  particularly since it’s not generally known that there was a gold rush in the Southern U.S.A. before the great discoveries in California.  I have stories about lost towns in Belize and Mexico,  and one day I’ll get to the Amazon and see what’s there too.  Lately a new discovery of ancient urban communities in that part of the world has come to light.  Deep in the jungle, overgrown with trees and bush, archaeologists have found the remnants of another indigenous community that predates European intrusion by hundreds of years.

The drama of emergence and decline marking the trajectory of this recent find will no doubt be brought to light in time by natural science specialists.   It would be an error, though, to rely exclusively on specialists for all the news about our past.  This was brought home to me by the old man from the islands who got me started collecting  “lost town” stories in the first place.

On July 4th several years ago I happened to be visiting the famous dam at Shasta with my twelve-year old son.  We were standing on the narrow observation deck overlooking  the great turbines when an old black man brushed by then stopped and said to me, “You from around here?”

“No.  We’re up from Sacramento.”

“Oh.  First time visiting here at Shasta?”

“Yes,”  I said.  “Awesome, isn’t it?”

“Un huh,” he grunted.

With appropriate wonder we gazed over the gigantic spillway with its many valves for controlling the flow of water.  The old man guided our attention to the penstocks through which the water rushed to massive turbines that drove equally massive generators.   We gazed for a while and then he said, “People who used to live here had better power than all this dam could generate.”

“Really?  People used to live here?”

“Native born who get called Indians.  This was their land.  They lived around here.  That mountain,” he said, indicating the austere, snow-capped Mt. Shasta itself with a lift of his chin, “that used to be their holy center.”

“Really?”   I had read about Ishi, the lone survivor of a 19th century massacre, and had a vague idea that there were active native tribes around northern California when white settlers first moved in, but I never knew them to be  associated with any kind of great power like the Navaho, for instance.  They possessed great courage, yes, and unsurpassed wisdom in some instances.  But great power?  I’d never heard of that.

“Plenty get lost when people fall away without telling their own story,” he said.  “New people come in, they mash up this, they mash up that, they finish off the people they meet, and lots a times they don’t even know what it is they killing and mashing up.”

He got my full attention then.  I looked at him.  He was carrying a cane, but he wasn’t as old as I first thought.  Grey sideburns reached down from beneath his off-white cowboy hat, and inside the plaid wool shirt he wore his shoulders looked as though they were at one time more trim and robust.  But there were few tell-tale lines to his leathery face, no down-pulling jowls or watery eyes.  Despite the grey hairs in his wispy moustache his skin was tight and firm, and the steady, alert gleam in his eyes told that he had held his own in some tight corners over the years.

“That happened here?” I asked.

“And plenty other places . . .”  he said, leaning back with his elbows on the rail, making a small circle in the air with his cane.  “. . . plenty other places.  You ever hear about Bodie?”

Of course I had heard about Bodie.  Who hadn’t?

“And Allensworth?”

I had not heard of Allensworth.

“That’s what I mean,” he said.  “This America is a helluva place.  A young fella like you should be passing on the story of Allensworth to the family, but you enh never hear of it.  Not only in America though . . .”

“Are you from Africa?” I asked.  I had detected a slight accent in his voice which I couldn’t quite place.  I doubted he was from England, and I couldn’t think of anywhere in the Pacific from where he might have come.  Africa was a safe guess.

“No.  I from the West Indies.”

The West Indies!  Now, how did he, an ordinary brown-skinned man his age, make his way to Northern California and live there long enough to look and sound almost like one of us?

We walked out of the visitors’ gallery together, and found a bench in the park where we sat while he told of a young child’s boat trip  with his mother and an adventurous father.  They had left the West Indies bound for Panama.  Lots of men from the islands had already gone there to work on the Panama Canal.  Adventure.  Brutal conditions, but maybe a chance to make decent money.  His father was a tailor so he wouldn’t be doing any back-breaking labor.  He could set up shop where several of his customers were already living and do well.   But as a result of a red hot tip picked up aboard their freighter  – for a small sum – his father decided they would head for the gold fields of California instead.  Here, it was told, an earlier West Indian had struck it real rich and now owned lots of land with mines waiting to be dug somewhere near a place called Negro Bar. Imagine the wealth!

