The question I’m most frequently asked by my music fans, friends or family members, is “Clay, what in the world made you want to move to Panama?” My wife Allene and I have been living on Isla Colón, in the Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama for more than 16 years, and people still ask me that. All the time. I gladly answer with the simplified short version, “Well, I’ve always dreamed of living on a tropical island that has good surf.” This answer is the truth, but in reality, I don’t give the long version because the story is complex and convoluted and would take hours to tell. But I think it’s a story worth telling and one that interested people deserve to hear.
Logically, I should start at the beginning, but first I need to make a small confession and explain something that’s an important part of this whole saga. I didn’t come up with the title for this story by myself. I borrowed it from a television show that ran from 1959 through 1962 called “Adventures in Paradise.” The series was created by famed author James Michener, and starred Gardner McKay as Adam Troy, the captain of a large schooner which he sailed throughout the South Pacific in search of adventure. (As a strange side note, the show also had a character named Clay Baker, played by James Holden.) Our whole family watched this show every week religiously, as well as Sea Hunt, Hawaiian Eye, 77 Sunset Strip and any other show that featured Hawaii, California, the ocean, sailing, diving and surfing. The seeds were being planted early on.
My grandparents on my dad’s side, whom we called Granny and PawPaw, had a house on Carancahua Bay, near the town of Palacios, Texas. Our family ─ my parents Mack and Rose, me, and my two younger sisters Annie and Cindy ─ spent a lot of time at the bay house while we kids were growing up. My dad’s brother Jack, his wife Fannie Ella, and their three kids Ruth Anne, Bubba and Debby, were often there as well. The house itself was an old Victorian-style home with a three-sided wraparound screened porch, with enough beds and bunk beds to sleep a whole lot of people.
Our main activities there were catching fish, and eating fish. We caught redfish, speckled trout, sand trout, flounders, croakers, whitings, gafftops, drums and sheepsheads that we ate; and stingrays, hardheads, gars and piggy perch (piggies) that we threw back. We ate grilled fish, broiled fish, fried fish and baked fish and never got tired of it.
Bay shrimp were always plentiful in the summertime and we could catch them sometimes right off the pier with a cast net or we would go drag a seine down the shoreline, or go out in the small skiff with a trawling net to catch plenty of those tasty crustaceans, not only to eat but to use for bait. Blue crabs were also thick in the summer. The adults taught us kids how to tie a chicken wing or neck on a string and set out lines all along the pier. Even though it was a conspiracy to keep us occupied all day, it worked because we found out right away that we loved to crab. And we quickly became proficient at it, because the more we caught the more we got to eat. I love to eat pretty much everything that comes from the sea, but boiled blue crabs are my all-time favorites. Any time we had a feast of boiled crabs, once the carnage was over, we’d all sit back and look around to see who had the biggest pile of crab shells in front of them. Usually PawPaw, Uncle Jack or my dad had the biggest pile, though Bubba and I did some serious damage too. But nobody could come close to my dad’s buddy Gilbert Schoppa if he happened to be visiting. I’ve never come across anyone else in my entire life that could eat as many crabs in one sitting as Gilbert. I’ve witnessed pancake-eating contests, oyster-eating contests, jalapeno-eating contests, hot dog-eating contests but I’ve never heard of a crab-eating contest. If there ever is one, I know without a doubt who’d win.
In the wintertime, it was oyster season. I can remember when PawPaw or my dad wanted to eat a few raw oysters, they would take their oyster knives and the oyster tongs, walk out on the pier, reach down and pull up a cluster of oysters with the tongs and start cracking them open right there with the knives and start eating them. PawPaw gave me my first raw oyster when I was about 4 years old and it was slimy and ugly looking so I swallowed it whole. It got stuck about halfway down making me gag, and when it came back up I spit it into the water.
He said, “No, you’ve gotta chew it up, Clay, so you get the full flavor. Here, try another one.”
I had already turned away and was headed down the pier towards the house when I looked back over my shoulder and hollered, “No thanks!”
Then a couple of days later, we were back out on the pier, the men cracking oysters, and my taste buds started reminiscing over the taste of that first oyster, how although it was salty, it had a sweetness to it as well. Suddenly I said, “PawPaw, can I try one of those oysters again?”
He said, “Sure,” and cracked one open for me.
This time I chewed it up before swallowing and that made all the difference. I liked it a lot. I said, “PawPaw, can you crack me another one, please?” He just grinned and started opening one ‘cause he knew I was hooked.
No one could ever forget the flavor of Granny’s oyster stew. It was rich and creamy, full of plump oysters, and served regularly all winter. And of course, there were platters of fried oysters, some battered in corn meal, some in cracker meal, but always served hot from the kitchen, accompanied by bowls of homemade tartar sauce and red cocktail sauce. Just thinking about it always puts my mouth into a Pavlov’s Dog moment, salivating profusely while craving those oysters. What memories … and still so vivid after all these years.
Those early halcyon days we spent at Granny and PawPaw’s bay house were the beginnings of my love affair with the ocean and everything about it. That love intensified over the years, right up to the present, where it’s stronger than ever. However, the real beginning of the whole saga started way back before I was born, with the origin and development of my dad’s own relationship with the sea.
I have an early memory of arriving at the bay house, after driving down from our home in Almeda, Texas, a small community south of Houston. The big field behind the bay house, which always had prairie grass and brush that was at least 6-feet tall, had been recently mown, probably by the neighbor who had an old Fordson tractor. All of a sudden my dad pointed at the field and said, “Hey look, kids, there’s the old sailboat your mother and I sailed all over the bay before y’all were born.” Sure enough, there was an old sailboat leaning over on its side, the blue paint all faded and weather-beaten, that had been hidden for years back there in the weeds.
That night after dinner we were all sitting on the porch and during a break in the conversation I said, “Daddy, what’s the story about that old sailboat?”
My dad’s always been a great storyteller and with a little prompting he’ll usually launch into one, which is just what he did. “Well, when I was around 13 or 14, I had another little sailboat before the one that’s sitting out there in the field. I traded this ol’ boy I knew in El Campo an old shotgun for it. It was an 8-foot sailing skiff with one small sail and, man, I had some fun sailing that thing around the bay. That’s how I learned the basics of sailing and that led me to wanting to get a bigger boat.”
He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and to take a swig of the Pearl beer sitting next to him. (Or it might have been a Grand Prize beer. Some of you might be old enough to remember that old brewery in Houston that was owned by Howard Hughes.) “After your mother and I started going out together, we started coming down to the bay a lot and the little sailboat just wasn’t really big enough for two people. So I started looking around and found a guy that had this 24-footer for sale. He lived by the Intracoastal Waterway down at Sargent Beach. It had one mast, with a front and back sail. It didn’t have a real cabin but it had a hatch in the deck with a ladder that went down below where there were a couple of bunks. Billy Keyworth, my old schoolmate from Almeda, helped your mother and I sail it down here from Sargent and we anchored it at the end of the pier. Rose and I would spend many days sailing around the bay, looking for old Indian mounds made by the Karankawa Indians. When we saw one, we’d pull the boat up on the shore, hop out and look for arrowheads. Of all those arrowheads we have back at home, we found most of them here. We had a lot of fun on that boat, up to the point I decided to join the Navy to go fight in the war. So we pulled it out of the water, towed it to the field across the road and that’s where it’s been all this time.”
My dad’s decision to join the Navy towards the end of WWII had the most significant impact on his life (and consequently on my own) than anything that happened later, except for his marriage to my mom, which took place on one of his leaves. Dad’s first stop for training was San Diego, California. While stationed there he was exposed to scuba diving and surfing for the first time, two endeavors that helped set the course of his future.
When it came time to ship out for the Pacific front, the commander asked for volunteers. In spite of the old military adage “Never volunteer for anything!” my dad and his friend who’d enlisted with him stepped up and said they wanted to go. The commander pointed to my dad and his buddy and said, “Okay you two smart-asses, get your butts to the bus station. Y’all are going to spend the remainder of your service time at the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada. The rest of you guys get packed up. You’re shipping out for Guam at 1100 hours.” My dad, of course, was extremely disappointed not to see any action but from my perspective, after hearing this story, it was a blessing in disguise. Thankfully, he was out of danger and also was able to take up snow skiing at nearby Mount Rose, which turned out to be the third sport that would later affect our lives.
After his honorable discharge from the Navy, my dad returned to Almeda and started farming rice with his father and brother Jack, who were also rice farmers. Shortly after I was born, a hurricane wiped out his whole crop for the year just two weeks before it was ready to harvest. He threw in the towel and left for Kansas City, Missouri, where he spent a year attending auto mechanic school on the G.I. Bill. On returning to Almeda, he opened his own auto repair business which he named the Almeda Garage. Shortly thereafter, my two sisters, Annie, and later, Cindy were born.
In the late ‘50s, my dad discovered there was a new store in Houston that sold diving gear. It was in the area called “The Village” and was owned by a guy named Jack Rich. His store was Village Sporting Goods and as far as I know it was the first shop to bring professional diving equipment to the upper Texas Coast. My dad jumped on it right away, buying masks, snorkels and fins for our whole family.
We would take weekend trips to the coast to snorkel, mainly in the surf at Galveston. The water there most of the year was so brown and muddy you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, but we were enjoying it just the same. And then we had one of those “accidental” moments that changed everything.
We set out on one of our trips to the beach, exiting IH-45 at the outskirts of Galveston, onto 61st Street to head to the Gulf, when on a whim my dad decided to pull off at the little roadside park at Offatts Bayou. That part of Offatts Bayou was a fairly wide body of water where the road crossed it. The Army Corps of Engineers had constructed the roadbed of quarried rocks that extended from both shores of the bayou towards the center. A road was then laid over the rocks and a bridge was built in the middle to connect the two sides together. The bridge allowed small boats to pass under along with the currents and tidal surges. Dad got out of the car, walked over to the rocks and gazed into the water. He turned and walked briskly back to us, grinning from ear to ear. He said, “You won’t believe this. This water’s actually got some visibility. I can see down about 8 or 10 feet right there along the rocks. Let’s do some diving here.”
We all changed into our swimsuits, donned masks, snorkels and fins and hit the water pretty fast. On my first glimpse of the seabed, I was totally overwhelmed with the realization of there being a whole other wondrous world existing below the surface of the ocean. It was such a sensory overload that my mind could not put it into words. There were sea anemones, coral and shells on the rocks, colorful fish swimming in and out of the crevices, crabs crawling on the bottom, and a ray fish gliding gracefully right beside us in underwater flight. To this day, every time I go diving, the undersea world continues to amaze me with its extraordinary beauty.
That first day we dove at Offatts Bayou we also discovered it was a bountiful larder of edible sea life. On our numerous subsequent trips there we would harvest rock crabs, blue crabs, various whelks and conchs, oysters, quahog clams, an occasional scallop, and of course, lots of fish.
Sometimes when I had friends over to spend the night, they couldn’t believe all the things that we would eat. I can still remember a conversation I overheard on the playground at Almeda Elementary School between Willie Keyworth and Darrell Mayfield, two of my best friends. Darrell told Willie, “Hey, I heard you spent the night at Clay’s over the weekend.”
“Yeah, I did,” Willie replied.
“What’d y’all have to eat?”
“Aw, man … conch meat and fried clams.”
“Yeah, I know, man. You never know what you’re gonna get over there. You know those Blakers … they’ll eat anything.”
I walked away chuckling, feeling a bit proud.
During this time, my cousin Jack “Bubba” Blaker started tagging along with us to Offatts Bayou and my dad taught him how to snorkel. Bubba took to it quickly and loved it as much as we did. One Friday afternoon, Bubba and I were hanging around the Almeda Garage and when it was almost time to close the shop my dad called out to us, “Hey guys, go pack some clothes for the weekend, along with your swimsuits and diving gear. I’m gonna take y’all on a survival trip tomorrow.”
That evening, he hooked his small yellow boat (nicknamed the Banana Boat) and trailer up to the pickup and we helped him load up the gear. This included a large ice chest, wire grill, wash tub, some pots and pans, cast net, 100-foot seine, crab net, big roll of string, large army surplus tent, sleeping bags, our diving equipment, and my dad’s speargun.
The next morning we left early for Galveston, stopping first at Pyburn’s grocery store to buy several blocks of ice, 5 or 6 boxes of Zatarain’s Crab Boil, salt and pepper, several gallons of drinking water, a bag of potatoes, aluminum foil and a big box of matches. On arriving in Galveston, my dad drove along the seawall all the way to the south jetty at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel. We drove down the ramp at the end of the seawall onto the beach, and found a good spot in the lee of the jetty and made camp. We set up the tent, put some of the gear inside and my dad said, “Let’s put the boat in the water and go dive.”
Luckily, the surf was flat, as it is quite frequently on the Gulf, so we were able to back the trailer into the water and launch the boat easily. Dad parked the pickup by the tent and we all hopped into the boat, drove to the cut halfway down the jetty and crossed over into the ship channel. We drove a short way to the “Cement Ship,” an old hull of a ship made of cement that had run aground many years before. We anchored the Banana Boat right next to the hull and then my dad said, “Hey boys, I’ve got a surprise for you.” He reached up under the bow and pulled out two stainless steel shafts with spear points on one end and wooden handles on the other. They had no rubber slings or anything to propel them and Bubba and I looked at each other all puzzled, simultaneously thinking to ourselves, What? How are we going to spear anything with these? Dad said, “Alright, boys, let’s go get dinner!” We all jumped out of the boat.
The water had 5- or 6-foot visibility and there were tons of sheepshead swimming close to the hull. Bubba and I started jabbing at the sheepshead while my dad, with his regular speargun, was making dives below us in the murk. After he had put two or three nice speckled trout in the boat I grabbed his arm and said, “Hey, these spears are no good. There’s no way to spear a fish with just a bare shaft.”
He said, “Really? Give me your spear.”
I did, and he dove back down, returning shortly with a large sheepshead on the end of the spear. Bubba and I stared at each other again, thinking, How did he do that?
At that point my dad said, “OK, I’ll take care of the fish. I’ve got another job for you guys.”
He got back in the boat and told us to give him our spears. He reached back up under the bow and pulled out two small pry-bars and handed them to us. He jumped back into the water and said, “There are big oysters growing all over the side of this ship so y’all’s job is to start prying them off and putting them in the boat.”
Our enthusiasm renewed, Bubba and I started collecting oysters. After 15 or 20 minutes, Dad said, “Okay, boys, I think we’ve got enough to eat for tonight, so let’s head on in.”
Back at camp, we first pulled the boat way up on shore, then scaled and cleaned all the fish. My dad told us to save all the fish heads in a bag and put them in the cooler for use the next day. Then we all scouted around the area for driftwood, carried it back and piled it near the tent. After we had plenty we broke up some of the smaller pieces for tinder and then stacked some slightly bigger pieces on top. Soon we had a roaring fire which we let die down until there were just coals. We wrapped three potatoes in foil and tossed them into the coals. We put two driftwood logs on either side of the coals and placed the grill on top of the logs. After letting the potatoes cook a while, we salted and peppered the fish and laid them on the grill. After they were done on one side, we flipped them over and then Dad said it was time to put the oysters on. We laid all the oysters on the perimeter of the grill around the fish. Just about the time we thought the fish and potatoes should be done, all the oyster shells had popped open and steam was coming out. What a feast. We ate the grilled fish, accompanied by baked potatoes and oysters steamed in their own juice. Needless to say, we all slept well that night.
The next morning when we awoke, dad said we had to go find breakfast. We walked up into the sand dunes and looked around until we found some seagull eggs hidden in the salt grass. We went back to camp, stirred up the embers in the fire pit and got a good fire going again. My dad scrambled the eggs and flaked the leftover fish from the night before into them. With a little salt and pepper added, they turned out excellent. Everything always tastes better anyway when you’re cooking outdoors over a campfire.
After relaxing a while after breakfast, my dad got a knife, the roll of string, the crab net and the fish heads and brought it all to me and Bubba. He said, “Okay, boys, here’s everything you need to start gathering today’s meals. You know what to do.”
Bubba and I took all that stuff over to the jetty, cut the twine into long pieces, tied the fish heads on one end and set them out along the jetty to catch crabs. Bubba went to the truck and got the wash tub to put them in. A while later, my dad walked out on the jetty passing by with a bucket and the cast net. He went further out and made casts on both sides of the jetty. We could see him putting things into the bucket after some of the casts. When he stopped casting, he walked back and showed us a lot of shrimp in the bucket.
“Yum,” I said. “I’m sure glad that wasn’t mullet you were catching.”
He laughed and asked, “How many crabs have y’all caught?”
“Oh, I think about two dozen.”
“Great! Why don’t y’all carry them back to camp and put them in the ice chest and then we’ll go seining out in the surf and see what else we can come up with.”
