12/15/2007, written in St. Petersburg, FL.
As part of our work for Reach the World, this week we traveled to Odessa, TX. We have been writing about our trip for RTW and posting on the website. The kids in the Odessa public schools have been reading about and following our adventures. This was a chance for them to meet us and for us to meet them.
Reach the World is a non-profit that works to bring the experiences of volunteer travelers (in this case, us) to kids in under funded public schools. The children's horizons are broadened by following our adventures, and the idea of travel is made real and accessible through meeting us in person and communicating with us by email. The teachers use the content we produce to motivate and engage the students, and as a base for teaching many subjects. Math teachers create word problems (for example, if the Wanderlust uses ¾ of a gallon of diesel per hour and travels by motor for 5 hours, how much diesel did it use? At $3.15/gallon, how much did it cost?). Geography and social studies teachers chart our progress weekly and talk about the communities through which we travel. When we leave the US for the Caribbean nations the Spanish teachers will incorporate information about the Spanish-speaking countries we visit. English teachers assign reading and writing projects based on our website writings. Science teachers can bring our nature experiences into their curriculum (for example, how did the flounder that Noah caught use camouflage to adapt to its surroundings? What are the characteristics of the different environments Wanderlust travels through: a river, an estuary, and the sea?) Teachers who have taught RTW programs before have told us that kids who were really struggling in school could still remember details of voyages that they had studied years ago.
So we parked our boat at a marina in St. Petersburg, Florida, and flew to Odessa. (Many thanks to the management at the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort for donating our dock fees to Reach the World). Amy Welch was our RTW coordinator there, and she couldn't have been more helpful and accommodating. And nice. And fun. She took the kids to a movie one night. She had arranged for us to present to 4 different schools (3 elementary and 1 Jr. High) in three days, and made sure we got where we were supposed to be, when we were supposed to be there, and that the teachers knew we were coming. She made sure we were fed. She also arranged for the school district's public relations department to interview us and film one of our presentations.
I had asked Noah to put together a power-point presentation about our trip. He took that project and ran with it. He included about 100 photos, graphics, animation, and music. It didn't all translate from the Mac on which he produced it to the PC 's on which we presented it, but most of it showed up, including all the photos, and it was clear, concise, engaging, and humorous. We presented that power-point 21 times, to approximately 1800 kids and teachers. Actually, Alice and Noah did. The school children responded best when the kids were talking, especially in the Jr. High, so Bill and Benjamin and I just filled in as needed. Depending on the kids, their interest, their ages, and the amount of time we had we included other features as well. We always tried to leave time at the end for questions, and there were always more than we could answer. Sometimes Bill would draw a diagram of the exterior and the interior of the Wanderlust on a white-board and describe the boat and all its unique vocabulary in detail. Twice he used masking tape to produce a life-sized outline of the boat, with all of its interior spaces delineated, on the floor. That was fun. We got volunteers to be the "crew" and had them lie down in the "bunks" and stand in the "head" or the "galley". If they were standing up, Bill had them all swaying with the "motion" of the "boat". In unison.
We were awed and humbled by the reception we got in Odessa. When we entered the first school a little girl called me by name and gave me a hug. She knew me only from the website. Our pictures were up on the wall in the hallway. We autographed them, and the PTA is going to auction them off at their next fundraiser! One class had created a timeline of our voyage, ending at Noel elementary school, Odessa, December 10, 2007. They had drawn pictures of all the animals we had seen, and their bulletin board read "Thanks for bringing the World within our Reach!". Amy's sister, Shelley, helped us navigate around on the first day, and had us over for dinner that night. It was so nice to have a home-cooked meal. We were given gifts -- Texas Longhorns hats, and Texas t-shirts. We collected a pile of thank you notes, decorated with pictures of sailboats and anchors. Senora Claudia Richards kept us on track at Reagan elementary, and the teachers at the school pulled together a delicious Tex-Mex luncheon for us. Senora Richards even made sure Benjamin got some chocolate milk from the cafeteria.