The old man told about the awful fright they endured rounding Cape Horn.  He recalled their freighter tossing about in the great ocean most of the way until they landed near Monterrey.  From there the family rode in a wagon to the mining town of Negro Bar which wasn’t a town at all, nothing but a weathered, river-bank mining camp.  This particular cluster of work-men’s cabins had been thrown together along the American river to accommodate black miners who were not welcome among white gold diggers in the area.   As for the great West Indian landholder, there had been in fact such a person, but the land he once held was beyond Negro Bar. In any case he was now dead and  the land which he’d owned had passed into the hands of one Captain Joseph Libbey Folsom after whom the neighboring town was named.

The old man told how his father, who was not given to turning back once he’d started out on a vision, and who had put in some time as a master tailor back home, somehow found an old sewing machine and decided to set up shop in the town of Folsom.  His mother in the meantime brought in some money by taking in laundry.  He never learned if his father had any plans for them beyond this because, on a foggy morning soon after the family had enough money to move into a comfortable cabin, someone shot the tailor by mistake, thinking he was one of the bandits who had been harrassing travellers  crossing the sierras into Nevada.

A Swedish engineer for whom his mother had been doing laundry helped them out.  He saved the woman and her son from being run out of town altogether, and when he left Folsom to take up a new job in Weed, they went along.  This was at a time when Weed was in its better days as a big-time timber town.

The old man spent his high school years in Weed, and went straight to the army after graduation.  He served in the second World War, and later in Korea.  In fact, he spent all of his working life in the army.  He never rose higher than sergeant, but he saw duty in Japan, Korea, Santo Domingo, the Phillipines, and other places not to be  named.  He’s been a traveller.  When not on duty he travelled on his own.  He made his first return trip to the West Indies with his mother suffering from a terminal bout of cancer. She was in her last days and did not want to die, as she said, away from home.  He took her back to the West Indies where she died and now lies buried in the same yard where she was born.

He himself has never had a family.  He’s kept up his mother’s old house and continues to live in Weed now he’s retired from the army, and when he’s not at his cabin compiling a book on his own adventures he takes time to search out and learn what he can about local history.  He is fascinated by what he has been able to learn about the Shasta,  the Maidu, Wintun, Pomo, and other Native American tribes who inhabited  Northern  California before they were displaced by Mexicans and white people.

“Not only here, we could go up the coast,” he said, waving his hand to indicate the direction of Oregon and beyond  “and all across Canada.  Argentina, Australia, the West Indies . . . wherever you go if you know what to look for you’ll find ruins or remnants of  earlier folk who’ve been pushed out or over-run.  Right here in California . . .”   And on  he went, adding to the list of Bodie, Allensworth, Shasta, on and on.

It was a compelling moment.  His lean jaw jutted, his eyes lifted on a level with the horizon.  With his thickly veined hands folded on the head of his cane which he held like a royal sword in the ground before him, he had the aura of an elder feeling the loss of those gone before, and, as I think about it now, perhaps his own eventual passing.

He gave me his card, and I promised to call on him when next I  passed that way.  To myself, I had already made up my mind to see some  of the places he mentioned, had already begun to imagine how he would be impressed the next time I just happened to meet up with him in Shasta  and could relate a story or two about  my own forays and encounters.

 

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

My first outing was to the lost town of Allensworth, no more than a five-hour drive from where I live in Northern California.  On a bright Wednesday morning in the early spring I drove down through the Central Valley  past the towns of  Turlock and Chowchilla, then took the state highway out of Selma to the Allensworth site.  This valley is dotted with small towns scattered amidst vast fields of grape and cotton, acres of citrus, peaches, melons and other produce, and with everything in bloom on a fresh spring day one could have the sensation of passing  through a lush and bounteous country where the good things in nature come generously.  At that time of year the air was brisk, and although one were not in the environs of mountains that naturally draw the gaze up to the sky, there was the sense of a mystic presence overhanging the land all the way to the misty horizon.

Even as the secondary highway beyond Selma took me past the isolated Corcoran state prison where  Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan,  and other notorious  ‘criminals’ are held,  the sorrow and defeat ordinarily associated with such a place dissipated at the sight of hundreds of yellow tractors and other farming machines standing in neat civilized rows behind the tall metal fence topped with razor sharp wires.   From the highway the prison had the aspect of a giant and prosperous farming enterprise, which in some ways is what it is,  and I was soon back to being charmed by sun and sky and  pastoral open spaces.

