A December 2004 trip
to Carthage by Jose Kevo
Quote: Regardless of size and decor, a house is not a home without the people filling it: family, friends, and sometimes perfect strangers. That's why I'm Willing to Host Someone, whether here or there, where I think you'll find that every day is Happy Holidays!
Feigning years of living in NYC unleashed globe-trotting sophistication but did little to eradicate down-home country traits ingrained from the Missouri Ozarks. Yet a contracted chronic passion is why I can’t function properly when I become too tropically deprived. Apparently, it's highly infectious for lifelong locals who have never left the country and well-traveled transplants.
Office Calls at Dr. Jose's...
Creating an oasis clinic in the middle-of-nowhere was a compulsory fix, pacifying bouts of travel deprivation and terminal island fever while enlightening the curious. Remedy for the afflicted masses? Don't hesitate putting off until tomorrow what should've been done today; feast and dance anytime opportunity presents itself, and never underestimate my nursing specialists, the Juana sisters. Patient prescriptions are refilled frequently with extended in-house therapy as needed…
At turn of the previous century, Carthage had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the US. Old money still dominates the town's rich legacy, with a wealth of historic and cultural values.
Nineteenth-century Victorian Mansions line the main streets with a clearly marked driving tour, said to be one of the town's greatest highlights. Deemed The Maple Leaf City, Carthage sees Mother Nature and residents decorate its yards with scenes of fall in preparation for the mid-October Maple Leaf Festival that runs 10 days, drawing thousands for the Four States' largest parade.
Carthage has evolved into an artist's community, with numerous galleries and special events. Red Oak is a recreated farming community based on childhood inspirations of wildlife artist Lowell Davis. Precious Moments Inspiration Theme Park is headquarters for Samuel J. Butcher, with a full day's worth of attractions.
Get Your Kicks...
Route 66 jogs through town, attracting travelers making the historic run through small settlements and scenic countryside, major thoroughfares bypassed long ago. There's still Boot's Motel, where Clark Gable stayed on his way to Los Angeles, while the longest stretch is Oak Street, where you'll find my house.
Accessing the Four States:
Whether basing a vacation from here or stopping on a day trip, Carthage is reachable from these major destinations:
Hop, Skip and a Jump
Getting from one side of Carthage to the other takes about five minutes, and the larger city of Joplin, with Missouri Southern State University, is 15-20 minutes to the west. We can pile in my mini-van or do fast and furious in a '76 classic Camaro.
Numerous tienditas have sprung up all over town, serving the booming Hispanic population. My favorite is called La Tiendita on the corner of River and Chestnut and across from Carter's Park. It's a smaller market, but on weekends they run a restaurant off to the side with authentic Mexican selections and atmosphere. Choices are limited, but you can't go wrong with soft-shell tacos for $1 or the gargantuan-sized burrito loaded with shredded beef, rice, and all the trimmings for $3.50.
Limes are great for helping take the bite out of the fiery picante sauce. A reach-in cooler is stocked with a selection of soft drinks and juices, and there are even more choices in the store part. If available, I highly recommend a glass of the Guatemalan favorite horchata, a sweet blend of milk and rice and flavored with spices or peanut butter. Leaving here stuffed for about $5 is well worth avoiding typical Mexican fast-food places.
Mauricio's is a full-service restaurant at 129 Main with more than 125 choices on the bilingual menu, which are ordered by the number; plates range from $3 to $12. They've worked hard to attract the downtown lunch crowd with widespread advertisements and even accepting credit cards. Unfortunately, I think food has been highly inconsistent, depending on whether kitchen staff is Mexican, Guatemalan, or Salvadoran for the day, but local Caucasians, not knowing any better, rave about this place.
Guerrero Supermercado is on the corner of 4th Street and Lyon, off the square, and certainly offers an interesting look around. Colorful piñatas dangle from ceiling along with clothing and other treasures from home. The Hispanic community is so dyed-in-the-wool with tradition and loyalty, even Coca-Cola and Pepsi products are imported from Mexico, with thick glass bottles that are labeled in Spanish. Tropical fruit, as well as standard produce is better and less expensive than anywhere in town, but my most common purchases are phone cards specialized for Latin American countries; $5 for 55-minutes when calling the Dominican Republic.
