September, 2010:

WRITING A SCREENPLAY AIN’T EASY!

English hero, sea captain Sir Francis Drake

The creative force is a powerful one. When it grabs hold, it must be answered. My blog is just such a force. It pulls at me and I answer!

I’ve been writing in one form or another since I was a kid. As I grew older, I aspired to grander themes than newspaper and magazine articles. I dabbled in poetry but it was nothing that would make me famous or supply a living wage, even though I loved my imagery.

An Aussie named Dudley Hood helped ignite the spark that began to lead me down another path. When we met in Southern California some years ago, he had an idea for an historical TV series about the Caribbean. The area has a fascinating history and lots of mystical elements from the mix of cultures.

When I picked up a Michener novel on the Caribbean, I was excited about the possibilities, especially when I read about 16th century English hero, Sir Francis Drake. I’d always loved history and he was just the sort of take-charge but compassionate hero I could admire. Besides, his costumed character was a constant at the yearly spring Renaissance Faire I attended in those years.

Since Dudley wanted to collect a few screenplays about different areas in the Caribbean, I was inspired to try my hand at it. So what if I’d never written a screenplay before or even seen one? How difficult could it be for a writer?

When I started to research Drake, I discovered that Michener’s books: all those huge tomes about Hawaii, the Middle East, Alaska, Texas, Colorado, etc., were not completely accurate. Since he didn’t call them histories, he felt free to fictionalize. It made for a simpler story since real life is never tidy, although reel life (as in movies) is! James Michener didn’t even work as hard as I had presumed: he had his own research team.

Amazon book cover for Caribbean

Michener’s story about Drake was so tidy he created a neat rivalry between Drake, the English privateer the Spanish called El Dragon, and a Spanish official of high rank. In the 16th century, Spain was the ruler of the Old World and the New World. The Michener story was entertaining and neatly handled even though this individual Spaniard didn’t exist (he was a conglomerate of many Spanish ship captains, officials, etc.). Drake made lots of Spanish enemies before he was through robbing them of their gold, jewels, and various galleons.

After I’d been lent a few sample screenplays, and a book about creating them, I was soon happily engaged in writing. I was studying all those instructions about where to put: NIGHT, DAY, FADE IN, FADE OUT and what sort of emotion was on whose face, not to mention setting the scene. Aiming for a standard page count (at least then) of 120 pages, I was confident.

Dudley and I had met more than a few people industriously working or aspiring to work in the entertainment industry. It was relatively easy to interest people in helping to create a potential movie, TV program, etc. In LA, many of us live on dreams of stardom and success, and there are always a few who do realize their dreams, even in spectacular fashion.

I can no longer remember if our associate Jan was involved with costumes, set dressing or what, but she had been in the industry for a few years and was making a living at it. She was an intelligent, encouraging, enthusiastic kind of person. Our project must have sounded feasible.

I could hardly wait for her to take a look at my creative efforts when I’d completed my first draft. I’d put a lot of work into my script and I was brimming with pride.

When we met after she’d read it, I eagerly awaited her verdict. I was sure I had a good beginning and I even liked my dialog.

“Where’s the conflict?” she asked me gently. “Every film has a conflict.”

“It’s got plenty of conflict,” I replied, defensively. “Drake’s always fighting this battle or that.”

“It’s a dramatic technique to keep the audience interested. The work has to focus on a primary conflict of some kind as it builds to a climax and the conflict is resolved, one way or another,” she told me gently. “You also don’t want to lose your viewer in all sorts of unnecessary details or lots of dialog to explain things. Film is a visual medium.”

My screenplay was just history with a few flourishes.  Maybe Michener was more right than I gave him credit for.

Back to the drawing board, I thought ruefully. It wasn’t so simple after all.

JOHN LITHGOW TIMES THREE

Actor John Lithgow

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which has a large auditorium for special screenings of TV movies, etc., is in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley.

In the 1990s I had an artist friend, Katherine, who was a member and was often invited to special screenings. The auditorium was filled with comfortable plush seats and was the ideal setting to introduce new TV movies and hold other important affairs. The director, producers and stars would be invited to these affairs as well as members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Afterwards, at an outside patio, there were hors d’oeuvres and drinks for all the guests.

