Saturday, November 30, 2019
My father wanted me to get to know Mark Twain when I was about ten years old and even tried to bribe me into reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (I’d ignored that particular school assignment), proposing a simple and straightforward deal: If I read Huck Finn he shells out five bucks for the LA Dodgers windbreaker I coveted more than anything else in the whole world.
I wouldn’t do it, couldn’t bring myself to do it, and I never did get the royal blue jacket with white felt embroidery, a garment that to this day gives me shivers of excitement when I see it worn.
Which means I never got acquainted with Mark Twain growing up (the bribe may have turned me off, plus I was more interested in comic books, my dad’s business as an illustrator), but I did it my way (as I always do).
Indeed, my first road trip in the COW was with Van Stein to the Sierra Nevada mountains Gold Rush Country, which I dubbed When Money Was Real, ‘cos it sure ain’t no mo’, and celebrating St. Paddy’s Day beneath a full moon at Murphy’s Historic Inn where Mark Twain once slept.
I didn’t know the Sierras would be about Mark Twain until I got there and found Jackass Hill, the small wooden cabin Samuel Clemens shared with a couple of buddies for three rainy weeks in January 1865, panning for gold near a town called Angels Camp.
Young Clemens exiled himself—slinking, he called it—to the boonies as a result of feeling embarrassed and humiliated after getting fired from his job as a reporter at the Daily Morning Call in San Francisco for writing a piece of journalism— “Inexplicable News from San Jose”—way ahead of its time.
Almost a hundred years later, the New Journalism innovated by Clemens would be resurrected as original by Tom Wolfe, utilizing the same devices unique to literary journalism, including a gonzo style credited to Hunter S. Thompson if first conceived by Sam.
A shop called Calaveras Coin and Pawn in Angels Camp now occupies the site (then the Angels Hotel saloon) where Clemens overheard a prospector tell a drawn-out yarn (heard earlier by Clemens in a premonitory dream) about a contest involving frogs.
Inspired, Sam returned to San Francisco and wrote it up as The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and, when it was published many months later in The New York Saturday Press under his new nom-de-plume, Mark Twain, he became a nationwide sensation, launching him to fame as a humorist and orator.
I’m standing at this very spot where destiny had manifested itself for a slinking Sam Clemens when a one-ounce gold coin from the U.S. Mint commemorating Mark Twain snags my eye, and I’m struck by an epiphany:
This guy is the Clubhouse on Wheels’ spiritual mentor!
This guy is the Clubhouse on Wheels’ spiritual mentor!
Why else would my maiden road trip in the COW put me so near and dear to the ultimate travel writer of his time, so widely quoted in memes:
In gold I trust, so I bought the coin and carried it with me on road journeys thereafter for luck and, if necessary, as a get-out-of-trouble card.
After discovering Mark Twain in Gold Rush Country, I wanted to visit Hannibal, Missouri, where Sam Clemens spent most of his boyhood before going west to rough it.
On a trip to Kansas City a few years later, I had that opportunity.
In the meantime, I’d flown to London for my nephew’s wedding and stayed at The Langham, which, when built in 1865, set the standard for grand hotels in Europe—and became Mark Twain’s favorite.
I’d hoped maybe I’d run into Sam’s ghost, a phenomenon (ghosts in general) long associated with The Langham.
I booked the Mark Twain Suite but when I got there a plaque on the door said Chester Suite.
“I’m supposed to be in the Mark Twain Suite,” I called down.
“I’m supposed to be in the Mark Twain Suite,” I called down.
An operator put me on hold, returned a minute later. “We did away with Mark Twain. It’s now called Chester.”
“How can you re-name Mark Twain?”
But she was already gone.
And no ghost either.
Not even at Sam's old London home, 23 Tedworth Square.
Back to Missouri:
Fortified by Kansas City ribeye steaks and a good night’s sleep, we hit the road, arriving at Mark Twain’s birthplace in Hannibal...
