Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I come by my storytelling habits honestly, mostly I credit my grandmother for my love of a well-turned tale. I grew up way out in the woods, on a cattle ranch surrounded by forest. With no TV and little radio, in my earliest memories there were always stories—tales of derring-do, of foreign lands, of good and evil men, of strange doings and stranger characters. My family, particularly my grandmother, unrolled them at any occasion. And the stories my grandmother told were us kids’ favorites.
My grandmother’s stories often contained somewhere in them the mystical figure called “The Captain” who was my grandmother’s father. The Captain’s name was Francis Edward Dyer. He was the Captain of a succession of sailing and steam-powered boats trading in the Gulf of Mexico, most of which he built with his own hands. My grandmother and her sisters always said his name in capital letters. He was never Dad or Daddy or anything remotely like that. He was either “Our Father” or “The Captain”, and you could hear the capital letters when my grandmother said it. She idolized him, and passed that on to her two daughters and us seven grandchildren. And if she said “I wonder what The Captain would think of what you just did” to one of us kids, we knew we were in big, big trouble.
The Captain was an Englishman, born in 1848. When The Captain was a young boy, my grandmother told us, his father died. His father was an expert boatbuilder, as was The Captain himself in later years. His father died at sea, appropriately for a seaman and boatbuilder, traveling from the US to England. The Captain’s uncle Walter took him in. The Captain’s eldest daughter, Ida, wrote of this time:
… Walter, who owned an armored cruiser, took Francis and an excellent tutor and Francis grew up practically all over the world. They went to India for spices, China for tea and silks, the Arctic and Antarctic for whale oil and whale bone, to Africa for ivory and precious goods.
I heard rumors that Walter was a so-called ‘Black-Birder,’ a dealer and smuggler of stolen slaves. I’ve heard my father tell of how the native Africans hated his uncle, how they had threatened to get him, how he had a huge bodyguard who slept across his door each night, tasted every bit of food he ate, etc., but in spite of this, he did die of a mysterious poisoning.
Yikes! Slave trading was outlawed in England in 1807. Trading would have been legal for an American ship before the US Civil War. It was illegal for an English ship. The Captain was 12 when the US Civil War started. So yes, he could have been a blackbirder, the Africans hated his uncle Walter for some reason. I don’t know. If so, The Captain became the very opposite after the war, he was fiercely egalitarian in later life, as was his daughter.
All I knew was that the stories of The Captain swept my young imagination away to distant oceans and fierce pirates and warships and the mysterious East, and ruined my young spirit for the prosaic work-a-day world. I wanted to put to sea, to explore the far distant lands where The Captain had gone trading, and buckle some serious swashes like The Captain had done.
The stories flowed from my Grandmother. But she wouldn’t stand to be called “Grandmother”, she said there was absolutely nothing grand about old people—they were just old, not grand. She told us to call her “My-mummie”, I don’t know why. She was born and raised on Lake Arthur, Louisiana, where The Captain built and kept his boats. Her name was Christina Dorothea Dyer. She was a tall, awe-inspiring woman for children and adults alike. She had been everywhere and done everything.
She grew up in the 1890s as one of eleven children in the only white family on the north side of Lake Arthur, Louisiana, surround by “blacks, Creoles, and Redbone Indians” as she said. She would not allow the word “nigger” to be spoken in her presence ever, she said that all people deserved honor and respect. In the 1930s, she scandalized the upstate New York town she’d moved to after her marriage. When a black Minister brought some vegetables to her back door to thank her for the assistance she’d given to his struggling parish, she famously said “Certainly I will speak with him, but only if he will come around to the front door and ask for me there.” Didn’t sit well with the local busybodies, not at all, and that wasn’t the only thing she did that upset those good women who believed that their place was in the home, cooking and sweeping …
I love her campaign slogan … and oh my, that was just one of the many stories that astounding woman told us children, tales full of heroes and villains, of voodoo curses, of wars and kings, … but these weren’t stories out of books. They were stories of heroes she had known, and wars she had fought in, and real villains she had vanquished or not, and a deadly curse that she herself had cast, and kings she had met. She sat in her favorite rocking chair, us seven grandchildren around her on the floor, entranced by her tales of other times, strange people, and foreign wars.
