When hope was sinking in dismay, When glooms obscured Columbia's day, His steady mind, from changes free, Resolved on death or liberty! --Hail! Columbia Joseph Hopkinson, 1798
Saturday and Sunday, February 1 and 2, 2003: From Las Vegas, Nevada, to Gila Bend, Arizona, and back.
Nothing to Fear But the Atmosphere Itself The trip begins innocuously enough, and like many others. A predawn rise, shower, and slip out of the house hours before anyone else will awake. Then it’s a quick stop to put air in the tires, gas in the tank, and 19 ounces of coffee into a 20-ounce lidded Styrofoam cup at the corner am/pm mini-mart before a.m. dark turns to a.m. light.
By 5:25, I am doing 70 on the I-215 freeway, heading out of Vegas--this time south down toward Yuma (Mark 5:25 to Yuma?). I fidget with the AM dial in an attempt to pick up the Tom Leykis Show, a controversial commentary and call-in talk-radio program, to add an extra mental stimulus to this early start to the day that the self-medicated dose of black coffee may physicochemically lack. But, getting more static than chatter as I run parallel to massive power line towers radiating from Hoover Dam like tethered columns of stick-figure alien soldiers marching single-file across the desert floor, I hit the seek button and let the radio grab something audible from the waves oscillating out in the clear, still, still-night desert air.
Turning down onto US Route 95 at the sign that reads “Searchlight/Needles”—a destination pairing that always causes me to think of fiber-optic medical devices used in arthroscopy—and commencing to funnel down through the tapering tip of southernmost Nevada, I lock on to an all-news station broadcasting out of LA hundreds of as-the-raven-flies miles away. Over my left shoulder, a trace of color now cuts a slit into the blue-black fabric of the ether, revealing the first hint of impending daylight and the faint outline of the mountain ranges cradling the mighty Colorado.
As the banal, wisecracking banter among the trio of weekend commentators drags on, one of them casually remarks, “Hmmm, the word over the wires is the Space Shuttle Columbia, scheduled to land at 9:15 eastern time, has lost communications with Mission Control in Houston.” I glance down to check my dashboard clock, which now reads 6:15. Seeming to remember hearing that there was always a brief moment during atmospheric reentry that radio contact between the spacecraft and its terra firma controllers temporarily gets interrupted because of the blanket of intense heat that envelops the vessel caused by frictional and other physical forces, I wonder what the normalcy of a communications breakdown is at such a critical point in a shuttle’s hurtle back to Earth. And just why this could be newsworthy enough to be made mention of.
The anomaly of this occurrence becomes increasingly evident when, at one minute past the expected touch-down time in Florida, the word is there still is no word from the shuttle crew. One commentator proclaims that NASA is consistently very accurate about times, and I, in silent agreement--having grown up watching the Apollo missions on black-and-white TV with the “T-minus” countdowns and all--also recall that the times Houston says something is supposed to happen, down to the minute and second, it pretty much always does. They always are spot on. Those aerospace geeks. Those astrophysicist whizzes. Those mission control freaks. So, when two minutes past touchdown passes, I’m thinking this cannot be good. Not good at all. As each subsequent minute goes by and is so reported on the radio, the outlook on the disposition of the Columbia converts from one of mild concern to that of certain desperation. The space shuttle is missing. Missing! They just don’t lose a space shuttle. The occasional unmanned Mars lander, maybe. A manned space shuttle, never.
Unbeknownst to me, it was maybe twenty minutes earlier that, at about 8:55 Eastern time, the now missing space shuttle had been racing, and apparently was visible, overhead somewhere near Las Vegas. Driving on with the minute-by-minute status on the news remaining static regarding the communication with location of and search for Columbia as light steadily fills the sky, and with static now filling the radio station frequency in the process, I gaze off across the Nevada-California line to the jagged mountains of the Mojave National Preserve to my southwest; with the Castle Mountains in the foreground and the Providence Mountains farther distant, both framed by the New York and Paiute ranges.
As I do—and as I coincidentally pass through the tiny, rugged old mining town of Searchlight--it slowly begins to dawn on me that the tops of the taller peaks comprising this crowded, tiered relief on the horizon are, in Salvador Dali-surrealistic and almost hallucinogenic fashion, appearing to be sequentially melting down, stretching out, disaggregating, disintegrating, and vanishing into thin air; as if evaporating or sublimating from solid rock to colorless gas into the pale-blue-grey early-morning desert sky.
View from US-95 of various mountain ranges of the Mojave national Preserve (stitched panorama inset above)
Trying to make sense of this, I quickly come to realize that what I am viewing is an optical illusion and an atmospheric topological twist of waves of light and bands of color known to atmospheric physics fanatics and meteorology mavens as a superior mirage. Such phenomena only occur either just after sunrise or right before sunset and only when conditions in the air and the angle of incidence of the observer are just right to cause the objects on the horizon to refract, reflect, and to appear to project mirror images onto or away from themselves. I know this must be what I am seeing because, for one, I am confident that mind-altering substances are not at play here--unless that black coffee I am sipping was spiked by the convenience store clerk with a packet of “sweet-and-high”--and two, I recall having once before witnessed such a spectacle, about twenty-five years earlier at sunset over Lake Ontario. For that Great Lake superior mirage, it seemed as though the sun was sequentially setting, rising, then setting and rising again before it finally dipped below the bending horizon of that freshwater sea (bringing to mind the old Canadian tourism marketing refrain of “Ontari-ari-ari-o-oh"). For binocular balance here, there also are optical phenomena called inferior mirages. These are much more common sights, such as those distant faux ponds on the roads seen through heat waves on hot summer days and those virtual oases known to trick, disappoint, and dissolution the quintessential desperate, dehydrating, delusional desert drifter in search of water, water, water...
But this, no doubt in my mind, is a superior mirage I am witnessing. Without getting into anything more than the most surficial aspects of the physics of such displays, superior mirages only happen when rays of the sun, bouncing around between multiple layers of warm and cold air, cause objects on the horizon to distort in appearance and seem to shift shapes and come and go not unlike a reflection in a funhouse mirror. As unusual as they are, the best places to see them are over large water bodies and polar ice sheets. Curiously, one of the other more common spots for superior mirages to appear are in large arctic valleys, such as the one sweeping between Mt. McKinley and Fairbanks in Alaska, pretty much just about where one Chris McCandless passed away a decade before.
And now I can vouch for such occurrences in the environs of the vast expanses of the Mojave Desert, as well. Such an illusion, regardless of where it is seen, is sometimes called a fata morgana–debates will rage on this between and among meteorologists and topologists and other physicists as to causes, effects, and nomenclature, and I will leave this conundrum to them. All’s I know is I’m seeing what I’m seeing.
Fairies’ Tails What is not in debate here is that the term fata morgana was coined by Italian sailors as this type of superior mirage they commonly saw as they passed through the Strait of Messina--the Mediterranean Sea passage between the toe of the boot of Italy and the pointy eastern tip of the Island of Sicily, at which coincidentally, is the Sicilian town overlooking the strait called Faro Superiore—from which can be seen the ships on which the sailors can see these superior mirages from below, but also from which—from their on-high superior vantage point on land—these same superior mirages are never visible. This atmospheric phenomenon was so named centuries ago by these marinaios italiano after Morgana or Morgan le Fay--many spellings and variants abound.
Apparently the Italian seamen were up on their Arthurian legends, because Morgan (or Morgana), a sister of King Arthur, was also an enchantress schooled by none other than the magician and sorcerer, Merlin. Fata Morgana and Morgan le Fay are both translated as the “Fairy Morgan.” Fata comes from the Latin for the three Greek Fates. But the origin of the name Morgan(a) is up for debate. It may be an English form of Morrigan, who was of early Celtic and Irish derivation and divination, relating to one of three (or the three-in-one) goddess(es) of war. Morgan may, instead, have to do with the sea or with being sea-born--mor having the same root as the mar in “marine,” “mariner,” and “maritime,” and the mer in merganser (from merginae, sea ducks) and mermaid; and the gan from “to beget” which led to gens the same root as “genetic” and “genesis.” (So, does that mean that the genesis of genesis began with gan?) There are several other theories regarding “morganization,” but all this is good enough for me.
And, as with the origin of her name, there are many mythological angles to the Morgan persona and her seating at and milling about the famous Round Table of Arthur and his knightly entourage. She supposedly lived under the sea in a castle made of crystal or ice, and was said to sometimes make this castle appear reflected up in the air--like a superior mirage--to lure unsuspecting sailors toward it and to their deaths. And, like mirages that change in form before one’s eyes, Morgan, and Morrigan before her, were said to have been shapeshifters, and could either take the form of a raven at times of battle or as a sprite (not Sierra Mist, though) or sea nymph or mermaid or seductive siren--a creature said to maleficently draw with song seamen toward their arms and, thus, into harm’s way. There are said to be beings to this day called the Morgans of Brittany, or Marie Morgan–sirens linked to the same Morgan of English legend--who bait young fishermen to drift to their peril in the Breton region off the northwest coast of France. Rumors have it, though, that the songs of these sirens are merely the wails of seals or sea lions or like-flippered pinnepeds–sometimes nicknamed “sea dogs,” and some Morgana-related some folk tales and myths in the British Isles tell of seals—or selkies--that waddle onto land, doff their skins, shapeshift into irresistible beauties, mesmerize and marry local fishermen, have a “pup” or two together, and then one sea-dog day, don their birthday wetsuits, and return to their octopi gardens—leaving their mere mortal men high and dry.
Mythologists debate the exact connection between the Morrigan and Morgan and mermaid and siren lores and which of the latter two of these chimeral creatures may have a single fish tail or dual flukes and, what it means whether they have either. Are two tails better than one? Anyway, what is not debated is that the image of either a siren or mermaid is nowadays displayed in almost every strip mall and shopping center from Kodiak to Kona, from Kennewick to Kennebunk, and from Kingsport to Kingman. And, she is anything but a figment of the imagination or a mirage. She comprises the focal point in the logo of the Starbucks Coffee Company. And she has two tails. Her song is heard alike by landlubbers and mariners (from Seattle and elsewhere), luring them into their stores to spend “venti” sums of money on “tall” orders of coffee-based products; most of which, like fata morgana, are terms of Italian derivation.
So what? What does any of this have to do with hitchhikers or the missing space shuttle? Well, that will take a “grande” bit of explaining…
Just Don’t Call Me Latte For Dinero The Starbucks Coffee Company is named is inspired by Mr. Starbuck, the chief or first mate of the Pequod; the whaling ship commanded by Captain Ahab in the famous 1851 novel by Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The White Whale. While reports vary, apparently Mr. Starbuck was erroneously originally claimed by the Starbucks’ founders of the now renowned coffee company to be something of a java junkie. The subject of coffee does come up in the book, but only in passing—six times in over 200,000 words and 135 chapters, and only incidentally still with respect to Mr. Starbuck. And, while it is said the coffee company’s brain trust first wanted to call it “Pequod,” after the celebrated whaler in the book, they eventually stuck with Starbucks as the name of their venture. And, curiously, while Mr. Starbuck is the Pequod’s first mate, he is given neither a first name nor a middle initial (Mr. NFN NMI Starbuck?).
Although the coffee/Starbucks connection is tenuous in the literary sense, the Moby Dick-coffee connection may yet be true in a most circumnavigative, cetacean, “imbiblical” sense. It seems that there is an island in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile originally called Amucha or Amuchura or Amuchra, so named by the indigenous peoples as the place where the souls of their departed leave the mainland and arrive at the island where from they rise up and ascend into eternity. When the Spanish came along, the name morphed into Mocha, and the island is so named to this day (i.e., Isla Mocha). Then, along about the early1800s, give or take, there came the whaleboats, and from them came the legend of a great white whale that gave the whalers much consternation and of which was written in 1839 in the Knickerbocker, the tale of Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific. It is claimed it is from Mocha Dick that Moby was, to a certain cetacean extent, modeled by Melville —with the name “Dick” randomly used by whalers in nicknaming certain deadly whales common names, such as any Tom, Dick, or Harry. And another name for coffee or coffee-containing drinks, including those sold in Starbucks is mocha. So the whale could have as easy as not been called Moby Tom or Moby Harry, but not likely Moby Grape (from the old joke, What's big and purple and lives in the ocean?).
The Starbucks Coffee Company also chose for its logo a siren or a mermaid. And, a much more sultry and provocative version of the present-day logo, it originally was; with full frontal mammaries (two lumps?) and a bifurcated fish tails spread-erned in all her ventral piscine glory; supposedly to “pequod” the interests of and lure prospective “mochaddicts” to the thick, black brew. They would go on to create a caffeine-nation of customers “Davy Jonesing” for a daily mocha java fix. Oh, those sea dogs, they!