I had a copy of the state report which  characterized Allensworth as “the town that refused to die” – an interesting caption, given that the report was an addendum to state legislation mandating recovery and preservation of the town as a state historic monument.  Carried in the report in fact was a discussion of the reasons why the town,  founded by a small community of nineteenth-century African Americans who set out to “create their own version of the American Dream,” had drifted into being a ghost town before it was rescued by the state.

In its earliest days Allensworth showed promise. According to the report townspeople built handsome homes, a school, a library, an hotel,  a church, and livery establishment.  They farmed, worshipped, raised families, and strived to be independent yeomen without subsidy from either state or county.   But eventually water theft at the hands of  a competitive and hostile neighboring community, and  a railroad company’s empty promises were standouts among a range of problems that were together more than the small community of settlers could shoulder.  Little by little the settlement lost its people.  The farms and gardens dried up, the number of families went down to less than a handful,  and most of the buildings were abandoned to vermin and transients who needed shelter,  a place to crash on their sojourns among the great farms of the valley.

However, in the 1970s a delegation of former residents and well-wishers came forward, and with a near heroic effort won the state government’s support for the preservation of the site as exemplary of African American initiative and vision in a time when,  and place where black people were regarded as America’s  most unredeemably vulgar and primitive.

In  1974, during the lead-up to the national bi-centennial celebration when American citizens were encouraged to renew their pride in the nation and mark the occasion with good deeds, Allensworth was designated an historic site to be preserved and protected  by the state.

I looked forward to seeing what there was to see of what the early handful of black pioneers had accomplished.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Some distance after I turned off the state highway onto the county road leading to Allensworth, the fresh green fields steadily gave way to a ragged brown expanse in which nothing but low weeds covered the ground between the dried stalks of earlier crops long harvested.   I crossed the tracks of the great Southern Pacific line,  and quickly came upon the sign that marked the entrance to the state historic park of Allensworth.

The aspect was, at first sight, forlorn. We had left town far behind.  Around two spiny stands of trees still awaiting their new leaves the park rose  out of the desert-like emptiness, some few acres of ground cleared and partially landscaped around a small huddle of low buildings.  Cottages, cabins, and out buildings were spaced so as to suggest the builders were intent on being neighborly.    The sky glared, the sun  seemed harsher here.  Beyond the few trees and buildings a sucking emptiness threatened, appeared capable of being over-powering.

The park grounds seemed well-kept, with a network of narrow paths cleared from one building to the other.   But a decaying wagon on rusted wheels parked in the little shade cast by the clustered /check/ . . . [?poplars], and a nearby dairy barn,  its weathered stalls starkly empty,  all with a haunting stubborness said people  were  once here.  And whatever happened, the place outdid them.   One could imagine a band of tired, over-worked settlers with their children getting rid of what few stock they had, and leaving with their personal belongings bundled, their backs to this harsh and unforgiving place.  No water.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

There were no other visitors at the park that mid-week morning.

A  small detail of county workers in jailhouse uniform were busy cleaning and trimming the grounds, doing maintenance on the restored buildings.  They were under the supervision of a tall and robust fellow with a handle-bar moustache.  In ordinary work clothes, no uniform, he looked like an out of place dirt farmer, but he was friendly when I approached.

“You never been here before?” he asked.

“No, first time.”

We sat in the shade of an open shed which he said was the old blacksmith’s shop.   He took out his packet of long cigarettes and offered me one which I declined.  He lit up, settled back into his break and said, “You got to hand it to these folks, you know.”

“You mean the settlers?”

“Yeah . . . folks who come out here from Missouri, Kansas, and wherever else they come from and planting themselves in this valley with nothing but what they could carry in their heads, their hands,  and whatever will they had in their hearts.  I could relate to that.  My grandmother and grandfather done the same thing.”

“They settled here in California too?”

“Naw . . . they come from Denmark.  They did their thing in Oklahoma territory.  That’s where they done pioneered.  Made their stand on a parcel twice the size of this here, raised their corn and wheat . . .  Made something out of nothing with their bare hands they could pass on to the children and grands.”