We ended up dragging the seine about 200 yards parallel to the shore, with Bubba and me pulling the shallow end and my dad on the other end in deeper water. At one point my dad hollered at us to stop moving and to just try to keep the net on the bottom. He, meanwhile, kept pulling his end in a big semicircle toward the beach and when he was even with us he said, “Alright, boys, let’s get it up on the beach.”
When we dragged the net onto the sand, we could see a lot of things thrashing around inside.
Dad hollered, “Run and get the washtub, boys! And hurry!”
We ran all the way there and back, set the tub down and unfurled the net. There were lots of shrimp that were big enough to eat. The smaller ones we threw back in the water. There were a few small whitings and sand trout that we kept and a few more keeper blue crabs. We carried everything back to camp, put the catch in the cooler and got another fire going. My dad suggested we eat a light lunch to save plenty of room for the feast that evening. We cleaned three of the fish and threw them on the grill along with around 20 of the biggest shrimp. It was just what the doctor ordered. Afterwards, the breeze off the Gulf lulled us all into naps under the big canopy on the front of the tent. When we awoke, my father told us some funny stories about when he was young and went on survival trips with the Boy Scouts. He said several times they nearly starved to death and one time they had to raid a farmer’s watermelon patch in the middle of the night just to get something in their bellies. Bubba laughed and said, “Well, Uncle Mack, tonight’s not gonna be the night we starve!”
He was right about that. Just about the time the sun was going down, we got the fire roaring, set the grill over it and put a big pot of water on. We salted the water well, added all the Zatarain’s seasoning and waited for it to start boiling. It didn’t take long so the first thing we did was dump in all the rest of the potatoes. After the water came back to a boil, we waited 20 minutes or so before dropping the crabs in, one at a time. We let them boil for another 15 minutes and then threw the shrimp in, too.
Fifteen minutes later, everything was done to perfection and to call it a feast would be an understatement. When eating fresh Gulf seafood, it just doesn’t get any better than that, folks.
The next morning we rose with the dawn, stoked the fire, cooked up the last of the fish and ate that for breakfast along with some cold boiled shrimp left over from the night before. After cleaning the breakfast dishes, we broke down the camp, packed everything up, hitched up the boat and trailer, drove back up on the seawall and headed for Almeda.
When we got back to the house, Bubba said, “That was really fun, Uncle Mack. Thanks for taking us.” “Yeah Dad, when can we go again? Survival trips are awesome!”
Smiling, as he looked at us, my dad said, “It just goes to show, boys, you don’t have to be a millionaire to live like one. You just have to know how to live.”
Later that night before I drifted off to sleep, I lay there thinking about what my father had said. Even though I knew he was joking, his words had hit me hard. “You just have to know how to live.” Wow. Simple, yet profound. I wonder if my father realizes the effect those words have had on my life.
Yeah … I think he probably does.
In the late ‘50s several of my dad’s Almeda cohorts, following his example, decided to take up diving. The group included Durwood Watson, Jimmy Buchanek, Junior Keyworth, H.B. “Burl” Bailey, Ronnie Caffey and brothers Floyd and Charles Parker. Before long, they decided to start the Almeda Divers Association and set up a legal charter that all local divers could join, paying membership dues. The ADA supported diver certification, organized sanctioned spearfishing tournaments, worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife to recognize diving as a legitimate sport in Texas, and promoted the sport of scuba diving to the general public.
Some of the wives, including my mother, became good divers as well and were welcomed into the ADA. Other clubs were forming in Houston and Corpus Christi at this time and the popularity of the sport was growing rapidly. An event was organized at the Convention Center in Houston to further promote the sport of diving, at which all the diving gear manufacturers from around the country attended to show off their latest merchandise. Jacques Cousteau, the inventor of the scuba tank, which at the time was called an aqualung, was invited to speak. There were many people who thought he wouldn’t show, but he proved them wrong. After he spoke, my dad was introduced to him and they got to visit a while. My dad told me the next day that Jacques Cousteau was very friendly, polite and soft-spoken and seemed to be a genuinely good guy and it had been an honor to meet him. I thought then, and still do, that was pretty darn cool!
In 1960, my dad received an offer to run a dive shop in a new resort that was under construction on the island of Puerto Rico in the eastern Caribbean. My parents discussed the idea and with little deliberation said, “Let’s do this.” We all were so excited to be moving to a tropical island. So excited, in fact, that my dad decided we should get an early start, even though the resort was not supposed to be open for another six months. He talked his brother Jack into buying the Almeda Garage, found a renter for our house, and we set out for Florida ─ all five of us and our belongings ─ in our old Ford pickup. My dad said we’d find a place to live for a few months somewhere in south Florida and when the resort was about ready, we’d sell the truck and hop on a plane in Miami to fly to Puerto Rico.
I don’t know if IH-10 was even built yet but we wouldn’t have taken it anyway. Everywhere we went, my folks always took what they called “the scenic route.” So we stayed on secondary roads, mainly along the coast, stopping each night at a tourist court to sleep. They didn’t call them motels in those days, and the ones we stayed in were cheap but clean and secure. It took us four days to get to south Florida. My parents didn’t want to live in Miami so we looked around the surrounding countryside and really liked the Homestead area. It was a small community, with lots of orange groves and avocado orchards. The place we ended up renting was on a farm that had avocados, oranges and grapefruit. Our landlord said to help ourselves to any fruit that was on the ground but not to pick any from the trees. We were totally happy with that arrangement as there was always more fruit on the ground than we could possibly eat. So we were off to a good start with the fruit, we just had to augment it. For us, that meant heading for the water.
Our place was not far from Biscayne Bay, so the next day we drove there with our diving gear. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen before: coconut palms, mangroves, and beautiful clear water. While my father was spearing mangrove snappers, the rest of us were finding horse conchs and channel whelks. My sisters and I also gathered up a few coconuts to take home. We ate well that night.
The next day, my mom took the three of us kids to Homestead Elementary School and we were enrolled. From that point on, our sojourns were limited to the weekends. In ‘60 the South Florida boom had not really happened yet, so it was still very much wild and undeveloped. During the week, we stayed pretty close to home, and, being on a very tight budget, we ate a lot of beanie weenies and bologna sandwiches along with truckloads of oranges, grapefruit and avocados. Every Saturday, we’d get an early start in the old Ford and usually head to Biscayne Bay or to the Keys. On those excursions, we nearly always came back with something good to eat. But we didn’t always go to the ocean. Sometimes we explored the Everglades, or went to Seminole Indian villages and watched them wrestle alligators.
All in all, our time in South Florida was a remarkable experience, which included being directly in the path of Hurricane Donna, which caused much devastation in the area. Luckily our house was built of limestone rocks, the walls being a foot thick, so we weathered the storm with no problem.
For the next few weeks, we helped our landlord’s family by replanting the uprooted trees in the orchard, cutting up broken limbs, and hauling debris to the dump. We also gave a hand to many of our other neighbors. When things were beginning to return to a sense of normalcy, one night after supper my dad said to the rest of us, “Guys, I think it’s time we say goodbye to Florida. Are y’all ready to get on down to Puerto Rico?”
We all screamed in unison, “Yesssss!”
Our landlord had told us previously that he wanted to buy our old Ford pickup when we moved. So the next day he and my dad went to change the title over while my mom called the airport and made our reservations. Bright and early the next day we loaded everything up in our landlord’s van and he took us to the Miami airport. We said our goodbyes and just like that, we were off on the next leg of the adventure.
When we arrived in San Juan, we were met by some former friends from Texas, Walter and Mary Sisson, who worked for one of the oil companies based in Houston and had been transferred to Puerto Rico a couple of years earlier. They were kind enough to pick us up and offer us a place to stay until we got our feet under us. As we were driving from the airport into the heart of the city, it didn’t take us long to realize we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The Spanish Colonial architecture of the old buildings was so different from what we were used to seeing back home. Puerto Rico was technically a U.S. Territory but in reality it was a foreign country: different language, different culture, different customs, different food, different everything. I know at that point I felt some trepidation creeping in, thinking, What did we get ourselves into? But before we even reached the outskirts of San Juan, as we turned south to traverse the island, the excitement of the adventure that lay ahead erased those thoughts from my mind.
It was a little more than a three-hour drive, up and over the hills and mountains of the Cordillera Central, down to the verdant coastal forests on the southern side of the island, and westward to the town of Yauco, where Walter and Mary resided with their two children, Renee and Alan. Coincidentally, Yauco was not far from Punta Guayanilla, where my father would be working at the new resort.
When we arrived at their home, Alan and Renee came running outside to greet us. I almost didn’t recognize Renee, as she had grown very tall and had filled out her clothing very nicely. She had been my girlfriend back in Texas back when we were both short, skinny adolescents and I could tell by her reaction when she saw me, as I was still a short, skinny adolescent, that she was not interested in picking up where we had left off. I was down in the dumps the rest of that day and night. However, my spirits were lifted the next day when the two Puerto Rican kids who lived across the street came over. They were friends with Renee and Alan and were introduced to us as Bernice and Anibo. Bernice was my height and filled out her clothing nicely as well, maybe even more so than Renee. She was beautiful, with long black hair, big brown eyes and full Latina lips. And I could tell right off that she was definitely interested in this new gringo boy.
It was also apparent that Anibo had taken a shine to my sister Annie. From that day forward, Bernice and Anibo took it upon themselves to indoctrinate us into the Puerto Rican culture. They spoke no English and we spoke very little Spanish but we had absolutely no problem communicating. The first thing they did was show us around the town of Yauco, pointing out certain landmarks and points of interest and occasionally stopping to sample local culinary treats from the street vendors. Sometimes they would take us on excursions up into the hills and surrounding countryside. Now and then my parents would make us take our little sister Cindy. I think they wanted us to have a chaperone. When she tagged along, Annie and I threatened her with bodily harm if she ever tattled on us for doing things we shouldn’t. To her credit, she never snitched.
My mother found out that the only school in Yauco that had any classes in English was the private Catholic school. She got us enrolled and we started a day or so later. All the teachers were nuns and there was also a priest and a mother superior. On the first day, we had to go to Mass and it was nothing like the service Brother Roberts preached at our old Almeda Baptist Church. The next day my mom went with us to the school and asked that we be excused from attending Mass because we weren’t Catholic. From then on we spent that time of the day in study hall. I’d kind of liked Mass though, because they burned incense and had some interesting rituals. And the exercise was good, too. Stand up, sit down, kneel down, sit down, stand up. Got your heart pumping for sure. Maybe that’s why you rarely see Catholics who are overweight. That right there is a good enough reason to be one. That and the fact that unlike us Southern Baptists, they’re allowed to drink.
The following Saturday, the Sissons drove us, with all our diving gear, the short distance to the coast at Punta Guayanilla. Once there, we made a horrible discovery. We located the site of the resort where my dad supposedly had a job waiting and saw that very little construction had been done. Actually, the whole place looked abandoned. We saw some locals down the beach and walked over to see if they knew what had happened. They told us the rumor was that the owners had raised a lot of capital from various investors, started construction, declared bankruptcy and fled with all the funds.
We all stood there for a minute in shock, totally dismayed. My dad gathered us around him and said, “Alright, everyone, I know this is a big setback but don’t worry. We’re going to get through this. Right now, we’re going diving, so let’s go get our gear.”
The white-sand beach at Guayanilla was fringed with coconut palms, fronting a large, protected bay having lots of small islets not far from shore. We put on our gear and Dad said, “Let’s swim out to those little islands.” The water was shallow as we swam towards them, no more than 8 or 10-feet deep, and was bathtub-warm and crystal clear. The reef was dazzling with fauna and flora displayed in every color of the spectrum.
When we reached the islets we were astounded to discover that they weren’t islands at all but huge piles of queen conch shells that had been discarded by the locals over the course of many years. We were further astonished to see there were plenty of live conchs scattered around the seabed. I dove down to get one that was next to a giant head of brain coral and as I was picking up the conch I glanced under the coral head and was surprised to see several pairs of lobster antennas sticking out. I called my dad over and noticed he already had conch and lobster in his dive bag. I said, “Dad, there’s a bunch of lobsters under this coral head.”
He answered, “I know, man! They’re everywhere! Let’s go get ‘em!”
After a while, my dive bag was so heavy with conch and lobster that it kept pulling me underwater so I headed for the beach. My mom, Annie and Cindy came back in with conchs in their bags as well. That night we cooked up the conch and lobsters, made a big pot of rice to go with it and enjoyed a fabulous meal with the Sissons, Bernice and Anibo.
That night after dinner, I asked my dad what we were going to do. He said, “Well, while y’all are in school, I’m gonna start looking for a job, and on the weekends we’ll go explore the country around here or go look for more dive spots. Don’t worry. I’ll find something.”
Dad hit the pavement hard searching for work. Being an auto mechanic he made the rounds of all the garages in the area but to no avail. He located a couple more resorts on beaches nearby and inquired about being a diving instructor. No luck there either. He went to the refinery where Walter worked and Walter introduced him to the head of the employment office. He was a nicely dressed Puerto Rican, mid-forties, who was kind enough to sit down with my dad and explain the employment situation in Puerto Rico. He said the labor laws in the country were very pro-worker and that the labor unions were extremely powerful. When a job opened up, the law stated that an exhaustive search must be made to fill the position with a qualified Puerto Rican national. If the countrywide search turned up no one qualified, then and only then could they hire a foreigner for the job. The man also said that it was a given that you had to speak Spanish as well. That pretty much ended my dad’s search for a job.
From that point on, we relaxed and just enjoyed the lifestyle and beauty of that tropical island, partaking in all it had to offer. Our parents had talked it over and decided when our savings got to the point of no return, we’d buy airline tickets, fly back to Houston and start over.
The day finally arrived and early that morning we loaded all our belongings into Walter’s car. As we said our goodbyes to Bernice, Anibo and the Sissons, there was a lot of laughter mixed with quite a few tears. And then we were on our way to the San Juan airport. Nine hours later, we landed in Houston where Uncle Jack’s wife Fannie Ella picked us up at Hobby Airport and drove us back to Almeda.
Unbeknownst to the rest of us, my father had formed an idea after the job fell through in Puerto Rico and for weeks he had been turning it over in his mind until we returned to Texas. He sprung it on us a day or so after we returned.
“You know what?” he started out. “I don’t really want to go back to working on cars. We went all the way to Puerto Rico to run a dive shop. Why can’t we open up our own dive shop right here? Y’all wanna do that?”
Of course we were all immediately gung-ho. He talked to his mom and dad about an old small building they owned next to the Almeda Garage, on the corner of Gumas Street and Almeda Road, also called the old State Highway 288 that connected Houston and Freeport. The building had originally been a flower shop and later a beer joint but a fire had gutted it one night after the bar closed. It had been sitting there in that state for a few years, so my dad’s folks readily agreed to let him remodel it and if the business was successful he could start paying rent or buy it outright. First, we had to find a place to live. There were renters in our old house, which was badly needed income, and anyway they were nice people and we wouldn’t think of moving them out. We’d been staying at Granny and PawPaw’s since our return but it was pretty cramped there, so our folks looked around a bit and found a used trailer home for sale. They made a down payment and had it towed to the back of the lot behind the burned-out building. We moved in immediately and all of us pitched in to help Dad with the remodeling of the soon-to-be dive shop.
With all of us helping, it didn’t take long to get the place ready to open for business. Blaker’s Water Sports (BWS) opened its doors in 1961, fully stocked with fishing gear, water skis and accessories, diving equipment and before long … surfboards.
Yep, you read that right. No one thought you could surf in Texas, that is, except for a handful of hardcore Galveston locals who took up the sport around 1960. A few Houstonians joined them the following year, with some of that group preferring the waves of Surfside Beach at Freeport. After the Beach Boys released their hit “Surfin’ USA” in early 1963, the surf scene in Texas went ballistic. It changed everything. Surf shops started springing up everywhere, including many in the metropolitan areas of Houston and Corpus Christi, and all points along the coast.
After my dad heard about the group of guys who were surfing in Galveston, he got on the horn and found a company in California that made surfboards in a mold; these were called pop-outs. He ordered a half dozen of the boards for the shop and when they arrived, he and a couple of his diving buddies took them to Surfside and caught their first waves, pushing off in the whitewater. A couple of months later, at a spearfishing tournament in Galveston, one of my dad’s friends pushed me into my first wave. Dad and I realized right away that we were totally hooked on surfing and it became the main focus in our lives.
BWS soon acquired the dealership rights to sell Hansen and Greg Noll surfboards from California in the Houston area. We also ordered surfboard blanks, resin and cloth to sell to surfers who wanted to make their own boards.