In Chapter 112 of Moby-Dick, presumably uttered by Ishmael with respect to mermaids’ seductions, but unfazed by the number of tails, comes,
“...Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them- "Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither!...come hither, till we marry thee!"
Could this be describing sailors heading straight for their own version of Isla Mocha?
Back in the very first chapter of Moby-Dick comes the words from the narrator whom I will call “Ishmael” in deference to his renowned three-word opening declaration for all to so do. After continuing his salutatory narration by confiding in and confessing to the reader as to his personality flaws and attributes, Ishmael proceeds to speculate,
“But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way- he can better answer than any one else. And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago...”
Whether it was divine providence or the Fates having their hands in it or just Melville imagining it, as indicated by his moniker, Ishmael considered himself a societal outcast. In this respect, he is not unlike like how many hitchhikers see themselves and are viewed by passersby when stuck for long stretches waiting on the sides of roads for rides. In the case of Melville, it is believed that he selected the name for his narrator because in the Old Testament Ishmael who, along with his handmaiden mother, Hagar, was cast out into the wilderness from the household of his father, Abraham (Abram?), at the bidding of Abraham’s wife, Sarah (Sarai?). This same Ishmael is also said to have gone on to be the patriarch of all Arab nations and is from whom the Islamic Prophet Mohammad would be a direct descendent.
Ironically, it would be Longfellow, a Melville contemporary, who a year after the publication of Moby-Dick would himself pen the following ironic words from a poem about some of the other children of Abraham children’s children, children--the Jews--a handful of millennia after this Old Testament event, based on observations he made while on a walk in Newport, Rhode Island; a state originally founded as the Providence Plantation—and supposedly by providence--as a colony espousing religious tolerance, certainly at least when compared to the tenets of Massachusetts Bay Colony:
“How came they here? What burst of Christian hate, What persecution, merciless and blind, Drove o'er the sea - that desert desolate-- These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?” --The Jewish Cemetery at Newport, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1852
Somehow, the term “Iscariots of Ire” seems to be judiciously fitting here, considering the title of this essay.
Now, the Ishmael of Moby-Dick took quite a different path than did his biblical namesake. By his gloomy autobiographical sketch with which Melville chose to offer the reader in the very first paragraph of his book--since neither anti-depressants nor the therapists who prescribe them had yet to be conceived--Ishmael would be compelled to ferry from the Massachusetts port town of New Bedford, to the Island of Nantucket to sign up for a hitch with Captain Ahab and his ship Pequod in an attempt to soothe his tortured soul. This is witnessed by the following picture he paints, in the second sentence of the first chapter, of his desperate mental condition and his remedy for it:
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Near the climactic and tumultuous end of the tale, in Chapter 134 of the 135-chapter book, on the second of the three-day chase of, and Pier 6 brawl with, the great white whale, it would be First Mate Starbuck who finally, but to no avail, confronts his single-minded, maniacal Captain Ahab with,
"Great God! but for one single instant show thyself...never, never wilt thou capture him, old man - In Jesus' name no more of this, that's worse than devil's madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone - all good angels mobbing thee with warnings: - what more wouldst thou have? - Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh, - Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!"
Prophetically, it was the morning of the third day of this dynamic “leuco-cetacean” (leucetacean? lattecetacean?) chase that Starbuck might have downed his final cup a’ joe–let’s hope for his sake it was a venti. For it was on that fateful day, as written on the last page of the book’s final chapter, just moments before the Pequod was pulled on a Nantucket “slay-ride” down Poseidon’s way like a “chariot of bubbles” to reach its final saline solution taking every lock, every stock, and every barrel of whale oil, along with every poor soul on board–save Ishmael--to take the big wet nap in the Neptune wing of Morgan’s castle.
In the final moment, and on the final page of the story, from Ishmael comes the observation,
“Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking look-outs on the sea”
Talk about being damned to Merman Hellville!
In the one-page Epilogue that follows, as the Fates did have it, Ishmael was the lone sailor thrown clear of–literally, literarily, and divinely cast out from--the deadly grip of the whirlpool caused by the force of the sinking whaling ship which punctuated the mayhem of the clash and calamity of chase day number three. Bobbing adrift alone he, two dawns later, would be plucked from the sea by, and hitch a ride to safety on, the Rachel, a passing whaler. Thus, he would live to narrate this venti or grande or tall tale of the events that led to the demise (or would it be demitasse?) of Starbuck and his shipmates of the Pequod at the fluke and fins of Ahab’s spermacetic nemesis.
So as I drive down US 95 this fateful first of February morning, eerily, especially for this particular dawn, I am eyeing this fata morgana--this “castle in the air”--atop the Castle Mountains, a small range straddling the border that divvies up the Nevada share of the Mojave Desert from California’s holdings. And in line with me and the Castle Mountains is the more distant range with the name of Providence; this, as I am listening to the earliest news reports of the missing ship Columbia.
Right before that, just before dawn and the appearance of the superior mirage on my horizon, somewhere just above me...
And there, amid reports of the shuttle turning up missing, there am I heading through a place called Searchlight while tops of mountains appear to be lopped off before my eyes al la a fata morgana. Could the Fairy Morgan have had a hand in this? As she was said to have done in myth and lore with sea voyagers, could she have lured these space travelers of the shuttle to their peril with the same air castles in view to me over the Castle Mountains on the distant Earth-and-heaven horizon? Likely not and just a fantastic phantasmagorical contrivance in my own head. But how much less plausible is this posit than NASA’s official postmortem, which would conclude that the break-up of the Columbia was caused by a falling piece of insulating foam at lift off? Could my 1950s-technology insulating Styrofoam cup of to-go coffee from the am/pm have functioned just fine, while the high-tech,Y2K Styrofoam-like “insul(t)ation” layer of to-return shuttle shielding this A.M. has not?
There are also other curious aspects of (Mme/Mlle) Morgan le Fay with respect to the final few moments of the flight of the Columbia as it readied for landing. One is that after passing near Las Vegas–my starting point this morning–the spaceship as it began to come apart, streaked over an area in northeastern Arizona and a then eastern New Mexico, areas in which two different geologic features possessing the same name are located: the Mesa Redondo (or Redonda) Formations. Mesa redonda is Spanish for “round table.” Could the fabled Morgan--the sibling of King Arthur--have been sipping her predawn mocha latté, perhaps with First Mate Starbuck, sequentially seated at these two round tables with a view at the edge of night this fine morning (where “morgan,” “morgen,” and “morgon” all happen to be words for “morning” in many Germanic languages) and in sight of that fata morgana over the Castle Mountains? Just something to ponder; or evidently, at least something I have.
Another odd twist to all this with respect to a woman named Morgan is that, during those very moments when the Columbia broke apart, Barbara Morgan was in the sky buzzing around Runway 33--the shuttle’s planned landing site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida--flying in a NASA training aircraft to observe the not-to-be return of the doomed craft. This Morgan, a school teacher from McCall, Idaho, had been training back in 1986 with Christa McAuliffe who perished in the Challenger disaster. Morgan was the school teacher alternate for that earlier, ill-fated shuttle mission and was scheduled to be a member of the crew on the very next flight of the Columbia slated for the end of 2003. It was, of course, also not to be. It is interesting to note that Barbara Morgan was born in 1951, exactly one century after Moby-Dick was published; that her resident state of Idaho some say indirectly got its name from the side-wheeler Idaho which plied the waters of the river called Columbia; and that the town of McCall was a one-time notorious and rowdy haven for gambling joints, dance halls, and whorehouses. So it’s apropos that the town abuts Meadows Summit over which is Meadow Valley and the Idaho hamlets of Meadows and New Meadows, and through which cuts this very same US Route 95 I now am driving down and out from the Las Vegas Valley this morning. In Spanish, “The Meadows” translates as Las Vegas!
The vision of the fata morgana I am observing this Mojave early “morgen” on US 95 south of Las Vegas doesn’t last more than a sum total of about sixty seconds. As the day wears on, I scan and seek on the radio dial for new news stations while passing into and out of several radio broadcast transmission radii in this sparsely populated part of the world along the California-Arizona border. The accounts evolve from the Columbia first not communicating, to it going missing, to it possibly crashing, to the presumption of its destruction, and finally to confirmation that it has broken to pieces and that what hasn’t be burned up or atomized is scattered in various bits over a huge intermittent swath about the landscape.
With these reports also come the sad, but obligatory, abbreviated bios released by NASA to the news wires of each of the seven brave astronauts on board. And then the eyewitness accounts from those observers on the ground of the sounds of the explosions coming from fireballs streaking from the shuttle across first the dark, then penumbral, and finally bright and sunny early-morning skies through which, in a matter of seconds, its flames searing the firmament. And then there is the revelation of the subsequent rain of the shuttle debris that messes with Texas and, maybe, elsewhere back up behind its blazing flight path. It turns out that, unbeknownst to me at the time, I am not too far from intersecting with the landing approach line of the shuttle as it was coming apart at the welds, joints, and seams; busting, bursting, and combusting up in its out of mission control fall from graceful glideslope, flaming downward from the heavens like a chariot of fire just before the superior mirage was tricking me into thinking I am seeing the Castle Mountain tops being sucked up into the same sky from which the Columbia is tumbling.
And with respect to the chariot of fire, from the Bible comes,
And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. --Second Book of Kings, 2:11
It is worthy of note here that it was this same Prophet Elijah who, as stated, would go in a fiery flair up to heaven, and who earlier on, according to the biblical account, would challenge atop Mt. Carmel, Ahab, the king of the Hebrews, on his wayward beliefs in the false prophets and deities of Ba’al. It is from this biblical king that Melville came to name Ahab the captain of the Pequod, and whose end was met in diametric opposition to a fiery chariot.
Mystic Crystal Revelations An interesting aside here is that the word pequod and the name Pequot in the American-aboriginal, pre-Columbian Algonquian language means, at least in some translations, “destroyers.” Thus, it is likely not a coincidence that Melville would choose to name Ahab’s ship as the Pequod, which left port in its captain’s mind as a would-be destroyer and would itself wind up as had-been destroyed. Now, the Pequot, an Indian tribe that had to be reckoned with by the early Dutch and English New World colonists, is said to have done its share of destroying in their own right, both with their native brothers and encroaching European bothers. By the1630s, the Pequot had made camp along what is now the Mystic River in Connecticut. It was during that time, the colonist Captain John Mason, led a company of soldiers to exact what is called the Mystic Massacre, an event that pretty much destroyed the tribe called “the destroyers” and basically made the Pequot a nonentity on the American landscape for more than three-and-a-half centuries.
The tribe has reemerged as the proprietor of the nearby and wildly profitable Foxwoods Casino–with more "take" than any in Las Vegas--in the small Connecticut town of Ledyard; named for a Revolutionary War military leader, Colonel William Ledyard, who was executed by Benedict Arnold while he led the defense of an area patriot fort. The name “Ledyard” is of Teutonic origin and means “defender of the nation.” While this was true for Colonel Ledyard of his newly created American nation—no Benedict Arnold, he--whether this ultimately holds true for the Pequot Nation and its tribal members today is open for debate. Once victims of being overrun and destroyed by territory-hungry European colonial land-grabbers, are they now gambling with their own future and playing games of chance by becoming victims of their own success? More time and gambling customers and revenue will tell. If you can’t beat them, let the long odds of the longhouse residents do it? Interestingly, George Thorogood has entertained at Foxwoods under contract with the Pequot Nation.
But, back to the banks of the same Mystic River where Pequot blood once ran the brackish water red down to the salty sea. Now, the name of the river “Mystic,” like that of the word pequot, is Algonquian in derivation and comes from missituk, which has to do with estuarine hydrologic processes—I take a little techno-poetic license in the interpretation, here. Not unlike names of many other places, over time it was Anglicized to be called “Mystic,” similar to how Isla Mocha was Hispanicized. It is also there where the river changes from estuary to the sea that the historic Mystic Seaport, a living maritime museum, is currently located. And moored permanently in the seaport museum is the Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving wooden sailing whaler from the era and of the type similar to one Melville writes the Pequod to be. The Morgan was launched in 1841 from New Bedford. There are many claims that both the Charles W. Morgan, the ship, and Charles W. Morgan, the man for who the ship was christened, were involved in the abolitionist movement when Frederick Douglass lived there; New Bedford being a hotbed of the day for abolitionist thought and planning. In fact, while there is no clear evidence that Morgan and Douglass directly collaborated, it is clear that they travelled in the same underground railroad roundhouses. And it is surmised that either free black men or runaway slaves were employed on the Morgan by Morgan. New Bedford is also where Melville’s Ishmael would begin his journey to the Pequod along with Ahab, Starbuck, and their crew.