There was a certain cachet in attending these events; it was probably assumed each guest was part of the entertainment industry or had family or friends in it.

I met a very friendly David Hyde Pierce at one event and I was delighted because I was a definite fan. He treated me as if I were a personal friend, and  he introduced me to a blond woman writer from the “Frasier” show whose name I don’t remember. A few months later I watched her accept an Emmy award as a primary writer for that show.

The preview screening of “My Brother’s Keeper” TV movie was a memorable event for me. Katherine couldn’t come at the last minute but I decided I’d still go. I randomly selected a seat in the middle of the theater. Right before the movie started, I noticed that actor John Lithgow was sitting one seat over from me and the seat between us was empty. To Lithgow’s left was actress Ellen Burstyn, whose work I had admired in many films over the years.

The movie that night was based on a true story of twins, Tom and Bob Bradley, and concerned a medical battle with a drug company after one twin discovered he was HIV positive. Lithgow played both twins and Ellen Burstyn, made up to look older, played their mother.

The story was intriguing and poignant, but I was even more riveted because I could actually see Lithgow’s reaction to his acting as he watched himself play two roles. It was like seeing him in triplicate! And I had always admired his versatility as an actor.

When it was over Lithgow was onstage to give a little more information on the true story of the movie and to thank the audience for coming. Since Ellen Burstyn was only two seats over, I decided I would introduce myself to her.  I told her I was an admirer and had especially enjoyed a movie she had done called “Resurrection,” back in 1980. She smiled while I gushed but I was surprised at her shyness, even in the company of those in the entertainment industry.

Actor Ellen Burstyn

SCHOOL LIFE AT WHEELUS Air Force Base By Victoria Giraud

Wheelus Field Dependents School

While in Tripoli, Libya, Air Force personnel and their dependents  lived in Wheelus Air Force Base housing for the most part, but the families of men who worked for the State Department and some of its agencies, or for oil companies searching for black gold, lived in many different areas of Tripoli from Garden City to Georgimpopoli, a coastal area on the western edges of the city. Our school bus, one of many that picked up American children all over the city, traveled down Sciarra Ben Asciur on its eight-mile journey to the base. I still have a very tattered mimeographed copy of my school bus route. It did help me identify my old home on Google Earth.

During the rainy season, from November to March, all busses faced the possible flooding in the tiny town of Suk el Guima, (Friday market in Arabic), which was near the base gate on the only route to Wheelus. Although the town’s street was paved, there were no gutters or drainage systems. When it rained, it generally flooded, and the street could be as deep as three feet in some spots. The Libyans took it in stride, but the Air Force didn’t. Servicemen would be up to their knees in water and armed with water pumps whenever they were needed. Others have since told me the little town had quite an odor because of a tannery, but I never noticed.

Enrolled in eighth grade when my family arrived, I joined a class of forty students. Wheelus High had an enrollment of only 170 students, from seventh to twelfth grade. The entire class of 1956 consisted of a mere four seniors. There were twelve in the junior class, fifteen sophomores and thirty-two freshmen! We underlings were by far the most populous, and I was considered practically a high school student. One alumnus remarked that because it was such a small school there was more intermingling among students;  younger students weren’t treated as much like outsiders. The following year, we new freshmen had to suffer the indignities of freshman initiation. As I recall, wearing clothes backward was one ritual.

A class on the Arabic language was a requirement for all students, but few took the class seriously, especially the friendly, eager-to-please teacher, Haj Ali (pronounced Hi Jolly). I can still count to ten in Arabic and learned a few phrases, hopefully accurate, such as molish (who cares), bahi (good),  ana nagra (I am reading) and baksheesh (free). I was told that zup meant the same as fuck. What inquisitive American teen didn’t learn that word and its equivalent in other languages! The boys probably knew a few more.

I had an opportunity to see the difference between American and European educational systems. Our freshman high school class visited Lecio, Tripoli’s Italian high school. In contrast to our casual attire, the boys dressed mostly in suits, the girls wore black smocks. Italian students acted as our guides and took small groups of us into various classrooms.