We also picked up another crew member. Odessa is known for its jack rabbits. There are painted sculptures of them scattered about town, and they are kind of a town mascot, a symbol of Odessa. We got a "flat jack" to join our voyage. His name is Ben Jack Rabbit. There has been an 8-foot statue of him in Odessa since 1962. The classroom that presented him to us thought that was a perfect fit, as we already have a Ben aboard. Flat Ben Jack Rabbit is just like a Flat Stanley, or the "flat selves" that the kids sent visiting in 1st or 2nd grade. Noah had sent his Flat Noah to visit our friends the Tulskys in North Carolina, and Benjamin had sent Flat Ben to visit our friend Michal in Israel. Now Flat Jack is along for the ride, and will visit all the places we do. He'll get his picture taken in fun spots, and maybe even write a journal entry or two. We hope he enjoys the trip.
Our visit to Odessa was educational, gratifying, exhilarating, and exhausting. Benjamin developed a sore throat and spent the last afternoon lying on a pillow on the floor, only putting his 2 cents worth in when the spirit moved him (it figures, after an entire fall spent perfectly healthy, he spent 3 days in school and got sick.) Alice and Noah came back to the hotel completely worn out from their day at the Jr. High, where they had done the presentation 11 times, back to back, without even a 20-minute break for lunch. They just took turns, one presenting while the other ran back to the conference room for a quick slice of pizza. We compared it to standing watches on a passage. Bill and I were filled with pride by their performance. They were mature, articulate, poised, and confident. And funny. (By the way, I credit Parker, their school, for their comfort in public speaking.) They took their responsibility to the program and the school kids very seriously. They did their best to encourage the kids to read, learn, and travel. They didn't express too much of their ambivalence, but they answered the questions about what they miss very honestly (friends, school, home and family). We were asked about what was hard several times, and we tried to be honest about that, too. Keeping everything put away all the time is hard, but mostly getting along with each other all the time is hard. We talked about having to be very careful about how we speak to each other, how we respect each others' need for privacy, and about being patient and kind to one another. We don't have the luxury of getting angry and going off in a huff. Any emotional tensions have to be dealt with right away, or they become problems for us all. The kids were very interested in the "family dynamics" aspect, especially the Jr. High students.
We came back to St Petersburg and the Wanderlust tired and happy and relieved. We had been looking forward to this trip since before we left Chicago, and wondering how it would go. Now that we've done it, there is a greater understanding between us and the kids in Odessa, and we have a better sense of how to write for them from now on. We can really see now what it is that we are contributing, and how the program works "on the ground". We hope to go back again, towards the end of our trip, and meet all the kids and teachers again. We had a great time.
We sailors are a superstitious lot. There is a gold coin at the base of our mast. We will not whistle for wind. We have poured libations to the various gods for their favor on our voyage. And we never write "going to" in our log; only "bound for".
Judy had been craving the company of a family at Thanksgiving. She wanted to "eat a meal at someone's dining room table". After all, we haven't been inside a home since Stacy and Gordon's in D.C. in early October. We had received some wonderful invitations from friends at home to celebrate the holiday with their families in Florida. One was with Mick and Kathy Domagala's family in Pensacola, the other with Lee Elvart's brother and sister-in-law in Tampa. We told the Domagala's that we would be past Pensacola by a 'fer piece' and accepted the invitation with the Matthews in Tampa. All from the comfort of our dock in Mobile, AL.
