Thursday, August 11, 2011

Zeke Jones

A large black housefly crawls steadily up the porch screen. No sound but not trying to be silent; being a housefly is all. A soft breeze compromises its journey so it tightens its grip on the screen-lacing with its six hairy legs and continues its journey to nowhere for no certain time period. A colored boy looks out the screen of his family’s porch at Miss Tildalayhu smartly walking down the street on her way to church. Quite heavy in a bright yellow ankle-length dress, pink belt and pink sash on her large-brimmed yellow hat; her church-goin’ hat for sure. The housefly walks into the line of sight of the colored boy and his young ginger eyes reverse focus on the fly.

“Mornin’ Ezekial,” Miss Tildalayhu says, calling him by his given name though everyone else calls him Zeke.

His eyes again re focus on the proud Negro woman. Man, I hates people that calls me Ezekial, he whispers ever so lightly because if his daddy heard that kind of disrespect he’d smack the back of his head so hard fireworks would go off behind his eyes.

“Mornin’ Miss Tildalayu,” he says just loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to warrant her stopping and engaging him in conversation about something stupid then saying “Jesus loves you, Ezekial. See you in Church.” But the boy is not going to church. His momma will go. Pray for the whole family. Mans don’t hafta go to church. Woman’s job, he whispers. Below the bottom level of the screen he practices giving her the finger, holding down his first, third and fourth finger with his thumb. Zeke smiles at Miss Tildalayhu. He knows he’s bad but it makes him feel older, bigger, deserving of respect—not just a skinny little nigger boy who white people boss around.

The housefly is now walking in circles directly in front of the boy. It stops, does something with its legs. The boy squints down on the fly wondering if flys lick their butts like dogs do, like cats do; wondering if flys take craps or piss. So the boy decides to kill the fly. He rolls a newspaper and swats it, knocking it to the sill where he smacks it several times. Whack. Whack. Whack.

“What the hell’s goin’ on out there?” his daddy’s voice from the living room asks.

“Just killed me a fly,” the boy answers. “A dumb ole fly that pro’bly craps and pisses all over the porch.”

“You tear that screen and I’ll beat the crap and piss outa you.”

“Yes, daddy.”

“Yes, SIR,” he corrected.

“Yes, sir.” Zeke knows better. “Daddy? Momma goin’ to church? Seen Miss Tildalayhu on her way.”

“Yeah. She be along soon. We goin’ to my shoe-shine chair to meet the afternoon trains. You ready?”

“Yes, daddy.”

“Yes, SIR.”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Secret

I am old. Pretty difficult to get along with, they say. It’s Saturday. I’m sitting on a curb in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in southern Quintanna Roo, Mexico. I left my huarachis in the car because I like the feel of my bare feet touching the ground, like dancing naked with a woman. A ten foot tall bronze statue of Presidente Benito Juaréz stands prominent in the rotary (glorieta) across the street. Juaréz was a Zapotec Indian who ruled Mexico during the mid to late 1800s–that would be like Geronimo becoming president of the United States. Many parts of this area have not changed since then. Juaréz is watching me because he knows my secret.

I am a fly fisherman and copywriter. Sounds frivolous, doesn’t it? Fly fisherman and copywriter. I fish down here as often as I can finagle airfare and a car. (Often I sleep in the back seat, yet another advantage of a rental car). You can buy good Cuban cigars in this town and sit outside a bar with a Dos XX. And smoke and drink, oil your reels, loop your lines, remember old times, and plan your tomorrows. Especially you can look at the women. God, the women here are beautiful, the morning sun heating them and the moon sliding down their backs. And fleeting black eyes like flash bulbs in the dark.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Glimpse of Harbour Island

From the sky, Andros, the Eleutheras—that part of the Bahamas—looks like it was painted by a Disney animation artist: pastel pinks and greens, violets and purples; a milky, off-white pattern in the Atlantic, embracing irregular stretches of rich green land onto which slaves were imported in the fifteenth and sixteenth century to replace the thousands of Arawak Indians killed by the white man.