She told us how The Captain had returned to England when he left Walter’s ship. He fell in love with his cousin, some in the family said. Others believed darker stories. So he had to leave England. Whatever the cause, he came to the US around 1873. He lost all of his money farming in Kansas. The grasshoppers ate their crops. He said the grasshoppers even ate their clothes. My-mummie quoted him as saying “I went to Kansas with over five thousand dollars in gold and left with a dollar and a quarter in my pocket, on foot.”
His eldest daughter Ida described The Captain in her own words:
When he was 60 years old or older he could jump through a broomstick forward and backward, held in both hands. He had beautiful manners and was the best educated of any of our acquaintances. He could read Greek and speak several languages and a dozen or more dialects. He was a champion chess player. He never made a grammatical error. He had a beautiful singing voice. He did not smoke, chew, or drink. I never heard a word against his morals.
He worked 7 days a week, never seemed to tire, spent no money on himself, and brought all of his earnings home. But in spite of all these good attributes he was cursed with an ungovernable high temper. He just exploded over anything and everything. Nothing was too trivial to trigger an episode. I used to dread his coming home from a freighting trip.
How curious. A rough and terrifying master mariner, educated by a tutor on a slave ship, who spoke Greek and other languages, sang, had an ungovernable temper, was in superb physical condition, a talented boatbuilder, and played championship chess … egads, I loved my grandmother’s stories.
By 1888, My-mummie told us, The Captain was married with three children, and had built and was skippering a sailing ship carrying freight around the Gulf of Mexico. He was living in Matagorda, Texas, and trading along the coast and as far as Cuba. In that year he moved his then-small family to Lake Arthur, LA, where My-mummie was born. The Captain continued to ply the Gulf, with the river allowing him to return to Lake Arthur between trading trips.
Although he died in 1920, The Captain was a very visible figure in my childhood. We aspired to his strength, to his ideals, to his code of honor, and most of all to his adventures. My-mummie would tell us tales of him that seemed to have no end. To us kids, it was like he was still living, just off on a trip on his boat somewhere. Here’s one of the tales, in My-mummie’s own words, from her own writings about her father:
Once when he was in a great storm, he finally had to cut the barges loose and the boat was lost—it burned. We got word of the storm, then a message from The Captain saying we were to send a boat down for him. He had written the message on a shingle which a fisherman brought to us:
“The barges are lost; the rice is lost; the oil is lost; the steamboat burned; but all is well.”
We suffered with him in this loss but suddenly we could look at each other and realize how magnificent he was, and the experience became an example. Immediately we all straightened up. We were The Captain’s family, and what was the loss of a boat and barges and rice and oil?
What indeed? That was the indomitable spirit of The Captain, and of his children. Here is another story from her childhood, again in her own words, not mine.
After Our Mother’s death, Our Father ran boats on the inland water. He didn’t go overseas again. Our town was on the Lake, which was about seven miles long and about two and a half miles wide. If the wind came in off the Gulf, the Lake could get very stormy, so when Our Father was coming down the river with a long tow of barges, he usually tied up at the mouth of the river and waited until sunrise and calmer water to cross the Lake.
When he did that, he usually signaled with the whistle that someone was to bring him the mail and whatever orders or messages there were, and the account of the family and its doings.
Almost always a couple of the Negro men had that chore and they went with the messages. On this particular night the Negroes were having a celebration out in their section of the town and there was no one at the house. The children all had the measles. I was the lone one up and around. It will convey some idea of our feeling about Our Father, that we never questioned for one instant that somebody had to go to take the messages, and that I was that somebody.