Also interesting here is that the ship after which Melville was said to have modeled the Pequod was one similar to the Charles W. Morgan which, like the fictional Pequod, sailed from New Bedford. Also interesting here, is that the actual Morgan, which now docks as the vestige of a period whaler at the Mystic Seaport where the Pequot Nation was massacred, was used in the making of the 1923 silent movie, Java Head; and that a javahead is another term for someone with a particularly strong attraction to coffee products; including the Far Side character developed by Gary Larson, Carl “Javahead” Jones.
So, it can be said that a fictional ship dubbed the Pequod and a surviving ship christened the Morgan--and their respective crew--and a massacring captain named Mason are tied together at a place called Mystic.
Morgan, Freemason So what? Well, an eerie connection here is that a group called the Masons (aka Freemasons; aka Free and Accepted Masons; aka F&AM; aka FAM) are known to refer to themselves as the Brethren of the Mystic Tie. With respect to the mysticism or paranormality or the “coincidentality” of that day, as the tragic Shuttle Columbia news unfolds and the day wears on and as A.M. turns to P.M., I not only have made it down to Yuma, but before getting there, I take a predetermined brief side trip and turned east at Blythe, California, onto I-10 to stop on the Ehrenberg, Arizona, Exit #1 [see the photo of mile marker, below] on-ramp to take a snapshot for documentation of and mostly just to confirm in my own head that I really had, five years before, seen a bothersome, but provocative hitchhiker graffito about which I have written another essay (Lost and Found), and had not just imagined it. I had not, and wrapped completely around the light pole which require several picture angles to capture, it reads,
The inscription indeed still remains in place to this day (in 2014). And the message makes as much of an impression on me now—if not anymore sense—as it had five years earlier; one which implicitly implies a connection between Mormons (LDS) and Masons (FAM) and Satan (Antichrist). Whether one believes this equation to be, all or in part, defamatory, derogatory, misguided, apocryphal, irrational, impossible, plausible, provable, unquestionable, understandable, unknowable, indecipherable, or you just plain choose to believe it or not, still this is all very mystical and just like the challenge in taking a photo of the inscription around the pole, I have difficulty trying to wrap my head around its meaning.
Tangentially, whatever I did or did not know beforehand, I have after-mathematically also come to learn that in this formulaic mix, whether this equation adds up or not, there is a man named Captain William Morgan and the story of what became known as the Morgan Affair of 1826. What the Arthurian character, Morgan is mere speculation atop myth. After all, she is said to have had enough of her own affairs and tasks to attend to over the eons. And whether one chooses to believe there is any credence to an LDS/FAM/antichrist interrelations, there is talk in some circles of at least a loose, if not outright, direct connection between the Knights of the Round Table and the Freemasons via the intermediary entities known as the Knights Templar–the guys who brought you and the holy land the Crusades--and of their medieval pursuits and obsessive searches for such things as the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, and the secrets of the builders (masons) of the Temple of Solomon; thus, the name Templar. If and just how, either real or imagined, these groups interconnect and bridge millennia, be it a linear or circuitous route, is something ardently debated amongst certain historians, theologians, conspiracy theorists, and anyone else who just itches for a good fight and wants to join in the (morgan la) fray.
As for me, I’m just laying out the facts as they are documented; none of which would I have even considered doing nor connections I could have ever pondered if not for having come upon that graffito. So, here goes...
With respect to the Morgan Affair, in the 1932 book, Strange Disappearance of William Morgan, Thomas A. Knight lays out what he claims are the details of the lead-up to the 1826 abduction of Morgan by a “coterie” of Masons, and Morgan’s subsequent mysterious disappearance—a mystery unresolved to this day with questions as to whether he was he murdered to be silenced or paid off and stealthily spirited away of his own free-mason will. All this because he in 1826 was about to publish a book exposing the secrets of the Freemasons of which he was a member and for which he took a blood oath never to divulge. The Knight book presents the thesis--one still maintained today by defenders of Freemasonry--that Morgan was not murdered, but he instead worked out a deal with his former F.A.M. family members that he would not publish the book and would leave the country through Canada; that the Masons would have his wife, Lucinda, and their children follow; and that he would then quietly fade into history’s woodwork without his expose’ of Masonic practices--and possibly other secrets about some supposed slimy goings-on of western New York F.A.M. leaders and men of power of the day—from ever seeing the illumination of day or reaching the eyes and ears of the non-Masonic public.
Curiously, in Knight’s account--that’s Knight the author, not one of those seated at Arthur’s round table nor those engrossed with aspects of Solomon’s temple--it is alleged that Captain William Morgan was then transported by a network of Freemasons from a jail cell in the western New York town of Canandaigua–a Seneca name meaning “the chosen spot”--where he was being detained on supposed trumped up charges--to a staging place in Youngstown, which is situated along the southwestern shore of Lake Ontario and the eastern bank of the Niagara River on the New York-Canadian border. It is also alleged that one of these Masons who moved Morgan some distance between Canandaigua and Youngstown was named Elijah (Mathers) and one of the men who took up the mantle in his detainment in Youngstown was named Elisha (Adams). And, it was there in Youngstown that Morgan either was murdered in cold blood and dumped into one of the two adjacent water bodies, as is maintained by the anti-Masons and general populace of the day, or, as insisted by Knight and others–likely only Masons–he was ferried unharmed into Canada and on into the unknown.
Also proposed by Knight is the possibility that Morgan eventually and covertly made his way around the north side of Lake Ontario and back down into the US and to the Atlantic coast–Knight suggests to Boston–and then boarded a ship that took him to the ancient Aegean seaport of Smyrna in what is present-day Turkey. Smyrna happens to be the site of one of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and its name Smyrna is from the Greek word for “myrrh,” a bitter embalming plant gum, popular ancient fragrance and well-known baby gift of the day. Oddly, it should be noted that the first specimen of the plant from which one of several sources of myrrh is obtained, Balsamodendron myrrha, was collected in Arabia and carried back for identification by another German named Ehrenberg--Christian Gottlieb Ehrenberg--a biologist and taxonomist who, also in the year 1826, just as William Morgan is claimed by Knight to have so done, traveled to Smyrna. Also oddly, the name of the ship that Morgan was alleged to have taken on this supposed journey was the brig America. As a country, another name for “America” is Columbia! One point in favor of Thomas A. Knight’s thesis about Morgan’s whereabouts is that, according to historic whaling records, there indeed was a brig America, which did in fact set sail in1826; although, that year it did not embark from Boston, but rather from New Bedford, the same setting for Ishmael in the beginning of the book Moby-Dick.
However Morgan was dispatched, be it by murder or by safe passage out of America on the America, this operation was supposedly overseen in no small part by the then Sheriff of Niagara County–where Youngstown is located–himself, a Freemason named Eli (Bruce); noting here that the name, Eli, comes from the same Hebrew biblical root as does Elijah and Elisha, the fiery chariot and mantle passing dynamic duo. Now, the then governor of New York, De Witt Clinton, was said to be among the most powerful of Freemasons in the state. And, while he is way-more well known for being responsible for the digging of the Erie Canal–nicknamed Clinton’s Ditch–in smaller and perhaps more powerful and entrenched circles he is also noted for his involvement in sweeping up the fallout from the bomb dropped on the Masonic estate by what for posterity has been known as the Morgan Affair. Among attempts at image damage control caused by William Morgan’s disappearance and the resulting need to repair cracks in the foundation of his Masonic house created by the shockwaves of the incident, Clinton immediately stepped in and engineered the removal Eli Bruce from his law enforcement office. But even with the fall of Niagara County’s sheriff, the uproar from the community over this Morgan Affair cascaded over and flowed on--ripple effects from which were making the political waters pretty choppy for all F.A.M. members downriver. It seems that even without the body of Morgan to embalm, eulogize, and bury, something smelled a bit funky. And, it wasn’t of myrrh—a form of which was once used in ancient times for embalming. It was of murder. So, over a barrel and in an effort to appease the public at large, Clinton and his political cadre of Masons–his “eerie cabal”--saw to it that the former Sheriff Bruce and a sprinkling of other Masonic cohorts believed to be involved in the affair would be tried and convicted of minor kidnapping-type charges for their respective roles in this supposed conspiracy. Sentences of no more than about a couple of years apiece were doled out, however.
And, you’ll always know your neighbor, You’ll always know your pal, If you've ever navigated On the Erie Canal –Low Bridge (Erie Canal), Thomas S. Allen, 1905
Curiously, in 1828, between the time Bruce and his buddies were sentenced to prison and released, De Witt Clinton, while still the sitting governor of New York, would suddenly die. And, it should be noted here that, with the much ado about stifling Captain William Morgan came his,
Illustration of Masonry by One of the Fraternity Who has devoted Thirty Years to the Subject "God said, Let there be Light, and there was Light.” Printed for the Proprietor, 1827. Capt. Wm. Morgan’s Exposition of Freemasonry
And, all I know is that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and others include the definition for morganize as, “to assassinate or do away with secretly in order to prevent or punish disclosure of secrets”; stemming from this very affair.
How this all comes back around to my driving to Yuma that first day of February in 2003 is that I graduated from De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx in 1973. And, in 1974, on my very first cross-country bus-and-hitchhiking excursion, along with a pack on my back, I carried some of my belongings in a De Witt Clinton High School book bag. Thus, in thumbing around the country, I lugged around a bag sporting the name of the very same Governor De Witt Clinton of Erie Canal fame. So, could the thumbing portion this trip have been, in part, called Clinton's hitch?
Whatever it might be called, that very first hitchhike (as noted in the First Ride essay)--pack, book bag, and all–took me first through Arizona and then up into Utah, a state formed in a territory, Deseret, settled by the LDS church in a land claimed by Mexico and Spain before it for the Catholic Church and for the Lord, wrested from the (Pah)Utes, et al. Utahhh! Ah, yes. Plan a trip, pack your bags, check your things, climb aboard, and mark in the manifest your destiny.
It was there in Utah I stayed for three days at the Provo home of Lowry and Florence Nelson, a prominent and, by then, elderly couple of the Mormon faith to whom I was indirectly “related” by a Jewish-Mormon marriage of my mother’s younger brother, Louis Diamant, to the daughter of Lowry and Florence, my dear Aunt Ann Nelson Diamant; a union which by that time was in a state of dissolution. Louis and Ann were living in North Carolina--separately--upon visiting them on my way out west. It was at that time Aunt Ann gave me her folk’s contact information in Provo, where I generously was given an open invitation to crash. Lowry Nelson, who during my brief stay in his home, would take me–a Jew who had been wandering through the deserts of the southwest--on a personal guided tour of the campus of LDS Church-run Brigham Young University at which, in the 1920s, he was on the faculty. Lowry Nelson, as it turns out, was the key turning slowly in the lock to open up the change in Mormon Church doctrine with respect to its views on race--particularly on that of the black man. In his "The Mormons and the Negro," based on a landmark work published in 1952 in The Nation--a full three years before Rosa Parks took her more renowned and, with no question, far more courageous landscape-changing bus ride—along with a result of a risky letter he sent in 1947 to LDS church leaders expressing his disagreement with and contempt for these bigoted policies. In response to the church hierarchy’s response to this initial letter, Nelson fired back:
“The attitude of the Church in regard to the Negro makes me very sad. Your letter is the first intimation I have had that there was a fixed doctrine on this point. I had always known that certain statements had been made by authorities regarding the status of the Negro, but I had never assumed that they constituted an irrevocable doctrine. I hope no final word has been said on this matter. I must say that I have never been able to accept the idea, and never shall. I do not believe that God is a racist. But if the Church has taken an irrevocable stand, I would dislike to see it enter Cuba or any other island where different races live and establish missionary work. The white and colored people get along much better in the Caribbean and most of Latin-American than they do in the United States. Prejudice exists, there is no doubt, and the whites in many ways manifest their feelings of superiority, but there is much less of it than one finds in USA, especially in our South. For us to go into a situation like that and preach a doctrine of "white supremacy" would, it seems to me, be a tragic disservice, I am speaking frankly, because I feel very keenly on this question. If world brotherhood and the universal God idea mean anything, it seems to me they mean equality of races, I fail to see how Mormonism or any other religion claiming to be more than a provincial church can take any other point of view; and there cannot be world peace until the pernicious doctrine of the superiority of one race and the inferiority of others is rooted out. This is my belief.” -- 26 June 1947 Letter to Heber Meeks cc: 1st Presidency of LDS church, Lowry Nelson http://mormonbookshelf.com/wiki/Lowry_Nelson_Communications_on_Race
Unaware as I was at the time of being in the company of such a great man, we--Lowry and I--must have made quite a pair that day at BYU; a campus for which the social tsunami of 1960s--and the fallout in its wake by the time I showed up there in 1974—had completely passed it by. I was 18, with tanned, olive skin, wearing a tee-shirt and cut-offs, and sporting long, wavy-dark hair. He, at 81 and of Danish heritage, was fair-complected with wispy white hair, and wore a long-sleeved shirt, light jacket, and slacks, and was almost completely deaf from age; to the point that I had to jot on a pad of paper any questions or comments I had on what I was seeing and in responding to various aspects of campus life of which he was schooling me. I can’t help but think, looking back on it, that, that even at 81, Lowry still didn’t mind shaking up the establishment just a bit by escorting me around; my sticking out as I must have been like a sore hitchhiker’s thumb in that BYU bastion and proliferator of conservative and conformable and confident thought. As I recall, we had a grand time that day. He was quite a man, that Lowry Nelson. And, I have no doubt, I am a far-better man for having met him.