Enter the Bishops: three brothers from Bellaire, Texas, who were all good divers and traded at our shop. Mickey, the oldest, Dickens and Steve were all talented artists as well. They were interested in learning how to surf and, being artists, each wanted to make his own board. They purchased kits from us, took them home and created their individualized surfboards. The three of them stopped at BWS on their way to Surfside Beach a couple of weeks later. They lined their new boards up across the front of the shop and took photos. We were impressed, to say the least. The boards each had unique artwork designs and I thought they should be hanging in a gallery, not headed for the sand and salt. These three guys were the catalyst for the decision that BWS would make its own surfboards and all three Bishops ended up working at the shop. Mickey designed the Blaker Surfboards logo and became our first shaper. Steve and Dickens later shaped boards and Dickens also worked in the showroom.
The business soon outgrew the little building that we’d remodeled so my dad bought the Almeda Garage building next door back from his brother Jack and converted it into a large, modern, air-conditioned showroom for the surfboards and diving gear. We kept the front part of the old building stocked with fishing equipment, gear and bait, renaming it the Almeda Bait and Tackle Shop. My mother’s brother, Forrest Cloyd, along with his wife Evelyn, took over the running of that business.
Not long after surfing exploded on the Texas coast, an organization was formed called the Gulf Coast Surfing Association. Its purpose was to promote surfing as a legitimate sport in Texas, to sanction surfing contests, establish criteria for judging the contests, and a rating system for the competitors. All the surf shops and local board manufacturers started putting teams together and the competition was fierce as each tried to snag the top surfers to represent one’s shop or logo. A yearly circuit of contests along the coast was established by the GCSA, culminating in the last event of the year … the Texas State Surfing Championships, held at the Flagship Hotel pier in Galveston.
The contests were a lot of fun, and the Blaker team always did well, but we soon got more interested in surf exploration. A few grainy photos in the early surf magazines of perfect waves in Baja and mainland Mexico set us off in search of virgin surf.
The first couple of trips were all-guy trips to the Mazatlán area on the Pacific side of Mexico. We traveled in cars and vans and stayed in motels and found a lot of good surf. But my dad wanted to include the whole family on the trips plus save on motel rooms, so he decided we needed a bus of some sort. Being the do-it-yourself guy that he was, he found an old Rainbow Bread delivery truck that was for sale pretty cheap, so he bought it and turned it into a motorhome.
From his prior experience as a mechanic, the first thing he did was get the old diesel engine in top shape. Then he stripped out the inside and installed beds, a bathroom, a kitchen, dining table that folded down to make another bed, and a buddy seat. He gave the outside a new paint job and the Bishop brothers volunteered to put on the finishing touches of the Blaker Surfboards logo and some surf art on both sides.
Oh, man … we made some memorable journeys in that camper. At first it was just our family, but soon members of the Blaker surf team came along with us. We went to California, Baja and all up and down the Pacific mainland coast of Mexico. In those days there were still a lot of undiscovered surf spots and after turning off the main roads onto narrow dirt roads that pointed towards the coast, we sometimes were rewarded at the end of them by epic surf. More often than not, that didn’t happen. But to us it didn’t matter. It was all about the journey, being in a different country, experiencing another culture, and making new friends along the way, all the while reveling in the constant change of scenery and the excitement of just being out there on the road. It was quite an education, to say the least. And we always had our diving gear with us, along with a couple of fishing rods, so we ate well.
Which brings up another recollection: One time, just as we were backing out of our driveway, all packed up for a Mexico run, my Uncle Jack walked over from his house carrying a big cardboard box. My dad opened the door of the camper and Uncle Jack handed up the box, saying, “Thought y’all might like this for your trip. Be safe and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” As he walked away, we opened the box and inside were about 50 links of his homemade smoked venison sausage. It was an incredible gift that we rationed out to last almost the whole trip. A piece from one of these links wrapped in a tortilla, with a hunk of sharp Mexican cheddar and a slice of white onion on the side … “Yep, you can make a meal out of that, son!”
That same trip stands out in my memory for other events. It was the first time we went to Matanchén Bay, near San Blas. We were lucky enough to score a good south swell and all of us got rides that were nearly a mile long, starting at the first point, rounding the second and third points and surfing almost all the way to Pepe’s Hotel Colón. After surfing on the rights there for two or three days, we decided to go look for a left on the other side of Matanchén Bay, near the village of Santa Cruz. We followed the old dirt road that wound along the bay, at one point passing a rocky shoreline for about a half-mile stretch. The tide was low and there were several local women bent down in the rocks, tooling at things they found there. Out of curiosity, we stopped to have a look. As we approached, we noticed there were big oysters growing on the rocks below the tide line and the women were harvesting them with simple prying tools. When they saw us, they stopped what they were doing and asked if we wanted to buy some. We were already salivating so of course we bought several dozen and ate half of them raw and fried the rest of them for dinner that night. So good. We did end up finding a good left in Santa Cruz. The waves were only about waist high but perfect and really fun.
We continued on further south a day or two later to look for the Mexican Malibu right point-break at Punta de Mita near Puerto Vallarta. It was a bad road out to the end of Punta de Mita in those days and we got stuck in the mud a few times but eventually reached a perfect camping spot where the waves were breaking. The beach fronting the surf break was incredibly beautiful, with lots of coconut palms and a fresh-water stream nearby. Best of all, we had it all to ourselves.
After setting up the campsite, we hit the waves: shoulder high, the wind offshore, clear blue water. It was a good session, although a couple of small sharks cruised through the lineup causing us to paddle in sooner than we wanted to. We rinsed off and started preparations for the evening meal.
Earlier we’d noticed giant limpet shells scattered on the beach. Limpets are delicious to eat but are usually small. The shells we saw were 6 or 7 inches in diameter, almost as big as abalone. As the tide was going out that evening I walked down to the rocks, which were now exposed, and sure enough, there were large limpets clinging to the rocks everywhere. I walked back up to camp to let everyone know and a few of us went back and pried off a dozen or so. We cleaned and washed them, cut them into steaks and cooked them for dinner. To me it tasted just like the abalone we had found the year before on a trip to Baja California.
The next day while we were surfing, two or three sharks came around. This time they were a bit more aggressive, circling closer than they had the day before, so again we paddled in. On the third day, there were several sharks swimming around us and acting erratically. We decided to paddle in and they followed us all the way to the shore. My dad said, “Okay, we’re outta here.” So we packed up and that was the last time we ever went to Punta de Mita.
Well, now I have to mention something about that trip the year before, where we encountered abalone for the first time. On that excursion, some of the surf team members went along also. The Blaker motorhome made the long haul to San Diego, California, turned south, crossed the border at Tijuana and entered Baja.
Baja! The word itself seemed magical. It wasn’t tropical; in fact, the water could be quite cold along the northern Baja coast because of the influence of the cold California Current that runs offshore from Canada to the southern tip of Baja. The terrain was rugged and arid with lots of desert-type vegetation. And there were many excellent surf spots.
The first place we camped was at a right point break called K-38, so named because it was right by the highway marker for being 38 kilometers from the US─Mexico border. Oh man, this place had probably the best waves we’d ever ridden. We had to wear full wetsuits though. Like I said … cold water.
The reef there held an abundance of sea life. After surfing our brains out for a couple of days on nice overhead waves, the swell dropped to a still fun but only waist- to shoulder-high level, so my dad decided to go diving. He was out about an hour and came back in with his dive bag filled with several abalones, four or five nice-sized lobsters and a Pacific sheepshead that was close to ten pounds.
Woo-hoo! We scrounged up a bunch of driftwood and scrub brush to make a campfire. We set a grill above the fire and boiled the lobsters in a big pot, grilling the fish at the same time. My mom was cooking the abalone steaks on the stove inside the camper. There were a couple of other groups of surfers camping nearby and they were warming up cans of pork and beans and Hormel’s beef stew on their campfires, all the while eyeballing what we were cooking at ours. Gradually they all gravitated over to our campsite and of course we showed them some Texas hospitality by sharing everything we had with those guys. Not only did we make some new friends, but we ended up sitting around the campfire half the night sharing surf stories.
The next morning a few of us were out surfing. The waves were really good … head-high, light offshore wind. While sitting in the lineup, alternating our gazes from searching for waves to checking out the beach scene, we saw a car with boards on top pulling off the highway and entering the gate to our camping area. I remember thinking, Bummer … more surfers.
Two guys got of the car, put on wetsuits, unloaded their boards and walked down the trail from the cliff to the water and started paddling out. When they got closer we could see that one of the guys was Miki Dora. We didn’t recognize his friend.
Whoa! Miki “Da Cat” Dora! Some called him the “Black Knight of Malibu,” and others called him the greatest living surfer in the world. Definitely not a bummer now. We were totally stoked.
Miki and his friend soon got in a rotation with us and we all surfed together for a couple of hours with no one hogging waves, just taking turns as the sets rolled in. They were super friendly to us and very polite.
At one point Miki lost his board in the whitewater (this was before the surf leash was invented) and one of the girls on our surf team, Gloria Dunn, who was also the number one female surfer in Texas at the time, had caught the wave before Miki’s. She was way inside and saw the board heading for the cliff and was able to paddle over and grab it before it smashed into the rocks. She held onto both boards until Miki swam up and climbed on his then they paddled back out together. Sitting in the lineup I heard him tell her, “Thanks again for saving my board. “
We Texans all caught our last waves of the day over the next twenty minutes or so, leaving Miki and his friend out there for another hour or so. When they eventually came in, they milled around their car for a while and then Miki walked over to our campsite. I was sitting in a plastic chair in front of the camper and he asked, “Hey, where’s that girl who saved my board?”
“She’s taking a nap inside,” I told him.
“Okay, I don’t want to wake her but can you give her this gift and tell her again I said thanks?”
“Sure thing,” I said. He handed me what appeared to be a huge wad of carefully wrapped toilet paper.
He said, “You guys take it easy. We enjoyed surfing with you. We’re going back to California.” He walked off and he and his friend drove away.
Later, when Gloria awoke and stepped outside, everyone gathered around as I told her what had happened and handed her Miki’s gift. We were as curious as she was and stood there watching as she unwrapped all that toilet paper. It took a couple of minutes but she pulled the last of the paper off and burst out laughing. She held up a small pin button like the ones campaigners might give away to attract votes. This one was white with bold red letters with the word … BULLSHIT. We must have all laughed for an hour. Classic Miki Dora. But all in fun. It’s a story I’ll never forget.
We left K-38 the next day and headed south. We found good waves and camped at Cuatro Casas, Punta Colnett, and a long beach break called Johnson’s Ranch. Surfing the waves at Johnson’s Ranch was kind of spooky because when we were sitting in the lineup waiting for a wave, every once in a while a big sea lion would suddenly surface right beside one of us, scaring the crap out of that surfer, then dive back down only to reappear next to someone else, with the same results.
There were a few Mexican families living in small dwellings above the beach and there were several tables set up in front of their houses with a strange device having a big lever arm. At one point we were talking with some of the locals on the beach and asked what those tables were for. One of them said, “Para abrir almejas.” (To open clams.)
“Hay almejas aqui?”(Are there clams here?)
“Si, muchos.” (Yes, many.)
They took us down by the tideline, bringing along a digging implement that had 4 tines. When a wave would come in and wash back out, they showed us places in the sand where air bubbled up. They handed the trowel to my dad and made the gesture to dig. My dad dug down about 8 inches into the sand and pulled up a huge Pismo clam. Our local friends laughed, went back to their homes and brought back more digging tools. They handed them to us and set us loose. After we dug up a couple dozen or more they showed us how to use the levers on the tables to open the shells. After cleaning the clams, one guy asked my father, “Te gustas langostas?” (Do you like lobsters?)
My dad nodded vigorously and the man said, “Vengas a mi casa.” (Come to my house.)
He invited my mom and dad inside while the rest of us watched through the front door as he pulled a big burlap sack out from under his bed. He dumped the contents onto the floor and huge lobsters started crawling everywhere. My mom was screaming while dodging lobsters, which caused the Mexican guy to double over with laughter. He and my dad gathered the lobsters and put them all back in the bag. He sold the lot to us for a few pesos, but we tipped him about twice that much for having provided the entertainment. That night we dined on fried clams and boiled lobsters.
I realize it would be difficult to top a meal like that but it was on that trip that my dad came up with a new dish. My mom usually did most of the cooking and she was excellent at it but every now and then my dad would get an idea and take over. He called his new concoction “Slup Gullion,” and I’m not sure what all it had in it. It wasn’t chili, it wasn’t beef stew, but something in between. All I know is, when we came back freezing from surfing in that cold Northern Baja water, a hot bowl of it sure hit the spot. He made it a lot on future trips and always had a pot of it going on the stove in the motorhome at the surf contests. To this day, he won’t give up the recipe for Slup Gullion but that may be for the better. No telling what all he put in it. You know those Blakers … they’ll eat anything.
Two significant events happened in 1965. Number one was the birth of my brother Bruce. We thought our parents were done with kids after sister Cindy came along but as it turned out, they weren’t. Number two was a roll of 8-millimeter film that arrived in the mail. The box it came in was labeled, “Surfing in Hawaii.” My dad had seen a small advertisement in the back of Surfer magazine of surf movies for sale and sent off for one. That night we set up the projector and screen and as soon as the film was rolling we knew everything had changed. The waves were several notches up the scale from anything we’d seen and had been riding in California and Mexico, and the lush beauty of Hawaii overwhelmed our senses. We pretty much wore that little film out, watching it over and over and over. But from the first viewing, we realized that Hawaii was the Mecca of surfing and knew we would eventually have to make the pilgrimage.
We continued on with our forays into Mexico, with little brother Bruce now joining us on our adventures. Barely past the toddling stage, he was an excellent swimmer and could already use a mask and snorkel, holding his breath underwater for long time. Being a Blaker, he would eat anything, so he fit right in from the get-go.
In 1967, my Dad couldn’t stand it any longer, so he put together an all-guy trip to Hawaii to check it out. He and I, along with four or five other Texas surfers, flew to Oahu and spent a couple of weeks surfing, diving and exploring. We returned home knowing that everything we had learned about Hawaii had far exceeded our expectations while totally fulfilling our dreams. We never went back to Mexico after that. From that point on it was all about Hawaii. My dad decided after that first trip he wanted to move to Hawaii for good, and he discussed it with the whole family, laying out a long-range plan.
The plan was to sell everything we owned in Texas and in 1970 it came to fruition. We had discovered Maui on a later trip to Hawaii and loved it even more than Oahu. Maui was much more our style, being more rural and laid-back, so that’s where we ended up. I went over a few months earlier than the rest of the family so I could enroll at Maui Community College for the spring semester. The rest of the family came over after school was out at the end of May.
We found a beautiful piece of land for sale in what they call the “Upcountry” of Maui. The site’s elevation is about 1800 feet, situated between the small towns of Makawao and Pukalani on the slope of the 10,000-foot Mount Haleakala. The property had many large avocado and other fruit trees but was extremely overgrown with thick brush. Just behind and further up the crater from our property were eucalyptus and hardwood forests, and below us were pineapple fields and a spectacular view of the central valley, the West Maui mountains, and the north shore of the island. At that time, land was cheap so my parents paid cash for the property and then the real work began.
We rented a small apartment in the town of Wailuku which was the county seat. The next necessity was a vehicle and we found a ’55 International pickup that was in really good shape at a fair selling price. It was perfect for our needs and after purchasing it we got a local welder to make and install a pipe rack on top so we could haul lumber and other materials ourselves. Next, we went to a hardware store and bought picks, shovels, hoes, a wheelbarrow, axe, machetes, cross-cut saws and gloves and straight from there we made the 25-minute drive to our land upcountry to begin clearing, which turned out to be some seriously hard work.
Most of the brush consisted of white cane and a plant called haole koa that had to be chopped first and then dug out by the roots or it would grow right back. But the whole family pitched in, even 5-year-old Bruce, and working all day, every day, we got it done pretty quickly.
Our closest neighbors were Portuguese, with the elderly Mrs. Amaral, her son Jimmy and his wife Toni. They turned out to be a godsend by voluntarily running a long water hose and an electrical extension cord from their house over to our property to use during the construction. Of course, we offered to pay their electric and water bill during that period but they absolutely refused to take any payment. Nearly every day while we were working, Mrs. Amaral would walk over with lemongrass tea and homemade Portuguese sausage, or other snacks. We lucked out having the Amarals as neighbors, that’s for sure. It would have been hard to do everything we did without their help.
After the land was cleared, we immediately started construction of the house. None of us knew what we were doing except for my dad, but under his tutelage, we all fairly quickly became competent enough carpenters to get the job done. Every day after breakfast, we packed a lunch, drove to the Alexander & Baldwin hardware store in Kahului to buy lumber and other materials, and headed up the mountain. My dad told us we couldn’t take a day off to go surfing or diving until the house was finished enough to move in, and then we could relax a little, enjoy the amenities that Maui had to offer, and take our time finishing out the house while we were living in it. That was a good incentive and made us want to keep our noses to the grindstone.
