Saturday, March 12, 2005

Cultural notes--They don't make them like this anymore

I think it was our friend Carolyn Garner who many years ago ran across a poetry chapbook entitled something like "My mother the rain goddess who lives in the jungle," and called up my wife Kay wondering if it somehow referred to Kay's mother and if Kay or any of her sisters had written it under a nom de plume--the reasoning was that there couldn't be two rain goddesses who lived in the jungle.

Lois, who died recently at the age of 94, was my wife’s mother. Lois was not a conventional woman. She made a lot of money as a slumlord in Austin, after she began to drift away, in the 1960s, from her original marriage. She was shrewd in her investments, and she was an excellent person to rent from, if you wanted to be let alone and were willing to take care of your own plumbing problems. Her tenants included several of the Overton brothers, a notorious gang of Austin bank robbers, and Robert Zani, a psychopath who is believed to have killed his mother, and who was eventually convicted of murdering George Vizard, a political activist. Zani would sit on the back porch of one of Lois's shanties on Boggy Creek, and fire his pistol into the side of Turkey Hill for target practice. Later, bullets dug out of the soft chalk hillside supposedly helped convict him of Vizard's murder. Lois liked tenants who did not complain and who paid the rent on time, preferably in cash. She wasn't troubled much by gunfire. She told me years later that criminals were excellent tenants.

Always restless, Lois moved to Belize, or British Honduras as it was called then, in the late 1960s or early 1970s. She bought a several thousand acres of jungle with the proceeds of her Austin real estate ventures. She settled in on her land near the village of August Pine Ridge, visited occasionally by her lawyer boyfriend who had a private plane. She liked it there and began to go native, in her own way, and the lawyer spent most of his time with his Teamster and other unsavory clients in D.C. She would fly back to the States and buy as many supplies as she could load in his plane or if she flew commercial flights she would lug her stuff to the airport in a taxi, usually with appliances and going-out-of-business sale merchandise tied to the top. She would ship this stuff as her baggage. I once helped her carry three French fold-up bicycles and a kerosene powered refrigerator tied to a dolly she had bought at an estate sale up to the airline ticket counter, and she tried to have them accept it all as her luggage--including the dolly.

Her excursions to her new properties in Belize were never, in fact, done in a normal way. There is a story that she once smuggled a hive of bees, including the queen, to Belize and only after the plane was in the air did the stewardess notice the ominous hum of Lois’s carry-on luggage. Lois would carry contraband on the return trip as well, most spectacularly when she brought 400 hermit crabs back to the United States in a shoe box for a grandson’s aquarium business in Houston, and when they got loose on the plane Lois energetically searched out all of the runaways, saying to people, “excuse me” in her lovely Charleston accent, “some of my crabs ran under your seat” and plunged in between people’s knees and plucked the crustaceans up one by one and put them back in the box in the midst of general pandemonium. She also smuggled a snake, a small boa of some kind, coiled up between 2 pieces of bread, disguised as a sandwich, back to Texas for another of her grandchildren, who was fond of reptiles. It grew large, and eventually escaped, causing neighborhood alarm. These smuggling stories have been repeated, and possibly exaggerated, over the years, but I believe they are true simply because they conform to what I knew of her character.

She bought a used yellow Texas Highway department International Harvester station wagon, which had two hundred thousand miles on it, at an auction, had a son-in-law (not me) cut off the top with a skil saw (ruining the saw), loaded it with a dozen mattresses she had gotten on sale somewhere, and by herself drove her mattresses to Belize, through Mexico, without paying a bribe to anyone. She covered the mattresses with plastic sheeting to protect them against the rain. She slept on the mattresses at night to keep them from being stolen.

She had hired Mayan Indians who had lived in the jungle since pre-Columbian times to build her a wattle and daub hut with a thatched roof. They did so, and she was pleased by it, and thought in her natural way that it would be good to have more, and that maybe she could make money out of them. So she had several of them built during the dry season a mile or two from the village of August Pine Ridge, and furnished them with rustic beds and the American mattresses. She advertised the largest hut in Field and Stream as a jaguar hunting lodge, and advertised the others in Mother Earth News as back-to-basics alternative-lifestyle ecological-living cottages.