So my sister and I discussed whether I should take the shotgun with me, the lantern and the mail, and I tried them out but finally decided I could run a lot faster without the shotgun, so decided on just taking the mail bag which was on a strap that went over my shoulder, and a lantern that had a bull’s eye which was supposed to give light enough.
The bridge was only about twelve to fourteen inches wide and there were about three miles of it through the swamp. We were never allowed in the swamp after dark because Louisiana was still a rendezvous for criminals and hunters and tramps and all sorts of characters, but I was much more afraid of The Captain than I was of the bandits inhabiting the Swamp.
So I started out and arrived at the opening in the swamp – at the footbridge, probably at half past eleven o’clock that night. It was very dark and as I started in across the footbridge, all the creeping and crawling things of the swamp were out and making noises of various kinds. I knew most of them: the hoot owls and screech owls and alligators’ barking, and though I hurried, I still maintained a walk. But suddenly there was a shriek! It sounded just like a woman in agony. I don’t know what it was, but I suspect it was a wildcat.
Well, I bolted, and once again, reflecting Our Father’s influence, I bolted towards the river rather than back home and in my desperate running, I suddenly fell forward on my face, hitting on my nose, mouth and forehead. The lantern swung forward in my hands and hit the footbridge and broke the globe. I didn’t lose it, however, and the light didn’t go out, and in falling I caught the calf of my leg on a nail in a cross board.
In a minute I scrambled up. My nose was bleeding; my lips were bleeding; a place in my forehead was bleeding. My nose immediately swelled up and so did my upper lip, and I ran desperately until finally I saw a light, way off in the distance ahead, and I knew The Captain was there and that he was waiting, and his effect on us was such, that having seen the light, and knowing he was there, I could walk. But I couldn’t stop my lower jaw from shaking when I appeared before The Captain.
My dress was torn. The blood was still running down over my mouth from my nose and it was still gushing out the side of my leg. Our Father looked at me and he said:
“Did you come alone, Christopher?” [She was the first of his children born in Lake Arthur, so he called her “Christopher Columbus” or “Christopher”, never Christina or Dorothea.]
“Why did you come?”
“The Negroes were having their celebration, Sir.
“Were you afraid?”
“What’s the matter with your leg?”
I looked down at it as though it belonged to somebody else entirely, and as though I didn’t know there was anything wrong with it at all.
“It must have gotten hurt, Sir. “
“Well, I think we had better go into the houseboat and clean you up. “
I sat down and he got a pan of water and washed my face and my forehead.
The cold compress he put on my nose stopped the bleeding and he pulled the place in my leg together. He took the tail end off one of his shirts and bound it around the leg and poured crude oil in it, and told me that for three days I was to keep it wet with the crude oil, all the time, and after the three days I was to take that off and put turpentine and sugar on it and keep them on it until it closed up and then it would be all right.
“Well, I guess I better put a new globe on the lantern. “
He put it on and went and sat down and looked at the mail, put his mail back in the bag, then asked me how the children were, and I told him they all had the measles, and he asked if any of them were very ill and I said, “No, Sir, – I don’t think so, they were all getting better now. “
So then we got up and went back outside. It was probably about half past two in the morning by that time, and I have always felt that was one of his moments of great understanding, when he was a great man, and not the cruel, brutal man he was most of the time, but a great man, because he stood there and put his hand on my head and looked at me and asked:
“Would you like to have me go back through the swamp with you, Christopher?”
“No, Sir. “
And he let me go alone, and I walked all the way. I didn’t have to run, going back, at all, and it was about half past four when I got home, and my sister Ida was sitting up waiting for me.
I think had he come back through the swamp with me, it would have destroyed something in me that I never could have regained. I wasn’t more than eleven or twelve at the time, but it did something for me that nothing else could have done.
I’m sure glad home medicine has improved since then, but I’m not sure I could add much to her words, if anything … like I said, I come by my story-telling honestly. So let me tell another story that she told us kids, in my own words, but to the best of my ability in her voice.