“They still alive back there?”

“Oh, no, they’re gone.  But that land still belong to family.  It will always belong to family.”

“That’s interesting.  Isn’t Oklahoma one of those places had the dust bowl some years ago?  I thought a lot of folks packed up and left there for California.”

“Yeah, a lot of folks did, but not my grampa.  He and granma and their last one who’s my uncle still alive, they stayed.  My father, he left.  That’s how come I’m here in California.  But our family place’s back there in Okie country.”

“You ever go back?”

“Sure I go back once every two, three years.  And they’re always glad to see me.  Kinfolks.  They’re always glad when I show up and then they get to carrying on about when would I be coming back home, and like that.  See, what grandpa and granma started it’s still there.  That’s our family place.  Wherever I may roam I know that place is family and I’ll always belong there.”

“Folks here in Allensworth didn’t have such good luck, did they?” I said.

“Well, like I said, you got to give them credit.  They didn’t have nothing to start with but their own get up and go.  And they got up and got it started.  But, trouble is, they didn’t have no staying power.  That’s what it come down to, you got to have staying power.”

“You’re right,” I said

He got up and dusted his pants, looking off to where two of his workers were weeding the edge of a path.  “You got to have staying power,” he said as if speaking mostly to hmself.  Then, “But I give them credit just the same. I do.  You want to see where the head man used to live?”

“Don’t we have to wait for the ranger?” I said.

“I don’t have no key, but I know how to get in and he won’t mind.  He knows we know how to get into any of these buildings if we want to, and you’re not going to be troubling nothing, right?”

“Right,” I said.  “It would be interesting to see where he lived.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

The restored house in which the founder of the Allensworth community lived had the appearance of a rustic cabin, spacious and solid on its foundation, walls out of clap-board siding, two dog-house dormers and a ground level porch with a white painted balustrade.  It would not have been out of place in the woods of Virginia, or the lake country of Minnesota.  Here, in the midst of this dry, empty space it looked defiant.  A little daring, even.

The biographical sketch with photograph of Lieutenant-Colonel Allen Allensworth in the form of a flyer  inside the door presented the founder as an upright and fastidious man who was born a slave in Kentucky.  Self-schooled, he eventually  became a formally ordained Baptist minister. He had a briliant career serving as chaplain to the troops, and rose to lieutnant-colonel, the highest ranking black man in the U.S. army at the time of his retirement.  He had been posted to San Francisco, and on retirement chose to remain in California.

He inspired a handful of other black families to join him in establishing an all-black settlement  in the  Central Valley.  His dream  was to build a community where through self-reliance black people would have economic independence and live free from racial discrimination.  Where they would have lives favourable to the enjoyment of intellectual and industrial liberty.  He dreamed of a town that would deserve the title, “Tuskegee of the West.”  This dream was, of course, not realised.

In the glow of its initial energies the community flourished for a while, and even advanced to the status of a township with sedate social organizations, a well-appointed church and school.  Settlers carried themselves with notable rural rectitude, and along with being an outpost of the county school disrict and regional library system the town also became a voting precinct.  The first  African American Justice of the Peace in twentieth century California was elected here.

But then the Colonel himself, their inspirational leader, he died prematurely in a traffic accident.   This loss, plus environmental hardships became too great a burden and the settlement was overwhelmed.

The interior of the restored Allensworth home indeed belonged to a past era.  The living room with its upright piano, spare straight-backed chairs,  [knitting?] covered table with glass kerosene lamp seemed fashioned on pioneering memory and aspirations.  So too the kitchen with its old-fashioned wood stove, carved table, chairs and cabinets.   There is no record of snowfall on this western side of the valley, but the wind does stir dust storms from time to time.  I imagined how bleak it probably felt at times to be seated in this kitchen, looking out through the window, at nothing but disinterested ground going off to the horizon.  A burden I’m not sure I would have been willing to undertake.

