A person’s path through life can be a straight line with one fixed point in view or a meander without much rhyme or reason, going down this path and that one. Mine has tended to the latter. I have wandered through experiences and influences and have been constantly amazed and mostly delighted at the end points.
When I was far too young a child I was introduced to Mark Twain and fell instantly for a small boy not much older than I was. Tom Sawyer was fun, naughty, but fun. He lived a life I envied in a place as exotic as the jungles of Mowgli. Mark Twain conjured up a magical world in a part of America I knew nothing about. The ways of the world down south were fascinating and then there was that river. The Mississippi River, just the spelling of it was so alien but so easy to say, it sang.
I progressed from Tom to his friend Huckleberry, what a name, what a boy. My heart burned with the injustices of his story. How could his father treat him so? How could the world treat Jim so? It was my first taste of slavery and racial intolerance and I wished to stand shoulder to shoulder with Huck in the saving of Jim. When I was older, of course, I found the deeper message of the book: the conflict between the social norms a person imbibes with their mother’s milk and the feeling of the ethical and just response to these norms. Huck in the end judges Jim’s worth not on the colour of his skin but on his humanity. A great book.
Later still, when I wandered around Australia, I read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, that history, memoir and collection of Tales. I was by then adrift in the world travelling in the opposite direction to that mighty river but it engrossed me as much as his fiction had when I was a child.
Television from America gave us the riverboats of the Mississippi in the guise of the gamblers and travellers. Card sharks, women of ill repute (we only knew that because they wore the prettiest dresses, the most feathered hats, I liked them!); there were races, explosions, guns, loves won and lost, and the bad guys were often the handsome ones with hearts and full carpet bags of gold.
Then, of course, there were the show boats, no boilers to explode but full of life and drama, theatre floating down a mighty river, well!! Later, after I had left home and had a musical taste for other than pop, I learned that jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke had played them. Those steam boats with big, big wheels were romantic and thrilling as I grew.
That river would impinge again and again in various disguises: in book, but also in folk and blues songs, even a bit of skiffle. It figured in our history books when dealing with British exploits and conflicts in and with America. Not just the Mississippi but also the Missouri, the Ohio and the Tennessee Rivers; captured in so many songs and tucked away in my musical memories.
Of course there is no mentioning of the Mississippi River without that of New Orleans. Darker reading matter when I progressed to the likes of Tennessee Williams and James Lee Burke. I thought of this town on the river as hot and steamy, with music, colour and very dark undertones of voodoo. I imagined laconic private eyes and sultry dames leaning on door posts. I imagined this would be a good place to go to one day. However, America did not seem to be the end point of any of my wanders.
Life has its own ideas of paths followed and end points. I travelled the world for years always pointing east. One day, when I had bid a fond farewell to youth and started walking hand in hand with middle age, I decided to write a best selling blockbuster of a novel! So having never set foot in the country I decided I would set this amazing piece of literature in America!!! I suppose I’m not renowned for my common sense. Wonderful excuse though for a research trip across the pond. I had decided to set this greatest English novel on the Eastern Seaboard (love that collection of names).
So my friend and I embarked on a series of holidays to the place we only knew of from films and books. We visited both summer and winter. Taking endless photos, picking up suitcase loads of reference paper and books. The internet wasn’t an option then. I visited America on my own when I went to help the captive chimpanzees. I was becoming quite an expert on this magical place of my childhood. Strangely similar yet so different from those fictional experiences.
I suddenly decided to take myself off to University and the blockbuster got put away in a box, on hold until time was generous again. I gained a BSc and then an MA. I was on a roll. I began my PhD and planned accordingly. Then one day, when I had noticed middle age was getting restless and older age was on the horizon, we had a friend over for lunch. She was off in a couple of weeks to Louisiana, to New Orleans, to the mighty Mississippi. I was suddenly green. Come she said, not even two seconds to say yes. Two weeks later I was staring at the Mississippi River. Listening to the jazz in the warm steamy night air.
I had a birthday while we were there; a birthday which started with a Buck’s Fizz for breakfast in bed and continued with riding a riverboat on the Mississippi, finishing with a slap-up dinner overlooking the elegant streets of the city. A great birthday.
Well it had only taken forty years to get there. The path did have an end point.
Then my traveling abruptly ceased and due to accident, illness and family commitments that was the last time I wandered away to explore the world for eleven years.
So today on the last post of the A-Z challenge and on yet another birthday, I give you New Orleans and the mighty Mississippi River.
Z is for the zip code.