Practicing international relations with two Lecio students at my school bus stop

In drawing class students were copying Roman columns, an appropriate theme because of the nearby Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. Since most of their students studied French, I tried out my decidedly novice abilities with a young man. His French was impeccable; I wish I could have said the same for mine. In an entirely male physics class I was asked to put an algebra problem on the board. A volunteer student worked it immediately and returned the favor. Algebra, or should I say math in general, was not my strong suit. I called for Karen, one of my classmates to help, but we were both stumped. The class laughed good-naturedly at us, delighted to prove their male superiority while gawking at American girls.

Miss Gobi teaches French at Wheelus High–Fantastique! C’est si bon!

The Italians were even better at basketball. From my young viewpoint, I had always assumed it was an American game played more adeptly by Americans. Our high school team played Lecio every year and were continually trounced. Of course Wheelus High didn’t exactly have a huge talent pool from which to draw.

 

This story has been published in a new Libyan magazine Kalam, the December edition.

The Army’s in My Blood

My brother Darby was born in Ft. Knox and later did his basic officer training there.

I’ve been reminded that my adventures as an Army brat applies to other service brats, like Air Force brats—I knew many of them in Tripoli. Of course, the Air Force started out as the Army Air Force and didn’t become its own service until 1947. Sometimes there was some envy of this “new” service with its blue uniforms and fancier officers’ clubs!

Our Army (or Air Force or Navy or Marines) fathers (not many women in the service years ago) all wore uniforms and these had to be starched, ironed, and kept in excellent shape. My mother was expected to keep my dad’s things in perfect order, and she advised me ruefully never to let a man take me for granted. In other words, don’t volunteer to iron or you’ll be stuck behind an ironing board forever. Thank God Permanent Press was available when I got married, and my husband had elected to stay only in the Reserve Army (two weeks of uniforms in the summer).

Way before the cheap giant stores we have now, the Army provided the PX (post exchange) a version of department store with mostly quality things at lower prices and the Commissary (nicknamed the Co-misery by some) for reasonably priced food. Prices needed to be low since joining the service, whichever one was chosen, was not designed to make your parents rich.  I still have some record albums (remember those?) from the PX in the early ‘60s that only cost $2.35! And a china cabinet full of nice silver and crystal from the PX I got for wedding presents. I could entertain like my parents, but who uses silver trays and bowls, fancy silverware and crystal except for very special occasions?

Entertainment was always a priority in the service; officers and their wives had calling cards and went through all the proper protocol. Officers and enlisted men did not socialize: they each had their own clubs. The Class VI store, on the other hand, was available to those, no matter what rank, who were old enough to imbibe alcohol in its various forms. Cocktail parties, dinner parties, special dinners/parties given by a certain command or military groups were typical to celebrate holidays, promotions, farewells, etc. Each weeknight, if they didn’t have other social plans, my mother would put on a nice dress and heels and greet my dad with Martinis or Manhattans and sliced raw vegetables (pioneers for eating if not drinking healthy) for cocktail hour, from 5-7 p.m., wherever they were stationed. I can’t remember if he got comfortable first and took off the uniform.

Army posts offered tennis courts, bowling alleys, shooting ranges, gyms: you name it. There were always movie theaters and movies were very cheap. Because of my thrifty dad, however, I remember my mother making us kids popcorn and putting it into small paper bags to take to the 35-cent or cheaper films. In the summer, there were usually several huge pools to choose from, an easy bike ride away. And when you became a teenager, there was a teenage club with lots of activities.

Rules and regulations were to be obeyed without protest; everything had certain hours, and in military time. My dad wrote me letters military style while I was away at college: paragraphs were numbered and if he was scheduling a pickup or a visit, it would be written as 0800 hours or perhaps 1600 hours, for instance.

My brother Darby is sworn into Army service by my dad, right after college graduation.