Now, it is also documented that, in 1830, while former Sheriff Eli Bruce served out the last of his twenty-eight month sentence ironically in the very same Canandaigua (i.e., “chosen spot”) jail from which William Morgan had been surreptitiously scrummed away by him and other Freemason conspirators four years before, Eli would coincidentally find himself in the same cell with, and being proselytized to by, none other than Joseph Smith, Sr. In jail for about a month for the crime of not paying a small debt, this Joseph Smith--the elder--just happened to be the father of the founder and new believer in the newly established Mormon Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints (LDS). It was his son, Joseph Smith, the younger, who seven years earlier had been visited by the angel Moroni on his father’s farm in nearby Palmyra, New York, just about the time Clinton’s Ditch was being furrowed through the town.
In his jailhouse diary, Eli Bruce–a guy who, it could be said that in political terms, Clinton ditched--would remark of his interaction with Joseph Smith, Sr.:
“He says that our Bible is much abridged and deficient, that soon the Divine will is to be made known to all, as written in the new Bible, or Book of Mormon.”
This Mormon connection brings the discussion back to the superior mirage. It seems that in the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830 as penned by Joseph Smith, Jr., there is the story of the Prophet Lehi as told by his son, Nephi. Nephi tells us that his father, a resident of Jerusalem, was told by the Lord--circa 600 BC(E)--to leave with his family for the wilderness before the city was to be destroyed. It is claimed that Lehi was a Jew, and a direct descendent of Joseph--the great grandson of Abraham and the son of Jacob and Rachel. Now, there was also a man in the time of Lehi who is called Ishmael, and who was asked by the Lord via Lehi via Nephi to travel with the Lehi and his clan into the wilderness. So, Ishmael et al. pulled up stakes joined the wilderness survivalists. Eventually, the respective children of Ishmael and Lehi would intermarry. In the wilderness, Lehi also has a vision. While there are many facets to this, the point to be noted here is from Chapter 8:26 of the First Book of Nephi, in Lehi is quoted as recounting of the vision,
“And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.”
Sure sounds like a superior mirage or a fata morgana to me! A castle in the sky! Even in the Book of Mormon?
The story goes on to say that in 1Nephi17:8, soon after the passing of Ishmael, it is written of Nephi,
“And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.”
Now, the claim here is that a ship was, in fact fabricated to divine specs, which did shuttle the Ishmael-Lehi line to the shores of what we now call America (a.k.a. Columbia). There is no documented name for Nephi’s ship; but, could it have been called the Columbia or perhaps Pre-Columbia? Much is said to have happened after their landing on the shores of what would become the USA, and this will not be discussed here. But the contentions about what is documented in the Book of Mormon are many. Generally, what is not discussed, however, and will be here is a possible connection between the Book of Mormon and the book Moby-Dick, in that there is a man called Ishmael in each and that Lehi and Ishmael could also be considered as outcasts. The question here is, was it the Ishmael as described in what many consider to be "The Book,” or was it the Book of Mormon’s Ishmael for which Melville named his narrator? Likely the former, as most literary scholars claim, but since Melville was born and raised in the New York area at exactly the time Mormonism was getting a foothold as a religion in the region, he certainly could have been exposed to its beliefs, its teachings, and therefore its Ishmael, as well. In Melville’s book, could the Pequod, the ship destined to be destroyed on the seas be metaphorically the same as Jerusalem, the place set to be destroyed as told by the Lord to Lehi in the Book of Mormon? And were Lehi and Ishmael’s joined families cast out into the wilderness only to survive to have the story told to Joseph Smith two-and-a-half millennia later in upstate New York?
In fact, it is claimed that on the night of September 21, 1823, when the angel Moroni visited the Smith’s family farm in Palmyra, among other things said to Joseph Smith was the angel’s quote from the last of the ancient Hebrew prophets, Malachi, as it is written in the Old Testament,
“Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful [awesome] day of the Lord.” (Malachi 3:23)
This and the passage that follows in Malachi 3:24 is interpreted by many, not just Mormons, to state that Elijah will return to Earth on Judgment Day.
Later, in 1836, it is claimed by Smith and another LDS leader that the Prophet Elijah appeared to them in the recently constructed Mormon Temple in Kirtland, Ohio, as documented in the Mormon Doctrine & Covenants 110:13-16,
13 After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: 14 Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi--testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come-- 15 To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse-- 16 Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.
So, while the Prophet Elijah is said by Christians and Jews to have left the mantle to his protégé, Elisha, before drafting a heavenly whirlwind with his chariot of fire, it is the Mormons who singularly also believe that, in1836, Elijah fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi by bestowing in Kirtland the keys of the priesthood to Smith and leaving the scene in Ohio and back up to heaven; albeit somewhat less conflagratorially than his earlier departure depicted in the Bible in the presence of Elisha. To believe this or not, one must, this day as always, use their own judgment.
It would be another two years, in 1838, that Joseph Smith would himself need to abruptly take flight out from Kirtland in a whirlwind of his own. But it was heat from the local authorities that caused him to flee. Apparently, there were accusations of fiduciary hanky-panky occurring in the cookie jar of the local bank, in which Smith, it was said, had a hand deep down. So, he high-tailed it with his family to the most distant reaches of settled Mormondom, to the Missouri community called Far West. There, he took up temporary residence with a former Mason and convert to Mormonism, George Washington Harris, with his lovely wife, none other than the former Lucinda Morgan, the legal widow of Captain William Morgan—she being the apparent victim of Masonic hanky-panky a dozen years before. [At least it can be said that even if, in 1826, Captain Morgan did in fact leave Youngstown, New York, unscathed to Canada and maybe even on to Smyrna, Turkey, contrary to claims in the Thomas A. Knight book about the deal he struck, for whatever the reason--such as death did they part or otherwise--Lucinda and their kids did not follow.]
So, while he cooled his heels in Far West, it seems that Smith heated other things up by making himself very much to home in the Harris household; opening the lid and dipping his hand into George’s conjugal cookie jar–kind of a mi tollhouse es su tollhouse. The result was that luscious Lucinda, it is said, would go on to become “spiritually bound” to Joseph Smith–esprit de corpus (?)--an act that would support his conversion to carnal polygamy. It is quite likely that before he reached Missouri, he was already a bigamist–Emma Smith being his first wife, Fannie Alger his first second wife–although it is exhausting to keep score on this multifaceted facet of Smith’s unquestionably dynamic life; whatever one’s opinion of him and his actions may be. And there are a very many. But, it seems as though Lucinda’s spirit-and-flesh union with Smith may have changed him from being “bi“ to “poly,” in a “--gamous” sort of way. Now, even though Smith had horned in on George Harris’ home life, Lucinda remained under George’s roofs–apparently “hedging her betroth(s)”. George and Lucinda would eventually move less-far west, back east on the Illinois bank of the Mississippi River to the town of Nauvoo. After Far West and Kirtland before it, Nauvoo was the newest of the LDS-founded communities, and would become the new church headquarters, post-Kirtland. By the time the Harrises arrived in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith had already set up shop and was open for church business.
But, how did Smith come to leave Far West to live in Nauvoo? Interestingly–and some would say tragically, the Mormons had been in constant conflict with their Missourian neighbors, with mayhem, death, and destruction occurring on all fronts. As a result, the Missouri governor, it is claimed, sought to rid the state of the LDS church members. So, late in1838, Joseph Smith and other leaders were arrested for treason and other hefty crimes and misnomers against the state and were being detained ironically in the town called Liberty and held in the oxymoronically named Liberty Jail. Then, while being tried for their crimes, they were detained and arraigned in the cabin owned by a man named Elisha (Creekmore) in Daviess County. This venue was selected because it was also claimed that the Mormons had burned down the Daviess County courthouse–seeing to it that no more days of judgment could occur there. So, the judge decided to change the location of the trial to the Missouri town of Columbia (!). In charge of the transporting (wearing the mantle?) of Joseph Smith’s whereabouts to the point of delivering him for prosecution was the sheriff of Daviess County whose name just happened to be, coincidentally, William Morgan! While being delivered to Columbia from Elisha’s rustic residence--although accounts are unclear as to exactly how and why--Joseph Smith and his entourage escaped, exited Missouri safely across the Mississippi River and into the jurisdiction of the State of Illinois and on to the bustling LDS haven of Nauvoo. So, in this case, a man named Morgan failed on a mission to shuttle LDS leadership to a place called Columbia.
In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith would quietly maintain his hands-on spiritual ministering to Lucinda Morgan Harris. It seems that either because or in spite or irrespective of Smith’s unorthodox relationship with Lucinda, her husband apparently at this point in name and address only, George Harris, came to rise into increasingly high-ranking governing status within the LDS church hierarchy as well as in political offices for the city of Nauvoo. What price success?
Over the following few years, as the LDS population of the Nauvoo area swelled, a new Mormon temple was built and the faith did thrive. But, as was the case earlier in Missouri, what also grew over that time was hostility toward the faithful by the local non-Mormon Illinoisans who were increasingly ill-annoyed and proportionately threatened by their numbers and prosperity. It was also during this time--some claim--that Joseph Smith became a Freemason. Evidence of this, those same claimants believe, is that Masonic symbology and practices became infused into Mormonism [L.D.S. = F.A.M.=??].
Then, on a fateful summer day in 1844, the perpetually embattled Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was shaken to its foundation. For it was then that its leader, Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother, Hyrum (Hiram?), were murdered–executed or assassinated--by an angry mob while being detained by the authorities down the road from Nauvoo in the LDS-less Illinois town of Carthage. The brothers Smith were being held–likely habeas corpuslessly--for alleged crimes, be they trumped up or true, which are debated to these very latter days. Some say it was for the illegal destruction of a Nauvoo printing press by a Smith-commanded militia--known as the Nauvoo Legion–run by disgruntled former Mormons who were about to publish in a paper called the Expositor the details of his polygamist practices. Hmmm, something oddly “morganesque” about this claim. Others say it was based on accusations ranging from riot incitation to treasonous acts. Whatever the truth, be they guilty or innocent, the Smith brothers were never tried in a court of law and thus, truly were victims of frontier backdoor justice of which no one has ever been charged or otherwise held to account. An irony here is that George Harris may actually have inadvertently and unintentionally had a hand–sometimes one hand is washing the other when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing—in the circumstances which led to the demise of the Mormon Church founder, prophet, saint and some claim, martyr. It seems that Harris, with his involvement in the Nauvoo City government, may have played a role in rubber-stamping the permission for the Nauvoo Legion destroying the printing press; an action from which precipitated the arrest of Joseph in Carthage, the place where Hyrum and he would be attacked and overwhelmed by the mob of the “Ill. willed.”
Now, among the controversies of this benchmark day in Mormonism, is what Joseph Smith may or may not have yelled from the window of the jailhouse moments before he died; and, if he did cry out these words, what it is they meant at the time and what they my signify today. The most commonly quoted version of what is claimed to be uttered by Smith are, “Oh Lord, my God! Is there no help for the widow's son?" Nested within this is the claim that those words comprise a Masonic distress alarm, and the theory here is that Smith was sounding it in an attempt to call into action his Brethren of the Mystic Tie to rescue him from the clutches of the Carthaginian crowd. If so, no such Masonic brother of the blood oath came forward and his own blood, his brother Hyrum, would die before him, but die moments later Joseph did. The rest is history tied in mystery and may never be unraveled or revealed. In any case, from where I sit, there’s no such thing as a free mason.
There is little doubt, however, as to what happened next. Smith’s body was brought back to Nauvoo. Lucinda would view his spiritless corpse and mourn his passing along with Emma and Smith’s “first” family. She and George Harris would later divorce after she drifted from the LDS fold and the Mormon body politic which, under Brigham Young--the university’s namesake, and the campus on which I walked with Lowry Nelson–would move on to what would become the State of Utah. Harris, who went wide and far west for Smith would not follow Young and would fall from favor. What happened to Lucinda is not completely understood. She may have moved on to St. Louis, which is where her daughter–one of the two children and the orphans of (or abandoned by?) Captain William Morgan--may have lived. There she may have joined the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity and worked as a nurse before her death. But, maybe not. Who may be with whom in the afterlife, and if the Morgan-Harris-Smith Affair carries on there, is anyone’s guess.