It's been a pleasure watching the owners start from a small storefront and develop into this larger successful location. They've since obtained a liquor license for satisfying thirsts for cervezas (beer) at lower cost and added a butcher shop with meats and seafood cut to order. Aisles are stocked with all the fixings for traditional meals, including fresh spices and seasonings that rival the new bakery for dominating aromas. Pan Dulces (sweet breads) are traveler's best purchase and come in large forms of biscuits, cakes, cookies, and pastries laced with fillings and sugar-spiced toppings at three for $1. Advertisements and booths with tables suggest that there's a restaurant inside, but it has yet to actually get off the ground.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 9, 2004
Attraction | "Natural Favorites"
Within a mile, you'll come to picnic areas along banks of Shoal Creek. Continue straight for another two miles, through heavily wooded areas, until McClelland Park, if you'd like a highly rated ultimate frisbee course. Otherwise, make a left where the low-water bridge is visible. This is likely where you'll spot your first forms of local wildlife – twigs shaken from the family tree of Ma & Pa Kettle, in the form of hybrid hillbillies. They're rather harmless, kind of like a skunk, but you can't help but keep an eye on them to ensure they don't get too close!
Once crossing the bridge, take a left and continue about a mile until coming to roadside places where cars pull over. On the left side of the road are several paths through deep woods, which lead to 100+-foot bluffs overlooking Shoal Creek. There's another trail which starts at the main road and leads along the edge for quite some distance, but you won't need venture beyond forsaken concrete picnic tables attracting herbalists.
There are different groups from the area who use these walls for rappelling, but the best-known attraction is called Mother Nature's Crack, a narrow crevice which gradually widens and descends into the cliff until it reaches large boulders for climbing down to the creek bank. Call it a local oddity -- a tight squeeze that's especially dirty and slippery when wet.
The second natural attraction is in the opposite direction. Make a u-turn, and once you've back-tracked to the bridge turn-off, continue for a mile until coming to Grand Falls. There are places to pull in on the falls side, but I'd recommend driving onward, turning around, and parking on opposite side of the road.
This is my favorite local spot to escape and tune out for awhile. A man-made dam serves as a water break, slowing waters until they crash over the natural falls. There are several ledges that attract a local assortment of families, sun-seekers, and fisherman; the biggest hauls are seen coming from Hispanics casting nets and pulling in whoppers.
My preferred perch is along protruding rocks right at falls' edge. You'll need to wade through some shallow waters, but every potentially slippery step of the way is worth sitting next to the gentle roar, which is mentally stimulating. People watching can be interesting; especially when circus clowns show up out of uniform, drunk, and jumping off the falls. It's been a few years since I last tried, but the greatest risk is that the water is no more than 8' deep at any point below.
Spring flooding makes the area inaccessible when the low-water bridge is closed. Bundled up in colder weather, steam rising off the falls is also worth viewing from a distance, while having the place all to yourself.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 9, 2004
Shoal Creek Basin
Attraction | "Thriller! Our Impenetrable Enigma"
Around turn of the century, mining dominated the four-state region, though not in this immediate area. Some type of unidentifiable gas seeping from the earth is the most practical, logical explanation, but most disbelievers swear that it's reflecting headlights from passing cars on the busy interstate about 10 miles north. That's impossible considering that my parents were watching the Spooklight long before traffic was present. As for when the light was initially discovered, no one knows but my grandparents knew of it when cars were still a rarity.
Numerous myths and legends encompass the Spooklight; my favorites involve the Cherokee Indians and Trail of Tears, which ended in this area. Whether a young brave looking for his lost love or a squaw in search of her papoose, the Spooklight projects a disturbing tingle of someone walking down the darkened road carrying a lantern. The first scared-to-death memories of the Spooklight come while sitting on the lap of an adult in a crowded backseat. It was dead of winter; patches of snow were on the ground and the heater in the '57 Chevy was cranking full blast. Coming here was a family thing with parents and friends. Eventually, station wagons gave way to church buses and hayrides and teenage summer nights with six-packs and convertibles.
As you might expect, there's plenty of bogus tales of attacks, phony bewitchings, and the light appearing within cars. The abandoned road runs for quite some distance, and we've tried getting close to the light, but no matter how far you walk or drive, it's always further off in middle of the road, regardless of how close it seems. The light comes and goes; sometimes with intense flashing and swinging, especially after rainfall, when the humidity is high. There's also been appearances when I've seen it split in two.