If your dad got orders, it was time to leave, no matter how well you liked the present abode. Moving wasn’t ever that easy, but there were Army personnel to pack up your household goods: until the Army got smart eventually and starting providing furniture, dishes, bedding and the like at the new military destination, especially including Europe. Personal household items didn’t always arrive at the new quarters, arrive on time or in good shape, but that was to be accepted, even if it ended up on the bottom of the ocean, which did happen, although not to us.

Army fathers (as I imagine all service fathers) were used to a regimented schedule. When we went on a vacation in the States, we got up at 4 a.m. (0400 hours) and hit the road. I got a laugh from the scene in the movie The Great Santini when the family got in their car to leave in the wee hours. In the 50s we traveled to Tripoli in what some joked was a putt-putt airplane, propeller-driven and loud. It involved several refueling stops and seats were not all facing the front, which made it easy for my sister to throw up on my brother. Military airplanes in the 50s and 60s made stops in places like the Azores, Morocco, England, Scotland, Newfoundland and Labrador (and that was when you were traveling east). Once off an airplane, you didn’t get your land legs back for at least a day. Until then your ears buzzed and everything seemed to move, even if you were sitting down.

Traveling by ship was more common in the 40s and 50s. I got my “sea legs” when I was four years old: from New York to Hamburg, Germany, and then by train to Munich.

When an Army father retired, he usually picked someplace near a post or base since he could still use the PX, Commissary, medical facilities and space-available air travel. Many times the retirement choice would be the area of his last post or base. When he’d had enough, my mom and dad chose Texas for the warm climate and the close proximity of Ft. Sam Houston, where, ironically, my mother and I had been briefly during WWII when she’d been married to my natural father. My mother left this world from Ft. Sam Houston.

Military life as a dependent involved a great deal more than I could fit into this story, but it gives a general idea.

Being an Army brat was a great adventure, despite the challenges. Living in exotic places was exciting but best of all were the friends you made and kept, if you chose to. My parents kept up with Army couples all over the world until they died, and I always looked forward to reading all the Christmas cards from everywhere. It’s a tradition I chose to cherish and carry on.

GROWING UP AS AN ARMY BRAT

I was a draftee in the US Army from the time I was born. The old joke tells it best—I didn’t enlist, I was drafted.

My young mother, Garnette, wanted adventure, but I don’t think she bargained for the extra baggage so soon. After high school in Danville, Virginia, she took off for nearby Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and got herself a job as a clerk-typist. She was a beautiful woman and had no problem finding Victor, an eligible Infantry lieutenant and a West Point graduate, no less. It was 1942 and the US was already at war. I’m sure there were a slew of babies “hatching” in the pouch and military fathers doing the honorable thing by marrying the mothers.

Victor & Victoria, the draftee!

Although the marriage only lasted through the war, I think my mother loved Victor. Being a Southern lady, she didn’t tell me I was the result of a romantic dalliance until I was 19. She’d already found herself another Army lieutenant as the war ended. After a Reno divorce (she had to live there six weeks: see the old movie The Women), they married and then honeymooned in San Francisco.

Mom, new dad and me - Munich train station

My stepdad, Darby, was my new commander-in-chief and he and Mom added two new draftees, Joan Tupper and Darby III, as the years went by. Being Army brats, there were always travel adventures for all of us: Murnau, Mannheim and Frankfurt, Germany; Tripoli, Libya, the Bronx, Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri; Ft. Knox, Kentucky; Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and Alexandria, Virginia, essentially. They traveled back to Germany while I was in college, and I joined them when I graduated. Who wanted to miss the opportunity?

Luckily, I loved moving and making new friends, even though I was a little bit shy in my younger years. One learns to be resourceful and comfortable wherever you end up. Orders are orders. Housing can be spacious or cramped. Before we got officer’s housing in Ft. Knox, we were in a cantonment area, (temporary quarters)—a one-story converted old wooden hospital with closed-off corridors near the famous Gold Vault.

Regular officers’ quarters were usually more than adequate. You’d never mistake them since they look almost identical in any US fort: solid and respectable-looking two story brick with basements and garages and a decent-sized yard. Some of these leftovers remain in the Army’s famous Presidio on the best real estate in San Francisco, now privately owned.