Bringing this all back to more current times, in 1979, a book entitled, The Mormon Mirage: A Former Mormon Tells Why She Left the Church, was written as an expose’ (expositor?) of the faith by Latayne Colvett Scott (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan). Many issues are discussed in this book, not the least of which is a mention of how “dark-skinned people” were viewed–is this particular “Mormon Mirage” a superior or inferior point of view--and documents the ethical challenge to the church hierarchy made by Lowry Nelson via his letter to them and subsequent article published in The Nation. I do not remember why, but the subject of Lehi came up in my conversation with Lowry Nelson as we ambled down walkways on the BYU campus five years before The Mormon Mirage was printed; whether it was about the Book of Mormon figure of Lehi or the Utah town named in his honor, I forget. Not knowing how it was spelled, I mentioned to Lowry that there was a Lehigh (Valley) in Pennsylvania. Smiling at my observation, he went on to relay an old, mildly anti-Semitic, or at least stereotypic, Jewish joke known to old Utahans on this very subject. To the best of my recollection, it goes something like this, “A Jew was at the train station and asked to buy a ticket to Lehi. The clerk at the desk questioned, “Is that for the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania or the Lehi in Utah?” The Jew responded, “Which is cheaper?”
Torah, Torah, Torah Curiously, Jews and Mormons--and almost exclusively both groups--refer to those outside of their respective faiths as “gentiles,” and there is the LDS belief about one or more of the lost tribes of Israel finding their way to the Americas as being some of the indigenous Native American and/or First Nation tribes. Curious, to Jews Mormons are gentiles and to Mormons, Jews are gentiles.
“I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” –Grouch Marx
Also curiously, during the time I was reworking this essay, I came upon the following red magic-markered graffito on May 11, 2004, in Flagstaff, Arizona, at the Butler Road on ramp:
Jesus saves along with 2 million other Jews
I suppose this statement could be considered derogatory, as in: What would Jesus do if he went to buy a train ticket to Palestine, would he end up in the Holy Land, or in Palestine, Texas; whichever is cheaper? But, after looking at it from all sorts of perspectives, this message really could mean almost anything.
I happened to find this "Jesus saves..." graffito during a trip from Las Vegas through Arizona to New Mexico on the way to do some fieldwork for Lockheed Martin–the same outfit contracted by NASA to put their space shuttles up and deliver them back down to Earth in one piece. Now, while there apparently were neither any Mormons nor Freemasons nor the Anti-Christ aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia that first day of February 2003, as I head from Las Vegas toward Yuma, among the seven astronauts who are the pilots and passengers, there is a Hindu, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, Baptist, Episcopalian, Charismatic Christian, and a Jew.
Also on the spacecraft is a small and historic Torah--the Jewish Bible (aka Five Books of Moses) written in Hebrew on a long scroll, in which is contained the story of the Prophet Elijah, including his run-in with king Ahab and his blazing of a contrail into the sky. This particular Torah, the first ever to orbit the Earth, would either fall back to the ground or, likely as not, be consumed in the conflagration that the Columbia, in part and parcel, becomes, upon reentry from the heavens. If the sacred scroll did not burn up, it has yet to be recovered. But, even if it did not survive among the bits and pieces of what did hit the dirt that day–perhaps even in Palestine, the small Texas town on which several pieces the shuttle debris that did not burn did rain down--it has an amazing story of its own in addition to the stories inked on its parchment. For, even if the little Torah did not come back through the flames to Earth from on high, it did make it out of a burning hell on Earth--Bergen-Belsen, one of the infamous World War II Nazi concentration death camps. It is from Chapter 3 of Malachi, which was also inscribed in that and in all Torahs, which comes,
“19 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. 20 But unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings;”
So, too, in the Book of Mormon comes the following curiously similar passage from 1Nephi 22:15:
“For behold, saith the prophet, the time cometh speedily that Satan shall have no more power over the hearts of the children of men; for the day soon cometh that all the proud and they who do wickedly shall be as stubble; and the day cometh that they must be burned.”
Now, the astronaut who carried this Torah aboard the ship Columbia was the Jew, Col. Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Air Force; the first of his countrymen to go into space. A child of a Holocaust survivor–his mother Tonya Wolferman somehow avoided the ovens and survived the hell that was Auschwitz–Ramon was given the Torah by a man by the name of Yehoyahin Yosef. A fellow Israeli, Yosef, as a teenage young man, carried the pocket-sized scroll out from the gates of Bergen-Belsen in 1945, which had been smuggled into the camp a couple of years earlier by Simon Dasberg, the chief rabbi of Holland. Dasberg, who along with many thousands of other Dutch-Jewish inmates–most notably, Anne Frank--did not leave the camp, but did use that very Torah to secretly officiate over the bar mitzvah Yosef when he was thirteen behind the barbed-wire fence that confined them and many other deported Dutch Jews; an ethnic group to which I can trace part of my roots via the Diamants and a branch of my family tree I have come to discover was neatly trimmed by those Nazi bastards–the same side as is my Uncle Louis Diamant, who was Lowry Nelson’s one-time son-in-law. Yosef went on to become a professor of planetary physics at Tel Aviv University and, with respect to his connection to the shuttle Columbia, was the designer of the experiment in which Ramon took part while in space, involving the movement of dust particles from sandstorms in the Sahara Desert. It was during their collaboration that, when Ramon visited Yosef to discuss the experiment, that same little Bergen-Belsen Torah–perhaps as a mantle taken up by Yosef from Rabbi Dasberg–was passed.
[Author’s Note: On June 21, 2003, the summer solstice, on the southbound shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway (Cal-1) at the Cal Poly State University entrance, I originally read, but did not log down the hitchhiker messages on this pole. I came back at the end of the day’s research and was compelled to do so as a faithful researcher, as much as it sickened me to do so. I share it here because somehow it seems apropos:
KKK I love jews barbecued [drawn a block-type swastika]
FTW SWP [initials stand for “fuck the world” and “supreme white power"]
Interestingly enough, though, the “Adopt-a-Highway” sign adjacent to the pole on which this fucked up message was inked, proclaimed that this stretch of the PCH was being sponsored by the King David Masonic Temple. Also interesting, at least to me, of the few thousand hitchhiker inscriptions I have gleaned from the side of the road over more than two decades of seeking them out, although there are several swastikas, I can count on one hand the number of comments directed to or about Jews either of a defamatory or a chauvinistic nature. Not so, in my experience, with bathroom graffiti. Just what these observation mean, I cannot say. What I can say is, fuck the wretched antisemiticannibalistic bastard who wrote that crap and his supremely pathetic white-colored glasses-wearing cohorts through which they all view the world and for which their sign would be to "Adolpht-a-Highhitlerway."
Now, the first and last names of the keeper of this Bergen-Belsen surviving Torah, Yehoyahin and Yosef, are respectively also the names of two biblical figures: Yosef, or Joseph, being the son of Jacob and Rachel, and also being the Christian name of the founder of the Mormon Church; and Yehoyahin, or Jehoiakim, being a king of Judah who reigned about 600 BC(E). It turns out that neither King Jehoiakim, nor his son Jehoiachin, who succeeded him, were considered very good rulers or, for that matter, in good stead with the Lord. In fact, as is told in the Second Book of Kings–the same place as can be found the Elijah “chariot of fire/mantle” episode–the elder of the two kings became a lackey for the contemporary Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, and the younger was in charge when Jerusalem was sacked soon after he “succeeded” his father; at which time the Jews were held in bondage in what is present-day Iraq.
And with respect to perhaps the most famous graffito of all, and to the contemporary Babylonian father-and-son kings, it was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, who received the mysterious “handwriting on the wall” message of mene, mene, tekel upharsi, interpreted for him by his captive, Daniel, to imply that his reigning days were numbered and that the scales of justice were to be tipped by the heavy thumb of Cyrus and the Persian Empire—present-day Iran.
Thus, it could be said here, that this was one of the events documented by Nephi in his book in the Book of Mormon, when he is told by his father, Lehi, as to why the Lord told him to take his family, and then that of Ishmael’s to follow, out from Jerusalem before it would be destroyed–claimed by Mormon historians and theologians to have also occurred just around 600 BC(E).
It also turns out that both Yehoyahin Yosef, who between his liberation from the death camp and earning his doctorate in astrophysics, and the father of Ilan Ramon, Eliezer Wolferman–who fled the rise of Nazi domination for the Holy Land, aka Zion, in the 1930s—would fight for Israeli independence soon after Hitler blew his psychopathic brains out from his maniacal skull and onto his cold concrete bunker walls--or so the story goes, and I choose to believe it. Now, although it is not likely that Yosef knew Wolferman, both men would at least have become comrades in arms, although likely not members of a group some called terrorists, others patriots, known as Lohamei Herut Israel. In Hebrew this means “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”; which went by its initials in Hebrew, which just happens to be LEHI!
And so from a light pole taken from the US-101 South on-ramp in Sunnyvale, California, at the Lawrence Expressway comes the following graffito:
Jeff ✡ Jewish Power Mala and Jimi
And there is one more set of facts worthy of note with respect to the life of Ilan Ramon. In 1980, he attended the F-16 Training Course at Hill Air Force Base, which just happens to be located in the Utah, just north of Salt Lake City and in the beating heart of Mormon culture. Using that training, the following year he was one of the pilots who bombed out the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor being built by the French near Baghdad in what was called Operation Babylon! One of the planes he flew in his career was the also French-built bomber, the Mirage. Likely, when Ramon flew it, it was a superior Mirage. The word mirage, by the way, is of French derivation.
It may be interesting to note here that there is a place called the Mirage, a superior-quality hotel and casino resort, which is located in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip. This Mirage, built by Steve Wynn, a Jew, in the middle of a desert land that is the adopted home of the Mormons in a town known worldwide as Sin City–no doubt in reference to the workings, tendencies, and allure of Satan and the Anti-Christ! Now, basically in the parking lot of the Mirage, another casino-hotel was built by Wynn–the Treasure Island. In 2003, the same year as the Columbia disaster, this south seas sailor-pirate-themed resort opened a new outdoor attraction in the shadow of the Mirage entitled The Sirens of Treasure Island (abbreviated as “ti”). Essentially a free, open-air T&A exhibition, The Sirens of ti show involved the scantily-clad acrobats dressed as sirens attracting unsuspecting seamen in perfect choreography, to their ecstatic doom. Four times nightly. Must be exhausting for one and all. Viva Las Vegas--where my trip today began.
“Green in the greenless waste, Palms in the shadeless void, Adrip with the dew of dreams, And all with a breath destroyed.” –The Mirage, from Desert Ride and Other Poems, Lowry Nelson, ca. 1915
Desert Ride and Other Poems, 1982 (C) Lowry Nelson
Bend in Space Time In the process of doing my hitchhiker graffiti research this fateful Groundhog’s Day Eve, February 1, 2003, before driving through the Yuma area, I go west on I-8 across the Colorado River and through its neighboring Winterhaven in the southeastern corner of California. It turns out that I find myself at the exit for the Old Fort Yuma Casino (a.k.a. Paradise Casino), which is on the Quechan (Yuma) Indian Reservation.
The name “California” is believed to come from the first Spanish conquistadors, based on an early 16th Century Spanish novel, The Adventures of Esplandián, about a treasure-filled island inhabited by dark-complected Amazonian-type women who, in sirenesque, mermaiden form, would lure men into their domain to become impregnated by them, and then send them to their deaths. Now, guys, do we really wish they all could be California girls? It was in this area that, in 1540, Spanish Captain Hernando de Alarcón sailed as far up to from the Sea of Cortes in an attempt to resupply the Coronado expedition on its quest to find the land of Quivira in which was said to be Cibola, the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Both Alarcón and Coronado ultimately failed at their respective missions for the same, singular reason; for what they sought was individually and collectively unattainable–there was no shipping lane up the Colorado and there were no such golden cities or treasures up from Mexico City. So, all points of going points north were moot. Old Fort Yuma, which even on a good day being a God-forsaken US military camp, was constructed here near the confluence of the Colorado and Gila rivers.
And, speaking of heat and devilish chills, the very first graffito I plucked off a light pole on this trip came from the first I-8 west on ramp in Winterhaven, which read,
The cell phone killed the hitcher They used to pick us up for someone to talk to. Now they call a friend NY to here 16 days 6-24-2002 going to San Diego 115F HOT C. Manson
Old Fort Yuma was built at a place that was previously called Yuma Crossing. In those old days it was the best choice to get from one bank of the Lower Colorado River to the other. The fort was built to protect those Anglos willing to take the gamble to cross it, not from the rage of the water, but rather from the rage of the Quechan and other local Yuman tribes who were none too happy with how the land and resources they felt were theirs were being divvied up and their being cut out of the deal in the process. The fort is now a place for posterity and for tourists. And the Quechan, who also remain, have taken a different tact from days of old. They now lie in wait on the California side of the river, getting some payback from the Anglo travelers who take a less-physically treacherous route by passing over the I-8 Colorado River Bridge from Arizona, only to take a financially more-costly type of gamble–a la the Quechan-run casino. Paradise losers.