A stroll through the Mark Twain Museum is followed by an hour’s cruise aboard a paddle steamer down the Mississippi River, alongside Tom Sawyer’s Island.
When I was a kid my dad was able to get free passes to Disneyland so we would visit The Magic Kingdom two or three times a year, usually to celebrate birthdays, including my own.
By mid-afternoon, with all the best attractions behind us, we would take it easy, which meant doing Mark Twain’s Steamboat to Disney’s version of Tom Sawyer’s Island where my father and brothers and I split into pairs and played ditch.
A connection, a memory, and an irony: though I couldn’t be bribed by my dad to read Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn as a kid, here I am celebrating its author as spiritual mentor, on a quest directed by my dad in a dream, cruising past the real Tom Sawyer’s island.
A couple years after Hannibal (as documented in this blog), I did a road trip that took me through Hartford, Connecticut.
I wrote at the time (as part of a manuscript-in-progress of an ongoing mystical journey):
Here I am at the gothic castle Sam built in Hartford when that city teemed with writers and publishers, not insurance companies, gawking up at the house where Clemens spent his happiest days but ultimately caused heartbreak when his favorite daughter Susy died here, from spinal meningitis, at the tender age of twenty-four.
Sam was away at the time, resting in Britain after a worldwide lecture tour undertaken to buy himself out of bankruptcy, and that’s where he realized losing all your money is not the worst thing that can happen in life.
I set myself upon a bench on the porch where Sam once sat and where ethereal traces of he and his family remain.
On this gloomy dank day the grounds are forlorn in an otherwise soulless city of actuaries and underwriters.
Thursday, November 28, 2019
Ralph the Turkey gobbled with his friends in the farmyard where they all lived. They gobbled about who had the prettiest feathers. They gobbled about the quality of birdseed. But mostly they gobbled about how lucky they were not to be chickens. Chickens, all turkeys knew, were cowards. Sure, chickens crossed the street, but nobody ever knew why—and chickens probably didn't know why either. Dumb chickens! But the main reason these turkeys believed they were lucky not to be chickens was because chickens were bred by humans to be eaten as food. Or they were forced to lay eggs that would be soft-boiled, hard-boiled, poached, fried or scrambled.
A large rooster named Rufus overheard the turkeys gobbling as he sauntered by, pecking corn kernels. "Ha!" the rooster clucked. "You'll all get yours. Thanksgiving is coming soon."
"Thanksgiving?" gobbled Ralph the Turkey.
"Uh-huh," Rufus clucked, in a language only fowl could understand. "I can tell by the leaves, cluck-cluck. They've turned orange and yellow, cluck-cluck, and they're falling from the trees."
"But what is Thanksgiving?" asked Ralph the Turkey.
"When all the leaves have fallen, and the trees are bare," clucked Rufus, "Thanksgiving will be here. And when that happens—ha!—fried fried chicken is not on the menu."
"N-n-no?" gobbled Ralph. "Then what? Pork chops?"
Rufus clucked with laughter. "Try again, gobble-face."
Something about this rooster's cockiness worried Ralph. "You m-m-mean...?" he gulped.
"Ma-ma-ma… you got it, butterball," clucked Rufus. "Stuffed and oven-roasted turkey!" And with that, the rooster eructed a triumphant "cock-a-doodle-doo," then moseyed off clucking with delight.
"Did you hear that?" gobbled Ralph, addressing the other galliforms. "What are we gonna do, g-g-guys?"
The turkeys glanced around nervously, shaking their snoods. It was obvious that the trees would be barren of leaves in just a matter of days.
"Let's go see Ted Turkey," said one of Ralph's friends. "He'll know what to do."
Ted was the toughest turkey on the farm. And this old bird was reputed to be the smartest, too.
The young turks surrounded Ted, and Ralph conveyed what Rufus Rooster told them about Thanksgiving.
"R-R-Rufus is trying to scare us, isn't he?" Ralph's eyes begged.
For a long moment, Ted was silent. "No," he gobbled. "It's true what that rude rooster said. You will all be eaten at Thanksgiving," he said bluntly. "Sorry," he added.
The turkeys were gobble-less. It was Ralph who finally found his gobbler. "B-b-b-b-b-but... but you're still here, Ted."
Ted flapped his wings. "Darn right, I am. I'm too tough to eat."
"Can't we t-t-toughen up like you?" asked Ralph.
"Too late," gobbled Ted. "Thanksgiving is almost here and you birds are tender as can be. The only question is, how those humans will prepare you."
Ralph puzzled this. "P-P-Prepare us? What are the ch-ch-choices?"
"Ch-ch-choices?" Ted squawked with laughter. "You don't get no ch-ch-choices. The humans decide on preparation."
"Preparation into what?" Ralph implored.
"Chances are, oven roast turkey, stuffed with chestnuts," said Ted. "A side of cranberry sauce. Or maybe smoked turkey breast and mashed potatoes covered in a gravy of giblets."
"G-g-giblets?" asked Ralph.
"Internal turkey organs," gobbled Ted. "Liver and kidneys, mostly."
A few of the youngest turkeys started to cry.
"Or could you wind up as turkey salad sandwiches." Ted cocked his head. "And I even hear they're making turkey pastrami these days. And turkey dogs. And turkey burgers. And turkey bacon. There's been a swing away from cattle."
"What about t-t-turkey soup?" asked Ralph.
Ted Turkey considered this. "Yep. I s'pose that's a possibility."
"If I'm going to end up on d-d-dinner," gobbled Ralph. "I want to be t-t-turkey soup."
Ted gobbled with mirth. "I told you turkeys already, you can't decide nothing. Whether you get roasted, fried, boiled, broiled, barbequed, smoked, micro-waved or souped, you have no say, no way." And with that, Ted flapped off, gobbling gaily about Christmas.
"What's Ca-Ca-Christmas?" asked Ralph.
Ted called back, "You won't need to know."
A few days before Thanksgiving, the trucks arrived.
Word had already gobbled round the farmyard about the meaning of trucks. What trucks meant was this: It was time to flap your wings and scram. Because trucks were there to take all the tender, terrified turkeys to the abbatoir—a fancy French word for slaughterhouse.
Alas, a high fence surrounded the turkeys, so scramming was not an option.
Rufus Rooster watched in glee as all the turkeys—all except tough Ted Turkey—were rounded up and shepherded aboard the trucks, which drove off in a convoy.
Ralph was squashed in tight with all the other turkeys and no space to even turn around. All he could think of was this: If he was going to become a meal, he wanted to be turkey soup, even though all the other turkeys laughed when he talked about that.
But the turkeys were all crying, not laughing, when they drew near the abbatoir. The smell of poultry death hung thick and fowl in the air. Ralph tried to hold his breath to stifle his fear.
The truck in which Ralph was riding ground to a halt. Its back doors swung open and, one by one, each turkey was grabbed and hung by its feet from a metal shackle. These were attached to a moving rail that carried upside-down turkeys to the stunning tank. Here, the turkeys were dunked headfirst into electrified water that knocked most of them out cold. The lucky turkeys did not wake up in time for the next step: a throat slashing by a mechanical blade. This allowed the turkeys to bleed to death, “humanely,” before reaching a tank of boiling water.
Fortunately for Ralph, his soul had already departed to turkey heaven by the time he reached the boiling tank. And good thing, too, since processing came next. And no self-respecting turkey would want to stick around for processing.
Some turkeys were blast-frozen whole. These butterballs would end up stuffed and roasted.
Other turkeys were carved up with a large knife and packaged into parts, including giblets.
Ralph was tossed into a giant cauldron with carrots and celery and spices, left to simmer, then canned and dispatched to a supermarket.
Ralph's wish had come true. He was turkey soup.
Moral: Relax. Sometimes things turn out just fine.