There's not a time I ever remember coming here and not seeing it briefly, though others will swear it's not really there. Weekend nights are the worst for viewing thanks to a steady parade of cars and headlights interrupting the darkness while casting speculations. Weekday nights are preferable, sitting for hours along the road without interruptions and proving beyond shadow of a doubt that the thing is real! Believing without actually seeing isn't expected. More than once while living in Kansas City, road trips were made confirming its existence. When bringing NYC Youth Center kids, owls hooting and coyotes yapping on a full-moon night had the homeboys ready to bolt for the safety of the ghetto!
Finding the abandoned road just across Oklahoma's border will likely be the biggest challenge, even with clear-cut directions. Send a message for specifics, or I'll be happy to drive as the official escort.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 9, 2004
The Spooklight/Hornet Spooklight
Border At Southwestern Missouri And Northeastern Oklahoma
My home is El Barrio-goes-beach shack, but don't let that fool you. It's straight-up nouveau ghetto! Favorite possessions include photos and obscure must-haves from around the world. Otherwise, if it's not from a yard sale or flea market, it's authentically Wal-Mart, including more than 100 various-sized trees and plants that help ice (or, in this case, melt) the balmy tranquility.
During the months while the jungle is pumping sun in the backyard, the interior all but doubles in size, with exposed walls and ceilings splashed in Caribbean colors. Stages of daylight transform hue-schemes, thanks to 11 windows bordering the four main rooms that open into an el-shape. It's like an inside greenhouse that's unfortunately impossible to heat in the coldest of winter. That's a clue for not expecting to find air-conditioning either, for now, but windows open, with nice, fan-enhanced breezes.
The house is probably around a century old and isn't in bad shape, for a rental property. There are two bedrooms, but don't assume sleeping options are limited. If you're like most, making it past the living room might prove difficult. A double-wide beach hammock from Venezuela has became my potato for veggin' out. It's got a couple of cruise levels based on tautness; a sagging chill mode great for conscious activities, and low-rider, more suitable for sleeping.
Across the room is a plush, extra-long couch, great for taller people. The highlight has been tagged the human burrito blanket, a native masterpiece of handwoven wool found in the mountain village of Sintra, Portugal. It's seasonably common to see two people, stretched out with heads at opposite ends, watching television and/or napping while double-wrapped under the palm trees. Come evenings, appropriate black lighting can provide a village streetlamp affect or a Dark Side of the Tropical Moon.
Otherwise, I'm willing to offer up El Cuarto del Mar -- the Sea Room -- that might leave more than just your mind swimming. Walls and ceiling fuse the marine-colored palette with a Caribbean comforter, accentuated by beach shots. When needed, additional warmth comes from an electric blanket. Stimulation and motivation are further invigorated from a basic weight bench and wicked curl bar off to the side. I can stir up an alarm clock, should you need one, but my inner-ticker has me up naturally by 6am to put coffee on.
Since the last one flew the nest again, The Dominican Room is the official guestroom, inspired by 15'x12' flags covering the two longest walls. Should you feel totally lost, there's a couple of appropriate maps to help you get your bearings. There's a large collection of memorabilia from the country's baseball greats, including an extensive baseball card collection shelved with 20 years' worth of photo albums. A double-wide futon can sleep two smaller people comfortably. I think the mattress is too hard, but I've never heard any complaints.
Don't let the dinosaur in the corner scare you. It's great for homework and writing journals, but my computer is so old, it runs on Microsoft 2.0! That's right -- no Internet -- and while listing things, there's also no cable, DVD, cell phone, or much of anything beyond simple life. High maintenance has never been part of my nature. The computer and/or stereo are usually on far more than the television. Antonio moving back home forced agreeing to my first-ever answering machine, but I'm more pleased with his second demand.
A new stero system that included a CD player was really a must for any household deemed Latino. Sharp Stereo vibrates a smooth groove that conjurs my biggest one-way ticket back to the islands with constant music; loudly, when need be. It must work. English-speaking friends regularly request copies. Even neighbors raised on oom-pah and mariachi solicit backyard concerts.
Merengue and bachata from DR and salsa from PR have long been my favorites, but the stack of 50-cent CDs from Venezuela are still tearing down the house with fusion remix versions of the three styles above, as well as regional country music. When the timing is right, if you don't mind cassettes, an older, eclectic deluge is especially heavy on classic rock, jazz genres, and throw-down black gospel for all the churchin' you'll ever need.