But, not at the time knowing the history of the place, I make it from one side to the other without thinking twice--either about crossing the river or stopping at the casino. The only gamble I am taking is in being on the sides of the same roads with cars whizzing by and that guys with names like C. Manson may be hitching down one of them–ok, so I know he couldn’t be the C. Manson, but still…
I travel east past the northern reaches of a massive Imperial sand dune system and as far west as east of El Centro, finding very few messages before hanging a U-ie back to Yuma and Winterhaven; a town, true to its name is this winter’s day a weather haven with the temperature in the high seventies. But, as documented by this C. Manson in his graffito, it apparently Winterhaven can also be a “Summerhell.”
Very late in the afternoon I roll into the small Arizona desert crossroads town of Gila Bend, where I stop for the night. But before that, between there and Yuma to the west, I find myself at a “routine” traffic stop on I-8 being questioned by a US border patrol agent as to where I was born and if I am an American citizen. With all the extraterrestrial goings on during the day with the space shuttle and the superior mirage, maybe it is fitting that I be quizzed as to whether I might be an alien!
That evening in Gila Bend, I ate (I-8?) dinner at a place on Pima Street--the town’s main drag--called the Outer Limits Restaurant; a diner that is attached (docked?) to a funky little motel called the Space Age Lodge. This simple complex of buildings was conceived, designed, and built forty years earlier by the now long-deceased Leo (or Al) Stovall; a man who, among his many other life pursuits, loved the idea and supported the quest of space exploration. Although independently owned and operated when first opened, the Space Age Lodge is now a part of the Best Western chain. But the astronautical theme is still pretty much intact. In fact, there is the replica of a space ship constructed on the roof of the motel office and murals of astronauts in action painted on the restaurant and motel office walls. The restaurant serves basic, down-to-earth roadside fare–weightless watchers, I guess. I do not recall, however, seeing Tang listed amongst the beverage menu choices.
I find it quite either ironic, coincidental, or apropos to be sitting that very evening in this place with its space-explorative-themed history and decor, while debates in a whirlwind swirl about and beam over radio and TV news broadcasts and blast through cable lines with experts--seasoned, new, and naive, alike--itemizing the issues regarding the need for manned versus unmanned space exploration and experimentation missions. It is also quite clear to me on which side of this argument Mr. Stovall, the inspiration behind the design of the Space Age Lodge, would have found himself. And I would be standing right beside him!
Had the mantle of space travel been passed to those willing give of themselves and to take the risks and burdens to do so, such as someone named Morgan–Barbara Morgan–who, perhaps, as if standing that day by the Florida landing strip on which the Columbia would never touch down in the manner of Elisha at the river, as is written in 2 Kings upon his witnessing the fires of Elijah’s passing into Heaven,
“2:12 And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces. 2:13 He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;”
Named for the dramatic S-curve in the adjacent Gila River—a hydrologically ephemeral desert tributary to the mighty Colorado--Gila Bend is also the location of where the historically ephemeral Mormon Battalion stopped to camp late in 1846. A force of an estimated 500 able-bodied LDS men, the Mormon Battalion was offered up to the United States government for its war effort with Mexico by the then church leader and successor to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, at the urging of the then US President James K. Polk. Under the general rule of “timing is everything,” it just so happened that at the onset of the Mexican-American War, a Mormon envoy was in Washington, D.C., lobbying and negotiating with the feds to provide his people with some sort of official protections these believers believed they needed from the gentile mobbery and vigilantism–physical defenses which, from an LDS point of view, had been sorely absent in their earlier experiences in Missouri and Illinois. So, when Young was visited in Iowa by a US Army representative dispatched by Washington early in the summer of 1846 to secure LDS support for the military in its campaign against the Mexicans, the Mormon leader capitulated. The result was Young’s call for recruits to his brethren and the mustering of what history now knows to be said Mormon Battalion. They gathered on the Missouri River at a place now known as Council Bluffs and marched under and enduring, at times, some horrific physical conditions. They would reach the Pacific Ocean several months later without ever having had to fire a shot or point a knife blade at a single Mexican cabeza.
All this occurred just at the commencement of the great Mormon migration to Utah’s Great Salt Lake Valley–what the Seneca might call their canandaigua, their own “chosen spot.” The catalyst for this exodus was, of course, the 1844 killing of Joseph Smith in Carthage. And, between his murder and their muster, the Mormon faithful had pretty much cleared out of Illinois--as they had of Missouri and Ohio and New York before--and were scattered about prairie of the Iowa territory. The Mormon Battalion, which was in no small part made up of members of the former Nauvoo Legion–the same group charged with putting the screws to the Expositor printing press--marched from western Iowa to southern California on a route that, at least segments of which, would soon after become much of the famed Butterfield Stage Route, later the lesser-known Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, and eventually what is now I-8.
Now, although Pima or Maricopa Indians, and then the Spanish and later the Mexicans, had at one time or another inhabited the area now called the Gila Bend, the 1846 Mormon Battalion encampment there is said to have been the Anglo seed from which this modern-day crossroads town would grow. From the writings of battalion member George Washington Hancock comes:
“The Gila river was finally reached and on the 21 of Dec....On the 22 they marched 10 miles more and arrived at the Pima Indian village. The 23 and 24 were spent in the village of the Maricaopa (sic) Indians [likely south of present-day Phoenix] and Christmas day was spent marching from the Maricaopa (sic) Village and camping Christmas night again without water. The next day they marched 23 miles and encamped near the Gila river... After their brief rest the Battalion continued upon their march down the Rio Gila...”
This “brief rest” is said to have occurred at what would become the town of Gila Bend, Arizona, which is downriver and on the bottom side of the S-shape in the watercourse from Phoenix, which is at the other end of the S and which, before it was named for a bird which rises from the ashes, was known as Maricopa, for its pre-Columbian inhabitants.
A couple of weeks before this sojourn on the banks of the Gila, and their previous days’ earlier stays with the Maricopa and Pima, on December 6, 1846, just north of what is now the Arizona border with Mexico, the last of the only two (according to most reports) Latter Day Saints to die on this trek–both of a battle only with Madre Nature, not with Mexicans–teamster Elisha B. Smith, succumbed to some or another ailment. This event was documented in a poem by the uncle of George Washington Hancock, Levi W. Hancock--one of the former Nauvoo Legionnaires--in which he poignantly penned,
“The wind blowed higher and approached us so cold As we listened to the howls of the loathsome roving wolves. Then the groans of the dying was heard in the camp And the cold chilling frost was seen on the tents Then the thoughts of our hearts can never be told As we listened to the howls of the loathsome wolves. Then we dug a deep grave and buried him there All alone by the grove, not a mark to tell where.. We piled brush and wood and burnt over his grave, As a cheat for the red man and lonesome howling wolves”
This isolated grove, it turns out, is just down the road from Coronado National Memorial on the Arizona-Mexico border. At the time in Mexican Territory and now in the US, Elisha Smith was actually laid to rest closer to the actual route the Coronado expedition took in 1540 than where this memorial to the conquistador has been erected. Now, Elisha Smith died in the chill night air and was not observed going in a whirlwind to heaven with horses and a chariot afire; although he was in life a driver of teams of horses. This Elisha was, however, sent off by his fellow battaliants and Mormons who, wrapped in the mantle passed on by him and another Smith, Prophet Joseph Smith, by setting his grave afire!
The Mormon Battalion would later go on down the Gila to the Colorado and to Yuma Crossing. From this point after fording the Colorado River, Hancock tells us,
“...the march became the hardest and the most trying of any they had experienced, both for men and beasts. Here were the heaviest sands, the hottest days, and the coolest nights.”
The US soldiers manning the Yuma army post constructed post-Mexican-American War, too would lament about the harsh conditions of this desolate, treacherous dry land, which would become the southeasternmost corner of the state of California.
The Mormon Battalion went on to complete its mission, first past the Imperial Dunes and on to San Diego and up the Pacific coast. At war’s end, some were said to be at Sutter’s Mill when gold was discovered; others, on their way to join up with family in Salt Lake--who, by then after pushing through their own hell with handcarts all the way from Iowa--and by some accounts are said to have come upon the ruin and tragedy and “winterhell” that had been the Donner Party.
But, bending back again to Gila Bend. Although it certainly might be fitting for me to do so--what with all that is wafting and falling through the air and abuzz on the airwaves today regarding the ruin and tragedy that had been the Space Shuttle Columbia–I do not spend the night at that quirky (quarky?) little Space Age Motel. Instead, I choose to go a ways down the Pima Street “strip”--the straightaway in the Bend, which, I suppose, like a mirage, is also something of a topological twist of dimensions–and registered to stay at a motel called (the) El Coronado--named, coincidentally, for the famed earlier explorer of the outer limits of the space of his day–the kind of terra-firma-incognita. After checking in and settling into my room at an establishment where the elements of charm and quaintness appear to be in a running battle with the forces of fray and decay, I pull out my cell phone–that same space-age device which, according to the magic-markered claim of C. Manson on the light pole at the Winterhaven on-ramp, “killed the hitcher”–and call home to Maureen and the kids so they will know I am off the road for the night and am safe.
Something to Crow About With hunger directing my next move, I amble back down toward the middle of town and into the Outer Limits. After a forgettable meal–not necessarily a bad thing with respect to diner road food--I walk farther down into the innermost limits of Gila Bend to the local grocery store. Directing that move is my mission was to find gold: a pint bottle of José Cuervo-Gold, that is. It seems that when I go on little solo adventures such as this, or on an overnight camp out, I’m partial to having a little Cuervo as a campfire companion or designated driver of my subconscious. It takes me back to some of those responsibility-free times of my unburdened youth. After picking a bottle (pico de Cuervo?) off the shelf, and cradling my brown-bagged cargo as a running back would a handoff, I carry the aurelian hooch back to the El Coronado. Finally, Coronado got some gold—but not a conquistador, instead a motel bearing his name; although it came in liquid form as Cuervo from Mexico, not in nugget form from Quivira or Cibola in Arizona. Curious that Coronado, in Spanish, comes from the verb coronar, to crown.
Now, about José Cuervo: Sr. Cuervo actually was a real person, and the progenitor of several descendants of Josés of la familia Cuervo (keeping up, so to say, with the Josés). José Antonio de Cuervo, in the mid-1700s, secured a nice piece of property in southern New Spain which is now in the Mexican state of Jalisco. And it was in his and the latter day Josés’ honor, that the famed tequila brand was named.
Cuervo is the Spanish word for “crow.” So, since José is Spanish for “Joseph” or “Joe,” José Cuervo is, “Joe Crow.” Cuervo is also Spanish for “raven,” and since ravens are, basically, large crows of the Corvidae family (la familia Corvidae?), this isn’t surprising. Crows and ravens are black-feathered birds, both of which belong to the same genus, Corvus, a word meaning “crow” or “raven” in Latin--the romance root of the Spanish language. In fact, the scientific name for the common raven is Corvus corax; the species name corax is Greek for either “raven” or “croaker,” onomatopoeically for the sound the bird makes. (So, it could be said that a juvenile Corvus corax is a “Greco-Roman nestling.”) Further, the genus Corvus derives the name from Latin curvus, meaning "curve" or “bend”; the raven being so called due to the curve of its beak (a la a Roman nose?). And here I am in Gila Bend—the curve in the Gila River. In Spanish, the common raven is commonly called Cuervo común. A crow or raven--take your pick (pico de cuervo)--appears as an element in said Jalisco Cuervo’s family crest; an image of which is included in a stamp on the label adorning each bottle of the tequila capped by the Cuervo Company. Thus, the raven, in the case of bottles of José Cuervo, truly is a “tequila marking bird.” And, maybe I am really sitting here ready to self-administer mouth-to-beak (boca-a-pico) imbibition of José Cuervo, or what could be called “raven-black gold,” in the El Coronado.
Returning to the subject of hitchhiker graffiti for a moment–the catalyst for all of this discussion, or perhaps obsession, anyway--on a total of three separate occasions between 1996 and 2003, I found the following intriguing avian-related nicknames of hitchhikers written on three light poles, so far only on I-5 in northern and central California,
The Phoenix and Blond Raven
Included in these graffiti are “89 Tour,” indicating that they hitchhiked at least in 1989, and the letter “A” encased in a circle. Now, this is a symbol commonly used to indicate someone of the “Anarchist” (not “antichrist”) bent. But, just who this pair of thumbers may be, I do not yet and may never come to know. Perhaps they will rise from the asphalt and identify themselves. What can be said of these freeway free birds of a feather is that the former is also the name of the Arizona city where the Gila River begins its bend to Gila Bend near the confluence of the Salt River. And of the latter of the hitchhiking pair, the term “blond” in American Spanish is “guero” or huero”; so, “blond raven” would be “cuervo guero.” And, with blond being the term for golden-colored hair, “blond raven” could very well be interlingually interpreted as “cuervo gold!” ¡Viva intetrlingual!