To set the stage, in 1943, during World War Two, as a member of what would later become the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association, she was sent to Egypt. There, she was placed in charge of finding food and work for thousands of displaced Greeks and Yugoslavs, who had been interned in Egypt with their families and children after fleeing the war … no problem, right? …
She settled back in the rocking chair, and told us kids that when she took the job, she discovered that there was no food available anywhere. She told us “I searched and searched. Everywhere there were Egyptian bureaucrats. They’d say ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Greene, we can’t help you … you know there’s a war on’. I knew they had food, there was food around, warehouses full of food. But I was blocked at every turn, I couldn’t get any of it.” She said that it was breaking her heart that children were dying for lack of food in the middle of plenty. So she decided she would go see the King.
“The King of Egypt?”, us kids chorused, eyes wide.
“How did you get to see the King?” we asked. “Can anyone go and see a King? Could we go see him if you took us?”
“Oh, no,” she laughed. And when she laughed she was a Louisiana girl again, eyes full of mischief and voodoo. “People said it was impossible, the King didn’t see anyone, the idea was preposterous. And after I came out from meeting him, the Minister said that I was the first woman who had ever been granted such an honor.”
“But how did you get in, My-mummie? Tell us the story! Tell us the story!” She rocked in the rocking chair she’d brought with her when we moved to the cattle ranch where I grew up, she loved that old rocker, and seven grandkids at her feet, she told her story.
“I found out the day and time when the King would sometimes hear petitions from the people,” she said. “I went to the guard at the Palace Gate. I drew myself up to my tallest and most imposing and said in a firm, clear voice, “My people are dying. I have a secret and urgent message for the King”. The guard asked what the message was, and what people I was talking about. I refused to tell him, saying my message was for the King only.
The guard went away, and then came back and brought me inside. There, I said the same thing to his superior, that my people were dying and that I carried an urgent message that could be told only the King.”
“He went off back into the Palace like the first man, and came back and passed me to another man. Eventually after repeating my story over and over up the ladder of the bureaucracy, I was shown into the office of a Minister of the State. It was a very nice office.
He invited me to sit down, and offered me thick Turkish coffee and sweets. He said it was very unusual to see a woman in my position. He said that perhaps he could help me. I thanked him for his kind offer, but I said again, my people were dying, and that I carried a secret and urgent message to be revealed only to King Farouk in person.”
“He considered that for a while. He played with a letter opener. I could see he was afraid of taking me to see the King. I was a woman, he would be breaking protocol, perhaps I was mad, he didn’t know. But he was also afraid that the King would be angry with him if my message were important and the King didn’t get to hear it.”
“He finally decided the safe course was to accompany me in. He took me into a Reception Hall. The King was there with his Bodyguards, tall fierce men with moustaches and swords. They were nervous, I was a woman, they didn’t know if I was dangerous or not.
The Minister introduced me to the King. They talked a while in Egyptian. The King glanced at me as the Minister spoke. Then the King looked at me. He said ‘The Minster says your people are dying of starvation, and you have an important secret message for me. Who are your people, and what is this secret message?’ He looked at me, and waited. I stood up, straight and tall. ”
“My people are thousands of Greek and Yugoslav refugees, Your Majesty, I said, and the important secret message only for the King himself is that his kind voice alone can prevent them and their children from dying of starvation.’ I looked at him and waited a long moment, and added ‘Children are starving to death as we speak, Your Majesty, for one reason—because Egyptian bureaucrats are standing between them and the food in your Royal warehouses.’ I said no more, just looked at him and waited.”
She told us kids that the Minister watched the King “like the mouse watches the cat”, she said, eager to match his response to the reaction of his all-powerful Lord when he heard her brazen tale, and nervous about King Farouk’s response to her accusations against the Egyptian bureaucracy.