The main part of the house was a two-story A-frame with a single-story, 2-bedroom extension on the north side. The pitch of the A-frame roof was super steep and two-stories high. My mother and I put our fears aside, got up there and nailed on a good majority of the cedar shingles. I figured if I fell, it would prepare me for wiping out on a 20-foot wave and getting slammed on the reef. Thank God that didn’t happen.
After the roof, the rest was fairly simple and the house was soon finished enough for us to move in. We had brought practically nothing with us on our move from Texas so we were able to bring everything in one load to the new house. As promised, the next day was spent at Ho’okipa Beach, where my dad and I caught some good waves while Bruce and the girls snorkeled around in the shallows and later went beachcombing. Afterwards, we all walked out on the rocks and gathered a bunch of opihis (limpets) to eat for dinner. On the way home, we stopped at the Bersamin Fish Market in Paia and bought some fresh ahi tuna (yellowfin) and some of their famous marinated octopus. That evening we celebrated spending the first night in our new home in Maui by having a seafood cookout in the backyard. Mrs. Amaral, Jimmy and Toni joined us and my dad proposed a toast, thanking everyone for their help and hard work. We all hollered “Cheers!” and proceeded to chow down. What a perfect end to a glorious day. And before long, we had settled into the Maui lifestyle and spent many wonderful days exploring, hiking, camping, surfing, diving and simply reveling in Mother Nature at her finest.
In the summer of ’71, a bunch of us went to the premier of a new surf movie by MacGillivray and Freeman, called “Waves of Change,” that was showing at the Iao Theater in downtown Wailuku. It was an excellent film that we all enjoyed, featuring wave-riding in California, Hawaii, France and Portugal. The quality of the surf in France and Portugal really blew me away, but what really captured my imagination was one scene where Mark Martinson and Keith Paull were sitting at a table at a sidewalk café overlooking the sea in Biarritz, France, while drinking wine with two beautiful French girls. I could barely concentrate on the rest of the movie because from that point on, my mind was spinning as I concocted a new plan.
The next day I went to the post office in Wailuku and picked up a passport application. I had some passport photos made at a local shop and made a copy of my birth certificate. I filled out the application and mailed everything to the U.S. Passport office in Honolulu. That afternoon I told the whole family what I’d done and what my plans were and they were all excited for me. While I was waiting for my passport to arrive, I began making my preparations.
I sent money off for a Eurail Pass that would allow me to board any train at any time at any place in Europe for a one-month period that would begin when the card was first activated. A Eurail Pass was cheap back then, almost too good to be true. I purchased my airline tickets as well, finding a fare with Pan Am Airways from L.A. to Paris for only $200.
I went to a book store in Kahului to search for a good guide book of Europe and right off the bat found one that suited my needs. The paperback was the newest version of “Europe on $5 a Day,” by Arthur Frommer. I was a bit skeptical that I could subsist on merely five bucks a day in Europe but that book ended up being invaluable in my travels.
On the day my passport arrived, I packed a board bag with my surfboard and my Hawaiian-sling spear which I duct-taped to the board. I had a duffle bag for my mask, snorkel, fins and clothes. I even packed two sets of dress shirts and slacks because I wanted to be ready for whatever might come along. My guitar went with me as well. I didn’t go anywhere without my guitar (and it sure came in handy a few times on the trip). The next day my parents took me to the airport. I hugged them goodbye and was off on my new adventure.
My buddy Jim Marmack, a former glasser at our surf shop in Texas who now lived in Encinitas, California, was kind enough to pick me up at the L.A. airport and drive me to his house. I needed to hang out there for a few days to buy a good wetsuit and convert most of my money into traveler’s checks. I checked those two things off my list the first morning there, and on a whim, I phoned my friend Pam Gold, whom I’d recently palled around with on Maui until she moved back to California. She was happy I’d called and agreed to drive to Encinitas and spend some time with Jim and me. We hung out at the beach the next two days and went out each evening to enjoy live music. We said goodbye to Jim and she drove me back to her apartment in L.A. where I spent the night, with her taking me to the airport the following day.
I checked my surfboard and carried my bag and guitar onto the plane. The flight from LAX in the Pan Am Clipper took me north, over the North Pole, then south to the Orly airport in Paris. In those days, flying was a privilege and everyone dressed nicely for the trip. It seemed very luxurious to me. The meals were excellent, all served on china and eaten with real silver utensils, and the drinks were free. Sadly, that era of flight travel is long gone.
Upon disembarking from the plane in Paris and entering the airport, I found myself in the midst of total chaos. Tons of people were going everywhere and all were speaking in foreign languages. I made my way to the correct baggage carousel, collected my surfboard and joined the throng heading toward the airport exit. I stopped at the info booth before leaving the terminal and said I wanted to take a train to Biarritz. The counter girl showed me a map of Paris and pointed at four major train stations. She said I needed to leave from the one named Gare du Nord. There was a metro station outside the airport where I caught a train to Gare du Nord. I paid for a second-class ticket to Biarritz because I wasn’t planning to activate my Eurail Pass for a couple of months. When the train boarded, I found an empty compartment, wrangled my surfboard so that it rested across the two luggage racks up above, with my guitar and bag fitting snugly on top of the board. Then I settled down into one of the window seats.
While still getting comfortable, a beautiful blonde girl, who appeared to be about my age poked her head in the door and asked in accented English, “Is this compartment taken?”
“No,” I replied. “Come on in.”
I jumped up, took her bag and placed it in the overhead rack across from mine and she took the window seat facing me. Luckily, no one else entered our compartment. We introduced ourselves, shaking hands, as the train pulled out of the station. She said her name was Elisabet Tornberg, that she was a student at the University of Stockholm in Sweden, and was taking a one-month vacation in Biarritz.
As our conversation progressed, we became more and more comfortable with each other. At lunchtime, the porter came around with a food cart and we each bought sandwiches and shared a bottle of wine. Of course, that loosened the conversation even more and by the time we arrived in Biarritz in the late afternoon, we felt like we had already passed the “good-friend” stage into something a little more profound.
As we toted our gear off the train, she asked, “Do you have a hotel?”
I laughed. “No, I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
She suggested we take a cab together to her hotel and see if they had something available for me. We hailed a taxi which took us to the Port Vieux (Old Port) Hotel, which was on the promenade overlooking the Port Vieux beach. Luckily, they had a room and we agreed to meet at 7:00 on the hotel terrace for a welcoming cocktail and then go find a place to have dinner. This would give us plenty of time to rest a bit, shower and don fresh clothes.
At 7:00, we met, had a drink on the terrace and afterwards walked along the promenade to an open-air restaurant called Sel et Poivre (Salt and Pepper). As soon as we were seated, the waiter brought us a carafe of the house red wine and poured us each a glass. The sun was setting over the ocean and I was dizzily struck with a sense of déjà vu. After a few seconds, it hit me … I seemed to be re-enacting the scene in the surf movie where Mark and Keith were drinking wine with the beautiful French girls at the sidewalk café overlooking the Atlantic as the sun was setting. I had it almost exactly the same, and although the girl with me was not French, she was European … and very beautiful.
We had an exceptional meal of mussels steamed in white wine, along with boiled shrimp with risotto on the side. As we walked back to the hotel hand in hand, I was feeling thankful for all the incredible good fortune I’d had so far on this trip. Unfortunately, my mind had spoken too soon.
In the middle of the night, I awoke with chills and a high fever and could feel chest congestion coming on. I guessed I had picked up a bug on the plane. Elisabet and I were supposed to meet for breakfast but in the morning, I was too sick to even get out of bed. Around 10:00 a.m. there was a knock at my door and I dragged myself across the room to open it. Elisabet was standing there and could immediately tell I was in a bad way. I told her I felt like I had the flu and I needed to get back in the bed. Aside from being so ill, despondency had crept in as well, I guess as a result of being in such a helpless situation in a foreign country, and not being able to speak the language, and not knowing anyone who could help. But Elisabet turned out to be my Florence Nightingale. She showed back up at my room shortly and said she had been to a pharmacy. She made me take some pills and also gave me some cough syrup. She returned later with some soup and said I should try to eat something. I was feeling a little better later after taking the medicine so I was able to get some of the soup down which was delicious and lifted my spirits. For the next few days, Elisabet’s kind-hearted, tender care made me feel like I had my own private nurse. I’ve often thought about what might have happened if she hadn’t been there. She was a godsend, for sure.
On the sixth day I awoke feeling much better though still very weak. I was able to shower, get dressed and meet Elisabet on the terrace for a late breakfast. As we were finishing our meal, I noticed a car coming around the curve of the promenade with two surfboards on top. As the vehicle approached I could see the faces of the driver and passenger, and they were looking at me as well. Immediately, the driver slammed on the brakes as we realized we knew each other. It was Tom Adams and Ronny Ray, two Texas surfers and good friends of mine. They jumped out, leaving the car in the middle of the street with the doors open and ran over to our table. We exchanged handshakes and hugs and I introduced them to Elisabet, who received handshakes and hugs also. The guys said they’d be right back after finding a parking place.
I couldn’t believe it. What great timing, right when my spirits needed lifting after being bedridden for five days. My friends returned and ordered coffee and we caught up on each other’s travels. They had arrived a couple of weeks earlier and scored a beautiful old chateau right on the bluff overlooking the surf break in Hossegor, a small village just a 40-minute drive north of Biarritz. They said the chateau had an extra bedroom and I should come live with them, adding that the rent was super cheap and with three people splitting it, it would be even cheaper. The Port Vieux Hotel was way out of my budget and I definitely would have looked for a cheaper place if I hadn’t gotten sick. Elisabet had prepaid a month’s stay for her own room and had gotten a great rate. She could tell by looking at my face that I was torn between staying with her or going with my friends. After a few seconds, she touched my arm, looked into my eyes and said, “Clay, go stay with your friends. You can come visit me whenever you want and I can also come to Hossegor to visit you. It’s no problem.”
I asked, “Are you sure it’s okay?”
She said, “Of course. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other.”
Tom and Ronny left to go surfing at Côte de Basques saying they would be back in two or three hours to pick me up. I had everything packed when they returned so I loaded up my gear, gave Elisabet a big hug and a long kiss, bidding a temporary adieu to her and Biarritz.
The road north to Hossegor, after leaving the suburbs of Biarritz, was rural, consisting mainly of pine forest and an occasional old farmhouse. Turning left at the sign for Hossegor, we soon passed through the tiny village and drove down to a smaller one-lane road that ran along the bluff overlooking sand dunes, the beach and the ocean. There were four chateaus on the beach side of the road and we drove up to the last one. The boys said, “Home sweet home.” I brought all my stuff in and they showed me to my room.
As I was unpacking, Tom hollered, “Clay, come check out the balcony!”
“Give me a minute,” I yelled back.
“No, man,” he said, “come right now!”
That aroused my curiosity so I went out to the balcony and stood beside him, looking down onto the beach as he was, and there were three girls lying there, topless. I thought to myself, Hmm … this is gonna be interesting!
I looked at Tom and asked, “Does this happen very often?”
He said, “Yeah, pretty much every day.”
“Oh really? I think I could learn to like this place.”
He just laughed and I went back to settling in.
That night they took me out to the local restaurant- watering hole called the Bar Basque. Hossegor was just a small village at that time, but upon entering the Bar Basque and seeing it was wall-to-wall people, I figured it must either be the happening place in town, or was the only place in town. The atmosphere was good, the food and wine were excellent, and cheap. The people were friendly, the women were all beautiful and none of the three of us could speak French. Well, I did know one phrase: Voulez vous se coucher avec moi, c’est soir? Which means, for those who don’t know, Would you like to sleep with me tonight? I figured that line was not going to work until I came up with enough French to at least get me to that point. We ended up having a large time, celebrating my first night in Hossegor with beaucoup de vin rouge (a lot of red wine), and the good thing was our chateau was within crawling distance, which was probably how we got home. If we could just remember.
Wouldn’t you know it? The next morning, after waking late with severe hangovers, the surf was going off. From our balcony, the waves looked about 5- or 6-foot, the wind was blowing offshore, so we grabbed our boards and made our way down to the beach. On entering the shore break we realized it was way bigger than we’d estimated, maybe about 8-foot with some spitting barrels. We all took a few beatings until our hangovers wore off and then we started getting it wired. Whoa … super fun session.
That afternoon, the landlady came over to visit. She was elderly, petite, with short grey hair, green eyes and a warm smile. Ronny introduced her as Madame Granell, told her I was Clay, and went to the kitchen to make tea for all of us. We sat at the dining table in front of the French doors that opened onto the balcony, drank our tea and visited for 20 minutes or so. Mme Granell spoke to us in French the whole time as we nodded our heads and replied to her in English. She never understood a word we were saying, and vice versa. It was a little strange, but all in all, a nice visit.
After she left, Tom said, “If you want to write a letter to your folks, put the return address in care of Mme Granell, Hossegor, France. If you get a letter, she’ll bring it here.”
“That doesn’t sound like much of an address,” I told him.
“Yeah I know, but it works. We’ve been doing it and have received several letters from home.”
So the next day I walked up to the small post office in the village and mailed a letter. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, Mme Granell came over with a letter from my mom. (Thanks, Mom. I can’t tell you how much that meant receiving a letter from home, being that far away and in a foreign country.)
A couple of days after our hangover session we headed back to Biarritz to surf some of the breaks around there. That time of year, September through November, is prime surf season on the Basque coast. The waves during this period are pumping and you can surf nearly every day. The two main breaks in Biarritz proper were the Grand Plage ─ in the center of town in front of the Grand Promenade and the casino ─ and the Côte des Basques. On this day, we headed for the Côte des Basques, which is a little further south of the Grand Plage. First, we stopped by the Port Vieux Hotel, found Elisabet and asked her to come with us. She was excited, quickly gathered her beach apparel and hopped in the car with us. We hung out on the Côte des Basques all day, surfing and relaxing on the beach. I even pushed Elisabet into a couple of waves and she stood up and surfed for her first time. In the late afternoon we walked to the public showers above the beach, rinsed off and changed into our street clothes. Tom and Ronny said they wanted to take us to a cool place to watch the sunset and later have dinner.
We drove along the winding road that took us to the top of the cliff which overlooks the whole Côte des Basques beach and the famous castle on the rocky promontory, Villa Belza (Black Villa, in the Basque language). We reached a restaurant called Le Steak House which turned out to be a favorite hangout for the surfing crowd. We ordered the house red wine to watch the sunset by and afterwards ate a seafood dinner. We met some local French surfers who spoke English and hung out with them drinking more red wine. (More red wine, you say? Hey, that’s what they do in France!)
We were all pretty tired from the long day so we dropped Elisabet off at her hotel, telling her we’d be back in two or three days and that we would like it if she would come back to Hossegor with us and spend a couple of days. She agreed. I kissed her goodnight and we made the drive back to Hossegor.
The next two and a half weeks seemed to go by quickly. You know how it is when you’re having fun. The days and nights were a blur: checking out a lot of surf breaks, exploring the surrounding countryside, hanging out at Bar Basque, Le Steak House, and various other venues, eating raw oysters at the central market in Biarritz and of course I was spending as much time as I could with Elisabet.
Her vacation was drawing to a close. She had said beforehand she wanted to spend her last night with me in Hossegor so the day before she was due to leave, she checked out of the Port Vieux Hotel and went with us back to Hossegor. We had a wonderful evening sharing a bottle of wine on our balcony as the sun set over the Atlantic. We all had a nice dinner at the Bar Basque but we didn’t stay long because she had an early train to catch the next morning. We said tearful goodbyes at the station and she gave me a piece of paper with her phone number on it, saying, “When you are doing your one-month tour of Europe with your Eurail Pass, please come see me in Stockholm.” I promised I would and she boarded the train. And just like that, she was gone.
That night, my friends thought they would cheer me up so they took me to the Rue Sainte-Catherine, which was a red-light district in the nearby town of Bayonne. We bar-hopped along the street until we found a place that we liked, and settled in for a while. The wine was cheap, the girls were beautiful and at one point Tom said, “Hey Clay, that girl over there keeps giving you the eye.”
I woefully replied, “Aw, you guys go have some fun and I’ll stay here and hold the table.” I did, however, drown my sorrows to the extent of their having to help me to the car at the end of the night.
My spirits finally lifted a couple of days later when we discovered the right point break at Lafitenia, about 8 miles south of Biarritz. Wow, what a wave. It was far from where we lived in Hossegor but well worth the drive. There were rocks along the shore and point, and the bottom was all reef, so I also figured it would be a good dive spot when the surf went down, which it hadn’t the whole time I’d been there. The diving gear and spear I’d brought had been sitting in the closet of my bedroom since I’d arrived.
