I was thinking how James Meredith, of integrating Ole Miss fame, said that “Mississippi was the most powerful word in the English language,” and this triggered a succession of Mississippi-related images in my mind, including the “Mississippi Bubble,” a speculative stock market disaster that plunged France into severe economic depression in 1720 and indirectly led to the French Revolution, and “Mississippi in Africa,” the account of freed slaves from Fayette who established the colony in Africa that eventually became the country of Liberia, etc.
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon of the mind as “train of thought” or “association of ideas” and generally agree that it is caused by such things as resemblance of ideas or objects, contiguity of time and place, and cause and effect. In this particular instance, I seem to have been fixated on the letter “M,” thinking not only of the Magnolia State, and the way we learned to spell it in the first grade (M I crooked letter crooked letter I crooked letter crooked letter I hump back hump back I) but also of the actor Peter Lorre’s breakout film, “M.”
The film is probably the most popular movie ever made in the German language (1932) as well as the first movie with the leitmotif of mood music and another even more curious connection which I will explain.
I suppose all that alliteration caused a discharge of several sympathetic synapses in my brain, because, most relevant to this column, I began to feel a need to unpack a few of the places I’ve been in my travels that begin with the letter “M,” which, all in all, makes me the happiest, friendliest psychopath you will ever meet.
Take Mauritius, for example, an island in the Indian Ocean. For the past several days, I’ve been closely following the fate of the Japanese cargo ship, Wakashio-Maru, which ran aground on a coral reef and broke up off Port Louis, the capital city, leaking more than a thousand tons of fuel oil into the sea. The ship was passing by close to land, apparently with the crew preoccupied with trying to get cell phone and internet connections, when it hit the reef (kind of like texting and driving but on a much larger scale). Many Japanese commercial ships have the word “Maru” appended to the name on the stern. It means “perfection” or a perfect circle in Japanese. Note the irony here, surrounded by such perfection, the crew’s negligence caused one of the largest oil spills in the history of the Indian Ocean.
Mauritius is a former British colony, so all the automobiles still drive on the left side of the road. This was very dangerous to me because, in an emergency, my instinct is to swerve into the right-hand lane. Port Louis used to be a refueling and liberty stop for ships headed to Diego Garcia, the small island base that we share with the British off the tip of India. It belonged to Mauritius until about 1965 and was always part of the “punchline” about what would happen to you if you messed up your career in the Navy: you would get sent to either Adak, Alaska, or to Diego Garcia for your next duty assignment.
Actually, it’s not that bad, just isolated – a little speck of land out in the immense ocean. It was mostly a base for our Air Force personnel my last time there. I was just passing through. I did know one guy who got sent there as punishment, and he deserved it. He was the XO (Executive Officer, the ship’s #2 and the captain’s proxy) of a destroyer I was on, and the power went to his head. He had a sign above his door, paraphrasing that famous line from Dante’s “Inferno,” supposedly the inscription over the gates of Hell: “Knock, enter, abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” which pretty well summed up his attitude toward everyone on the ship. Indeed, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton, a British historian of the 19th century said that, and not Machiavelli as many assume).
I also have a history with Midway Island in the Pacific. I was on the staff of an admiral who was in charge of all the ships and naval bases between the West Coast and Japan, and I got to accompany him on his annual inspection tours for three years. We would always fly in his private airplane, which went with the job, a converted P2V Neptune long-range reconnaissance plane. We were coming out of Hickam, in Hawaii, on that long leg to Guam, when one of our four engines sputtered and died. I happened to be up on the flight deck, and I had just remarked to the pilot that the plane was “pretty old,” having been manufactured in 1959, and this was about 1990. Lockheed built them from 1947 until 1978.
The dead engine didn’t seem to bother the aircrew, since they obviously practiced for such an event. Me, I was looking around for the life rafts, but we just diverted into Midway, which was a few hundred miles out of our way. What impressed me about the whole thing was the “power” of a Navy admiral. We landed about dark, dodging the ever-present “goonie” birds, a form of albatross, on the runway, and spent the night on the plane. There’s nothing on Midway but an airfield. By noon the next day, they had flown in a new engine from Pearl, removed the old one, installed the new one, and we back in the air to Guam. You won’t normally see that in the civilian world.
In Palma, Majorca, a Spanish island in the western Mediterranean, I once rode a donkey for several hours up a mountain to a former Carthusian monastery to see the last piano played by the famous composer, Frederic Chopin, the so-called “poet of the piano.” The old cathedral in Palma, Santa Maria, which dates back to the 13th century, supposedly has a piece of the “true cross of Jesus” among its religious relics.