“The King looked a me for a long, long moment that seemed to stretch on and on … and then he smiled. And in huge relief the Minister smiled as well. Then the King laughed and the Minister laughed. They looked at each other, and they broke up. I found out later they had been friends for years, as much as you can be friends with a King, and neither one could believe what I’d done, the nerve, they roared at the joke I’d played on them … then the King fell serious again, and the Minister predictably followed.
“The King asked the Minister what should be fed to children dying of starvation. The Minister said he was very sorry, Your Majesty, but he didn’t know. The King sent for the Royal Physician. The Royal Physician said “Oranges”. I told His Majesty that his kindness and generosity were a credit to Egypt and his humanity would be spoken of forever.
“I left the Reception Hall and was out of the Palace within an hour with two truckloads of oranges for the children … and within a couple days the bazaar telegraph knew that Mrs. Greene enjoyed the protection of His Majesty. I had no trouble getting food for the children after that.”
Whenever I think that I’ve done bold things in my life, I think of My-mummie audaciously and cleverly bluffing her way in, all the way up to the top to see the King of Egypt himself, Farouk the First, in order to save dying children … and I realize I’ve done nothing, really, nothing at all …
She’d tell us a story like that, and for weeks us kids would dress up in tall hats and paint curly handlebar mustaches on our faces and put fake turbans on our heads and be Egyptian Kings and King’s Bodyguards … until she’d tell her next story, about a time after the war when she was sixty years old and sneaking through the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain to smuggle in forged exit documents and sneaking out again, terrified and cold, and then we’d be Border Guards and Freedom Fighters for weeks … until she’d tell her next story about …
A co-worker in Egypt wrote about her:
An official of the Egyptian government called on her at UNRRA HQ one very hot day to inform her that a Yugoslav refugee had been run over, his body was in the morgue and as the ‘responsible’ she would have to come to the morgue and identify the body. (One of more than 300,000 refugees in the Middle East!)
Nothing daunted, Dorothea drove to the morgue with the official, was shown into a room where bodies were being chopped up on a block, blood and flies were all over, and she was shown bodies in drawers. She identified a body somehow, and then the official, remembering his Middle Eastern courtesy clapped his hands and ordered coffee then and there.
It was brought, and my guess is that of the many brave things Dorothea did in her life, that was one of the bravest.
She drank it.
Growing up on those kind of stories, you gotta admit, it was out of my hands, my doom was sealed early on. She’d start telling us kids of some work that she had done for the Kurdish people towards the end of the War, and I was gone, swept away again by the magic of her words, the cattle and the hay barn outside the ranch house fading and being replaced by the tents and turrets of the mysterious Middle East again, in her words I could see it, almost touch it …
She said that she’d known the man who was the King of the Kurds at the time (or at least recognized as King by some large section of those notably fractious folks, while others undoubtedly disputed his title). And He and his retinue were so grateful for some work that she’d accomplished on their behalf, that the King invited My-mummie to a feast in her honor. On the appointed night, she said she dressed in her finest and most modest, wrapped her shawl around her head to hide her hair, and went out into the warm desert evening.
The King had no Palace, but he had a long, resplendent oriental tent outside of town, his semi-permanent residence. She went inside. The tent was long and large. The floor was thick with rich carpets. The walls were hung with colorful tapestries. At one end were musicians and dancers. Oil lamps hung at intervals, the flickering light making the shadows dance. Men smoked from hubble-bubbles, and talked in undertones.
She was the only woman there, except for the dancers. A long low wooden table ran half the length of the tent. When the time came, everyone sat on cushions on the floor. She was seated next to the King at the head of the table. She knew many of the men, she had worked with them.
All went well during the first part of the meal. Various courses were served, she spoke to the King through an interpreter. Everything was shaping up for a lovely evening.
Then a waiter came in and put a special pot in front of the King. The King stood up and made a speech. He said that this was the first time that a woman had been awarded such an exemplary honor as eating with the King of the Kurds and his retinue. But that was not all, there was more honor to come.