The surf finally did go way down. Tom and Ronny wanted to relax at the house but said I could take their car to go diving. As I was leaving, one of them said, “Don’t come home without dinner.”
I drove all the way to Lafitenia and found the water was clear and fairly calm. I donned my wetsuit, put on my mask and snorkel and waded into the water carrying my fins and spear. After getting my fins on, I swam out a ways and immediately spotted a school of silver fish that looked similar to sand trout swimming along the rocks. They were fast and skittish, however, and I was having trouble getting a bead on them. But the admonishment I had gotten from my housemates earlier motivated me into chasing those fish around for about three hours until I finally had three of them of fairly good size in my dive bag.
I was dog-tired but I wanted to reward myself for my perseverance so I made a pit stop at the central market in Biarritz for a dozen raw oysters and a glass of white wine. When I got home I walked in and threw the bag of fish into the kitchen sink, saying, “Here’s dinner, guys. Y’all clean ‘em and I’ll cook ‘em.”
Naturally, they razzed me and said, “Yeah, right … you bought these at the fish market.”
“Yeah, and then I poked those holes in them, too,” I replied.
It was all in good fun though, and they were full of compliments when I served up the fish broiled in a white-wine-and-butter sauce with sautéed veggies on the side.
A couple of days later, we were awakened in the night by the sound of the surf coming back up. By morning we could tell it was really big from the roar coming off the water. Some of the locals had told us of this mystical big wave spot at the end of the breakwater that was the entrance to the port of Capbreton, just south of our beach.
The break was called L’Epi Nord and the locals said it didn’t start breaking until the swell was 15-foot or bigger. As the light of dawn got brighter we could see the waves breaking from our balcony. My heart was beating fast and my stomach was full of butterflies. All three of us sat there on the balcony without speaking as we watched these massive, perfect rights peeling off into the deep channel near the breakwater. There was no question that we were gonna go out. Of course we were. We were from Texas.
We got our boards and walked down to the beach. The shore break was about 8- to 10-foot high and we knew we had to time it perfectly if we had any chance of getting through it. We watched for a long time until there was sort of a lull and we made our move. Miraculously, all three of us got through the shore break and the rest of the paddle was long but easy in the channel near the breakwater. Passing the end of the breakwater, we all paddled over to the peak. I didn’t want to give myself time to let my nerves get the best of me so when a set came, I turned and paddled to catch the first wave. I made the wave all the way to the channel and as I was paddling back out I saw both Ronny and Tom each get a wave, but after they dropped in I couldn’t see them anymore. In fact, after that we were so spread out and there was so much spray in the air that we never saw each other again for the rest of the session.
After riding my first wave, I had an adrenaline high and my confidence had risen. So I decided to wait for one that was bigger. There was a lot of current and the break was so far out to sea that it was extremely difficult to get lined up right and stay at the peak. When the conditions are like that, you end up burning a lot of energy paddling around trying to stay in position while at the same time keeping an eye on the horizon so you don’t get caught in a clean-up set. After lengthy maneuvering, I caught a wave that was a few feet bigger than my first one and I made that one, too. As I was paddling back out, I was feeling a little cocky, thinking I was getting this break wired. Big mistake. Any time you start to think like that, it never fails. Mother Ocean will immediately show you that no matter how skilled you are or how confident you are, She is still the boss.
As soon as I got to my feet on my third and biggest wave, I realized I was definitely not gonna make it. I got totally crushed by the lip and once underwater I was thrashed like a rag doll in a pit bull’s mouth. I had taken a good breath though so I just took my beating for what seemed like ages and waited until I popped up to the surface. The surf leash hadn’t been invented yet so my board was long gone. It was a tedious swim through the heavy surf and when I got to the shore break I had to make a huge effort to arrive at the beach without getting body slammed. Somehow, I got there safely but realized the current had pulled me about a mile and a half north of our house. So on top of everything else, I still had a long walk back. I found my board on the beach though, and luckily it was still in one piece.
Ronny and Tom were waiting back at the house and as we compared notes, we found our sessions were similar, each of us catching two or three waves and then having a long swim in. As it turned out, no one else went out that day so we privately prided ourselves on our efforts. Unbeknownst to us, some of the locals had been watching us from the bluff and that night at the Bar Basque, as soon as our wine glasses were empty, someone paid for our refills. (If it seems like we are drinking a lot of wine in this part of the story, it is because we were. The French drink wine, folks. It’s just what they do. And when in Rome … !)
A couple of days later we were surfing out behind the chateau and ran into our good friend Mike Tabeling, one of the more well-known East Coast surfers from Florida. We’d all met him a few years back when the East Coast guys would come to Texas for the surf contests.
Twice we invited him over for dinner and both times he brought contributions for the meal. The first time he brought two bottles of wine and the second time he showed up with a bag of artichokes. The three of us had never eaten an artichoke before but Mike assured us they were delicious and we would love them. He trimmed the leaves, steamed the artichokes until they were tender, made a simple dipping sauce of butter and freshly squeezed lime juice and proved himself right. I’ve been hooked on artichokes ever since.
One day after surfing all morning and finishing a big lunch, I plopped down on the couch with a book and soon drifted off to sleep. I’m not sure how much later it was when voices in the room woke me up. I slowly pulled myself out of a dream and could see Tom and Ronny talking with Mike Tabeling and another guy. Opening my eyes wider I realized the other guy was Miki Dora. I sat up and Tom said, “Sorry if we woke you. Go get a glass and join us.”
They had a bottle of wine on the table and when I returned from the kitchen they filled my glass. Mike said, “Hey, Miki, this is Clay Blaker.” Miki stuck out his hand and said, “Nice to meet you.” I gave him mine and said, “It’s a pleasure, but we’ve met before.”
After a firm handshake, Miki looked surprised and asked, “When was it? I don’t remember meeting you.”
So I told everyone of the day at K-38 in Baja a few years ago. We all had a good laugh at the part where Gloria pulled out the button with BULLSHIT on it, including Miki, who said, “I remember that day well.”
We talked and drank wine the rest of the afternoon, hearing many great Miki Dora stories until Mike and Miki said their goodbyes and left. Tom, Ronny and I were in such a great mood we went out for an evening session and all caught some nice waves, to cap off a memorable day. We did get to hang out and surf a few more times with Mike Tabeling before he split for Morocco.
The weeks passed and soon we were into late-November. The air and water temperatures were getting too cold for me so I decided it was time to get on the road or rather, the rails. It was time to activate my Eurail Pass and go see some more of Europe.
The next day I sold my board to a Hossegor local for 600 francs (about $120 back then). I also gave him my Hawaiian sling spear and he was stoked. I was glad to get the money although I still had a few traveler’s checks to get me around.
The next morning, Tom and Ronny took me to the train station in Biarritz. The three of us had become close in the last two months we’d lived together at the chateau. They had been about the best housemates and traveling companions anyone could ever hope for: decent guys, salt-of-the-earth Texans, and having that special relationship real surfers share with each other in regards to respect and love of the ocean.
I’ve always hated goodbyes, and I think they felt the same. So we quickly gave each other bear hugs, said a few words … they got back in the car and drove off.
I activated my Eurail Pass at the ticket counter and for the next month, Europe was open to me. I could hop on any train without having to go to a ticket window, find myself a good seat and show my pass to a conductor when one came around. This was going to be fun.
I caught the next train heading for San Sebastian, a coastal town just across the French border. Tom, Ronny and I had visited there a couple of times to surf the nearby beach breaks and to sample the Spanish cuisine. I changed some francs into pesetas at the money exchange counter in the station, then set off to find the arrivals/departures board. I’d decided that my first destination would be Lisbon, Portugal. There was a fold-out map in my “Europe on $5 a Day” guide and I had tentatively planned a loose, circuitous route around the continent, knowing that at any given time, circumstances could lead me to change directions. That’s the way my family had always traveled in Mexico and it was fully ingrained in me.
I saw there was a direct train leaving for Lisbon in an hour and another one leaving that evening at 7, which would arrive in Lisbon early the next morning. Hmm, I thought, if I take the overnight train, I can save on a hotel room tonight and just sleep on the train. It would be a trade-off though. Traveling this way would mean missing a lot of scenery. Being on a very tight budget, I traded the scenery for the cash and as it turned out, I would use this strategy often.
Deciding on the night train meant I had a bit of time to kill, so I decided to go sightseeing, which for me always meant checking out the surf if I was anywhere near the ocean. I checked my bag and guitar at the baggage window and set off on the mile-or-so walk through the city to the waterfront at Concha Bay. The huge bay was protected at each end by headlands so there were no waves. Too bad. I love to watch waves. I can sit and watch waves for hours. To me, it’s mesmerizing and has a calming effect on my disposition. (I get nearly the same feeling when staring into a campfire.)
Tourist season was over but I found a café on the water that was open, so I sat in there a while nursing a couple of beers. I could see some old ruins on top of the headland on the west side of the bay so I decided to hike up there and check it out. It turned out to be an old fort from the 1500s that still had a few cannons lining the parapets.
I went back to the café, had one more beer, and then meandered through the streets looking for a market. I found a quaint one and bought a fresh loaf of bread, a big hunk of cheese and a sausage that was about a foot long. I had my Swiss army knife in my pocket that had a bottle opener, a corkscrew, a knife for slicing anything, and a toothpick. What else would I need? Oh, my leather bota bag, or wineskin, which I’d bought in Hossegor and had filled with wine this morning. It was in my bag at the train station. I figured I was all set so I headed for the train station.
I retrieved my guitar and bag from the guy at the baggage window and checked the departures board to see which platform my train would be leaving from. The trains all had a small sign next to the door of each car with the name of its final destination, so nobody would be getting on the wrong train (unless they couldn’t read). The train cars had an aisle that ran the entire length of the car on the side where the entry doors were. Individual compartments ran the length of the car on the opposite side. The compartments were roomy, with six seats, three on each side facing each other. Each seat had a small tray table like on airplanes, only smaller. Also, each seat could be pulled out and laid flat so two seats would make into one bed that you could stretch out on across the compartment. You could only use that feature if there were three or less people in the compartment. Above the seats were luggage racks. If the racks were full, you’d have to check your bags in the luggage car. I always tried to board a train early in order to have space for my bag and guitar and also to get a window seat. I would soon find that at that time of year, riding on the night trains, I could almost always find an empty compartment so I could lay the seats down and go to sleep.
I boarded the train to Lisbon, found an empty compartment and settled in for the first leg of a long journey. As it turned out, nobody entered my compartment. Once the train started moving, I closed the door, pulled out my guitar and played for a while. Later I broke out the bread, sausage, cheese and wineskin and had my dinner. I played my guitar a bit more until I could hardly keep my eyes open. I stashed the guitar back up top, pulled the two window seats out flat and sacked out. The next thing I remember was the conductor opening the door and announcing, “Lisbon.” I also realized it was daylight.
On exiting the train station, I was immediately stunned by the beauty of the old city spread out before me. I know almost nothing about architecture so I don’t know how to describe it in those terms. The sun was up and hitting the buildings at a sharp angle, giving texture and shading that made me feel like I was standing in the middle of an old Renaissance painting. I could see the ocean in the distance so I headed in that direction. At a small store, I bought a bottle of water and continued on until I reached the street that ran along the waterfront. I found an empty bench facing the sea and made myself a breakfast of bread, cheese, sausage and water. There was no surf there as it was a protected harbor, so I just sat and watched the fishing boats come and go as I further planned my strategy for the trip.
My guidebook listed hotels, restaurants, points of interest, landmarks, museums and other sites worth seeing in every major city in Europe as well as notable smaller towns. The cheapest places to stay were usually the pensions and youth hostels. All the ones in the book had been checked out personally and recommended as being safe and clean. Also, back in those days, the dollar was very high and the cost of living in Europe was very low. So you really could live on five dollars a day. You sure can’t do that now … not even close. In looking back, I feel very fortunate to have experienced Europe during that time frame.
Having satisfied my hunger, I struck out to search for a room. As I would soon find out, the cheaper places were usually located in areas surrounding the train stations. That helped with my plan of getting a room as quickly as possible after arriving in a new place, stashing my stuff and hitting the pavement. I would spend the night in that particular town and sightsee again the next day before hopping on the night train to my next destination. That way I’d have only to pay one night in a hotel, have two days of exploring and then sleep on the train the next night for free. My plan was coming together nicely but I decided early on to be flexible. If I liked a certain area a lot or hadn’t had the time to see everything I wanted to see, I would stay another night, or maybe longer if I had fallen into something really good.
I found a room in one of the pensions that was in the guide book and the rate was two bucks a night. That left me with three bucks to spend on food and drinks on my five-dollar-a-day budget. And I still had some bread, cheese, sausage and wine left so I was starting to feel like a king. The room was small with a single bed, a small table and chair, and a sink. In most all the old hotels in Europe (I soon discovered) the bathrooms and showers were at the end of the hallway to be used by everyone on that floor. It took some getting used to, but after a while I was comfortable with it. In some of the youth hostels I stayed at later, they had a large communal shower with maybe 8 or 10 shower heads and sometimes there were girls and guys showering together. I was comfortable with that right off the bat.
The port of Lisbon is one of the oldest in Europe as it was the city the Portuguese galleons set sail from in the Middle Ages to go out and conquer the world. There were lots of things I wanted to see so I set out on foot from the hotel. It didn’t take me long to discover that unlike the cities in the U.S., Lisbon was compact and you could easily get around by walking. I would come to find out that most European cities were the same, which ended up saving me a lot of money by not having to use taxis, buses or subways. In places where I did use public transportation, it also turned out to be cheap, but I figured that by walking everywhere I’d save enough money to afford a second glass of wine with my evening meal.
Every city and town has its own unique things to see and you can cover a lot of ground in two days. But I did have a couple of prerequisites for every stop of my journey. First, a castle or a good museum in the area was a guaranteed must-see. The second thing was that after every evening meal, I had to go find a venue that had live, local music.
So that day, I hiked up to Sao Jorge Castle, which was built by the Moors during the medieval period. It was situated on a high hilltop overlooking the whole city, the harbor and the bay beyond. The view itself was nothing short of breathtaking but being inside the castle was like going back in a time machine. Seeing all the medieval furnishings, suits of armor, swords, spears, artwork and everything else from that historical period was an eye-opener as to how advanced a civilization they were. And that experience was further reinforced later in the afternoon when I toured the National Museum of Ancient Art. Their collections included paintings, sculptures, metalwork, textiles, furniture, drawings, and other art forms from the middle ages to the early 19th century. On leaving the museum, I realized that this journey I had just embarked on a day earlier was turning out to be way more educational and exciting than I imagined or hoped it would be.
That evening, after resting a while in my room, I wound up again on the waterfront, meandering along, looking for an interesting place to eat dinner. After passing several restaurants, bars and bistros, I happened upon a place with a big plate-glass window where many passersby stood to watch a chef inside using a huge paddle to stir what looked to be like a ton of food in a giant pan set over gas burners. I could see rice, shrimp, mussels, and identified a few of the vegetables as onions and peppers. Whatever it was, it looked delicious and sniffing it from the street was all I needed to enter the restaurant. I walked over to the chef, and while keeping a respectful distance, watched as he added chopped garlic, various fresh herbs and spices from jars. I didn’t know a word of Portuguese but on getting the chef’s attention, I pointed at the big pan and held my palms up as I shrugged, in the universal gesture, “What is that?”
He answered, “Paella.”
I’d heard of the dish but had never tried it, so I found a small table in the corner and sat down. A waiter immediately appeared, placing a bowl of olives, a half-carafe of house wine and a wine glass on my table. I hadn’t even said anything. (As my journey progressed I found this to be a common practice in many restaurants in Portugal, Spain, France and Italy.) The waiter returned shortly with a menu, but I shook my head, “No,” and pointed to the pan by the window and said, “Paella.” The waiter gave me a big grin and a thumbs-up. I was served such a huge portion I almost couldn’t finish it all. But I did, and it was delicious. Cheap, too … only a few escudos, wine included. Fully satisfied, I set off looking for some live music.
I had read in the Frommers guidebook on the way to Lisbon that the most important thing to do in Portugal is to go out and hear live Fado music, which is considered a window into the soul of the Portuguese. It is renowned for its haunting and profoundly melancholy melodies, sung with so much passion that you can understand the message without knowing the words’ meanings. I wandered around the streets until I found a group of people around my own age and asked them where there was a good place to hear live Fado music. They spoke no English but recognized the word Fado and motioned for me to come with them. We walked a couple of blocks and turned up a side street, then went a couple of more blocks before entering a small smoke-filled club that was packed. I thanked the group for bringing me there and they went back out in the night to pursue their own adventures.