You can probably see where this is going by now. Two days after leaving Mobile, we were in Destin, FL. From Destin to Tampa is about 275 nautical miles south east as the crow flies, and we had 4 days til Thanksgiving. We had a fresh breeze from the south to south east predicted to go east then south then south west before the storm system came in on Wednesday or Thursday. We left Destin at 9pm, set up a watch schedule, and put the boat on course for Tampa. Judy and Noah were on watch first, and then again for sunrise. They said they had a glorious time. The boat was moving smoothly. We had seen bio-luminescence for the first time -- a phenomenon by which algae and plant life actually glow as the boat's wake disturbs them. They look like firefles in the water. The watch sang every song they knew, and some they didn't, and watched the water and the stars until the sun came up. Then the wind did shift, as it always does. It went a little to the east. That put us on a beat for Tampa, but maybe we could fetch it on one tack. We did have to go WAY out into the Gulf of Mexico to do it. After about 8 hours of this we were in 4-6 foot waves, confused by coming at us from 2 or 3 directions at the same time, heeled 15-20 degrees, and pounding. We were making about 6 knots, all good to Tampa, but it was a very uncomfortable ride.
Here is where discretion becomes the better part of valor. We have 2 somewhat reluctant voyagers on board, who had only recently begun to appreciate some of the wonders of travel. Now, in the middle of the Gulf, a seriously unpleasant crossing threatened to undermine all the good will that we had built up in the last few weeks. Noah tried to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for about 2 hours. He managed to get about ½ of it down then gamely held the other half for another hour and a half before pitching it over. We had to make some changes. The harbor of Port Saint Joe was 35 miles on the other tack. We abandoned our course for Tampa and made for the nearest shelter. Sunup found us quietly at anchor in a protected bay and still 200 miles from Tampa.
Out came the charts and the telephones. Lots of frantic calls later we cancelled on the Matthews, asked the Domagalas to re-instate the invitation, and figured that we could rent a car and find our way to their table by Thanksgiving.
We weighed anchor and motored down the 'ditch' (Intracoastal Waterway) bound for Apalachicola. This is beautiful country. The area is estuarine, meaning there are four distinct natural habitats: Freshwater River, Brackish Bay, Barrier Island , and Gulf. Each has its own ecosystem, and each is dependent on the other. The bay produces many fine oysters, and the Gulf has shrimp. This is a genuine fishing village of the classic sort. The oyster gatherers are required to use tongs to pull up the creatures from the bottom, and they sell their catch to one of the dozen or so oyster houses along the waterfront. You can see them coming in every day and unloading their catch. It is hard, dangerous, low paid work, and some of the people here have been doing it for generations. The oysters have a delicate flavor that changes from weekly, even daily, and the locals are keenly aware of the quality of them from day to day.
Like many habitats in the area, country, and the world, this one, pristine though it seems, is in peril. The system depends on the balance of fresh water that comes down the river. Uncontrolled growth in Atlanta and area has caused the diversion of much of the freshwater that people need for residential use. The current drought (13 = 15 inches below normal rainfall for the year) has exacerbated the problem. The lack of water has caused an upset in the balance of the salinity and the location of the brackish water upon which the entire system depends. Most here agree that the oysters will disappear rapidly soon and collapse the local economy and destroy a long tradition unless it can be changed and controlled soon.
So we found ourselves strangers in this town with nowhere to go for the holiday meal. We also found out that one cannot rent a car here. I was unaware that there was anyplace in the country like that, but there are. We couldn't make the Domagala's after all. Pulling into the dock at the hotel and marina, I asked the woman at the front desk, Leigh, if there is a Jewish Community here in town, hoping that might be an entrée into someone's holiday celebration. She responded that the nearest community was in Tallahassee, 75 miles (statute miles) away, but there were a few Jews in town. One of the families, she told us, was Danny and Marissa Iskovich who owned a wonderful restaurant, and were having a pot-luck Thanksgiving dinner for 'strays'. Figuring that we qualified I set out to meet them and invite ourselves.
I rounded up Judy and some of the troops, and marched into town. No sooner had we introduced ourselves than an invitation was forthcoming. In fact Danny's parents were there having dinner at the time, and he introduced us to them and to his wife. We asked what we could bring, he told us there would be too much food and wine already and just to bring ourselves. We couldn't just arrive empty-handed so Judy planned the tasty black bean and corn salad that she makes, and found a couple of bottles of bubbly in our ship's stores.