In Germany, right after WWII, as the occupying forces, we lived like rich folks in a two-story 18-room mansion in bucolic Murnau (undamaged by the war) with a separate garage, spacious grounds, a maid and a houseboy. Murnau is now a spa town and quite lovely. The skiing area in winter was about a 10-minute walk. If that wasn’t good enough, a longer excursion would have taken us to Germany’s tallest mountain, the Zugspitze in Garmisch. Quarters never got that good again, although our Tripoli villa was top notch. The photo below shows the home with the staked tomato plants in front. And my dad was only a captain!

I don’t think “socialism” has particularly bothered me politically, or universal health care. Those were Army services. Housing and health care was provided, and you took what they gave you. I’ve never hankered after a specific family doctor. If any of us had a health problem, we’d accompany my mom to the dispensary, have our temperature taken and then wait. If it wasn’t serious, it might be many hours. Getting shots was not a choice; my mother hauled us into the dispensary every year as needed for what we needed, depending on where we were going next. As I often heard it said, however, “The Army takes care of its own.”

To be continued

Living on the Economy – Tripoli, Libya

The family home, above the Bougainvillea, surrounded by walls

After about six weeks in the Hotel Del Mahari—five of us in three small rooms—my dad, a Lt. Col. in the Army Corps of Engineers, found us a home in Garden City, an upscale location for Europeans, Americans and wealthier Libyans. We left the beautiful view of the harbor for a flowering, mostly cosmopolitan area. Consisting of narrow streets like spokes that branched off from Garden City Circle, the area was a neighborhood of one and two-story, flat-roofed, square and rectangular-shaped villas surrounded by stucco walls as high as ten feet. The walls were as much for privacy as protection, and many of them had decorative, fret-worked sections. Flowering vines such as bougainvillea, lantana hedges, and palm trees were ubiquitous. Garden City was an appropriate name.  It was some time before I discovered that the vibrantly-colored pink and purple bougainvillea vines that seemed to cascade from countless rooftops were in actuality growing up from the ground to the roof and not vice-versa.

Our spacious home was on the second floor of a two-family villa on a street that maintained its Italian name, Via de Gaspari. A Libyan family lived downstairs and they even raised chickens! We had a large balcony that ran the full length of the villa’s frontage. Small square sections, supported by columns, jutted out at either end of the balcony, giving the villa a slight “U” shape. A slatted, green-iron gate led from the street to a small side yard, large enough for the swing set my father ordered, which flaunted our American ways in this faraway land.

We were comfortable in our three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. There was no central heating, but since doors closed off the entrance hall, the separate closed dining room and separate living room, we could keep the back bedrooms and kitchen warm in winter with portable Aladdin propane gas heaters. To add to the coziness and keep out pesky sand from ghiblis, the desert sandstorms that would blow into town on occasion, there were green wooden shutters that could be rolled down over the outside of all the windows.

Garden City was multi-cultural. Next door and on the corner, our neighbor was a British general and his wife; another British family occupied the home on our other side. One night when my girlfriend Karen spent the night, we climbed our back wall and then scooted along the General’s back wall to spy on a big party he was giving.  Thirteen-year-old girls enjoy exploring even if getting caught might be embarrassing to us and our fathers.

Directly across the street was a compound for the Egyptian ambassador to Libya. According to recent Google maps, that compound is now the Maltese Embassy and there are several other embassies within a few blocks. Obviously the real estate in the area grew in value.

The popular Gamel Abdul Nasser was in power in Egypt in the mid 50s, and while we were there the ambassador held a party for Libyan dignitaries and politicians (only male, of course). I spied on the interesting event from our balcony and watched as his male visitors mingled. Robed Arab sheiks, with their distinctive square cloth headdress bound with gold rope, seemed to be the dominant guests. Seated at outside tables set up in the sizeable yard, they smoked as they watched films of Nasser on a giant movie screen.  Not long after, we Americans, especially those who didn’t reside on the American Air Force base, lived through the adventurous Suez Canal crisis, but I’ll devote another blog post to that bit of history.