I found some standing room at the bar, ordered a glass of wine and checked out the place. The stage was empty but everyone seemed to be anticipating some action. After about 15 minutes a female singer accompanied by a male guitarist and another guy playing a stringed instrument (which I had never seen before) took the stage and the room got quiet. When they started their show, the music was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. Feeling slightly embarrassed, I glanced around and saw tears running down the faces of many others, so I knew it was okay to let my emotions run free. This Fado music touched me so deeply that by the end of the show I changed my plan of leaving the next day for Madrid and ended up staying there two more days just to hear more Fado singers perform. I could have stayed longer just for the music, but after three days in Lisbon without meeting a single person who spoke English, coupled with my still not understanding a word of Portuguese (except Fado), I decided it was time to move on. (For some reason, Portuguese is a very difficult language for me. I’m fairly good at picking up the basics of a few languages. Spanish, German, French and Italian are not too hard to learn or at least understand. But Portuguese …! It looks similar to Spanish in print, but when I hear it, it sounds like Chinese.) Oh well. It was time for me to go to Madrid.
Sticking with my money-saving plan, I caught the night train to Spain’s capital city. I found a compartment all to myself, closed the door and sacked out. I slept like a log until the conductor woke me the next morning as we entered the central station. I gathered my things, exited the train and station, and set out to look for some of the hotels recommended in the guidebook. Most of them were near the station, as usual, so I settled on one called Pension Central.
One very cool thing about Europe is that breakfast is included with the price of the room in pretty much every hotel. Breakfast is usually served from 7:00 until 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning, buffet-style, and was similar all over Europe: Soft-boiled eggs, various types of bread, sliced ham and other cold cuts, cheeses, jams and marmalades, fresh fruit, cereals and milk, orange juice, hot tea and coffee. I fell in love with the “Continental Breakfast” menu back then, and many mornings, even today, that’s pretty much my fare.
After breakfast, I showered, changed clothes and set off on foot to explore the city. Being that Madrid is not close to the ocean I couldn’t go check the surf, so I followed the guidebook’s map of the city to the Prado Museum. The book noted that the Prado was one of the top museums in the world, rivaled only by the Louvre in Paris. After spending the whole day there, I would have to agree. The paintings by Francisco Goya and El Greco were my favorites but after a few hours of viewing artworks in one of the greatest collections in the world, I realized I had sensory overload. It was just too much to absorb in one afternoon.
I also realized I was extremely hungry and thirsty so I went off in search of a store. After a short walk, I found a small market that was loaded with all my preferred meal items: bread, cheese and sausage. While these items varied from city or province or country in size, color, taste and texture, I never got tired of eating this basic meal. I bought enough for a simple meal and carried my purchase down the street until I found a neighborhood park. I looked for a shady spot, sat down and feasted. After a short rest, I strolled around downtown to check out the old buildings and the architecture. On one street corner, I noticed a poster advertising a bullfight scheduled for the following day. I had never been to a bullfight before but I had read Hemingway’s novels “The Sun Also Rises” and “Death in the Afternoon,” which painted bullfighting as a romantic, though dangerous, sport. The poster said that El Cordobes would be the featured matador, and though I didn’t know much about bullfighting, I knew he was recognized as the most famous matador in the world at that time. Obviously, this was fate, and I realized this was something I could not miss.
The next day I walked to the Plaza del Toros in downtown Madrid and asked for a ticket for the bullfight. I was asked if I wanted Sol or Sombra (Sun or Shade section … and of course, Sombra would be much more costly). Being a surfer with a dark tan and traveling on a tight budget, I was happy with a seat in the Sol. I also had filled my wineskin with the house red wine at the hotel earlier and had brought it along on the advice of the hotel manager.
The bullfights started with a parade around the bullring led by the banderilleros, the picadors on their horses, and grandly followed by the brave matadors, while the band played loud, majestic bullfighting songs. I was immediately caught up in the emotions of the crowd and was soon carried away by the whole spectacle.
The first couple of bulls were fought by the young undercard matadors and it was easy to tell they were inexperienced. El Cordobes would fight three bulls that day and from his first moment in the ring, I knew he was on a different level than the earlier matadors. His artistry, finesse and courage brought the crowd to their feet, never to sit down again during his performances. (It reminded me of the time I got to see Sandy Koufax pitch for the Dodgers at the old Colts’ stadium in Houston, being apparent that I was witnessing something extraordinary.)
Bullfighting is definitely not for the faint-of-heart. It’s bloody, and not just on the bulls’ part. One of the early matadors was gored in a leg and was carried out with his white pants having turned crimson. To his credit, El Cordobes let one of his bulls live at the end of the fight.
Although I did enjoy the pageantry, the music, the courage and artistry of the matadors, and understood the historical and cultural significance of bullfighting to Spain, I’ve never had the desire to attend another such event. I was secretly rooting for the bulls the whole time.
I returned to the Pension Central, checked out, walked to the train station and hopped on the night train to Barcelona.
(Side note: After writing this passage I googled Manuel Benitez “El Cordobes,”and was pleasantly surprised to read that although it was 48 years ago when I saw him fighting those bulls, he is alive and well, residing in Palma del Rio, Spain, at the age of 83.)
After a good night’s sleep I awoke at daylight as the train was approaching Barcelona. From the plateau above the city I could see the Mediterranean Sea off in the distance and noticed a lot of whitewater along the shore. Not expecting to see surf on the Mediterranean, I was excited and quickly found a hostel within a couple of blocks from the station, stashed my gear in the room and walked to the beach.
Approaching the waterfront, I realized the wind was howling onshore around 20 to 30 knots. As I emerged onto the boulevard that ran along the shore I could see waves breaking about three-fourths of a mile offshore. It was all beach-break and looked very similar to a huge day on the Texas coast. I would say the waves that were breaking way outside had to have been 8- to 10-feet on the face. Although it would have been brutal paddling out, if I had my board (that I’d sold in France before starting out on this Eurail adventure), I would have loved giving it a go. Oh well. It was thrilling in itself to see waves that size on the Mediterranean. I walked back to the hostel. I ate some bread, cheese and sausage then set out to explore Barcelona.
The shoes that I’d been wearing since I left Maui were falling apart. I read in my guidebook that Barcelona was famous for its leather goods so I followed the map in the book to an area that had stores selling everything leather. I walked into one shop that advertised “Custom-Made Boots and Shoes” and said I wanted some boots. The shoemaker measured my feet, showed me some different styles and I chose a suede boot that was similar to chukka boots. He said to come back the next day and the boots would be ready.
That night I ate some good seafood near my hotel and then went looking for some live music. I didn’t have to go far. In the first block I heard some incredible guitar music coming out of a club’s window. It turned out to be a private flamenco club that was only open to members. I explained to the guy at the door that I was a guitar player visiting Barcelona for the first time from the U.S. and he let me in. I entered a smoky, dimly lit venue with an old wooden bar taking up the whole length of one side of the club. Onstage were two guitarists playing gut-string guitars and a woman dancing with castanets taking care of the percussion. Some members of the club invited me to share their table and from that moment on treated me like I was a long-lost friend. I never had to buy a drink the whole night and later on, when platters of shrimp and squid were served, they told me to dig in. It was a fabulous night of music, dance, wine, cuisine and fellowship. After many hugs and long goodbyes, I stumbled back to the hostel and zonked out … one happy man.
The next morning I scarfed down a big breakfast then walked back down to look at the surf. It was still big, though not quite as big as the day before, and the wind was still onshore but not as strong.
I headed for the leather shop to see if my boots were ready, and they were. They looked great and I tried them on, finding they fit perfectly. The suede leather was soft, the tops came up just over my ankles and the shoes had tough rubber walking soles. Those boots ended up lasting me many years. If I ever make it back to Barcelona, I’ll definitely get another pair made.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at a maritime museum that was, as they all are, informative and interesting. Walking back to the hostel, I stopped at a market and bought some fresh bread, a big hunk of goat cheese and another spicy smoked sausage. I took a shower, changed shirts, checked out of the hostel and headed for the train station. On the departure board, I saw a train leaving soon for Nice, France, and I went to that platform to wait. On boarding, I found a compartment to myself, stowed my gear, and as soon as the train left the station, I shut the door. I got my guitar out of the case and started playing some songs. A while later an attractive blonde about my age slid my door open and said, “Hi, I’m in the next compartment and could hear you playing. You sound really good. Can I join you?”
I said, “Of course. Come on in.”
She came in, closed the door and sat down on the seat facing mine, saying, “I’m sorry I interrupted you. Please keep playing.”
I played a few more songs and was just finishing one when a porter with the food cart came by asking if we wanted sandwiches or beverages. I set my guitar down and told the girl I had plenty of food for both of us but we should get some wine from the cart. She said she would buy us a bottle and I gave her a few pesetas saying, “Get two.”
After the porter left, she said, “I guess we should introduce ourselves. I’m Dolly de Leuwe.”
“Clay Blaker,” I said, shaking her hand. “Are you hungry?”
She said she was, so I drew the bread, cheese and sausage out of my bag, pulled my Swiss army knife out of the front pocket of my jeans and using the corkscrew, opened a bottle of wine. I opened the large blade of the knife and sliced the bread, cheese and meat and made us a couple of sandwiches. As we ate and sipped our wine, we continued to get acquainted.
She lived in New York City, her family having emigrated to the U.S. from Holland. She was on the last leg of a month-long trip around Europe, pretty much traveling like I was. She said she would be flying back to New York from Paris in two days but wanted to spend a day in Nice before taking the night train to Paris.
When our dinner was over, she asked if I would play some more songs, so I did. At some point, we realized the night was so bright outside there must be a full moon. I put away my guitar and we stepped into the corridor to gaze out the window. We were traveling along the coast and with the moonlight reflecting off the water, it seemed bright as day. We were passing rocky coves and points and the surf was going off. I could tell by the spray showering from the breaking waves that the wind was now blowing offshore. I can’t tell you how many places we passed where the waves were reeling around a point that looked as good as Rincon or Malibu. We both were mesmerized.
We opened the second bottle of wine and then opened the window we’d been standing by. It was cold outside, but not as cold as most of the continent was at this time of year, thanks to the warmth of the Mediterranean.
What a beautiful evening. It was one of those “two ships passing in the night” moments. The full moon, the waves, the cold salty air, the wine, the conversation … all conspired to make us feel connected at the heart. As the train rolled on towards Nice we leaned against the windowsill, my arms wrapped around her as we watched the scenery in the moonlight, occasionally engaging in nonverbal communication. We stayed awake the whole night, noticing that the waves were diminishing the closer we got to Nice, but our spirits were still high.
Arriving in Nice, we found a hotel near the station and only one block from the sea. We checked in, stowed our bags and went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Afterwards, we took showers, changed clothes and left to go exploring. Still on a high from the night on the train, we didn’t need to rest at all. We just wanted to experience Nice.
We walked hand in hand down the Promenade des Anglais , the popular 7-km walkway along Nice’s waterfront, passing many 17th- and 18th-century buildings as we went. At some point we decided to head inland to find the Matisse Museum. We got lost in the maze of narrow streets but didn’t care as we were just enjoying being with each other. Eventually though, we hailed a cab and had the driver take us to the museum. It was housed in an old and beautiful 17th-century villa and featured the works of Henri Matisse, who lived and created his masterpieces in Nice for the greater part of his life. It was an extensive collection, mostly donated by Matisse himself. After wandering around in there for two or three hours, admiring all the artwork, we realized it was getting late so headed back to the hotel.
By this time we were starting to feel the effects of an extreme lack of sleep so we asked the hotel clerk to tap on our door at 6 p.m. to wake us up. (Back in those days there were no phones in the rooms unless you were staying at the Palais Royal, which our hotel definitely was not.) After being woken, we got Dolly’s bags together and carried them to the train station. We found her platform to Paris and waited a short time for the bell to ring announcing her train’s departure. We didn’t speak much, but were both sad about the imminent separation. When the signal came, we embraced once more, gazed in each other’s eyes briefly, then she turned and boarded the train. She stood in the corridor waving at me as the train pulled away, and as it turned out, I never saw her again. We stayed in touch for a couple of years by mail but gradually our letters tapered off until we lost touch. I had a sad, melancholy walk back to the hotel and didn’t even want to eat or go listen to music. So I crashed and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The next day was beautiful and sunny so immediately after breakfast I walked to the Promenade des Anglais, crossed it and took a flight of stairs down to the beach. I was so lonely that I just needed to get in the water. Mother Ocean has always had a way to lift my spirits and right then I needed her. I took off my boots and socks, rolled my pants legs up and waded out into the water. People up on the Promenade were staring at me as it was early December and there was nobody else on the beach. Whew, the water was cold at first, but I soon got used to it and enjoyed walking around on the gravel bottom with water so crystal clear you could see every pebble. Sure enough, after a while I was feeling much better and walked back to the beach and up the stairs to a bench where I put my socks and boots back on. While sitting on the bench looking out to sea and contemplating what the day would bring, I made the decision to check out of the hotel and take a day train to Rome. Rome … the Eternal City.
I hadn’t taken a day train yet on my trip so I was looking forward to seeing the scenery. I wasn’t disappointed. The train pretty much followed the coastline from Nice to Rome and the vistas were spectacular. I arrived in Rome in the early evening and once again found a clean but cheap pension near the train station. My room was small but very nice, and not really sure what my next move was, I got out my guitar and started playing some songs. At one point I heard the door open and close to the room next to mine, and heard footsteps as someone was walking around in there. There was an air vent high up on the wall between our two rooms. I kept playing a few more songs and then decided to go look for some food. Right then, a female voice with accented English came through the vent, “Please don’t stop. I love your singing.” I was a bit taken aback but said, “Okay,” and played another song. The voice said “That was lovely.” And we started conversing through the vent. I realized how ridiculous that was and said, “Hey, why don’t you come over here so we can look at each other while we talk.” I heard her walk to her door and open it and I got up and opened mine.
She was exactly how I had pictured an Italian girl in my mind. She was wearing a black dress, had long black hair and either very dark brown or black eyes, a long beautiful face with very full lips and long eyelashes. She spoke perfect English and we introduced ourselves.
(I have to interrupt this story to make a confession. For the life of me I can’t remember her name. I can picture her perfectly and recall all the details of our encounter and adventures but her name is just gone. For this story’s sake, I am going to call her Gina.)
After some light conversation, Gina asked if I had eaten dinner yet. I confessed I’d just been about to leave my room and go to dinner when she had asked me not to stop playing.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” she said. “Then this should be my treat!” She told me she knew of a place nearby that was cheap but had excellent food. She had just come back to her room from her day job and needed 15 minutes to change into something more leisurely and freshen up. I showered and changed clothes also and we met in the hall to set out for the restaurant a few blocks away. It was a typical trattoria, and as soon as we were seated, a waiter came to our table placing a bowl of olives, two glasses and a carafe of red wine between us.
“I come here quite often,” Gina said. “Would you like for me to order for us both? Trattorias usually do not have menus but I know the dishes and can order several for us.”
I told her that would be fine with me. After she gave an order to the waiter, we filled our wine glasses from the carafe and toasted each other. The wine was dry and much different from the house wines I had been drinking in France.
“This wine is really good,” I remarked. “What kind is it?”
“Chianti, of course,” she replied.
And, of course, we ended up drinking copious amounts of Chianti the next three days. When in Rome …(I really was in Rome!)
While we were enjoying antipasti, bruschetta, and several other tasty dishes, we became more acquainted. She told me she had a good job working in the garment industry and had a monthly, long-term rate at the hotel. At one point in the conversation, she paused and said, “I must tell you … I am a Communist.”
I kind of chortled, thinking she was joking.
Frowning slightly, she said, “No, I am serious. I’m a member of the Italian Communist Party.” She started to tell me her political philosophy, but with the U.S. having gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis and still going through the cold war with Russia, I interrupted politely and said, “You know, Gina, it might be better if we keep our politics to ourselves.”
She agreed and we started talking about more important things. Like, what were we going to do next?
“Since you are a singer,” she suggested, “we should go to a place that features Italian folk singers.”
I told her that sounded perfect to me.
When the waiter brought the check, she insisted on paying … and since my funds were starting to run low, I let her. As it turned out, she ended up paying for everything during my stay in Rome, except for my hotel room. There were several times that I argued with her, insisting that I pay but she absolutely refused. I think she was trying hard to show me that Communists are not bad people. Well, she succeeded, at least in regards to herself. She ended up being a fascinating companion and guide while I was in Rome. Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself.