It is also curious here about the Prophet Elijah, in the First Book of Kings. After his initial meeting with King Ahab when he warns the king of an oncoming drought because of Ahab’s leanings toward going Ba’alistic–but long before the show down up on Mount Carmel–Elijah is told by the Lord to take refuge in the land of Gilead (not Gila) by a tributary to the river Jordan where he would be brought sustenance by ravens!
“17:5 So he went and did according unto the word of the Lord; for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before [east of] the Jordan. 17:6 And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.” --1 Kings
Now, there is a great debate among biblical scholars, theologians, semanticists, and whoever else feels the need to jump into the fray, whether the Jewish and Christian translations or transliterations of this part of the Bible are true to its intended meaning. In Hebrew, the word phonetically pronounced oreb in this passage, can mean “raven,” and is generally accepted to be so. However, it can also mean “someone of dark skin”; specifically, in this instance an “Arab” and, perhaps even more specifically, a “Bedouin Arab.” If it were actually the latter, Elijah would have been the first documented person to partake of accommodations with room service at a “Bedouin breakfast!”
And, no discussion about ravens can be complete without mention of the ultimate tale in which this creature is anthropomorphically featured: The Raven, written by Edgar Allan Poe the same year Joseph Smith was dragged from his Carthage jail cell to meet his maker—and which was published the following year.
First, a bit about Poe. Born, lived, and died all within the first half of the nineteenth century, he spent all but the last days of his final few years in the New York City area. Some of this time he stayed in Greenwich Village, but most of which he reside in a small house in the then bucolic The Bronx; a modest home known today as Poe Cottage, where he moved to in a vain attempt to restore the health of Virginia, his ailing and failing wife.
“Here lived the soul enchanted By melody of song; Here dwelt the spirit haunted By a demoniac throng; Here sang the lips elated; Here grief and death were sated; Here loved and here unmated Was he, so frail, so strong” --Poe's Cottage at Fordham, John Henry Boner, ca. 1889
This understated abode lived in by an oft-quoted writer, is still standing and is not very far from where I grew up and attended the high school dedicated to De Witt Clinton; the man whose name was connected to the Morgan Affair and was emblazoned in red-on-black on the book bag I lugged along on my first-ever hitchhike. It turns out that Herman Melville, too, lived for a time in Greenwich Village and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery--also in the Bronx. Because both Poe and Melville, as well as several other celebrated American writers, lived in Greenwich Village in the mid-nineteenth century, it has been said that this location was lain with fertile soil on which their collective creative labor and toil has resulted in the rest of us being blessed with a cornucopia of literary fruits. Such an observation was not lost on an author and literature historian of a later generation, Perry Miller, who wrote the book entitled, The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene.
Miller was completing this book the year of my birth, 1955. Speaking of my beginnings, I was born in a hospital somewhere uptown from Greenwich Village and downtown from Poe’s last abode, Melville’s final resting place, and De Witt Clinton High School. The name of that hospital from which I blasted off into the world is Columbia-Presbyterian! Of possible interest here is that the “Columbia” from which this hospital gets its name, is from Columbia University, the origin of which was Columbia College--Kings College before the American Revolution--from which, in 1786, a young De Witt Clinton was a member of the first graduating class! Curiously, with respect to the second part of the hospital’s name, the Smith Family of Palmyra, New York, had become Presbyterian just prior to the first of Joseph Smith, Jr’s, claimed visits by those on high--possibly some maintain by the Lord, Himself--at which time he was given initial instructions that would lead to his founding of the LDS faith. From that divine event, which occurred in 1820 and is known to Mormons as the First Vision, come the following words from Smith:
“When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, "Never mind, all is well--I am well enough off." I then said to my mother, "I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.””
Interestingly, but for some reason not fully documented, Lowry Nelson’s grandfather, Andrew Nelson (nee Nielsen), a Danish immigrant who came to Utah in 1853 as a convert to Mormonism and who rose to become a pillar of a rural LDS community with four plural wives, was eventually excommunicated. Soon after his fall from saintly grace, he converted again; this time, ironically, to Presbyterianism. He did not, however, change his marital status(es) with his faith change and it is not altogether clear which, if any, of his wives converted with him. Andrew Nelson would come to be known by the locals as the "Presbyterian polygamist." A rather lyrical moniker. Also interesting here are various passages from Melville’s Moby-Dick, such as in Chapter 10, when Ishmael compares his own Presbyterian view of spirituality with those of his fellow shipmate, Queequeg, a dark-skinned south-sea islander and supposed pagan, for which Ishmael states,
“I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth- pagans and all included- can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?- to do the will of God? that is worship. And what is the will of God?- to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me- that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship.”
And later, in Chapter 17, in his further discourse on comparative religions, Ishmael continues about Queequeg,
“All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all- Presbyterians and Pagans alike- for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending”
It is odd that Queequeg is seen as a pagan, as this chapter of the book is called The Ramadan, and concerns his observance of the Islamic tradition of fasting. But since Muslims do not worship idols, there is a bit of confusion as to his religious leanings, which is noted in Chapter 12, describing him as the son of a King with cannibalistic tendencies and “...an old idolator at heart, he yet lived among these Christians, wore their clothes, and tried to talk their gibberish.”
It is likely no coincidence that in Chapter 19, entitled The Prophet, the two men--Ishmael and Queequeg--are warned on the Nantucket docks by a shabbily dressed old salt of their mistake at having just signed on with the Pequod and its captain named Ahab. The stranger talks of his concern for their souls, intimating, but not outright stating, that they were doomed. When asked his name, the old sailor replies, “Elijah.”
In any case, the interconnection here with questions of faith, of twists of fate, of Ishmaels and Elijahs and Joes and crows and bends in the desert, and of the Antichrist comes in the words of Poe’s The Raven:
““Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!-- Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted-- On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore-- Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!” Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.” “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore –”
A bit more now about Poe before evermore about The Raven. Following the death of his wife, Virginia, in 1847 in that small house in The Bronx, Edgar continued to write there and two years later went on a lecture tour to Virginia--Richmond, not his wife). Strangely, Poe was found dead in Baltimore en route to The Bronx from this tour, ironically ending up with Virginia--his wife, not Richmond. There is much speculation about just how Poe left this world. One of these is not all that different from the events leading up to and soon after the 1826 Morgan Affair. It seems that Poe was about to publish a story said to be a satire on Freemasonry with the odd title of Never Bet the Devil Your Head. Whether the FAM was involved is only speculation and, as was Captain Morgan’s controversy-laden exposition, Poe’s story was published posthumously. Curiously, Poe is buried where he died, in Baltimore, in the Presbyterian Cemetery. On his tombstone are the words, “Quoth the Raven: Nevermore.”
A bit more now about the Poe poem. This “balm of Gilead,” while likely meant by the author as a metaphor for a metaphysical salve for the oozing spiritual wounds of the poem’s tormented narrator, in the physical sense this substance is an actual plant-derived extract that, like myrrh, was a valuable trading commodity in biblical times. In fact, balm of Gilead comes into the picture biblically in Genesis 37:25-28, at the time when the jealous brothers of Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, have him literally holed up down in a pit and decided to sell him off to a passing merchant caravan which was headed from up in the hills of Gilead and into the depths of Egypt. As it is written,
“And they [Joe’s bros.] sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh...”
So, instead of having their brother’s blood of only one color staining their coats and coating their hands, for some twenty biblical units of silver, they handed Joseph over to these Ishmaelites and into Egyptian slavery. Now these Ishmaelites of Gilead were said to be Arabs and the direct descendants of the very same Ishmael who was the product of the union of Hagar and Abraham (or Abram), who would also be the great-granddad of Joseph and his pit-tossing siblings. So all those involved on both sides of this transaction of the flesh and bone must have shared with each other some of the same blood of Abraham pumping through their veins, as well. So, in this “fratri-sale” off to Egypt went Joseph along with balms and myrrh and other trading stuffs from Gilead.
[Curiously, and as admonished in the Bible in various passages and in various interpretations, I found this graffito on a light pole on July 27, 1997 at I-40 West, in Kingman, Arizona, at Beale Street/US Route 66:
Don't go down into the ways of Egypt
This, I can only assume refers to Isaiah 31:1, in which is admonished, "Woe unto them that go down to Egypt for help," to include their horses and chariots; in an effort to warn that one should look to and trust only in the Lord, not the might of man and of flesh.
And as it turns out, the Prophet Elijah of days long after Joseph sorted his life out was said to be of the Tishbites; a people who, like the Ishmaelites, also settled in the place from which the precious balm mentioned in the Bible and in The Raven received its name–the land of Gilead. So, it could very well be said that if the word oreb has not been accurately translated in the Jewish and Christian bibles from the Hebrew, and they were not black-plumed ravens, but instead were olive-skinned Arabs, who brought nourishment to Elijah when he was up the creek called Cherith, it would most likely have been these descendants of these very same caravanous Ishmaelite traders from Gilead who hauled Joseph to Egypt, and who later supplied sustenance to Elijah. After all, Elijah was in the Ishmaelites’ neighborhood and they certainly would have had the knowledge of the location of this isolated watercourse that Elijah was directed by the Lord to camp out by during the drought that was meant to wake up King Ahab as to his errant, pagan-trending ways.
And, about the raven. Is, as Poe suggests in his work, this creature a prophet and divine in nature or is it an agent of the devil or the very Antichrist incarnate and “implumate?” Such questions have been bandied about by many cultures throughout the millennia. The raven--el cuervo–is considered significant various pagan or polytheistic cultures. This may be due to the raven being an opportunistic diner and will feast equally as well on carrion as on any other fare–animal or vegetable--and thus, has been associated with death. They don’t call the call of the raven a “croak” for nothing! Even in the Bible, the raven is viewed with ambiguity. On one hand, it was considered clean enough to deliver food to Elijah. But, on the other it is unclean--not kosher–and not fit to be consumed. The epitome of, in the case of Elijah, not biting the hand—or in this case, crow’s feet-- that feeds you!
In the Bible, the raven was once upon a time viewed as being worthy of trust--above the dove. In fact, the first mention of the raven in the Bible is when, before he sent the dove to find out if there was any land, ho, Noah initially sent forth from the ark the raven to accomplish this task. The raven-- some actually call it Noah’s Raven--did not return from its mission, however, and may have lost itself in a frenzy of scavenging on the smorgasbord of carnage left in the aftermath of the flood. Perhaps it had ark-fever from forty days and nights of being cooped up with the likes of doves.
Whatever the error it made in that forty-first day’s judgment, as a result, the raven lost its most-favored status as a creature to be trusted–at least in a biblical context. While this part of Noah’s story is not very well remembered, even most atheists know the next part of the tale which has Noah dispatching the dove, which dutifully seeks out and with loyalty returns with evidence that the great flood was past and out there somewhere was some terra that was more firma than palus. Ironically, there is a constellation, Noah’s Dove, honoring this event. The name of this grouping of heavenly bodies is known more by its Latin name for dove: Columba. The name of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which comes from the synonym for America, originates from Columbus, the creditor for the discovery of the Americas and whose name originates in the Latin and follows into Italian for “dove!” This constellation, made up of seven stars, is also on the insignia of this shuttle mission’s patch. Six of the seven stars have the standard five points, with the seventh being the six-pointed Star of David.