I've been told the house actualizes stepping into my journals. The smallest of keepsakes and mementos are shrouded by entanglements of garden, including quite the European collection. Perhaps it's a bit much, but what else could be expected from my personal travel Hall of Fame?
The main entry contains a large shrine from my concepts of the Caribbean religion Santeria. In addition to photos and candles, it's a memorial to persons and things of special significance: a small bowl of dry rice and pigeon peas, hoping my family will never go hungry, a pile of Dominican pesos in bills, and coinage. There's my half of the heart-shaped brain coral that was split with a machete, the boarding pass from rushing to a farewell, and other simple things that all have a keep-forever purpose.
For now, it's been unanimous that all that's missing is sand -- something often given serious thought and discussion, especially after sitting around and indulging the atmosphere for awhile. My property manager sometimes takes hours just to collect rent. When appropriate timing no longer mattered, Donna was easily convinced of how simple it would be to extend the baseboards paritioning off bedrooms/kitchen and filling the rest with sand. Obviously, when later coming to her senses and remembering first-hand my spontaneity, she called the next morning, saying she'd absolutely kill me if I did!
Aside from lounging around places, my dining room is anchored with a large glass-top table accommodating six padded chairs, straight out of the Garden and Patio section of a magazine. It's the perfect fit for meals, talking over drinks, or candlelight card games in the middle of Midwest electrical storms. For calmer evenings, a built-in hutch begs inspecting international compilations of shells, Coca-Cola products, scenic jigsaw puzzles, and decorative magnets. But don't be shy if chairs and table are moved for opening up the dance floor.
Hosing down after working up a sweat is my least appealing option. Currently, I've got a claw-foot bathtub that's unfortunately the junior model and useless for actual baths. For now, it's a shower hose. Seriously, I've done little to the bathroom, which doubles as a utility room. There's a washer and dryer and an ironing board, should you need it beyond casual wear.
The kitchen is basic, with what there is to work with, but foods coming out of it are even more commanding than the three shades of lime green trimmed in sea blue. My only house rule is that no one lights up inside, regardless! But even for non-smokers, the back porch is a magnet for gathering over diverse conversations, providing some of my most memorable times. An unexpected perk is that the house came with no gutters, so rain showers cascade off the roof, just like in the islands, and it's also peaceful watching snow fall from favored interior snuggle spots.
Whether sitting around outside using steps, milk crates, or pulling out dining room chairs and my papason throne, the backyard stretches a good 30 yards to the alley. A privacy fence next door and garage help to enclose the densely shaded area. Limbs and other natural debris keep a woodpile stocked for campfires and bonfires.
There's room to park a camping trailer out back, but we've enjoyed the convenience of tent camping -- roughing it steps away from home base. Understand that backyard presence is open-invitation on my block of Hispanic neighbors. As a guest, they'll respect your privacy or welcome you in with a bottomless beer. Taking life easy is just in their blood...usually along with a high BAC!
In the mad scheme of things, I've decided to buy this house, add on some space, transform the outside to be Caribbean, and develop the backyard. That's right, a bed-and-breakfast: Jose Kevo's Caribbean Cabaña and Cocina. A day at the beach out in the middle of nowhere. I can promote the hell out of it through all the Route 66 hype. Meantime, everyone just randomly shows up and eventually contributes something. Until the day comes, consider the rate based on worth of experience.
* Additional back-yard photos.
Wild KingdomCarthage has their own version of a Central Park; at least a dozen of them would fit inside the Great Lawn of NYC's original. There's a larger-than-life bronze statue of Marlin Perkins, one of our Who's Who worth checking out, but my most frequented place is across the street. The Carthage Public Library is one of the original Andrew Carnegie branches, with a beautiful domed rotunda, local displays, and historic literary collections. On days I'm not at the university, this is where I use internet services. Patrons are allowed 1-hour time slots based on computer availabilities, and travelers are welcomed to stop by and to check their email.
Kellogg Lake ParkCentral Ave. is the northern thoroughfare running east and west. Where Highway 96 veers northeast over a historic bridge, Spring River and Kellogg Lake are a quarter mile further on the right. This has always been my local outdoor hangout; a place we used to head when cutting classes during high school.
An outdoor nature trail meanders through several diverse settings used as environmental science labs-expect always-roaming flocks of testy Canada geese. Fishing in the lake is by permit and license only. As for what you'll catch is anybody's guess, but banks are lined with eager fishermen in all kinds of weather. The river draws a wide assortment of locals, especially on weekends, including jet skiers. At no point are waters deeper than 7-feet, only adding to the potential catastrophes of the scattered rope swings that seem to cruelly detect a person's age.