The music club we went to was intimate, with a funky down-home feel. The acoustic music was very good, even though I couldn’t understand a word they were singing. And the Chianti flowed freely. When the musicians played their last song, I suddenly realized I was exhausted so I suggested we get back to the hotel.
When we arrived at the doors to our rooms, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. There was an awkward moment, and then she said, “I can take off from work as long as I want and I’d love to show you Rome.”
I couldn’t turn down an offer like that so I said, “That would be incredible.”
“Okay, meet me downstairs for breakfast at 9:00 and we’ll take it from there.” She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, said, “Goodnight, sleep well,” and entered her room. Back in my own room, I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
The next morning we met for our free buffet breakfast and after stuffing ourselves I told her I needed to do some laundry.
She said, “No problem. Set your laundry out in front of your door, notify them at the front desk and when we come back later it will be in your room, clean and neatly folded.” So I did as she said and we left the hotel. In the street, she asked, “What would you like to go see first?”
I said, “Hey, I’m following you. Just surprise me.”
“Okay then, I’ll take you to see my absolute favorite thing in all of Rome.” We walked to the nearest bus stop, waited a couple of minutes, and boarded a bus for an unknown destination. After a few bus changes, we disembarked outside a big wall with a sign at the entrance to the enclave inside that said “Vatican City.” Come to find out, the Vatican City is actually the world’s smallest country, co-existing with Italy by way of a treaty that was signed in the 1800s. I thought that was pretty cool. It made me want to start my own country. I still might someday.
She led me to the Sistine Chapel where we viewed the famous painting on the ceiling by Michelangelo. It was breathtakingly beautiful and I immediately knew why it was her favorite thing to see in Rome. It was hard to put into words so we just stood hand in hand, gazing upward for an interminable period, trying to take it all in. That is, until my neck got tired. We left and wandered through St. Peter’s Basilica and then out with the throngs of people gathered in the Vatican courtyard, hoping the Pope would make an appearance on his balcony. He didn’t.
We walked out and hopped on another bus heading back in the direction of the hotel. When asked what I would like to do next I told her I would like to check out the closest beach. We switched from the bus to a tram which took us to the coast, about 30 minutes away. The beach was called Coccia di Morto and there was no surf. I remember it as a sandy beach with lots of trash and the water was off-color. It was not very appealing, but I was still happy to see the ocean. We decided to walk down the street and look for a place to eat and soon came across a small cozy restaurant that we hoped had some good seafood.
As usual, as soon as we sat down a waiter appeared with a bowl of olives and a decanter of Chianti. I love this custom and wish it would happen everywhere. She ordered fish and I asked for octopus. It was my first time to eat Italian-style octopus and it was out of this world.
The afternoon was late when we arrived back at the hotel so we both decided to rest a while and then freshen up to go out later. It was after 10:00 when we left the hotel, but due to our late lunch neither of us was starving yet. She said she knew of a great jazz club that also had pretty good food. At the time I wasn’t that much of a jazz fan but I can appreciate any style of music if it is played well. The small combo was hot, playing a mixture of Django Reinhardt-style swing, and the food turned out to be excellent.
When the band quit we headed back to the hotel and once again at our doors we had that awkward pause until she said, “Would you like for me to take you to more places tomorrow?”
I said, “Of course.” Once again she kissed me politely on the cheek and said, “See you at breakfast.”
A short while later I heard her voice coming through the vent. “Clay, would you mind singing me to sleep?”
I said, “No, not at all.” I got my guitar out and played a few slow, softly sung ballads. I was starting to drift off myself, so after whispering “Good night,” and receiving no answer, I put my guitar away and fell fast asleep .
We had another great (free) breakfast the next morning and the day, night and following day were pretty much a jumble of sightseeing, eating, drinking and listening to live music. We saw everything one needs to see in Rome, including the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. And yes, like the old song, I did throw three coins in the fountain and made my wishes. I‘m pretty sure one was that I would get more than a kiss on the cheek when we got back to the hotel, but that didn’t happen. Our relationship remained platonic the whole time I was in Rome. No complaints though, as I couldn’t have asked for a better companion and guide, even if she was a Communist. It was a fabulous time and she even asked me to sing her to sleep again those last two nights.
We met again at breakfast and I told her it was time for me to be moving on. After dining I went to my room, packed and took the stairs back down to the lobby to check out. She was waiting there and said she’d like to accompany me to the train station. I told her that would be wonderful.
The departures board at the station showed a train would be leaving for Venice in ten minutes. Good timing, as that was where I wanted to go. We found my platform and made some small talk while waiting for the call to board. I thanked her profusely for being so nice to me and we swore we’d stay in touch. We hugged and then she gave me a last kiss on the cheek and I stepped onto the train. I turned and watched her walk away but she never looked back. And that was the last time I ever saw her. Sadly, we did not stay in touch.
I found an empty compartment, stashed my gear up in the rack and settled into a window seat, looking forward to the scenery on the way to Venice. Again, I was not disappointed. The countryside was absolutely stunning, especially the Province of Tuscany. I probably should have gotten off the train there but I was starting to think about Elisabet a lot. I was running out of time and money, and I needed to be home in Maui by Christmas. Tuscany would have to wait.
The train reached Venice in the late afternoon. I hopped on a vaporetto (a water taxi) leaving for St. Mark’s Square. My trusty guidebook recommended that tourists start from there to look for a hotel. I found a small but charming place not far from the square, checked in and stowed my gear.
Venice is built on little islets in a big lagoon that is connected to the Adriatic Sea. All the streets are canals so you have to take a gondola or a vaporetto to get around. Or you can walk. Venice is small and most of the canals have sidewalks alongside so you can also travel easily on foot. But of course, you can’t go to Venice without riding in a gondola so that was the first thing I did. I asked the gondolier to take me to a good restaurant. He looked at me quizzically and I realized he did not understand English. I made gestures as if I was holding a plate with one hand and eating off it with a fork in my other hand and said the word “trattoria.” He smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. We soon came to nice one; I handed over a few lire and stepped out. I entered the restaurant and, spotting an empty table, headed for it. Also headed for the same table was a waiter with a carafe of red wine and a bowl of olives. We arrived at the same time. Thinking about it now makes me laugh. You gotta love it.
As I mentioned earlier, trattorias normally have no printed menus so the waiter started explaining what dishes they were serving until I held my hands out, palms up, and shrugged my shoulders, letting him know I did not understand. He nodded and held up a finger, as in “Wait a minute.” He went through a door into what obviously was the kitchen and then returned, gesturing for me to follow him. I went with him into the kitchen where an elderly lady was busy with several steaming pots at the huge stove. She waved us over and pointed out what was in all the pots. It all looked delicious and smelled great. Me being me, I pointed at the steamed mussels, the octopus in a marinara sauce, and a pot full of fettuccine. I gave two thumbs up and the waiter and chef both understood.
I know I’ve used every cliché possible trying to describe how good the meals were on this trip, but I truly enjoyed my meal in that small trattoria. In later years, after traveling many times around Italy, I came to realize that it’s totally impossible to ever get a bad meal anywhere in that country. Man, those Italians can cook!
Since trips in gondolas were costly, I caught a vaporetto back to my hotel. The guy at the desk spoke a little English so I asked him if there was any music happening in the area. He said no, not on a weeknight. Venice back then was a sleepy, quaint little town especially in the winter, which was when I was there. It was nothing like the very crowded tourist attraction it is today. So, with nothing going on, l had another glass of wine in the bar, went to my room, played a few songs on my guitar and turned in early.
I awoke at sunrise after a deep and restful night’s sleep and quickly showered. I was on a mission to get to the open Adriatic to see if there might be any surf. Even though I had no board, I was (and still am) always curious as to whether there might be surf spots in the coastal areas I visit. Don’t laugh. People surf on every one of the Great Lakes now.
I wolfed down the sumptuous breakfast and left the hotel. I walked to the canal on the corner and flagged down a vaporetto, asking the driver if he could take me to Lido Beach. He nodded and I hopped in. We passed from the Grand Canal into the lagoon and from there it was a 20-minute ride to a small dock on a barrier island. There was nothing on that islet except sand dunes, salt grass and fog. I asked the vaporetto driver to wait, saying I would pay him for his time and he agreed. I walked up the sand dune and down the other side to the open water. The area reminded me of Matagorda Island or St. Joseph’s Island in Texas. To my surprise, I could hear waves breaking but couldn’t see anything because of the fog. I strolled down the beach a ways, looking for shells, and to my good fortune a small offshore breeze came up, the fog lifted and the sun came out. The waves were very clean, appearing to be knee- to waist-high. And not another person in sight.
My mission complete, after discovering there was surf on the Adriatic Sea, I walked back over the dune and was happy to see the vaporetto still waiting for me. I climbed aboard and we went back to Venice. I spent the rest of the day wandering alongside the maze of canals: highlights being the Rialto Bridge, Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica and many other points of interest.
In the early evening, I filled my wineskin from a wooden wine cask at a small market near the hotel. At markets all across Europe it is possible to bring your own bottles or containers and fill them with very good and very cheap table wine from these wooden casks. It’s a great idea and also good for the environment by reusing the same bottes over and over.
I walked back to my room, packed and checked out of the hotel, and took a vaporetto to the train station. My idea was to go to Milan for a couple of days but on seeing the departures board realized that I had just missed the early evening train to Milan. But I noticed a train would be leaving in 20 minutes for Munich. I had never been to Germany so decided to check it out. Granny and PawPaw Blaker had a ranch near the town of Fredericksburg, Texas, which had been founded by German settlers in the 1840s. We spent a lot of time at the ranch when we were young and we often went into town to eat at many of the local German restaurants. So wanting to eat some good German food and try the renowned German beers, I found the right platform and shortly boarded the train.
With the familiar routine of finding an empty compartment, stashing my stuff, and settling into a window seat completed, I sat back and watched the countryside while there was still some light. When it was too dark to see anything, I closed the window shade and waited for the food cart to come around. When it appeared I purchased a sandwich and a bottle of water. I broke out the wineskin to have a little wine with my meal. After eating, I played a few songs on my guitar while still sipping on wine. The rhythm of the train soon made me sleepy so I laid the window seats down and sacked out. The next thing I remember was the conductor opening the compartment door and loudly saying, “München!”
I found a nice, very old hotel near the station and paid for a room. The desk clerk was a distinguished, elderly gentleman who was kind enough to tell me I could help myself to breakfast if I was hungry, though I wasn’t really entitled to a free breakfast until the next day. I took my things up to the room, stored my gear in a small closet and went back down to the breakfast room. I loaded up on good German bread, various types of cheeses and sausages, eggs, and pitchers of pasteurized milk with the cream still floating at the top.
After breakfast, I showered, changed shirts and struck out to explore the city. The guidebook recommended the Bavarian National Museum so that was my first stop. The museum has art collections from several different periods of history that ranks up there with all the other major museums in Europe. Fascinating stuff, but I think my favorite was the collection of sculptures from the Medieval Age and also the collection of medieval armor. The museum took up most of my day but it was well worth it. Heading back to the hotel, I realized I had not taken the time to eat lunch. That was partly because I didn’t want to break away from the museum but also because in reading the guide book about how good the food was at the Hofbräuhaus, where I planned to go that evening, I wanted to hold off.
Munich is one of the larger and more spread-out cities in Europe but it has an excellent public transportation system in place, consisting of subways (U-bahns), rapid transit trains (S-bahns), trams and buses: all dirt-cheap at that time. After resting a while in my hotel room, I asked the hotel desk clerk to give me directions to the Hofbräuhaus via the U-bahn. After exiting the station and climbing the stairs to street level, I was struck by the music and revelry emanating from the old, classic beer hall. Upon entering, it was like being in a time warp … with the men in lederhosen, the women in dirndls, and buxom, red-cheeked beer-maids carrying three one-liter beer mugs in each hand from the bar to customers at the tables. Man, this was like Fredericksburg on steroids. The place was huge so I strolled around checking it all out. There was a large bandstand with a typical German band with a tuba and lots of other horns, an accordion and drums. There were several bands rotating sets throughout the night and I even recognized some of the songs from my Fredericksburg days. As I walked around I noticed several of the patrons staring at me because it was obvious I was a newcomer tourist. I’m sure they could easily tell I was from the U.S. As I was passing one of the tables, a gentleman stopped me and gestured for me to join him and several other men and women at their table. I thought to myself, This will be really fun, hangin’ with the locals, so I shook hands all around and sat where they had made room for me.
Those folks ended up treating me like I was their long-lost son. They wouldn’t let me pay for anything the whole night. They were all speaking to me in rapid German, which I neither spoke nor understood, and I spoke to them in drawling English which they neither spoke nor understood, but after a few of those one-liter beers it seemed we were all communicating just fine. I ordered some bratwurst for an appetizer and then sauerbraten served with flour dumplings. Luckily I did, because later on they started ordering rounds of schnapps and it paid to have something in my stomach.
A couple of the ladies at our table took turns later trying to teach me how to dance a polka. Not sure if I got it right or not but by that time I don’t think it really mattered. I eventually reached the point where I’d had enough and after thanking them each individually I bid Auf Wiedersehen and wobbled off towards the U-bahn station. I gave one final glance back at them before I was out of sight and they were still roaring and having a great time. I shook my head and laughed, admiring them for their stamina.
The next morning, I awoke early and was surprised I had no hangover whatsoever. I discovered later that the beer and schnapps in Germany are so pure and clean that they do not cause hangovers. Of course, you also have to pace yourself somewhat and also eat something. I had so much fun that first night and was so glad to change from wine to beer for a while, that I ended up staying two more days in Munich. I had a fabulous time riding the U-bahn and trams and seeing more of the city. I ate tons of sausages, many varieties of bread (mostly dark), giant pretzels, sauerkraut, schnitzel, and many other German specialties. I made it back to the Hofbräuhaus the next two nights and it was sensational. It’s easy to lose track of time in Munich so after breakfast on the fourth day I checked the calendar behind the front desk and quickly realized that I couldn’t fool around anymore. I needed to get to Stockholm. I packed up, checked out, and headed for the train station.
Once there, it took me a while to figure out the best route from Munich to Stockholm but soon realized my best bet was to first go to Copenhagen, Denmark. There was a train leaving in less than a half hour for Copenhagen so I went to a kiosk and stocked up on my usual bread, cheese and sausage. There was no wine barrel, unfortunately, but I knew there would be good German beer available on the train.
The ride was uneventful, but long. It seemed to have taken a couple of days, and at one point the train itself was loaded onto a ship to cross the sea to the island where Copenhagen is located. I had to change trains there but instead of spending the night in a hotel, decided to wait out the three hours until the next train left for Stockholm. I was more than ready to see Elisabet again.
I left my gear with the baggage porter and set out to see a bit of the city. Of course, I headed for the waterfront. It wasn’t open ocean so I knew there would be no waves but still it was saltwater. Two things that stand out in my memory were the lovely, brightly colored 17th-century townhouses along the waterfront of the Nyhavn district, and the famous statue of the Little Mermaid inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. There was also a fairly good sized red-light district with many sailors’ bars near the train station. Overall, I remember Copenhagen as being a very clean and beautiful city. Kind of a shame not to spend more time there but I figured one day I would return.
The train left in the early evening and arrived in Stockholm at daybreak. I walked into the station and bought some Swedish kronor at the currency exchange booth, found a public phone booth and dialed Elisabet’s number. She and her sister lived with their parents so I wasn’t sure who would be answering the phone. Happily, it was her voice I heard when the phone was picked up.
“Elisabet,” I said, my heart racing.
“Clay?” she replied, “Where are you?”
“I’m at the train station in Stockholm.”
“Oh, my God! I can’t believe it! Hold on a second!” She came back on and gave me directions on how to take the subway (called the Tunnelbana) to the suburb of Solna, where her parents lived. It was less than a 15-minute ride and when I stepped out of the car at the Solna station, she was standing on the platform looking as beautiful as ever. She came running and I set my bag and guitar down before she rushed into my arms. We embraced and kissed for at least a full minute, when suddenly I realized I had not taken a shower for three days and had been wearing the same shirt for two days. I stepped away from her and said, “Sorry, Elisabet. I need a shower really bad.”
“I don’t care about that,” she replied, and kissed me again.
“Okay, okay. It’s not far to my parents’ house. Let’s go.”
As we were walking I was surprised that although it was December it wasn’t very cold. Maybe in the low 40s, and no snow on the ground. Being from Texas and Hawaii where snow is rare, I was hoping to see lots of it and maybe go ice skating on a lake or something. Oh well. No such luck.
Her parents lived in a nice 3-bedroom, modern home in an upper-middle class neighborhood. I can’t possibly figure out why but I still know the address. (That’s great, I tell myself. So why can’t you also remember the name of that Communist girl in Rome?)