Back outside it was time for the work crew to stop for a midday break, and I invited the supervisor to have lunch with me.  We would have to drive back some miles to the nearest town to find a restaurant, but I offered, and he accepted.  He was good company for the next hour and a half that we spent together.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

The Mexican laborers were gathered around an old lunch wagon parked off the road in the shade of a lone tree.     Some were already crouched in what shade there was available eating from paper plates.  Others were getting orders from the wagon through an open side window.  There were no tools in sight. “What’re they doing way out here?” I wondered.  We were a long ways from any cultivated fields, and there were no tractors or animals in sight  to indicate what sort of work they would be doing.

“Irrigation,”  said Mr. Jensen.  “Farms up ahead get their water from the county canal.”

I knew from the map I used getting down into the valley that we were some distance from the canal.  “How’s that?” I said.  “Don ‘t they run pipes?”

“‘Course they run pipes,” he said.  “Sometimes the pipes go where they’re supposed to be going, sometimes they don’t.  These fellows know how to get water to any place around here if you hire them.”

“Really?  And everything by hand?  I don’t see any tractors.”

“They probably have little trenchers hidden in the field.  But they don’t want anything around bringing notice where they’re working.”

“And the wagon?”

“Oh, he knows.  He knows everything going on this side of the county.”

They were a dusky bunch.  They looked hard.  Where did they come from?  Who were they?  They didn’t look like Mexican field workers I’d seen before, during the days of Ceasar Chavez.  They looked more like  dusty, unanchored desperadoes from the movies, and I stopped the car.  There seemed to be, or maybe I imagined, a coiled explosiveness about them.  I turned around and drove back to get a picture.

As I drove up beside the lunch wagon, everything stopped.  The Mexicans, all of those around the wagon, and apparently whoever worked inside, stopped what they were doing and stared at us.

I put my head out the window and hailed, “Hola!  Can I take a picture?”

They scattered.  Those nearest the road ran back toward the railroad track, the others spread out in the dry field.  The wagon window closed.

“What’s that?” I said.  “What’s going on?  Why’d they run off?”

Supervisor Jensen was laughing his head off.  “Scared the shit out of them,” he said.  “They think you’re underground federalista.”  And he went on laughing.

Among those who had scattered into the field there were one or two who didn’t run far.  They stopped between the weeds to look back at me.

I snapped their picture, anyway.  I snapped pictures of the closed up lunch wagon looking like a stage prop under the lone tree along the roadside.   I turned the car around, and we went on in to Earlimart and had lunch at a Mexican restaurant.

Mexicans have founded many towns and smaller communities in California, dating back to long before white settlers came.  Most of those settlements either died or were taken over by the European newcomers.

I wondered how did it feel to be a castigated immigrant in the land of one’s ancestors?

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

I have  yet to get back to Shasta.  When I do, I hope the old army sergeant will still be there.  I expect he would have much to say on the subject of the  undocumented.  At the same time, though, I  do feel a little self-righteous myself for having visited Allensworth.  An entry on the Lieutenant-Colonel’s pursuit of his dream to develop a community where settlers could go about their lives free from the burdens of racial discrimination,  where good people live in an atmosphere of intellectual and industrial liberty comes  at the beginning of my collection.

When I listen to other collectors tell stories about mountain-climbing expeditions, or deep sea adventures and battlefront encounters, I am often tempted with the feeling that I am missing out on the truly exciting experiences our field has to offer.  Then I remember Allensworth and  I’m brought back to admitting that  stories of dissolution is an ideal category for people like me who like good stories, but don’t want to take on any special risks in hunting them down.

Yet, gathering stories about ghost towns, lost settlements and dissolved communities  can be at times a tricky and demanding activity.   As the old sergeant said, there have been far more “dissolved” communities over the centuries of human experience than there are those resisting the passage of time.  Given this surfeit, and the dramatic nooses with which stories evidence themselves, successful collecting demands careful selection and a capacity for dedication in the collectors of our sub-group.

One good thing, there are enough of our kind of stories to go around so that we don’t have much reason to develop the sort of antagonisms and  jealousies that regularly plague others in our avocation.  Perhaps that might change when we graduate into a profession!  Who knows?

For now, we share our stories with great ease.  And since the rise and fall of individual heroes is seldom central to our narratives we are mostly spared having to deal with the imminent hand of fate and its power over everyday lives.   Of course, there are instances, such as with Pompeii and Port Royal in which fate, the Gods, call it what you will, did play a forward and explicit role.   We acknowledge that.  But by and large, our stories bear out instances like the one I came across several months ago and partly shared at last April’s conference.