The dock at Dunmore Town is a poured concrete runway, fifty-feet long. At the end of the runway is a platform for storage, a pastel green, stucco warehouse, an empty red telephone booth. Old white-side-wall automobile tires line the outer edge of the platform and runway to which boats are tied in random order like trail horses on a tether line; some twelve-foot Whalers next to twenty-five foot water taxis, waiting to take tourists to the North Eleuthera airport. Black Children scurry from tourist to tourist helping with luggage, receiving their tip then scurrying off behind a deserted old refrigerator where they will count their fortune.

Two different species of human’s here: white tourists in pastels from Abercrombie and J.Crew, and purple/black islanders in blacks and browns with bare feet like elephant hide—black with deep pores and scratches that tell stories like the rings of a tree.

An old man with a graying, kinky beard rides a broken-down bicycle around the storage building at the end of the pier, chasing three young children from piles of lumber brought from the mainland. He warns them of the dangers of falling as he slowly weaves in and out of the piles on his bike like an old bumblebee among flowers.

“Hey, chiles. Get-offa-dat wood fo you fall an huht yosef. Gwan now, get!”

From this fifty-foot runway sticking into the harbor, I turn and see the town, a series of quaint, wood-frame homes, mostly white with varying pastel shades of pink or green or blue or violet. Yellow, too. That these homes were first constructed in the early 1800’s is a testament to their hardiness. “You see all dose houses got the same wide siding, everone on Bay Street’s the same, they all built one fashion. The man founded the plan and everbody built the houses alike.” Made of pine from the Abacos and Key West then painted every other year for a hundred and fifty years. Seventy coats of paint resist the hurricane season and bond to each other like left-handedness in a family. This tiny Bahamian community, steadfastly adhering to its New England architecture, remains committed to a sense of values that, too, are under attack from the off-shore social elements—disrespect, petty crime and greed.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Translating in Nicaragua

The Alien

I am ET in a group of earthlings. I must learn their ways. . .or I will surely perish. Seventy-seven humans called surgeons, nurses, internists, anesthesiologists, equipment specialists, etc. They are speaking a language of which I understand only the pronouns and conjunctions. They are warm and friendly. My earth brother is their leader. I call him Lanny. He has learned the verbs and nouns. These people fix their kind, repairing limbs with saws and hammers and screws; carpenters of sorts.

We are gathering at the airport in Indiana headed for Managua, Nicaragua with stores of high tech medical supplies—drugs, surgical equipment, state-of-the-art prostheses. Something unpleasant is dawning on me. This: I am to translate their English words—which I don’t understand—to a person (patient) who doesn’t speak English. My Spanish is sketchy. . .faded like the lyrics of an old doo-wop song. Luckily there are several translators and, because this group travels Latin America each year, many of the medical personnel have become somewhat fluent, some have not. My brother still struggles with English.

We fly over the Gulf of Mexico, over the Yucatan Peninsula. I can locate Quintana Roo and Ambergris Caye. Memories of stalking the shallow lagoons with a fly rod in one hand and a Dos XX in my fanny pak and such a thrill in my heart— bonefish, tarpon and permit. Los lagunas de Mahahual, siempre te ven mis ojos. The music starts. Adventure creeps over me like a fresh, cool night sheet.

The hospital

Military guards in camoflauge with Uzis stand in front of closed gates to Hospital Militar Escuela. Poverty lines the streets like a heavy coat of guilt. Inside the walled refuge, the waiting rooms are full of hopeful eyes. . .faces from someone else’s yearbook. Soon they will mean something to me. I hear discussions about how many must be turned away. I am nervous. Spanish leaves my memory banks. Another translator interprets while my mind adjusts. The orthopedic surgeon and others examine x-rays and talk with patients. Most are not mobile.