There's a small, manmade dam presenting daring challenges for walking barefoot across the moss-covered top or sliding down the slippery concrete slope. These days the entire park area is used more by the growing Hispanic population. Open containers are legal, provided they're not glass bottles, but the natural settings are a peaceful break from the bustling cow town, especially on hot summer nights, when crickets, June bugs, and other forms of insects fire up their natural orchestra, great for shadow-dancing under streetlamps.
A Land Down UnderNorth of town is what's said to be the largest gray marble quarry in the world. This, coupled with a centuries worth of mining limestone deposits, has created an entire other city known as the Carthage Underground. As teenagers, we used to enjoy the tennis club or high school dances with live bands echoing in cavernous ballrooms. As to actual extent and size of it, this was to be evacuation center for the entire Midwest in case of nuclear disaster. There's said to be enough nonperishable foods to feed multitudes for over a year, but we always considered survival consolation as having the potential access the stock of the three largest beer distributors in the four states.
With the supposed end of the Cold War, cold storage lured development of more than a dozen major enterprises tucked away deep below the surface. After 9/11, a lot of speculation arose towards what's really going on, which local officials remain tight-lipped about. Heightened security increased for entering anywhere off the main roads. Bus-sized blocks of granite line edges of the central pit area. Local kids no longer use Quarry Hill Road for drag-racing, making this another deserted place to enjoy over conversations and 40's. Sitting atop the boulders can create a utopia feel, like there is some surreal, sci-fi world below.
Exploring Our Civil SideCarthage lays claim to hosting the first major land skirmish of the Civil War, which totally destroyed the town. There's an interesting museum off the square, but the valley where hardest fighting took place is more enjoyable. It's a short walk from my parent’s farm and where we used to play as kids. Now it's the official Battle of Carthage State Park, with nice shaded lawns running along bluffs and a small pond fed from natural springs.
The cave entrance has been sealed off, but a tunnel connecting to a grand mansion's basement at top of the hill was an escape route for slaves on the Underground Railroad. Once finished browsing around the park, it's worth a drive up Chestnut Street Hill to see this magnificent house that's been fully restored as a private residence. A historic iron-fence surrounds the property, preventing actual entry. Within view on the right, just outside the city limits, is the old black cemetery. As you come back down the hill, imagine all the bumps and bruises you would have accumulated from recklessly sledding as a kid . . .
Scratching the Flea ItchA 1-block walk from my house on Oak Street is The Route 66 Flea Market, housed in an old car dealership, and across the street is Dean's Furniture and Flea Market, which can turn up some odd finds with enough browsing. They're open daily. Otherwise, the largest concentration of antiques and oddities malls are located around the Carthage Square, with some very upscale finds for collectors.
Regular Pit-StopsWithin an hour's drive of Bentonville, Arkansas, we were blessed with #13 of the original magnetic spend forces, which will gravitate you towards south Grand Avenue. Expect to find whatever you could possibly need-and then some!
SEASONAL FAVORITESWithin walking distance of my house along Route 66 is the Carthage Municipal Park, with scads of picnic grounds, a skating rink, the county fairgrounds that spring to life every July, and one of the finest 18-hole golf courses in the four-state area. However, I opt for where I had my first job.
The public pool has been around for decades, but received major renovations in the ‘80s, dividing the main pool into three sections and reconstructing a new kiddie area. The diving tank is 12-feet deep and has one- and three-meter boards the "old man" still likes to use for keeping up with youngsters. The pool is open Memorial Day through Labor Day 7 days a week from noon to 6pm. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for kids.
GO . . . Greased LightningContinuing west passed the park for a couple more miles is a rare nostalgic find that brings people in by the carloads! The Route 66 Drive-In was one of only four officially licensed theaters on the route-to-route coast and is the only one back in operation today, as well as one of the few drive-ins left in the entire country! Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, property had been converted into an auto salvage yard until historic preservation funding was spent for clean-up and restoration.
As teenagers, we spent countless nights here watching movies while perfecting all the other drive-in-related shenanigans that local youth have obviously revived today. People-watching can still be as interesting as the double features, especially on theme-night parties or when caravans of antique autos traveling the route invade for a blast from the past. New releases showing at regular theaters dominate the big screen, though don't be surprised to find Grease, Where the Boys Are, Animal House and other classics from time to time. The Drive-In is open from May to September on weekends, with shows starting after dusk, and sometimes the second movie doesn't finish until 2am. Admission is $2 for kids, $4 for adults. Call 417/359-5959 to find what's showing.
