Of a mind to travel
My father was an armchair traveler. He loved to watch the world from his favorite recliner. Travelogues were enjoyable, but nature programs were his passion. Insects in the Gobi desert, volcanic craters in the South Pacific, marine life in Canada's Northwest Territories--it didn't matter. They were mysterious happenings. They were places and events out there, in another world somewhere. That they existed was enough to please him. He didn't need to see them firsthand.
I, on the other hand, couldn't wait to travel and see things for myself. So I joined the Navy. Acquiescent to the "See the World" slogan, I was equally intent on seeing that I would receive a college education under the G.I. Bill.
And I did both.
I traveled to Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Jacksonville, Norfolk, and New Orleans. To Cuba, Haiti, and the Virgin Islands. To England, France, Italy, Menorca, Monaco, and Spain. To Germany and Switzerland. To Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. And to long-forgotten points in between. My stint ended with a final port of call: New York City, July 4, 1976, for the Bicentennial Celebration. How appropriate, I thought: I had my own freedom to celebrate. It was time now for college and the next phase of my life.
Granted, a person cannot see much in one day of shore leave (all I sometimes got). But it doesn't take much to be awestruck over a new place, a new culture. A momentary experience can change a person forever. Author Eudora Welty said it well: "A new place seen in a flash may have an impact almost as strong as the place you've grown up in, one you're familiar with down to the bone, and know what it's like without having to think." It was true. Images I'd seen only in magazines such as Life and National Geographic were there, right before my eyes. In a flash, the surreal was made real:
- The poverty of Haitian children as they pleaded for handouts from passersby.
- The anger of a snorting bull, thrusting its horns at the matador.
- The beauty of the Matterhorn high up in the Pennine Alps.
- The pain of addicts shooting up in Needle Park.
What my eyes saw, my heart felt. I was touched by the benevolence of strangers:
- The kindness of a Swiss innkeeper who offered this budget traveler an unfinished room for a cut rate.
- The hospitality of a French woman who invited me to share Christmas dinner with her expatriate husband and family.
- The gratitude of an elderly barkeep who gave this Yank a free beer and, with a nod, thanked a nation for his years of freedom.
Somewhere along the way I became a seasoned traveler. The twinkle of a stranger's eye or the hint of a smile conveyed that, saying more through silence than words. I learned to speak a nonverbal language. Gestures, glances, handshakes, and nods became words, phrases, questions, and answers. A hug was a complete conversation. The unspoken became part of my new global dialogue. Not knowing how to speak a foreign tongue didn't matter anymore. The gaps in conversations were filled with meaning. In some mysterious way, I began to understand people like never before. I also came to know myself.
Contemplation was made easier, too. I remember the hours spent in solitude looking out across the ocean--from on the ocean--and seeing nothing for miles, not even the horizon. Blue water and blue sky merged like a seamless backdrop in a photographer's studio. Then click. The psychic shutter would trip, and out of the blue would come new insights. Was it Jim Morrison opening Doors to the mind ("Break on through to the other side") or Paul Simon capturing Kodachrome days ("All the world's a sunny day, oh yeah")? Maybe both. Maybe neither. That transcendental images existed in my head was enough. I didn't need to know the source.
Sure, I took plenty of photographs during my travels. Scenics, portraits, candids. They're tucked away in a drawer somewhere, no doubt faded or dog-eared by now, or lost forever during the numerous moves I've made in the twenty years since. A few images surface now and then. I look at them fondly, and remember the friends I made during my four-year hitch. Then bury them again in memory.
Not long ago a friend from North Carolina called to reminisce. He'd taken his Cub Scout troop onboard a destroyer docked at a pier a few hours away. The ship's cramped quarters, narrow ladders, captain's bridge, radar room, and ever-present dismal shade of gray paint, reminded him of our days aboard the U.S.S. Kalamazoo, a newly built replenishment ship. We were co-workers, radar operators, part of the ship's original 360-member crew. Dave became a little nostalgic, he said, as he explained the surrogate vessel and its workings to his son and the other scouts. So he called me to relive better times and to remind himself of less-than-good times (the seasickness, the days at sea, the all-night watches) we shared. The telephone was both a reconnect and reality check.
For more than an hour, we talked of the places we'd seen, of the events we witnessed, of the wonderful and weird characters we met. Whatever happened to so-and-so? And we talked of our shenanigans. We recounted, for instance, the time Dave threw our supervisor's keys--every key the arrogant career man had, his big ring of authority--overboard in an act of revenge. I saw the panic in the guy's eyes--the utter fear of no keys, no power . . . and no clue who did it. I smiled in silence. (Yes, I'll admit, it was a spiteful act, but the therapeutic value was immeasurable. Four years of pent-up frustration thrown off instantly.) The experience was refreshing.
Almost as an afterthought, Dave mentioned that the Kalamazoo was being decommissioned. It was no longer seaworthy. Age turned to rust.
We chatted, guffawed, had a few awkward moments of silence, then with the usual "keep in touch" promises, hung up the phone. It was then I realized I'd just taken a virtual trip around the world--from my easy chair. Without having to think, I thought of my father.
A few days later I remembered the tribute original crew members received when we completed our service and left the ship for the final time. Over the loud speaker, a solemn bell would toll, then the voice would insert a new name in the same announcement: "Tom Bigelow, plank-owner . . . departing."
Boy, the experience was definitely a trip.
Nine months ago, though, my father took the ultimate trip. He died. I heard a different bell toll. Roger Bigelow, father, husband, homeowner . . . departed. He departed to a world that each of us can only wonder about.
Sometimes, to wonder is enough.
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