Two are the most memorable: A little man (maybe four-and-a-half feet tall). His name is Santiago. Dwarfism has scrunched his body like an exhaled concertina, but his eyes sparkle with happiness and wisdom. And trust. The surgeon says we can fix this guy. He is scheduled. People mill about in the room. . .nurses, another doctor, a patient wanders in out of turn, one enters as scheduled. No one is flapped—except me. Santiago leaves. He smiles. I will not forget that face. Those eyes. The spirit is all around us.

A young woman enters, early twenties. A stiff leg dangles. She carries x-rays. She is filled with excitement, anticipation, dreaming of dancing again. The way she tilts her head. The way her eyes reflect the memories. I know. Everyone examines her and the x-rays. The surgeon tells me to tell her there is nothing we can do for her. Oh my God! Nothing? I’m startled. She is too mobile, they say. We have to draw the line somewhere. Someone else wanders in with x-rays from a previous patient, then another patient. I notice the young girl is standing by herself against the wall in the corner. She is crying real hard. I know she hopes the doctor made a mistake; that he will change his mind. I put my arm around her and try to console her (I either told her how sorry I was or that the cereal is in the cupboard (?)). My heart is broken—think of her’s. The surgeon says he wishes he could have been more sensitive about her plight. Oh shit, this is not what I expected. The halls are like honeycombs. Everyone is talking and bustling.

Next was the super bowl. Anti climactic for me. I was still remembering that young girl. Also. I think I told someone that Lanny was my husband (esposo) rather than my brother (hermano). Who won the Super Bowl, anyway? I’m a Patriots’ fan.

It’s Monday. The recovery room is full. Tomasa is her name. Tomasa Tercero Romera. I asked her if she could wiggle her toes yet. She could. Any pain? Not really, she says. And for the first time I am able to carry on a conversation. Man, what a great feeling. The words were there. . . not all of them. Enough. She has been married for 39 years. Her husband is a cop. They have many children. I tell her about my family, and we talk about our differences. Kathy, an Operation Walk nurse, comes over and gives her one of Kathy’s rosaries (what a wonderful gift!). Tomasa’s eyes well with emotion. I feign a rapid glance behind me and wipe my eyes. Thank you Kathy. I take Tomasa upstairs to her room. In the hallway she holds my hand and asks if I would pray for her good health. I couldn’t wait to stumble through that first prayer. Monday, February 8, 2010. Old Dwight Ritter prays for his first patient. In Spanish. Of his life! I’m certain God wet His pants with laughter. What the hell have I been doing all my life?

And Melida Vincenta Perez Solis began throwing up just before being wheeled into Recovery. . .on my scrubs. Jeannie stuck one of those dainty little buckets under her chin and wiped her mouth. Melida smiled a groggy smile. (Darn. I thought those barf buckets were strap-on urinals for men.)

Recovery was filling up fast so I began wheeling patients upstairs to the salas and trying to organize the flow of spinals ready for surgery with patients completing surgery. . .they all look the same and many were not sure if they had been operated on.

The Recognition Ceremony

We were late leaving the hospital. My brother announced early in the day that everyone has to be out of the hospital by 3:30 P.M. so we can change and get to a ceremony of thanks by the Nicaraguan government. Absolute! No variations! So it was 4:40 P.M. when we returned to the hotel. No time to shower. I still carried the faint gift of Melida on my shirt and smelled like an over-worked sumo wrestler. . .but so did everyone else.

I stepped up in the world. Lanny told me to drive with him. Only because he needed someone to translate for him. The driver spoke no English. . .slightly less than Lanny. His name is Marlomena. Lanny shortened it to Marlo then Martin then Mario then Manuel then Whats-his-name. Marlomena’s theory of propelling a car is to drive so fast that no one would want to risk their life by pulling out in front of him. And he really hates stop lights. . .hates them like I hate old ladies driving large town cars at 25 m.p.h. A man washes our window while we wait, then ole Marlo guns it to 60 m.p.h. just in time for the next light to change. A smiling man washes our windows. The bus with the rest of the OW team slowly drives by like in a Roadrunner cartoon.