Chopin’s piano is located in one of the monk’s cells of the monastery where he lived while composing some of his most famous works. It was also during this period that he was having a stormy affair with his muse, Amantine Dupin, a French novelist, whose pseudonym was George Sand, a famous example of gender bending. Some 300,000 music fans still visit the site each year, although the authenticity of the piano is now questioned. Hopefully, these fans are now coming by bus instead of donkey.
Those of us who live in the South have a definite “sense of place,” an identification with “home,” and so it was with Chopin. Although he died in Paris (1849), he had arranged for his heart to be removed, pickled in a jar, and buried in his native Warsaw, Poland. This heart, by the way, was the subject of a famous medical “checkup” in 2017 when it was exhumed and, according to an article in the American Journal of Medicine, showed that the composer died from complications of tuberculosis. One of his most famous compositions is the “Funeral March,” which you would recognize if you heard it.
Another favorite stop in the eastern Mediterranean was always the island of Malta, which is intriguing to most anyone with a sense of history. There’s evidence of civilization going back some 4,000 years, including occupation by the Romans, but the most famous inhabitants were the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller, a Catholic military order, who moved to Malta after Jerusalem was lost to Islam in 1251. When you walk through their old fortified castles, you feel as if you are inside the pages of an Umberto Eco novel like “The Name of the Rose.”
The defense of Malta was extremely important during World War II, as the Germans wanted to seize the island, then part of the British Commonwealth, and use it as a base to supply and reinforce their troops in North Africa. The island was literally under siege from 1940 until 1942 by both the Germans and the Italians. Winston Churchill called the island an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”
Malta was also the first place I ever had authentic British fish and chips, which is just fried fish and rather thick French fries. What took getting used to was the lack of catsup. As in England, the Maltese put vinegar on their fish and fries instead.
There are several places down in the Caribbean that I could talk about. Any time a ship on the East Coast comes out of the shipyard or has a large turnover in its crew, it has to undergo “refresher training,” which is usually centered at the Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), Cuba. Incidentally, I was on a ship that helped make up the so-called “Cuban Blockade” back in 1962, when we cordoned off the whole island to keep the Russians from bringing any more missiles to Cuba to aim at the United States.
This was pretty scary because nobody knew for sure what was going on. I was on another ship, entering the harbor at Gitmo, when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. That was even scarier.
If the crew in training is lucky, port visits in between instruction sessions are held at places like Port-au-Prince, Haiti, San Juan, the Virgin Islands, Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Martinique. While Montego Bay (the last place I was ever arrested … for walking on an active airport runway, long story), has a special place in my heart, Martinique was always my favorite: laid back, calypso music, palm trees, the whole island lifestyle. Unfortunately, either Martinique or Montego Bay could have been one of the legs of the infamous “Infernal Triangle” (“Infernal” means “of the devil”) which fueled the slave trade in the Americas and was the backbone of the United States economy almost until the Civil War.
It worked like this: a yankee entrepreneur with a ship, sailing out of, say, Newport, Rhode Island, or Philadelphia, would be bankrolled by investors and would sail to one of the slave entrepots in West Africa, usually carrying trade goods to sell, where he would purchase as many slaves as his ship would carry. He would then sail to one of the Caribbean ports, like Montego Bay or Martinique, where the white and creole sugarcane planters provided a ready market for his human cargo.
Selling his slaves for a profit, he would then load up on sugar, the local product, and sail for a port on the eastern seaboard of the United States, like Charleston, South Carolina, or Wilmington, Delaware, where the distillers of the most popular alcoholic drink of the day, rum, were located. Selling them his sugar for another tidy profit, he would head back to Africa for more slaves and repeat the process. Connect the ports on a chart, and you have the triangle. Since the average life span for a field hand slave in the labor-intensive sugarcane fields was usually two or three years, he was assured of a ready market.
Many of the rich and famous institutions back east today, including banks, insurance companies and universities, are now acknowledging that their initial wealth and endowments were funded by such an “infernal” trade, and, like Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, are taking steps to make up for their ill-gotten gains.
I’ve only touched on “M,” and it’s been a long haul during my life at sea, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, but it’s never too far to get there. You have to keep moving on. I’ve seen enough Road Runner cartoons to know what happens when you just sit on the “X.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby is a retired U.S. Navy captain. He was recently voted “Most Interesting Hattiesburger” in the 2020 FestivalSouth Best of the Pine Belt contest sponsored by Signature Magazine. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.