He spoke highly and praised the efforts of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. He said that he was sure that Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill would be very proud to know of the outstanding work that Mrs. Dorothea Greene had done for the Kurdish people. He said that in recognition of all of the things that she had done for them, she would be accorded an amazing honor. He took the top off of the pot. It was lamb stew, with sheeps’ eyes floating in it. He said that for her perseverance and her dedicated work and her notable accomplishments, she was invited be the first woman in the history of the Kurds to be allowed to eat the ultimate delicacy, the sheep’s eyes, with the King of the Kurds himself.
And matching his actions to his words, he demonstrated the right way to do it by picking up an eye, turning it so the eyeball faced out, putting it half-way in his mouth, sucking out the soft inside part, and tossing the harder outer shell with the iris, pupil and all into a saucer. It sat there, emptily and blindly looking at my grandmother. And knowing my grandmother, she likely sat looking it right in the eye, unmoved. The King gestured to the stew pot, for her to follow suit. Every eye in the room was on her.
“Eeeeew!” us kids all shouted. “What did you do, My-mummie? What did you do? Did you have to eat the gross sheeps’ eyes? Yuck!” We loved her stories, and she loved us.
“No, dears, I didn’t have to eat them,” she smiled.
“Tell us, tell us how you got out of it!”
“I stood up straight and proud,” she said. “I thanked the King for his generous words. I thanked the men that I had worked with for what they had done. I thanked the King for the incomparable honor he had shown me by inviting me, the first woman to ever dine with Him and His court, and to be invited to share in the rare, unheard of pleasure of eating the sheeps’ eyes. Finally, I thanked Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill for all that they had done to make all of this possible.
When they translated that part of her speech, she said there was much head nodding and murmurs of agreement. She said she went on, in the floweriest language she could muster.
‘However,’ I told them, ”I know that Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill would not dream of allowing you to break the long and honorable traditions of the Kurds. I know that Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill would agree that you have done me enough honor already by inviting me to eat with you. They would want you to follow the rest of the ancient ways and time-honored customs of the noble Kurdish people, not change them too. I said I was sure Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill would agree that those customs were hallowed by tradition, and were worthy of respect.
And I said that I, like Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill, would want the King to respect the venerated Kurdish traditions by seeing that the great honor of eating the sheeps’ eyes should be bestowed on the men who truly deserved it, the men who were the proper recipients of the sheeps’ eyes, the men who had worked so hard with her on the project. The sheep’s eyes should go to them.’
“When my speech was translated to them,” she laughed, “the King and the men all applauded and cheered, they’d understood what I’d done. They knew Westerners didn’t like sheeps’ eyes, so the King had put me to the test, and I’d escaped very neatly and graciously, in the flowery style they admired, so there were smiles and lots of comments and laughter. I sat down, and the serving man put some lamb stew without sheeps eyes into my bowl. It tasted delicious. The other men who’d been awarded the sheeps’ eyes laughed, and looked at me when they ate their special treat, smiling to show me how good it was.”
She was an amazing woman, one of a generation of giants who preceded us and whose achievements we can only aspire to. She taught us kids that racism and religious hatred were unmitigated wrongs, that lying was unforgivable, that it was the responsibility of the strong to assist others, and that the only human color that mattered was the color of someone’s blood. If they bled green, she said, that’s when she’d start worrying about someone’s color.
And if we complained about anything, any single thing, in her presence she’d say “I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” And we knew she had known men with no feet, so we stopped complaining.
With those kind of stories in my head, told by that kind of woman, I was a goner, I tell you—lost to dreams of foreign lands and strange adventures and tall sailing ships before I was ten years old, I was off to out-captain The Captain himself. I picked the easier target to aim for … I knew I could never be a better man than his daughter.
Keep taking chances, my friends, it’s the only chance we have …
… from Willis’s autobiography-in-progress, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …