The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

In praise of bold travelers

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving. I never fail to think of my father on Thanksgiving: He loved pumpkin pie, and he had a pilgrim story from Bangkok, Thailand.

Part of Dad's Korean War was spent in Bangkok, back when a lot of us called Thailand, Siam. He was part of a squadron of Navy airedales who took a carrier-load of planes to Thailand. Essentially, they began the Thai Air Force. At the time, Dad was a chief, which meant he knew everything about his job and could do anything. He was always that way, though. (If you sense some daughterly admiration, you're on the money.)

In that hot and moist climate, Thanksgiving was still coming anyway. One of the Thai workers who spoke English asked Dad about Thanksgiving, so Dad gave a lengthy explanation about pilgrims and a first hard winter in a tough place for beginnings (New England), and the Thanksgiving feast the following year, when the toehold had turned into survival and there was food.

After Dad's explanation, the man just shook his head sadly. "We can't have Thanksgiving here."

Dad asked him why not, and the Thai said, "No pilgrims ever came to Bangkok."

Thanksgiving came anyway, of course, as it does anywhere Americans gather. We're grateful for that toehold in a new world, for subsequent survival, and eventually, our nation. It's as meaningful to me as the Fourth of July, as I praise bold travelers.

The extreme isolation of such people in a new land came home to me 12 or so years ago. It was early December, and I had gone to Charleston, South Carolina for Jeremy's graduation from the Border Patrol. The newly minted agents flew out that same day, so I had a few days to kill in South Carolina. What I did was point my rental car south.

First stop was St. Augustine, Florida, for a spot of research at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. It's a wonderful, well-nigh indestructible fort built by Spanish engineers (they were good), to maintain power in their toehold of Florida. Eventually, the English came into possession, then the Spanish again, and finally the Americans. During our Indian Wars, it housed some Plains Indians, sent there to be reprimanded for objecting to folks taking their land.

After that, I drove back to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I used to live as a kid. Superb area. I also visited Fort Frederica National Historic Site. It was a fort built by Georgia's colonizer, James Oglethorpe, between 1736-1748, essentially as a buffer zone between those Spaniards I had "visited" earlier in the day, and the prosperity of the English colonies in the Carolinas.

It's another great historic site, with a moat (now a gentle swale), and buildings made of tabby (stone mixed with shells). Nothing is restored, but the stabilized ruins are impressive. I walked through the town, and past the fort, and stood looking at the water. It was a cold day, for Georgia, and no other visitors were in sight. I watched the water quite a while, as the soldiers most certainly would have done.

It came home quite forcefully to me that these little toeholds on the edge of an amazing continent had to be a bit frightening, in that if trouble came, there was no help in sight. You were it; do your best.

And so I praise bold travelers. Without them, we wouldn't be gathering families and friends today and gorging on turkey and cranberries and three or four kinds of pie (or more), and the "inside of the turkey," as my daughter Sarah called stuffing, when she was a little girl. I always take a moment to remember what it felt like to stand alone, gaze across a portion of the Atlantic Ocean, empty too, that day, and honor that kind of courage.

Thanks, you men, women and children. I praise you today.

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