These latter she succeeded in selling--usually sight unseen--to American hippies, who would send a down-payment and would later arrive in pairs dressed as pioneer couples. The hippie men would be wearing bib overalls and the women long dresses, both sexes with spindly arms and wire-rimmed hexagonal eyeglasses. Many of them were in fact turned back at the border when they appeared at the bridge on the Rio Hondo in their battered VW buses. The starched and correct Belizean customs officials would tell them that they could own land in Belize if they wished, but to enter they had to have a specified amount of cash and the men could not have too much hair. The hippies who actually got there turned out to not be very good at tropical farming, and had to buy food and supplies from Mennonite farmers in exchange for their meager cash. The Mennonites lived 5 miles up the sandy rain forest road. The Mayans who had always lived there squatted and watched and joked at the edge of the tiny counterculture gardens as the hippies tried to clear the land.
Lois's enterprising character did not necessarily gain the esteem of either the hippies or the Mayans. One of the hippies, a drop-out lawyer from New Orleans, once confided to me that he believed that if someone were to kill Lois, she had it coming. The Mennonites, unlike the hippies and the Mayans, liked her a great deal and admired her industry. Although Lois did not know it when she bought her holdings, it turned out she owned part of the Mayans' traditional lands. One of her first acts when she moved to British Honduras was to send a notarized proclamation to be posted in the village that all fields on her property must be vacated. The villagers sent a delegation to the prime minister. They complained they were being evicted by an American rich woman from lands they had farmed for three thousand years. The government authorities spoke to Lois's lawyer, who then informed Lois that for a foreigner to own land, it must be cultivated or else Belizean law required that it be confiscated. Lois, who was always fast on her feet, quickly perceived the Mayan fields to be an asset and encouraged clearings on her properties, charging the natives a small rent in produce or cash. She was then buried in a deluge of papayas and mangoes and grapefruits and bananas which she sold to the American settlers who were starving in their sooty fire-cleared gardens, not to mention eaten alive by mosquitoes in their thatch cottages on account of having brought no mosquito netting.

The American hippie colonists slowly got to the end of their rope. When they ran out of money they would go back to the United States to earn more money for another stab at it. Of course they would never came back. Ultimately only one family stayed; dour and reclusive, they raised their children in jungle isolation and worked hard in their fields. They were never social enough to wonder where everyone had gone. Possibly they are still there. This was in the mid 1970s.

Some of the Mayan cottages were temporarily abandoned during the rainy season following their construction because Lois had built them in an intermittent swamp which filled up with five feet of water during the rains. Her own house was on one of the sandy ridges covered with palm trees and tropical pines, and of course remained dry.
Lois had by then caused factionalism to arise in the village of August Pine Ridge by creating employment--a condition hitherto unknown in all the centuries that the village had stood in the jungle--which in turn led to wealth differentials and envy. She paid her workmen in Belizean dollars, not produce. She was busy--she had repossessed all the flower-child cottages except for two or three that had been paid for outright and was busy reselling the now dry but caved-in and vermin infested huts along with surrounding plots of swamp seething with fer-de-lances to a new wave of hippies, who again tried to farm on the sandy ridges where they burned trees and lived in colorful nylon tents as they slowly built geodesic domes out of bamboo poles and baling wire and palm thatch which was full of large scorpions. They planted corn in the middle of the dry season which sprouted three months later when the rains came. By then they had run out of money to buy grapefruit and mangoes and eggs from Lois and had left to go back to Colorado to earn more money leaving behind their colorful Volkswagen buses abandoned on blocks in clearings next to the skeletal geodesic domes with remnants of thatching where bright jungle birds would scrabble and scratch looking for succulent tropical arachnids. And in the end the Mayan villagers harvested the corn in the desolate hippie clearings.

Lois all the while made it a habit to ride her fold-up bicycle along the sandy roads and trails singing "Volare". She was almost always cheerful like that.

Meanwhile George, the lawyer boyfriend, no longer flew down from Washington in his private plane. He was Lois's first lover after she left her first husband. George had rekindled flames out of ashes, and Lois's sexual desires were now too intense for his tastes, which, though catholic and strange, were somewhat dulled by age. She, like George, was in her sixties. Lois had phoned him one day from Orange Walk Town with an urgent request that he come down so they could make love and he said he couldn't; that he had important business. He told her, in his offhand way, to hire someone. It wasn't clear whether he was serious. He forgot about it.

A little later, it must have been 1974 or so, Kay and I arrived in August Pine Ridge in a an old red Volkswagen we had driven down through Mexico. We were on vacation. The first night we were there Kay heard funny noises from the kitchen cottage, and sent me to see about it. Lois’s sawed-off International Harvester station wagon was parked nearby, her French fold-up bicycle was leaning against a tropical pine tree, and the radio was playing "Lucy in the sky with diamonds..."
"Lois...Lois?..." I said.
“Jim, you go away” Lois said, in a sort of strangled voice.
I went back and reported this.
Kay said “Mama doesn’t act this way. Something’s wrong.”
Kay rushed out, which led to the awkward situation of Kay bursting in and finding Lois making love with the man she had hired in accordance with George's instructions.
Unperturbed, but somewhat breathless, Lois sent Kay away. “Nothing’s wrong, Kayzie, go back to bed.”

George called up Kay when we got back to El Paso and asked if she knew why Lois wouldn’t talk to him any more. Kay said she it was because Lois was sleeping with someone. George, who was open-minded about things like that, asked why Lois should keep it a secret from him. “Perhaps because he’s black.” There was a long silence, then George sputtered something unusually inarticulate, along with an unpleasant racial epithet. George then hung up.
He was from Charleston, same as Lois. That was how they had known each other, from the College of Charleston. She herself was free of prejudice. So that was the end of it. After George was gone Lois said she was happy to be shed of him, because he had hammertoes. She said she did not like her lovers to have physical deformities.

Lois, always restless, after a year or two sold her jungle holdings at a profit to the Mennonite Colony, and moved offshore to Caye Caulker, where she acquired a Belizean husband, adopted a baby boy, and built and sold houses, always at a profit.

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