Graffito found on a light poleon 9/8/96, at the US-101 South, Redwood City, CA, at Holly St on-ramp:
Roman Jews Rule ✡
Another aspect of the raven and ships on the water and the Bible brings us back to the tale of Moby-Dick. In the epilogue of the book, Melville writes of the whaling ship Rachel that scoops up the self-described outcast, Ishmael, who ends up as the lone Pequod survivor, as he bobbed and drifted on the sea. Rachel of the Bible was the mother of Joseph; the same Joseph sold by his jealous brothers to the Ishmaelites for a life of slavery. A latter-day, Hebrew/Christian-named Joseph--the founder, first leader, saint, prophet, and controversial martyr of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith–strangely enough met his death and prepared against his will to meet his maker in a town called Carthage. What about this name, Carthage? Well, it originates with the Phoenician-Arab-founded city-state of Carthage situated on the North African coast now a part of modern-day Tunisia. The Phoenicians, a great ancient mariner culture, sailed from Tyre in what is now Lebanon to put down stakes there about 1000 BC(E). It seem that in the first Punic War (“Punic” being derived from “Phoenician”) waged in the third century BC(E), the ancient Romans used a device in its sea battles with their Carthaginians foe called a corvus--a massive ship-mounted spike fashioned in the shape of a raven’s head. Curiously, Melville’s Ishmael equates the whaling centers of Nantucket and then of New Bedford to that of the Phoenician’s North African settlement of Carthage in the following passage in Chapter 2 of Moby-Dick:
“As most young candidates for the pains and penalties of whaling stop at this same New Bedford, thence to embark on their voyage, it may as well be related that I, for one, had no idea of so doing. For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me. Besides though New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling, and though in this matter poor old Nantucket is now much behind her, yet Nantucket was her great original- the Tyre of this Carthage;”
When talking about whales and the biblical references and ships, the mention of Jonah and his sea journey cannot be avoided. In a fruitless attempt to disregard his promise to the Lord, Jonah went to the port city of Joppa and boarded a ship sailing to a place called Tarshish. Instead of making his destination, he ended up–not unlike Poe’s raven--“tempest tossed.” Then, not unlike Ishmael and Hagar into the wilderness, willingly cast off by the ship’s crew–in the hopes of appeasing the ire of his God--Jonah wound up in the GI tract of a whale (great fish), where he not surprisingly sought forgiveness from on-high. Joppa, which happens to be Jaffa in present-day Israel, was in the time of Jonah a Phoenician port just down the Mediterranean coast from Tyre! It, too, was from Tyre that Solomon’s contemporary, Hiram, king of the Phoenicians–the same folks who founded and defended ancient Carthage–shipped the famed “cedars of Lebanon” south to Joppa for use in the construction of the Temple of Solomon. Now, Hiram and Solomon and the temple are all fundamental elements in Freemasonry ritual and lore. Interestingly, along with Joseph Smith, his brother Hiram (Hyrum) was assassinated in Carthage.
Convolutedly woven into the tale of Moby-Dick, in Chapter 9 is the sermon based on the story of Jonah delivered as a warning to Ishmael and other seamen by the preacher in a New Bedford church at service Ishmael attended just before his signing on with Captain Ahab and the Pequod. In his sermon, the preacher uses his creative, ordained, homiletical license to conjecture--but states as gospel--that when first boarding the ship in Joppa, Jonah was looked at with suspicion and scorn by the sailors–likely as not Phoenicians and, thus may, like King Ahab, have been worshipers of Ba’al--whose comments to each other of Jonah included,
“Joe, do you mark him; he's a bigamist;"
Here, Melville chooses a curious combination of the name Joseph with plural marriage. And, whether he was prophetic or not, or it is pure coincidence with his use of the Jonah story and his interaction with the God of the Hebrews, as the root of the name “Columbia” does from Latin, the name “Jonah” is derived from the Hebrew word for “dove!”
But back to pagan deities and beliefs, with respect to the corvus and the raven’s head. There is the British or Welsh or otherwise Celtic god by the name of Bran. A divine spirit who was mythologically akin to the raven, Bran is said to have instructed that upon his death, his head be severed from his body and buried under White Mount–the place which would be the future site of the Tower of London and where, within its walls, many more heads and torsos of the less-divine would part ways. With respect to Bran, he also specified that his subsurfaced face was to face to France so he could keep an eye on them and protect his lands from being jumped by those Frogs. It is further claimed that the real or mythical King Arthur later had Bran's head exhumed from what was supposed to be its final head-resting place. It seems that His Majesty Arthur wished to be seen as the sole protector of England and, thus, remove any perception from his subjects’ heads that their security rested on anyone’s shoulders but his and not that which once was on Bran’s. Hedging his bets, however, Arthur did allow ravens to live on the Tower grounds. Thus, the legend has grown—to this day--that if the ravens leave the air space of the confines of the Tower of London, the structure will crumble and will take the monarchy and kingdom to rubble along with it. To ensure this does not happen, The Royals employ a raven keeper at the Tower to ensure that at least a half-dozen ravens are present on the grounds at all times. Although he is required to be counting these overgrown crows, it is not clear whether, among his other duties, the raven keeper is responsible for raising Bran’s.
With respect to another angle of Arthurian legend in concert with Celtic lore, once again comes King Arthur’s sister, Morgan (le Fay), and her progenitorial Irish protogoddess, Morrigan. As with Bran, both Morgan and Morrigan were associated with Corvus, the raven (a.k.a the battle crow, Morrigu). Some of the myths surrounding both claim they could shapeshift into the corvine form, take to the skies, soar above and watch over battlefields, and act in the role of an auspice or augury to in determining who would live and who would die. Although, in the case of Morgan le Fay (or Fata Morgana), this function was a far cry–or croak–from those sirens and mermaids who enticed and tricked sailors at sea to the castles of ice in the sky to their watery doom. In either case, be she fish or fowl, another part of Morgan’s mythic repertoire was her being on hand to guide those warriors passing from the land (or the ship deck, in the case of seamen) of the living to that of the dead–not unlike the role of the Greek mythological god, Hermes. This is not a far leap–or crow hop–of paganic faith since, as carrion feeders, ravens were never far from a battlefield to take their opportunistic pick and peck of the flesh of the fallen. It’s no wonder that a flock or gathering of crows and ravens are commonly called a “murder” and an "unkindness" or a "conspiracy," respectively. You might think that they would have just added a “d” to “crow” to make it a “crowd” or an “n” (as in corona), to make it a “crown” or a “k” to make it a “crowk (croak); and for raven, or a "c" for "craven" or a "g" for graven; but, nope, for the crow, it's murder, and for raven, unkindness or conspiracy will do.
“I have a secret that you shall learn. The grasses wave. The flowers glow golden. The goddesses three low kine. The raven Morrigan herself is wild for blood.” --Norma Lorre Goodrich, Medieval Myths. New York: New American Library, 1977
As part of Jewish ritual Seder meal of the Passover, an observance which itself has blood--not to mention latter-day blood libel hoax about the blood of Christian or Muslim children used in the preparation of the matzo--but, blood as an essential element of its story for marking doorposts. And at the end of the meal, a single extra glass of wine is decanted in the last in a series of four cups of wine poured and consumed for all participants seated at the Seder table that evening. This special glass, however, is left out overnight for the Prophet Elijah, in the event he swings on by the abode. The vessel holding the Passover wine is known as Elijah’s cup. As a child, I wondered just how he could get to all those Jewish homes diasporadically scattered about the world and, at each, down all that wine in one night. As I got older, my wonder extended to how he could navigate back to Heaven after sipping from the many tens of thousands of the cups filled in his honor. Hopefully he has a designated chariot driver or fiery sky pilot. In any case, it must be some bender!
For me, after the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew had come apart as it passed over “...that Heaven that bends above us...” (as “quothed” from The Raven), here I sit this Saturday night pondering the events of the day in Gila Bend’s El Coronado motel room with a bottle of the fermented juice; but, not of a purplish Concord grape prepared for Passover in a kosher tradition by Manischewitz, but of the blue agave (Agave tequilana) from which tequila is distilled in a wholly different, yet very traditional manner by José Cuervo. And this night, for me being different from any other night, the only compadre I have in sight is Joe.
The alcoholic drink, tequila, which comes from the southern Mexican village of the same name, means in the native (Tiquila or Tequila Indian) language either “rocks (or stones) that cut” or “lava hill.” These terms, in turn, come from what litters the mountainside from ejecta or flows over the millennia from the Tequila volcano--a peak that silently looms above the town. The cutting rock is glossy-black obsidian, an igneous glass strewn about the slopes on which the agave plant grows and La Familia Cuervo first gathered to make tequila centuries ago. In fact the ebony-iridescence of obsidian exhibits a sheen similar to that of the raven's feathers and both the stone and the bird are associated with Morrigan and Morgan le Fay. So, it may be no coincidence that the José Cuervo and his kin are so intertwined with the manufacture of tequila.
And this generational “gathering of Cuervos” to make tequila brings up the even older, mystical ritual of the “counting of crows (or ravens)” as they gather. Aside from an old English adage claiming that performing such a task is simply a complete waste of time--which is likely why the rock group Counting Crows took its name--there is another aspect of this practice which relates to a folkloric omen or to witchcraft or to some form of foretelling. This is captured in various rhymes on the subject, three versions of which are,
“One raven bad news, Two ravens mirth, Three ravens a wedding, Four ravens a birth, Five ravens for riches, Six ravens a thief, Seven ravens a journey, Eight ravens for grief, Nine ravens a secret, Ten ravens for laughter, Eleven ravens for love, Twelve ravens good day after.” –Raven Omen, Anonymous, 18th Century
“One crow for sorrow, Two crows for joy, Three crows for a girl, Four for a boy, Five crows for silver, Six crows for gold, Seven crows for a secret never to be told.” --A Gathering of Crows, Anonymous, date speculative
“One crow for sadness, two for mirth; Three for marriage, four for birth; Five for laughing, six for crying; Seven for sickness, eight for dying; Nine for silver, ten for gold, Eleven for a secret never to be told.” --A Gathering of Crows, Anonymous, date speculative
But back to the more modern day and, perhaps, no less mystical counting of Cuervo–in this case jiggers, not birds. It has to do with squaring off with the tequila in the song, Ten Rounds with José Cuervo. Performed by Tracy Byrd, halfway through the count, the lyrics of the song declares,
Whether Byrd–a fitting name for this purveyor of these cuervo-counting lyrics--was aware of it or not, the counting of Cuervos already had a lengthy and ambiguous tradition well before these words came around to him. But, which one best applies here, the adage of wasting time or the omens of good and ill? Maybe some of both. With José Cuervo, and tequila in general, it’s always hard to say.
So here I am, face-to-face, or at least mouth-to-mouth—mine to the bottle’s--with a pint of José (two cups a’ Joe-crow?) in my Gila bend motel room. But, not a word is spoken. Any talking is only coming from the in-room television. And most of that is lingering news and commentary about the now dubbed Columbia Disaster.
Either unaware or not consciously thinking about any of this, all I know for sure this night is that I proceed to remove a flimsy plastic cup from the motel bathroom sink and, after ripping it free from its cellophane-wrappered protective sterility, crack and twist the cap from the mouth of the bottle and pour me two fingers worth of José. So it is. And here I am, staring at amber reflections and refractions in that cup in my motel room down the street from where I gathered my Cuervo and had dined amongst the frescos of ex-terra explorers at the Outer Limits Restaurant in the town on the bend of the Gila. And it turns out that the word “gila” is actually a “Hispanicized” contraction of the Yuma description of the river as “salty running water.” And geochemically, and “josecuevocally,” that “salt” in that water is a form of lime!
So, Gila Bend brings together corvus (to bend) and gila (a flowing salty liquid), where I’m bending my elbow with Cuervo, a friend of mine, just neatly, however, with neither a salt shaker nor a lime to slice. So, I raise that cup and make a toast and take a swig, one shot to each of the seven astronauts who have perished in a chariot of fire earlier today, as their mortal mission and journey on the Earth and above it has ended. Some might say in a blaze of glory--which in my estimation is far better than most, who go out in a glaze of boring. In any case, it’s all Houston’s problem now. As the Cuervo, the crow--my Saturday night compadre--flies, so with him I do soar. In fact, I do not remember drinking all that tequila. But, then, whoever does?
All I know is that in morning when I awake, just as the seven crew members of the Space Shuttle Columbia are gone, the plastic cup is empty and at least seven shots-worth (maybe ten) of José Cuervo-Gold tequila are missing from the bottle. Staring at it, I ask, “Did you throw me a curve in the bend, last night, mi amigo? Tell me if it’s so, Joe.” But, the bottle stands silent sentry on the nightstand; open-mouthed, but tight-lipped. As others have found over and over over many, many years and times trying, I realize that José Cuervo never speaks of the goings on of the night before. A better drinking partner and a more loyal wingman, there may very well never be.
I also realize that this new day, February 2nd, is Groundhog Day. And while I am not sure if the groundhog saw his shadow, if he did, does that means that residents of Winterhaven should expect there being six more weeks of it being hotternhell? Curiously, Groundhog Day, the movie, was released a decade earlier by Columbia Pictures.
Bless the souls and the families of those brave astronauts, and...
Author’s End Note #1: On this particular research trip, I took more than two hundred hitchhiker messages from a total of thirteen on-ramps along Interstate 8, spanning over one hundred-fifty miles from a point west of Winterhaven, California, to the east end of the town of Gila Bend, Arizona. Curiously, there were a few messages that were eerie when viewed in the dark light of the Columbia disaster. These read,
I-8, East, Yuma, AZ, @ US-95:
Hitchhiker Guide to Life the Universe + Everything Lighting the dark path of ignorance with the torch of knowledge
Proverbs 14:12 [Actual quote from the Bible:
There is a way “There is a way which seemeth right which seemeth right unto man, Unto a man, but but the end thereof the end there leadeth[?] are the ways of death”]
If you push something hard enough it will fall over Fudd’s Law