Elisabet showed me to her bedroom and she had cleared some space in her closet so I could put my belongings. She gave me a towel and pointed me toward the bathroom. After showering and brushing my teeth, I felt like a new man. I was down to my cleanest dirty shirt so I asked Elisabet if they had a washer and dryer. She told me to unpack all my dirty laundry and she would take care of it. I did, and she did. She asked if I had eaten breakfast on the train and since I hadn’t, she took me to the kitchen to fix breakfast for both of us: Swedish flat bread, sliced cheese and ham, yogurt and soft boiled eggs. While we ate, I filled her in on my whole trip. She got a big kick out of my platonic relationship with the Communist girl in Rome but was not too thrilled about my short time with Dolly de Leuwe, even though I told her we had not slept together.
I asked where the rest of her family was and she said her mom was out shopping, her dad was at the lab where he worked as a cancer researcher, and her sister was in school at the university. She said no one would be home until later in the afternoon so would I like to go explore Stockholm? I said I would, and she asked what I would like to see first.
“The beach,” I said, with no hesitation.
She laughed and just shook her head. I asked her to take me to the closest beach on the open ocean, which in Stockholm was the Baltic Sea. She said there was a nice beach at a place called Toro, about 20 kilometers south of Stockholm. When my laundry was done and put away, we took a bus to a small hamlet near the beach and walked the rest of the way.
It was a sand-and-gravel beach; the wind was blowing strongly onshore and the waves were about waist high. It was sloppy, short-fetched wind swell but definitely surfable, reminding me of an average day in Texas. You’d need a 5/4 wetsuit with booties and hood though. Whew it was cold with the wind blowing off the water. We didn’t stay long and walked back to the bus stop.
On re-entering the city, Elisabet thought of something that I’d probably like to see. She was right. It was the Vasa Museum and the main attraction was the 17th-century 64-gun warship Vasa, which is the only almost fully intact ship of its kind that has ever been salvaged. The museum had many other interesting exhibits pertaining to the seafaring lives of the ancient Norsemen. It was an extremely fascinating afternoon.
On returning to Solna, Elisabet said we needed to stop at a store to pick up a few things. We bought bread, cheese, eggs, a few other staples and some wine. Walking back to her home, we kept passing these small vending machines along the sidewalk. I asked her what was in those machines. I figured they must hold candy, cigarettes, chewing gum or postage stamps, but she casually replied, “Condoms.”
I thought she was kidding, but when I saw the next one I took a closer look and sure enough that’s what was for sale. I’d heard that Sweden was liberal and open and after seeing those condom machines, plentiful and right out there in the open, I figured it must be true.
Elisabet’s folks and her sister were all in the kitchen when we arrived with our arms full of grocery sacks. We set them down on the counters and the kitchen table and Elisabet made the introductions. (In Sweden almost everyone speaks English as a second language so the whole time I was there, the family spoke English as a courtesy … and to my relief). I just kind of fumbled through the meet-and-greet, always being a little shy and awkward when around new people, and especially when they are the family of a new girlfriend. But they were all warm and friendly so it didn’t take long for me to feel at home. Elisabet’s features favored her father, who was blond, blue-eyed and fair-skinned. Surprisingly, her sister and mother were brunettes, brown-eyed, with olive skin. As the girls began helping their mom prepare dinner, Elisabet’s father and I sat in the living room getting to know each other. I filled him in a little about my life and my travels around Europe and he told me about his career in cancer research.
The dinner was pretty much a standard fare of meat, potatoes and salad but was delicious and filling. Later, when the leftovers were put away and the dishes done, Elisabet’s mom said, “Clay, my daughter tells me that you are a fine singer. Could you get your guitar and play us a few songs?”
I said I’d be happy to so I fetched my guitar from Elisabet’s closet. We all moved to the living room and after playing a few songs there was a knock at the door. Elisabet’s sister jumped up and ran to the door greeting the tall blond Swede who entered. He was introduced to me as her boyfriend and after shaking hands, he asked if I would continue playing. I did, for three or four more songs before setting my guitar down, thinking we should make more conversation. After about twenty minutes of that, Elisabet’s dad announced that a great Clint Eastwood western movie would be on the TV in a few minutes. So we all refreshed our drinks while he searched for the right channel. The four of us young folks sat on the sofa while the parents settled into recliners at each end. The movie was “A Fistful of Dollars,” one of my all-time favorites. The sound was English and subtitles were Swedish. We were all enjoying the film but about halfway through, Elisabet’s sister and her boyfriend excused themselves , went off to her bedroom to the right of the living room and closed the door. It wasn’t long before we could hear the mattress springs in there squeaking, followed by Elisabet’s sister moaning and making other audible expressions of ecstasy. I looked around at everyone like, “What the hell?”
The only one who reacted was their dad, who looked back at me, raised his eyebrows slightly with a small grin, and then turned up the sound on the TV to drown them out. I thought to myself, This country is liberal, all right. No doubt about it now.
After the movie ended, we said a few more pleasantries then we all called it a night with the parents going to the bedroom on the far left and Elisabet and I to the bedroom in the middle. I have to admit, this felt very weird to me to be in a girl’s bedroom on the first day I’d met her parents. I had to keep telling myself, Clay, you’re in Sweden and this is a liberal country. You know … once again, “When in Rome … “
As we lay in her bed quietly talking, we soon heard faint sounds of stressed mattress springs from the walls on both sides of us. We both burst out laughing and quickly covered each other’s mouth with our hands. After listening and giggling for a while, we decided to join in the fray.
The next morning at breakfast, everyone was in a bright, cheerful mood and acted like everything was completely normal. And to them, I guess, it was. I was still taken aback by it all but I thought I could probably get used to it. Elisabet’s sister and her boyfriend were the first to leave the house as they set off for the university. Her dad said his good-byes and left for the clinic. Elisabet and I hung around a while visiting with her mom before we set out for some more sightseeing.
The next three days flew by as we spent hours on the subways, trams, buses and sidewalks traveling to and from what I figured was every possible sight that needed seeing in Stockholm. What lingers most in my mind are: the Gamla Stan (“Old Town”), which is famous for being one of the largest and most well preserved medieval city areas in Europe, with its cobbled streets and colorful 17th– and 18th– century buildings such as the Storkyrkan Cathedral and the Royal Palace; and Skansen, a huge park that has an open-air museum featuring a full-sized replica of a 15th-century town, a zoo and in the center of the park, only in early December, the Bolinäs Square, a Christmas market that has been popular since 1903. I happened to be there while the market was open so I bought several small gifts to take home to my family for Christmas presents. Thinking on the gifts, and my family, and Christmas, I was suddenly aware that Christmas was not that far away, but I was geographically way too far away from my departure point for home. I needed to get to the Orly airport in Paris with plenty of time to spare, since I only had a standby ticket and the holidays were already upon us. That thought hit like a sledgehammer. I held it all inside me through the rest of the afternoon until we were back at Elisabet’s home, alone in her room.
“Elisabet, I hate to say this but I have to cut my stay short here in Stockholm and get to Paris. I need to give myself some cushion to get a flight out in case they are mostly booked up. I promised to be home with my family at Christmas.”
Although I could see the disappointment in her eyes, as I’m sure she could see it in mine, she said she understood. When we broke the news in the morning to the family it seemed to put a damper on everything and the breakfast was very quiet and subdued. I said my goodbyes to Elisabet’s dad and sister as they left the house and then went to pack my things. When I said I was ready to go, Elisabet said she wanted to accompany me to the train station. I told her I had a hard time with goodbyes and maybe it would be better if she only went with me to the Tunnelbana.
I hugged her mom and thanked her for everything, picked up my guitar and bag and we left the house. Elisabet was carrying a big sack and I asked her, “What’s in the bag?”
“I raided the refrigerator,” she said. “I put a bunch of good stuff in there for you to eat on the train.”
“Wow, girl, I ought to marry you!”
She laughed and said, “Yeah, right.”
When we reached the Tunnelbana station, she walked down the stairs to the platform and waited with me. I set my bags down and turned to face her and said, “Elisabet, when you left Biarritz, I made a promise to come see you in Stockholm and I did. I’m making another promise right now that I’m coming back to Europe next year and I will meet you again. Maybe you can come again to Biarritz, but if not, I’ll come back here. You can count on it. In the meantime we’ll stay in touch by phone and mail.”
By this time she was crying which made me start up, too. Right then we heard the rumble of the subway coming. When the train pulled up I knew I had to board quickly. I pulled her close in a tight hug and said,
“I love you, Elisabet.”
“I love you too, Clay.” She stepped back then turned and ran up the stairs. I grabbed my bag and guitar and just made it into the car before the doors closed. Wiping my eyes I tried to compose myself by thinking good thoughts about going home.
I remember the train ride to Paris being very long and tiring. I was unable to stretch out because the compartments were all filled with people traveling for the holidays. I ran out of the food Elisabet had packed for me somewhere along the way, and ran out of the rest of my money shortly after that … but I wasn’t worried. I knew as soon as I got on a flight my meals were included all the way to Maui.
When I arrived at Orly airport in Paris, I was shocked to see the volume of people at the main terminal, coming and going. My heart sank as I realized I might have a problem. And I did. When I worked my way up to the Pan Am counter, the attendant looked at my ticket and told me that all the flights were full and that I had to sign in on the standby list and be present at the gates for the two L.A. daily flights, one in the late morning and the other in the early evening. Names would be called in the order they appeared on the standby list, if it turned out there was any room.
The Pan Am Clippers which flew from Paris to L.A. were all Boeing 747s which were quite large and held a whole lot of people, so I was fairly confident that I’d get on one of those that day. Of course, I was wrong.
I hurried to the gate of the morning flight and listened to the names that were called, but mine wasn’t one of them. I tried to stay positive about the evening flight. I found an out-of-the-way spot behind a row of seats at one of the gates and stretched out, hoping to get some sleep. When I awoke, I realized I had slept around three hours and although hungry, I felt somewhat rejuvenated.
I decided to just go to the gate of the evening flight and hang out there. When I arrived, there were a couple of guys about my age playing guitars and singing. They had their guitar cases sitting open on the floor in front of them and there were a few people stopping to listen, though the majority just walked on by. I also noticed that of the people who stopped to listen, quite a few tossed money into the guitar cases. After a while, the guys took a break, counted out the money and divided it between them. They packed up their guitars and took their belongings over to some vacant seats in the waiting area. I followed them with my own bag and guitar and sat down, saying, “Hey, you guys sounded really good. I enjoyed your music.”
One of the guys replied, “Thanks. What kind of guitar do you have there?”
“A Yamaha FG 180,” I said, as I opened the case and pulled it out.
“Oh man,” he said, looking it over. “This is one of the early ones, from when they were handmade, and has a real spruce top too … not plywood.”
“Yep, you’re right. Where are you guys from?”
“California,” they both said. One added, “We’re hoping to get back to L.A. before Christmas.”
“Are you flying Pan Am?”
“When did you guys get here to the airport?”
“Early yesterday morning, and signed the list.”
“Oh man, and you still haven’t gotten out!”
“Nope, we’ve missed three flights so far.”
Well, that took a toll on my spirits. I’d just put my name on the list and now realized there were probably a lot of people on it ahead of me. What a bummer. I told them I hadn’t eaten since yesterday and had run completely out of money and they said, “Come with us. We ran out, too, but we’re making pretty decent money by playing and we’re gonna go eat. We have enough to buy your lunch, too. When we play again, we’ll be a trio.”
Having had lunch, along with having a plan, brightened things considerably and I was back to thinking positively about my situation. We hung out at the gate the rest of the afternoon until the evening flight started boarding. Eventually they got to the standby list but none of our names were called. As soon as the jetway entry door closed, the Pan Am counter folks shut the desk down, gathered their personal things and left. One of the California guys said, “OK, then. Let go make some dinner money.”
We walked back to the main terminal and found a good spot to set up. (Remember, that was back before 9/11 and all the security checkpoints and regulations. Passengers in those days often had their whole family come to the gate to see them off, or the whole family would be there for someone’s arrival.)
We set our guitar cases in front of us, opened, quickly tuned up and commenced playing. We took turns choosing what to play and the three of us all knew the current standards and played them well. We did songs by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills and Nash, James Taylor, Neil Young, John Prine and I’d throw in a Hank Williams or Johnny Cash song now and then, just to make it interesting.
I’m not sure if it was just the abundance of people, the holiday spirit, or the fact that we actually sounded pretty good, but we collected a lot of money in only about an hour and a half. There were a couple of upscale French restaurants in the airport so we chose one and had a magnificent meal along with some very good wine. (I ordered the escargot, otherwise known as snails. You know those Blakers … they’ll eat anything!) Sitting there in that fancy restaurant, knowing that I would have to rely on tips from singing in order to have my next meal, I recalled what my dad had said to Bubba and me after the survival trip: “You don’t have to be a millionaire to live like one. You just have to know how to live.”
After dinner, my new California friends led me to a quieter area in the airport where they had slept the night before, undisturbed. They pointed out some restrooms nearby and said that later, when hardly anyone was around, you could go in there, take off your shirt and take a sponge bath in the sink. They said there were liquid soap dispensers and you could even wash your hair with it.
A few hours later, I did exactly that. I used probably a half roll of paper towels but isn’t that what they’re there for? We slept that night on the carpet behind a row of seats with our guitars between us and the wall. I made a pillow by stuffing a lot of laundry into one of my t-shirts and used my jacket as a cover. It was quite comfortable and we all slept like logs.
We rose early, got a quick bite for breakfast and went to the gate for the first L.A. flight of the day. Once again, it seemed like an eternity until the standby list was called. None of us made it. This was starting to get old, but it wouldn’t be fair to complain in front of the California guys because they had been there a whole day before me. So we sucked it up and went back to the main terminal and sang for our lunch.
After our second performance together we were starting to jell and it was super fun earning our way there in the Orly airport. Lunch over, we stopped at a newsstand and bought an International Herald Tribune newspaper, a couple of magazines that we could all peruse, and I bought a Louis L’Amour paperback so I’d have some reading material if I ever got on a plane. We meandered over to the gate for the later flight and waited once again. It was another letdown but we made the best of it. Our performance that night in the main terminal was our best yet as we were now throwing in harmony parts and getting tighter on the chord changes. We went to the other upscale restaurant that night and it also had extraordinary cuisine. It was our saving grace for the night, after not making the flight. Another repeat of the late-night sponge bath ritual and then off to bed behind the seats.
We awoke the next morning with renewed vigor and after freshening up in the facilities, we headed for the gate, getting a bite to eat on the way. As it turned out, luck was with the California guys that morning. When their names were called, they jumped up and hollered as if they had won the lottery. In a way, I guess they had. I was happy for them but sad for me. We shook hands, said goodbye and they sauntered to the jetway door. As they disappeared into the tunnel, I felt a sense of loneliness starting to creep in but just as quickly shrugged it off. I told myself to stay focused so I could go play some songs for my lunch money. I set up, leaving my guitar case open, tuned up and took a few deep breaths. As soon as I started playing, I got caught up in the sheer joy of performing and was amazed that I could feel this way simply because of guitar chords and my own vocal chords. It took me to another zone where I was not conscious of my surroundings but totally lost in the spirit of the music. When I heard a few people applauding, it brought me back to reality. Then I looked down at my guitar case and saw I’d made a good haul. I thought to myself that this could actually be a calling. I stored that seed of a thought in a corner of my mind and left it there, wondering if it might germinate sometime.
Another nice lunch down, I bought that day’s Herald Tribune and went to the gate to wait for the evening flight. I guess my anticipation once again made the time go by so agonizingly slow it seemed to drag on forever.
An eternity passed and the plane’s boarding ritual began. After most of the passengers had disappeared into the jetway, the attendant started calling out standby names. Mine was fourth! I pumped my fist and hollered “YES!” as I reached for my guitar and bag. I’d never been happier handing over my ticket and walking through the doors to a plane. I felt like I was walking on air in the jetway and the aisle to my seat. I stashed my gear overhead and settled in for the long flight.
In L.A., I had a one-hour layover before my plane left for Honolulu so I was able to call my folks and tell them when I would arrive in Maui. Back then, there were no direct flights to Maui as the runway there was too small for anything other than island-hoppers. So after the five-hour flight to Honolulu, I had another one-hour layover to wait through before the 30-minute flight to Maui.
I got to Maui two days before Christmas. My dad, mom and my brother Bruce met me in the terminal and after greetings and hugs I turned to my dad and asked, “What’s the surf like?”
“It’s good, man,” he replied. “You wanna go in the morning?”
“Absolutely! Let’s hit it early.”
I hugged my dad and mom each again, and rubbed the top of my brother’s head with the knuckles of one hand while hugging him close with the other.
I picked up my travel-weary guitar and bag. We walked out to the car, stashed my things, settled in, and headed home.