We pull up to the military building, and in Nicaraguense fashion we are casually alphabetized by first name. Having been Ritter all my life it was good to sit up front as Dwight. Lanny sat at the long ominous table with Generales y otros personas muy importante. That took over a half hour. Then there were speeches of gratitude ably translated by the two lead translators. My brother delivered a nice speech. . .without notes. He does that well. Then each person in the audience came to the front, up the four steps, received a certificate from Ortega’s number two man and filed off. As a “D” I got my certificate early and settled back into my chair just as the “M’s” started. Anything would have been entertaining to us at that point after being herded like sheep for 40 minutes. Only a nurse named Michele was smart enough to get her dress snagged in her behind. From that point on, the evening was a success. Nothing else mattered. Michele’s wedgie saved the day. Thanks to our resident linguist Marcos Dominguez, we determined wedgie was translated as “hungry butt” or culo hambriento. Soon the Asociacion de Academias del la Lingua Espanola will acknowledge Marcos’ genius.

And that was Monday.

The hospital

Last spring I chopped the top on a 1949 Ford business coupe. There were six of us. I made the cut. It couldn’t be too deep or we’d damage things inside. It had to be perfect. I remember how carefully we planned it, and then everything behind the skin. That’s what I thought of as I watched a surgeon examine a knee and briefly hold it before he cut. I’ve never seen a surgery before.

Tuesday. The head Nicaraguan nurse in the Recovery Room is Esteban. At first he was suspicious of us—the volunteers; Kathy, Amy, Jeannie, Melody and me. . . especially me, but after a very short time we discovered his smile, so big his cheeks closed his eyes. You can’t be suspicious of that fearless foursome, they’re too warm-in-your-face. Then for the next three days we all kept hugging each other because it felt good, because the Nicaraguans are an affectionate people.

Wednesday. At one point we had nine patients in recovery and were planning on three more. A nurse (Tricia) and myself began to get the patients who had been there the longest to the salas upstairs, but there was a shortage of beds upstairs and the hospital nurses were not eager to improvise and make room for others. So ole Tricia came up with a brainstorm: We’ll have the military wheel the patients into the salas. How do you turn down someone who carries an uzi? I reinforced Tricia’s speck of brilliance by telling the upstairs nurses that CEO of the hospital ordered this. It worked

By Wednesday we were beginning to have more confidence in what manufacturing companies call a “through put” or the total manufacturing process. How to balance a crises flow of patients from anesthesiology to surgery to recovery to upstairs rooms. By the end of Wednesday the team had done over 80 surgeries. I had gone upstairs to say good bye to Tomasa and met her daughter, Rosaria. Tomasa said the doctors were “angels from heaven.” She held out her arms and hugged me.

In 2008 Operation Walk gave Karla Machavo a new knee. She had traveled 12 hours to get to the hospital. Wednesday, as Lanny walked out of the lunchroom he heard someone call to him by name. It was Karla, having traveled 12 hours again in intense pain in her hip. By 4:00 she was on the operating table.

Thursday. Karla was doing beautifully. Another patient from 2008 stopped by the hospital in heels to thank the team.

Serving the needy is what God intended us to do. Doing it for no other reason than God’s message. Not for money. Not for fame. Not for a sneaker contract. For the glory of God.

Mombacho andGranada

Friday was wonderful. But as I sat on the porch in Mombacho, reflecting back on the number of lives this group became a part of, I was overcome with humility and gratitude. Santiago, Tomasa, Juan, Concepcion, Melida, Karla and 80 others would all agree with Tomasa that this team was made up of “angels from heaven.”