It concerns a young man named Cyril.  He is not an archaeologist or  a social historian of any kind, neither is he drawn to ruins or disused graveyards for the stories  they tell.   He has no interest in the past, really, he says.  Cyril is a photojournalist who is quite professional at capturing the here and now with his camera.   I think it pleased him somewhat when he learned that although I kept a camera, I knew nothing much about the canons and aesthetics of professional photography.

We met on a flight from San Francisco to Houston, from where he would be continuing his journey on to Port of Spain, Trinidad, while I myself would be going on to Oaxaca, Mexico.  I was on my way to Corozal Town, Belize to join an excursion to the site of a lost city in the rainforest.  Cyril is an award-winning photo-journalist.  He works for an international news agency that sends him on assignments to various places around the world to photograph events, sites and personalities.  His photographs are then sold to both local and international publications.   I thought he was rather young to be handling such assignments, but he assured  me there were many like him in his particular age group, with the requisite years of college and a wish to see the world without having to wear a military uniform, who were in the employ of his agency.

Bristling with the ambition to secure top billing as  the agency to which not only ordinary readers but business executives, ambassadors and monied investors turned for news about what was taking place in the world, Cyril’s employers deployed  cadres of young reporters like himself to the ‘hottest’ corners of the globe in search of up to the minute, cutting edge photographs.   The absence of  formal journalistic training was not viewed as a handicap.  In fact, the principal attributes desired among their field staff were good health, enthusiasm, energy, commitment, and no uneasiness when it came to dealing with the exotic.

Cyril himself was barely twenty-two, fresh out of college, when he was sent to report on the Yoruba village being created by some revolutionary blacks in S. Carolina.   Two years later he was in Grenada with an assignment to discover untold truths about the revolt against Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement and the U.S. invasion of that tiny island.  Yet the story he told me did not grow out of an assignment at all, but out of his own wish to make sense of a web of improbable coincidences and accidents of the sort that are seemingly orchestrated by some higher power,  with himself somehow caught up at the center.

It began with his receiving a letter from Trinidad, sent by someone about whom he had never heard yet who claimed him as a relative – a grandson, to be exact.  The body of the letter was written by a third party, who seemed to be some sort of a vague relative as well, but signed in a shaky hand by the one who claimed to be his grandmother.  She had to be old and maybe stuck in the fantasies of an earlier time because one of the things she said was that he, with his honours and achievement had been gifted by the higher powers so he could come back and save the village where his mother and father were born, and she praised God because although she was not long for this world she had lived long enough to see it come to pass..

It didn’t make any sense to him at the time.  As far as he knew, his mother and father were Californians, as was he.  His family had nothing to do with some obscure village in Trinidad.  Just as perplexng was the P.S., a note by the letter-writer asking him to pass on greetings to his mother and signed with a single ‘D.’  This letter did open the door for an adventure, minor somewhat in comparison to other thngs he’d done, but nevertheless intense and troubling.

He did visit Trinidad.  He did meet the letter-writer and others in the village they claimed needed to be saved.  He did promise to support and share in their efforts.  And yet, once he was back in the U.S.A. that visit, the commotions that were stirred while he was there, the promises he left behind  all seemed to fade into a hybrid fantasy, a temporary passage through a distant place, to a past time with a vaporous relevance to the contours of his everyday life.

 

To tell the truth, I listened to Cyril’s story not because I had any sympathy for or interest in  his personal dilemma – which it seemed to me still had not been put to rest.  While we were in the lounge waiting to board our respective flights  a massive lightening storm struck  and all electric power at the Houston airport was knocked out briefly.  In the short time that power was off, though, significant damage had been done to the airport’s flight management equipment, and all runways had to remain closed until repairs could be undertaken, completed, and tested.

We remained in the lounge until well into the night – luckily the bar was well-stocked and open – by which time any chance of our continuing on our separate journeys was put off until the next day.    Hearing about Cyril’s experience was a good way to pass the time.  And when it turned out that much of what he had to tell included his encounters in a ‘dissolved’  village on the island of Trinidad, the time went by smoothly, with no suffering of boredom or impatience at all.  Particularly since he  had with him a small portfolio of photographs he said were taken during  his visit to the island.