Facing an adjacent street but bordering on the back of our villa was the home of a former Arab queen, perhaps a relative of King Idris, then King of Libya. My girlfriend, Gail, who lived around the corner, and I were very curious about the mysterious queen but never had a glimpse, despite the fact that we would climb my back garden wall and peer through the trees into the lushly landscaped acres surrounding the queen’s home. We played tennis in the street in front of the queen’s mansion, but were such poor players that we lobbed and lost balls in her gardens.

My mother faced most of the household problems alone. She managed to eliminate most of the roaches, but ample hot water was usually a challenge. Tiny wall water heaters in kitchen and bathroom couldn’t keep up with our spoiled American demands. Always enterprising, she’d put large pots of water on top of the Aladdin heaters to get extra hot water. I was in charge of dishwashing, and it was my job to monitor this water when my parents entertained. We had brought our American washing machine with us, but it soon burned out, perhaps from the difference in electrical currents. Mom took to washing in the large bathroom tub, a normal size and shape. Fortunately for her, my thrifty father relented and decided he could afford an occasional maid since it would be difficult to procure another washer.

The maid situation was comical but instructive. Dad hired an Arab girl, Fatma, who was attractive and cheerful, and tattooed on her ankles, forehead and hands, traditional markings applied when she was an infant. She wore her white wool street barracan when she arrived and would remove it to do her work. I can still picture her sitting at the kitchen table, her blue striped house garment wound around her body and over her shoulders, dark hair partially hidden beneath her hair covering. She spoke very few words of English and didn’t attempt to learn any more, content to sit warbling her singsong Arab tunes as she languidly dried the dishes and silverware.

A sprightly Italian girl remedied the problem. Fatma was let go and pretty, dark-haired Chezeri joined us. Not only was she fluent in English, but she was efficient and friendly, teaching us bits of Italian, which I got to practice when her boyfriend Douilio, who spoke no English at all, came to pick her up. We invented Italian nicknames for the appealing British soldiers who served the general next door. A tall blond fellow, who walked the general’s German Shepherd among his other duties, was called Biondo. She taught me a little Italian ditty about a poppy.

Even now my sister and I remember it. I drag it out upon occasion to show off my facility in languages! At a wedding a couple of years ago I met an Italian woman who knew the song, which apparently originates from Northern Italy. It’s odd what sticks in our heads from long ago.

Typical scene in Libya desert, not far from town

GHOSTLY GERMANS

A German "castle" in the California mountains

Theodor Sparkuhl’s home, located in the rolling hills of Triunfo Canyon not too far from Malibu and the ocean, resembles a German “schloss” or castle. A native of Germany, Sparkuhl, the director of photography for Paramount Studios, built the country home in 1940. He was familiar with the Santa Monica Mountains because Paramount had a filming ranch in the area and he loved it.

Known in the movie world for his innovative development of the use of spotlights, which would soften the faces of actors and make them look younger, Sparkuhl worked with Ronald Coleman, James Cagney, Fred MacMurray, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, among many others, and was known for his work on the Gary Cooper film Beau Geste. Sparkuhl had been a cinematographer on over 100 films.

Spurkuhl put a great deal of energy into building the home with a bell tower, gables, decorative wooden beams, a courtyard and guest house. Since it was wartime, he even added a secret basement room in case the Japanese invaded or the Germans won the war. In 1946 Sparkuhl died and the house was sold.

In 1975 actor Nick Nolte bought it while he was filming a TV miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man. The 70s were wild and crazy for Nolte. I remember seeing his old yellow Cadillac broken down by the side of a mountain road one day. Nolte and his friends partied quite a bit and the house suffered a good deal of damage. It was finally abandoned to birds of all types, squirrels and various other animals.

It was a mess of animal droppings and refuse when Agoura resident Glen Peterson bought the house and began his restoration. Sparkuhl’s descendants, who visited the site while Glen was restoring it, thought the cinematographer might have put too much intensity into the building project since he died relatively young.

One evening after the house was beautifully finished, Glen was home alone enjoying a quiet evening. While listening to a new Terence Trent Darby recording and near the end of the song, Glen heard a loud knocking on the back door. He checked both inside and out and found no one. Back inside, he restarted the song. The knocking began again at the exact same place.

This time he checked the windows, “I had repaired the windows just that morning,” Glen recalled, specifically to keep them from opening due to strong winds. They were all still closed, and he began the recording once more.

Glen played the song eight times, and “the pounding kept happening at the same time each time.” Every time it happened, he checked for a reason for the knocking, but found none. On the ninth try, the record played through to the end, and there were no further knocking sounds.

The mysterious last two lines of the song that finally played without interruption were: “No grave can hold my body down; this land is still my home.”

SPIRITUAL CONNECTIONS

I believe the creative process is a mystical/magical one.  I often wonder where ideas come from. Common advice for writers: Write about what you know. But you don’t always know what you know until you sit in front of a computer or a pad of paper. Or take a walk, go for a swim or perhaps even clean your home.

I’ve noticed when I’m the process of editing books, or writing blog posts, I’m open to connections/coincidences/synchronicity, call it what you want. While I was editing the book, the Religion of Money—a light-hearted history of economics by Frederick (a pen name)—I experienced a momentary synchronicity as I was reading over the story of the De Medici family of Florence, Italy. Giovanni De Medici was mentioned in the book; not two seconds later my favorite classical music station announced the opera “Don Giovanni” was scheduled in L.A.

If I’m casually watching TV while browsing through a magazine or newspaper, the same kind of thing happens. I’ll read about a certain subject and have it verbalized in some manner on a TV show immediately after, or vice versa. My daughter and I keep in close touch by phone and Email. If I’m thinking about her, there’s a good chance the phone will ring. I know it’s her before I even check the number. From what I’ve heard from friends, that’s quite ordinary for many of us.

My mother passed on 36 years ago. That morning I was reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson (coincidentally an alum of my alma mater, William & Mary), and had just read about the death of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, Sally Hemings’ older half-sister. I was absorbing that sad historical news when my dad called to say my mother had died during a kidney dialysis treatment.  I’ve always felt my reading gave me a sort of preview and helped me deal with my mother’s devastating death just a little better. Jefferson, my mother and I are all Virginia natives, ironically enough.

Books dealing with metaphysical subjects are a definite attraction for me, and I’m lucky to have edited several of them. High Holy Adventure by R. Alan Fuller is a true story about his mystical experiences with shamans, spirits and mediums, especially in the Andes. Euphoria Zone by Alan Lee Breslow weaves innovative healing techniques into his spiritual adventure. Pat Sendejas wrote Letting Go to Create a Magical Life, which discusses life’s synchronicities and invisible messages. Working with all three authors was enlightening and exciting.

Was my book predicted?

In the mid 80s I had a psychic reading with a woman named Terry, who was supposed to be quite intuitive and knowledgeable in her field. I asked her if I were going to write a book, figuring it might be an emotional story about my divorce, which had recently happened.  Terry said her spiritual “guides” had told her I would write something about voyages. She didn’t know what that meant, she told me; perhaps it had to do with my “voyage” through life.

I forgot about the reading until the late 90s when I was finishing up my novel. It was, indeed, about a voyage. My fictional heroine, Melaynie, masquerades as a captain’s boy, and sails with English hero Francis Drake to the Caribbean!

And then there’s Karen, my intuitively psychic friend with lots of talents. She’s predicted some incredible things for me, some I’ve lived or am living through. Where does the information come from? That’s another long story.

A Gharry Ride along Tripoli Harbor

A street in the Old City

My family–mom, dad, sister and brother–settled into the Del Mahari Hotel along the harbor for the first weeks of our Tripoli residence. Everything was so different: from the smells to the sounds, that we all needed a familiarization tour of our new town. In an expansive mood that first morning, my father announced plans to take his family on a “gharry” (an Indian word for buggy) ride to explore.  Gharries in Tripoli were horse-drawn open vehicles with large wheels, like carriages of old. I never questioned how an Indian word was being used in an Arab country once run by Italians.

The Libyan driver, shod in sandals and eager for business, stood on the hotel driveway in front of his gharry.  He was dressed simply in baggy white pants and shirt, a black vest, and a burgundy-colored close-fitting cotton hat with a tab in the middle, which reminded me of a beanie. The small, well-used black gharry was hitched to a lean brown horse.  Though the driver had a limited knowledge of English, he understood my father’s wish that we be driven around both the new and the old city.

As we seated ourselves on bench seats facing each other, the gharry pulled out onto the lightly traveled harbor boulevard with the musical Italian name Lungomare, which means along the sea. A bright sun sparkled off the harbor’s blue water, and a gentle sea breeze blew the fronds of the palm trees that lined the curving street on both sides. We passed along the edge of the new city headed for the old Barbary Pirate fort at the west end of the harbor, a distance of only ten long blocks. The new city gleamed: white, modern-looking and flat-roofed, enchanting us with its Arabian touches of mosque, minaret and arabesque decoration.

Within a few blocks we passed the Italian Cathedral, a grand edifice of granite with its own cross-embellished high dome and adjacent tower. It might have been lifted straight out of Italy. The Italians, who had first settled in Libya in 1911, had been an important part of the country’s recent history.  They ruled the country until World War II changed everything, and the United Nations granted Libya independence after the war. It was rather startling to see a cathedral in a country of mosques. I wonder what happened to this grand edifice.

The horse led the gharry past the Fountain of the Gazelle, a small traffic circle surrounded by tall palms in the middle of the boulevard. The circular fountain contained the statue of a seated nude woman, her right hand caressing the neck of a gazelle, which resembles a small horned deer, as she gazes into its eyes.

A short distance further, we were all impressed with an immense, three-storied white edifice surrounded by the ubiquitous palm. Resembling a princely palace, it had squared towers at all four corners. A taller squared tower, with finials on each of its corners, greeted guests from the center front of the gracious building. All its many windows were arched. Checking his guidebook, my father announced that it was the Grand Hotel, too fancy for his budget.  But not too fancy for Vice President Richard Nixon, who in the mid-fifties was on a worldwide public relations tour for President Eisenhower, or for Sophia Loren and John Wayne, who stayed there while making a desert film, “Legend of the Lost,” a couple of years later.

We were soon approaching the old city boundary, the Barbary Pirate fort.  Also known as the Castle, it contained a hodgepodge of rooms displaying an assortment of old relics from pirate days as well as artifacts from Libyan history. The highest walls of the oddly shaped, but mostly rectangular stone structure projected toward the harbor. Its upper story had several large arched openings; on the harbor side cannons projected through these arches, the same ones that had fired at U.S. Marines in 1801. The Barbary Pirates managed to sink several Navy ships. The five Marine casualties were buried in a local cemetery and celebrated by Americans every July 4th (until all American service personnel left in 1970). Tripoli is the famous city in the Marine Corps song with its words – “from the halls of Monteczuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

The horse and driver led us through an archway of the fort as we passed into the old city. The difference between old and new was apparent right away; here the streets and crumbling buildings were narrow and old. Tiny homes and shops, no longer whitewashed and neat as in the new city, were crowded together. It was alive with people: Arab men and women going about their business. Many of the men were dressed like the gharry driver, but others were in more traditional garb. Besides a shirt, very baggy trousers and sandals, they wore a light cloth wound around the head and over it a roughly textured brown or white covering, called a barracan, which draped around head and shoulders and ended below the knees. I later heard an unverified rumor that their loose trousers, with the crotch hanging almost to the knees, were designed that way to catch the prophet Mohammed, who, when he was reborn, would be born to a man. Women were carefully enclosed in a similar flowing white garment, but it covered them from head to toe, only the right eye and bare feet in sandals peeped out at the world.

Still traveling along the harbor, we could see working fishermen seated along the sand at the water’s edge repairing fishing nets; others were bundling their nets into small fishing boats. The pungent smell of dead fish was pervasive. Some of these same fisherman turned their attention to flying creatures a year or so later when Tripoli was host to an invasion of locusts. They were considered a delicacy, and Libyan men would eagerly gather the winged bugs that had landed along the sea wall, putting them into bags to take home to eat, perhaps after roasting them over a fire.

The Fountain of the Gazelle along the harbor

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