I hope I can rejoin you all next year.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Different But Same

Every Monday morning I pray with a group of men. Most are retired with Vaseline parted hair and plaid cotton shirts. I’ve been praying with these guys for ten years. . .ever sense Jesus Christ got me in a hammer-lock and said, “I AM here.” Few understand that.

We read from a daily devotional, ask for prayers for those who are sick or wayward. A couple of times a year we take on something different; to stimulate our fellowship. Once we were asked to talk about our childhood. Did we get along with our father, our mother, our siblings? These men turned from plastic flowers to earthen bleeding stems, sharp thorns, soft petals and vibrant colors. Many struggled with their parental relationships, with their siblings. But they all—most all— ended up as engineers or process managers with big companies and stayed for big pensions. I didn’t.

I was raised in a happy family. Two brothers. My dad was a doctor, my mother was a well known concert pianist—a child prodigy who studied with Arthur Rubenstein. She was amazingly creative. Dad was quiet and philosophical with a delightful sense of humor. I never heard them argue. One of my brothers became an orthopedic surgeon. The other a carpenter. I drew cartoons and beat on mom’s piano. It was clear that I was infected with the disease creativitus stupidus.

I was guided by a demon that led me down into a valley of clever ideas, word plays, original music, hot dances and lyrical text. This valley smelled of flowers so sweet I embraced every detail of it. I foraged in it, flew over it and watched it from a mountain top. This was heaven to me. . .a dangerous place to reside.

I was the different one early on and the different one in our prayer group. But at 60 we were like a group facing a firing squad. . .equal as can be, all crapping in our pants, all waiting for the word, “fire.”

I am the easiest to shoot. I am the different one.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Strike Indicators

JoAnn and I are at a lake in the mountains west of Loveland, Colorado. Flatiron Reservoir. Large mesas surround the lake, several hundred feet high. They appear as stripes of earthen red, ochre and green. It is Saturday afternoon. The only other people here are Mexicans and a van load of blacks with K-Mart fishing rods. They’re Muslims. The women are wearing full Burkas, their faces covered with black whatchamacallits. The men and boys carry fishing rods and coolers down to the waters edge. A distance away a burly, very Indian man with a crew cut sits in a chair showing a classic profile. . .bent nose, high cheek bones, weak forehead. He holds a fishing rod in one hand and a beer in the other. Sioux, I say as if I know what I am talking about. His wife has a big pot belly and skinny, short legs that hang from her shorts like drawstrings. Her hair is black and unkempt. She sits next to him and shakes her hair hard then sips her beer. She, too, is Indian but reeks of upbringing in malls and staged television reality shows that fill her mind.

JoAnn sets up her painting paraphernalia on a picnic table. She paints oblivious to anyone. . .another silent silhouette. My, how peace attracts man. The Mexicans, the Sioux fisherman, his wife and the Muslims. That’s basically it. Now other cars are showing up, everyone has a fishing rod and collapsible chair. No one is catching fish but there sure are a lot of red, floating strike indicators in the water, wandering as if interested in each other. This planet is called Earth, I think to myself. Humans relaxing while their strike indicators work. We are God. The strike indicators are us.

Here is a related thought:

Washington DC Metro Station on a cold January morning. A man hunkered near the wall with violin and tin can. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately two thousand (2,000) people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After four minutes the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the tin can and, without stopping, continued to walk.

A few minutes later a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again. A three-year-old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. He objected. She insisted. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced them to move on.

The violinist continued. After 45 minutes only 6 people had stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. After an hour, he finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

Here is what no one knew:

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story.

In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context? If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments . . .How many other things are we missing? Do we seek God similarly, ignoring His essence because we focus on the distraction. . . the strike indicators?

Here at Flatiron, only JoAnn Ritter attempts to capture the true reality. It is obvious to her. She does not dwell on details. They are distractions that clutter the beauty of the whole. Impressionists are that way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Check out Carole Brown's interview with me today. Find it at http;//