 

Cyril carries a pen and notebook, but the equipment central to his reporting is his camera.  He had much to tell me about the technical specifics that make his work outstanding, but since I don’t have a good head for that sort of thing I hardly remember much of what he had to say about  apertures, shutter speeds, focal length, etc.  What I do remember, as clearly as though our meeting was not months ago but just yesterday, is his  resonant voice, like that of an actor who is accustomed to delivering lines off camera,  the capable way in which he spoke in the accents of people about whom he told, and his vivid descriptions of them in the various locations where their story unfolded.

So fully was I taken with his telling, that as we parted the following morning to continue our separate journeys I promised to visit Trinidad myself when I got the chance, to see what was left – if anythng – of  Cyril’s dissolved village, and the folks who at one time lived there.

As luck would have it, I was able to carry out such a visit the following winter, somewhat sooner than would have ordinarily been the case, because of a piece of good fortune.

I know very little about digital technology except that there’s money to be made through investing in the right places,  and it’s just one of those things that with some timely information coming my way I was able to put what savings I had into a “start-up” that turned out to be quite successful.   Within a matter of months I had enough money and the promise of sufficient income to allow an extended furlough from my arbitrator’s desk at city hall,  and in the next  year and a half things only got better.

I can now easily afford to travel when the prospect of a good story beckons,  and as the weather turned wet and cold in Northern California I set off for the West Indies.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

When I listen to other collectors tell stories about mountain-climbing expeditions, or deep sea adventures and battlefront encounters, I am often tempted with the feeling that I am missing out on the truly exciting experiences our field has to offer.  Then I remember Allensworth and  I’m brought back to admitting that  stories of dissolution is an ideal category for people like me who like good stories, but don’t want to take on any special risks in hunting them down.

Yet, gathering stories about ghost towns, lost settlements and dissolved communities  can be at times a tricky and demanding activity.   As the old sergeant said, there have been far more “dissolved” communities over the centuries of human experience than there are those resisting the passage of time.  Given this surfeit, and the dramatic nooses with which stories evidence themselves, successful collecting demands careful selection and a capacity for dedication in the collectors of our sub-group.

One good thing, there are enough of our kind of stories to go around so that we don’t have much reason to develop the sort of antagonisms and  jealousies that regularly plague others in our avocation.  Perhaps that might change when we graduate into a profession!  Who knows?

For now, we share our stories with great ease.  And since the rise and fall of individual heroes is seldom central to our narratives we are mostly spared having to deal with the imminent hand of fate and its power over everyday lives.   Of course, there are instances, such as with Pompeii and Port Royal in which fate, the Gods, call it what you will, did play a forward and explicit role.   We acknowledge that.  But by and large, our stories bear out instances like the one I came across several months ago and partly shared at last April’s conference.

It concerns a young man named Cyril.  He is not an archaeologist or  a social historian of any kind, neither is he drawn to ruins or disused graveyards for the stories  they tell.   He has no interest in the past, really, he says.  Cyril is a photojournalist who is quite professional at capturing the here and now with his camera.   I think it pleased him somewhat when he learned that although I kept a camera, I knew nothing much about the canons and aesthetics of professional photography.

We met on a flight from San Francisco to Houston, from where he would be continuing his journey on to Port of Spain, Trinidad, while I myself would be going on to Oaxaca, Mexico.  I was on my way to Corozal Town, Belize to join an excursion to the site of a lost city in the rainforest.  Cyril is an award-winning photo-journalist.  He works for an international news agency that sends him on assignments to various places around the world to photograph events, sites and personalities.  His photographs are then sold to both local and international publications.   I thought he was rather young to be handling such assignments, but he assured  me there were many like him in his particular age group, with the requisite years of college and a wish to see the world without having to wear a military uniform, who were in the employ of his agency.

Bristling with the ambition to secure top billing as  the agency to which not only ordinary readers but business executives, ambassadors and monied investors turned for news about what was taking place in the world, Cyril’s employers deployed  cadres of young reporters like himself to the ‘hottest’ corners of the globe in search of up to the minute, cutting edge photographs.   The absence of  formal journalistic training was not viewed as a handicap.  In fact, the principal attributes desired among their field staff were good health, enthusiasm, energy, commitment, and no uneasiness when it came to dealing with the exotic.