Alley Cats & Sewer RatsWhen cabin fever sets in, there's some fairly standard activities worth leaving the house for. Star Lanes Bowling, at 219 East 3rd Street off northeast corner of the square, has open bowling on Friday/Saturday nights, with some lanes available on Mondays and Tuesdays. More often than not, we've had the place all to ourselves and gotten pretty creative with the sport. Games run $2.50 per person and $1.50 for shoe rental, but usually the bar tab adds up more quickly while bets are even more costly.
Every now and then, coworkers talk me out for a night on the local town, where downtown bars no longer have darkened stigma of winos and bums waiting for doors to open at 8am. Jim's Place, at 325 East 4th Street, has a nice outdoor beer garden featuring live music on weekends with a $5 cover charge. Crowds are as offbeat and varied as the music; types I never knew existed in these parts. Most groups are local garage bands, whether outdated hippies playing original and cover rock tunes, or metal-techno youth looking as if they've gone AWOL from junior high detention.
Other hot spots doubling as watering holes for wide-spot-in-the-road crowds dot the countryside. The Mill is a dance club in a renovated feed-storage barn that has a deck overlooking Spring River-great for summer happy hours. At times, juiced-up crowds are more entertaining than the Discovery Channel; especially at Roadside Tavern, where sloshed farm girls vie for weekly Tuesday competition titles.
Don't ask how. It was precise for vibrant visions that I had finally found a home. I picked up my keys on June 3rd, raising blinds and windows, to begin a thorough cleaning. Time had slipped away when I heard pounding on the front door, followed by a rapid request to turn the music down. It was after-hours. Sure enough, when checking, my new neighbor had been prompt at 10pm.
Hispanic Panic is the equivalent of White Flight when African-Americans start moving in, but I undoubtedly helped seal fate for ending up the only Caucasian on my side of the block for quite some time. Blastin' Latin music never warranted another meeting, but she was always lurking, waiting for any opportunity. There was an unlikely mix of family and friends frequently visiting. Using a cordless outside while talking 'hoodish with NYC comrades probably only confused things. Too tanned to be white? Not dark enough to be black? Always keep 'em guessing, or so I'd like to think twisted the neighbor lady during those first months.
A couple of friends joined one early November Sunday for raking and burning. The outdoor boom box gradually escalated in volume as morning wore on. By noon, Hispanic neighbors on the other side began stirring. What erupted was a spontaneous block party disguised as the annual autumn ritual. Eventually, a monster stereo system came out three doors down. Scents of freshly lit grills now mingled with smell of burning leaves. Using a rake as a torrid dance partner only recycled the chore into a fiesta.
All was well until about 4pm, when a car door slammed from other side of the privacy fence. Making a furious beeline, raging about the music -- according to her, "no one would ever want to buy a house on this block" -- she yelled that she had prospective buyers arriving shortly, and something had to be done about the music! With the blankest face possible, I repeatedly asked, "cómo?", causing her to writhe even more until spewing a rapid-fire volley en español that sent her packin', literally!
A young black/Hispanic couple with two rowdy boys eventually moved in, rounding out the block, but raking day was pivotal, beyond learning she was leaving. I met my other neighbors for the first time beyond a "cómo estás" and was rather satisfied. They may have also been perplexed about my identity, but there was no mistaking coming to their defense. After 10pm that night, when finally putting out the fire, Latin music could still be faintly heard from somewhere down the alley...
Island SonsFirst semester back in classes, a faculty member suggested meeting with a 6'8" forward from the basketball team. Not only was he from Puerto Rico, there ended up being three of them! Carlos, Michael, and Hiram turned out to be almost 20-feet worth of island "hoop"-la. There was instant connection, but something greater transpired after my first invitation for dinner at the house.
Lost and out of sorts, these athletes had slipped through the cracks as Americans not eligible for international student perks. English was barely a second language. Cold weather and bland dorm food had them pining away for comforts of home thousands of miles away. My substitute haven, a 15-minute ride from campus, became their private island hide-away. But even more inspiring was the link to home their presence provided, beyond my neighbors' best efforts. Their familiar zest for living founded through dance, food, and thirst for rum was mutually nurturing while reviving my role as surrogate Dad.
The last of the Ricans had flown home for summer when I received a call I'd been waiting almost two years for. Antonio, youngest of the three boys I'd taken off the streets and raised while in NYC, was ready to make good on my ever-standing offer. Within 48 hours, he arrived with all his possessions including a GED; my only requirement for permanently staying.
The scrawny 13-year old was now 6'5" almost 8 years later, with a 94mph fastball that had area coaches drooling over a mythical Dominican pitcher never seen in these parts. Getting him a full ride at the local junior college was no problem. Convincing him to get a job while instilling self discipline in joining the real world was not as easily accomplished.
Calling Emilio over from next door, he agreed to take Antonio to the turkey plant as summer hire. He got the grueling job but called about halfway through his first shift, saying he'd now have to stay until at least 3am. Of all my panicked reasonings, I'd have never guessed a transfer to the graveyard shift's wide-open basement department, because he kept banging his head on processing lines set to accommodate the pint-sized Central Americans!
Lucky for Antonio, my original plans to spend the second half of summer in the islands gave him a free pass for exiting the poultry business early. He headed back to NYC for baseball while I stopped off to visit the Ricans on my way to DR. Before leaving, Emilio agreed to watch the house and personally guard the bottles of Mama Juana.
Beautiful Days in the NeighborhoodPerhaps if Señor Rogers had left the house more, he'd have realized there was a whole other world beyond all that putzing around inside. With the start of another school year, I got Antonio settled into the dorms with a Venezuelan teammate/roommate, only adding to our diversity. The Ricans' basketball season, between fall/spring baseball, made for busy schedules and frequent needed escapes back to Isla de Kevo.
Sundays are Hispanics' traditional family day, with feast and fiesta, while catching up on chores for week ahead. Open houses up and down the block became the norm, sometimes lasting entire weekends. By the time spring 2004 rolled around, few introductions were needed between neighbors and the towering island versions of Latinos. Even more curious were life-long residents and co-workers who might have watched a game or stopped by during the quiet mid-week but petitioned weekend invitations, which proved their closest encounters with foreign travel experiences.
Basic Spanish and English were readily practiced, as were numerous dance steps to ensure that no one felt excluded. Teammates, classmates, and international students only complimented the growing entourage. Gravity proved to have no favoritism for the short or the tall, thanks to neighbors' stockpile of beer and my caché of island potions. Celebrating life is one thing. Having respect for elders is quite another, and it never ceased to amaze me how everyone, regardless of age or race, could put such a lid on things when my parents or 94-year-old grandmother happened to drop in.
Beyond fiestas, the greatest endearments came from quieter, simpler times – sitting on milk crates under a shade tree while talking with Emilio, listening to the sounds of restful sleeping when someone needed a night home, away from the dorms. My created island sanctuary served a purpose far greater than my own, but even a bird's refuge lasts only for a season.
Feather Traces in the NestRestlessness had triumphed over studying for the following day's Spanish presentation. Hiram, also in his senior year, assured we'd have no problem on the joint project, discussing cultural comparisons and differences between the islands known by heart. Actually, we'd been rehearsing since the day we met over two years ago, but voices of input were now limited. A bored peek into the refrigerator was postponed when magnetized photos from days gone by commandingly seized abandoned attention.
As a lottery pick in the 2004 draft, the Braves wanted Antonio closer to Atlanta, justifying transfer to a Florida school. Request for more playing time from Puerto Rico's semi-pro basketball league had scattered Carlos and Michael to Pennsylvania and Iowa. Reuniting with them or the white, toothy smiles on display from my Bayahibe crew would happen again, but not anytime soon enough.
Symbolic hunger bypassed food in lieu of wide-open solitude on the back porch. The house on the other side, where I'd met my original neighbor, had been empty and for sale this entire year, but I was looking head-on towards Emilio's, now darkened for weeks. He'd stashed the family before turning himself in for an extended holiday season back in Guatemala, compliments of INS. He assured me not to worry; they'd all be back within a few months. The damp autumn air had set my mind to roaming. Collected raindrops were splattering to the ground from breezes rustling the trees. Every now and then, a car would pass along Oak Street, familiar Latin tunes increasing with approach, before vanishing into the silence of darkness. Perhaps Mr. Rogers had had similar disquieting experiences for why he always stayed sheltered away inside, and with his unwavering petition...Won't You Be My Neighbor?