Since I never let moss grow under my feet, the next day, Thanksgiving, I took the kids out for a bike ride to see the town. My sister gave us a folding bike before we left, and we were given 2 more (in rough but restorable condition) in Mobile. I still needed some parts for them and when I saw a young woman and her daughter on bikes in town I asked where there was a bike shop so that I might find the parts I needed. Well, anyone who has met me knows that I am the gregarious sort, and in Sarah Clark I spotted a kindred spirit at a glance. She and I may have been identical twins in a past life, or we are cut from the same cloth, or something. We share many traits. (All of them positive of course!) We got to chatting pretty quickly. We join them on their bike ride and she showed us the town. She and I and our kids got along famously from the start. We rode over to their rental cottage. She and her husband and three kids were from New Orleans, and were spending their vacation Apalach (as the locals call it). The kids all played together, and I turned down our 2nd Thanksgiving invitation of the day. We made plans to join them for dessert and a beverage after dinner.
The potluck was AMAZING! Marissa is originally from Venezuela, and there were many of her country people there, as was her mom, Tamara, after whom the restaurant is named. We met Erin and Anna-Maria, he is a local contractor, and she is a real-estate agent. Jay lives here and is a Merchant Marine. He works 75 days at a time on oil ships on the west coast, then has 75 days off here. Jeff and Caroline took a fancy to our children, and spent time engaged with them. Emily, the second chef's sister, is a PhD student at the University of Chicago, and was delightful company. By the time Sarah Clark, her husband Knox, and their kids came by the restaurant to say hello, we were strangers in town no more.
We went back to the Clarks' house with them and partied till midnight when they thrust the keys to their car at us and told us not to walk home, but to bring the car back in the morning with our laundry. Alice, Noah, and Benjamin spent much of the day with them, while Judy used their car to access a laundomat and a grocery store. I worked on various boat projects, and at 4:00pm we all met up again. Santa arrived in town on a shrimp boat in classic small town hokey style. The day after Thanksgiving is one of the town's big festival days, and they decorate for Christmas and line the streets with luminaries. The air was a bit crisp, and despite the palm trees everywhere, it felt like a real fall day. We found ice cream for the kids, and then dropped off all six of them at the Clarks' house with Alice in charge . With our new friends we sought out Gibson's Hotel for a cocktail on the porch.
Well "southern hospitality" is not a myth, but the absolute truth. It was not long before we were in the middle of a group of friends of friends. Susan Bacharach and Jim invited the lot of us into their beautiful home for another leftover potluck. We all went to our various kitchens and rounded up turkey-day 'planned-overs', and had another feast. I grinned from ear to ear when I had filled my plate, and Judy was pleased to be at "someone's dining room table". Marilyn and her beau were staying with Susan and Jim, and she stepped right and introduced herself, Erin and Anna-Maria were there too, Molly and Joseph, and more. Without exception the people we met were friendly, nice and genuinely glad to meet us. They all attributed to Apalachicola the ease and comfort with which we met people and all felt that this is a magical place.
The time for us to leave here approaches. I am reluctant to depart. This town has taken us in so warmly and completely. The 'sweet sorrow' is part of voyaging, I know, but I don't think it will ever get any easier. We have fallen in love with "Apalach". The wind literally blew us into town, and it will blow us out again, but we won't forget the place or its people, regardless of where we are 'bound for'.
11/27/2007, Demopolis, AL
The Jews of Demopolis Alabama
I had always heard that there were Jews throughout he deep south. It was only when I encountered it personally that I could really come to understand it. The kids and I were walking through Demopolis Alabama when we stumbled upon the Ben Jushran Synagogue. Turns that there was a thriving community for a long time there. Jews arrived with the French in the early 1800's and established a synagogue there. The original building was razed in 1954 to build the current one. It has since been named an Alabama Historic Site The old one was in the ancient "mosque" style. The new one is a simple brick building, rather plain and unadorned. It is no longer in use. In fact the care of the building has been turned over to the Episcopal Church, which is just across the street.
Curiosity overcoming my religious beliefs and aversions, we entered the church to inquire about the temple. The church was quite beautiful and we spent a few minutes admiring it and discussing the symbols. After a while the Reverend appeared. Rev. Dick was a very pleasant and jovial fellow. Well traveled, educated, and friendly he told us about his history, his church, and the temple. Seems that the local Jewish community had pretty much petered out and had given the Church the building for its use. In fact the next day, Wednesday, was the day that they distributed food to the local needy. I asked about the program, and told him I would like to participate in whatever little way I could. He said that they would be there at 8:00 am, and that I should find 'Rebecca'.
Eight o'clock Wednesday morning found me on my bicycle riding up to the old synagogue. There was a long line of people around the building and inside it as well. I took my backpack full of canned goods that Judy had dug out of the boat in to the people in the back to give away. I was stunned and amazed. There was food piled up in great mounds and a platoon of people packing bags, counting and carrying. I gave them my little bag of cans and rolled up my sleeves. We moved the donated food for about an hour to finish packing the over 200 bags of food that they give away weekly, then made room for the next 2 tons of food that was to be delivered later that week.
I told my story about why I was there and heard the tales of the locals. One of the volunteers told me he was good friends with Bert and Mary Louise Rosenbush, the last Jews living in Demopolis, and that he would like to hear from me. He gave me their number and address. I managed to make contact by telephone the next evening. Unfortunately, since we were scheduled to leave on Saturday we could not meet up due to our conflicting schedules. We did, however, have a long and interesting telephone conversation. The Rosenbush family were local merchants for 3 generations. Bert's granddad had started the furniture store in 1895. His daddy had run it for many years, and Bert had only closed it about 3 years previous. He also donated the building it had been in to the Demopolis Historical Society. They had been a long time and prominent members of Ben Jushran . As the congregation dwindled they took down the old building and built the one that stood now. Somehow as the remaining few members were unsure of what to do with the temple it was given to the Episcopal Church. Bert felt that it had been wrested unfairly from the hands of the rightful owners. "Railroaded" was the expression he used. I am sure there is a story there.
The people never had a rabbi as the leader of the temple, nor did any itinerant rabbis visit. The services were always led by a 'lay reader'. Since Judaism does not prescribe a clergy, any adult Jew can lead services. Still the meaning is greater if there is a very learned member of the congregation present. Someone with a great singing voice is a major bonus. Lacking these made the congregation look elsewhere for guidance. Today the Rosenbushs are members of a temple in Montgomery, Alabama. There was never anyone in Demopolis who could teach Hebrew, or give a Jewish education. Indeed when Bert, who is 79 now, went to Israel several years ago he wanted to read from the torah and become Bar-Mitzvah. Unfortunately he lacked the background to even do this.
Many people who wish to identify themselves as Jews seek community. Demopolis no longer has one. Though there was once a thriving population of Jews, and much evidence of their presence Bert and Mary Louise, who never had children, are the last Jews in town. All the others have moved to cities and towns where it was easier to surround themselves with members of their own faith.
During our visit to Demopolis I was struck by how pleasant the town was. Life was fairly easy, the people were very friendly, I had no problem getting things done. I found myself thinking about how it would be to live there. I could imagine having a very nice life in small-town America, a lifestyle that I had previously thought was long gone. Though I asked specifically, Bert said that he never felt bigotry directed at him. This in a part of the country long known for bigotry, and still obviously healing from the wounds inflicted by it.
I don't know whether or not to mourn the passing of the Jews of Demopolis. On the one hand there is the natural progression of things which includes migration of people of many groups. Usually from rural areas to more urban ones. The Jews tend to gather in larger cities where there is more community to share interests and understanding. On the other hand there is simpler and older lifestyle that is past and can never be recovered nor can I ever achieve. Times change.............