Cyril himself was barely twenty-two, fresh out of college, when he was sent to report on the Yoruba village being created by some revolutionary blacks in S. Carolina.   Two years later he was in Grenada with an assignment to discover untold truths about the revolt against Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement and the U.S. invasion of that tiny island.  Yet the story he told me did not grow out of an assignment at all, but out of his own wish to make sense of a web of improbable coincidences and accidents of the sort that are seemingly orchestrated by some higher power,  with himself somehow caught up at the center.

It began with his receiving a letter from Trinidad, sent by someone about whom he had never heard yet who claimed him as a relative – a grandson, to be exact.  The body of the letter was written by a third party, who seemed to be some sort of a vague relative as well, but signed in a shaky hand by the one who claimed to be his grandmother.  She had to be old and maybe stuck in the fantasies of an earlier time because one of the things she said was that he, with his honours and achievement had been gifted by the higher powers so he could come back and save the village where his mother and father were born, and she praised God because although she was not long for this world she had lived long enough to see it come to pass..

It didn’t make any sense to him at the time.  As far as he knew, his mother and father were Californians, as was he.  His family had nothing to do with some obscure village in Trinidad.  Just as perplexng was the P.S., a note by the letter-writer asking him to pass on greetings to his mother and signed with a single ‘D.’  This letter did open the door for an adventure, minor somewhat in comparison to other thngs he’d done, but nevertheless intense and troubling.

He did visit Trinidad.  He did meet the letter-writer and others in the village they claimed needed to be saved.  He did promise to support and share in their efforts.  And yet, once he was back in the U.S.A. that visit, the commotions that were stirred while he was there, the promises he left behind  all seemed to fade into a hybrid fantasy, a temporary passage through a distant place, to a past time with a vaporous relevance to the contours of his everyday life.

 

To tell the truth, I listened to Cyril’s story not because I had any sympathy for or interest in  his personal dilemma – which it seemed to me still had not been put to rest.  While we were in the lounge waiting to board our respective flights  a massive lightening storm struck  and all electric power at the Houston airport was knocked out briefly.  In the short time that power was off, though, significant damage had been done to the airport’s flight management equipment, and all runways had to remain closed until repairs could be undertaken, completed, and tested.

We remained in the lounge until well into the night – luckily the bar was well-stocked and open – by which time any chance of our continuing on our separate journeys was put off until the next day.    Hearing about Cyril’s experience was a good way to pass the time.  And when it turned out that much of what he had to tell included his encounters in a ‘dissolved’  village on the island of Trinidad, the time went by smoothly, with no suffering of boredom or impatience at all.  Particularly since he  had with him a small portfolio of photographs he said were taken during  his visit to the island.

 

Cyril carries a pen and notebook, but the equipment central to his reporting is his camera.  He had much to tell me about the technical specifics that make his work outstanding, but since I don’t have a good head for that sort of thing I hardly remember much of what he had to say about  apertures, shutter speeds, focal length, etc.  What I do remember, as clearly as though our meeting was not months ago but just yesterday, is his  resonant voice, like that of an actor who is accustomed to delivering lines off camera,  the capable way in which he spoke in the accents of people about whom he told, and his vivid descriptions of them in the various locations where their story unfolded.

So fully was I taken with his telling, that as we parted the following morning to continue our separate journeys I promised to visit Trinidad myself when I got the chance, to see what was left – if anythng – of  Cyril’s dissolved village, and the folks who at one time lived there.

As luck would have it, I was able to carry out such a visit the following winter, somewhat sooner than would have ordinarily been the case, because of a piece of good fortune.

I know very little about digital technology except that there’s money to be made through investing in the right places,  and it’s just one of those things that with some timely information coming my way I was able to put what savings I had into a “start-up” that turned out to be quite successful.   Within a matter of months I had enough money and the promise of sufficient income to allow an extended furlough from my arbitrator’s desk at city hall,  and in the next  year and a half things only got better.

I can now easily afford to travel when the prospect of a good story beckons,  and as the weather turned wet and cold in Northern California I set off for the West Indies.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~