My mama cut the above picture, “The End of the Trail,” a painting by James Earle Fraser (1918) out of a magazine and tacked it to the wall over the wood stove in our kitchen when I was a kid. I remember, because it was the only picture hanging in our house. It had turned brown, with the edges curled up from the heat, and it always made me sad to look at it. I didn’t have the words then, but if I had, I would have described it as lonely, solitary, forlorn, and even forsaken.
One of my many regrets in life is that I didn’t take more pictures. I could have filled albums, drawers, and boxes. When asked why I wasn’t photographing some famous site or significant event, my response was always: “I’m taking the pictures in my mind.” Now I’m left with a mindful of pictures, but it’s not the same. There’s no “print” option in my mind. An actual picture, a hard copy in your hand, will make you smile, give you hope, or it can break your heart.
I’m not a hoarder – I just collect stuff: automobiles (18), books (2,500), wind-up toys (700), etc. I noticed today that I also have a “cruise book” collection, one from most every ship that I spent at least two years on – nine of them that I can lay my hands on. When a Navy ship goes on a long deployment, usually a minimum of six months overseas, someone, usually a junior officer, gets tasked with coordinating the production of the cruise book, which contains group photographs of all crewmembers by division (Operations, Engineering, Deck, etc.), photos of shipboard activities, and of ports visited. I was the editor of two, one in the Mediterranean, and one in the Pacific. With such books, you have a chronological and pictorial record of your life. You look at the early photographs, and you are young, ambitious, and optimistic; time passes, and you end up road weary, used up, and disillusioned – he rose like a rocket, and he fell like a stone.
Some gifted writers can paint a picture with words. The “Romantic” poets of the 19th century Keats, Shelly, and Wordsworth, for example, could compete with the most accomplished oil painters of the day in depicting a realistic and vibrant scene. Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” (1807) is a good example:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once
I saw a crowd
A host, of golden daffodils.
Personally, I prefer something a little more modern, as in “[Buffalo Bill’s]” (1923), by E. E. Cummings (ee cummings, 1894-1962), who referred to himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words,” and among the few other writers, besides some Shakespeare, that I can quote from memory:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive
he was a handsome man
and what I want to
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Some of the World War I poets, particularly the ones who died tragic deaths on the battlefield, could also turn out picturesque lines that would capture your imagination, particularly about the horrors of trench warfare. Consider these lines by Winfred Owen (1893-1918) in his “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1921):
GAS! GAS! Quick, boys – An ecstasy of
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime,
Dim through the misty panes and thick
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
Ironically, the title of this poem is from the Latin – “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” and Owen was killed in action in France on 4 November 1918, almost one week to the day before the Armistice was signed ending the war.
The controversial English fop, dandy, and libertine, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), is perhaps today remembered more for his quips (“I can resist everything except temptation;” “True friends stab you in the front;” and my favorite, as told to the customs official when he came ashore in New York for his first American theater tour: “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”), but his short novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890), tells of a beautiful but vain young man who recently had his portrait painted, and who then sold his soul to the devil to ensure that the portrait, rather than he, would age and fade. The wish is granted, and Dorian pursues an amoral life while staying young and beautiful. All the while, his portrait ages and visually records every one of his sins. As you can imagine, this comes to a bad end, and one of the morals is “don’t fall in love with yourself.” But you get the picture.
In fact, psychologists speak of something called the “Dorian Gray Syndrome” (DGS) which is the interplay between a man’s narcissistic tendency (timeless beauty), his arrested development (inability to psychologically mature), and his use of “medical lifestyle” products and services – hair restoration, drugs (for impotence, weight loss, and mood modification), laser dermatology, and plastic surgery – in order to remain young. Perhaps Wilde had it backwards when he famously said regarding human likeness: “A man’s face is his autobiography; a woman’s face is her work of fiction.”
On the other hand, there are famous writers who paint word pictures in every color of obfuscation. Consider this: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down the road and the moocow that was coming down the road met a nicens little boy baby tuckoo … His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.” Those, of course, are the opening lines to “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916), by James Joyce (1882-1941), one of the most important novels of the 20th century. It tells of the intellectual and religious development of Henry Daedalus, Joyce’s literary alter ego, as he wanders the streets of Dublin. According to Greek mythology, it was Icarus, the son of Daedalus, you will remember, who flew too close to the sun, drowning in the sea after the wax in his home-made wings melted.
Looking at the numerous cruise books arrayed on my kitchen table, a kaleidoscope of my life, and picking one at random, read along with me as I thumb through its black and white pages. I wrote the following descriptions of cities my ship visited in a Mediterranean cruise book I edited over 50 years ago. Can you picture them in your mind?
Barcelona, Spain. Always a favorite stop for Sixth Fleet sailors, it was a vibrant, moving, and intensely colorful city . . . its beaches, its parks and streets, its sunlit flower stands, its harbor, the bullfights . . . all are a mass of constant movement, changing and brilliant color, as quick and as bright as the swirl of a toreador’s cape. The colors were multiplied and reflected in the arching sprays of the many fountains that decorate the city, holding aloft their graceful, damp statues as part of the city skyline. A walk on the Ramblas under the branching trees . . . a plaintive guitar heard down a darkened street . . . a burst of gaiety in the night.
Genoa, Italy. The storied birthplace of Christopher Columbus . . . the strange combination of the modern and medieval merging at the intersections of narrow, winding streets and wide boulevards . . . Genoa, hemmed in by ancient buildings, carved doorways, wrought iron gates, majestic courtyards, crooked alleys, imposing Renaissance structures. Flowering ships, store-lined arcades, eternally flowing fountains, spacious grassy squares lent space to the city. Genoa today is yesterday and tomorrow, new buildings rising straight and square among the decorative and intricate shapes of past glories.
Naples, Italy. Napoli . . . as consistently Italian as any city in Italy . . . a noisy place, filled with the constant hum of the milling of the bustling crowds, the city of vendors, the boats at the great harbor. A crafty city, caught beneath the hovering shadow of once-fiery Vesuvius . . . a city of peddlers and children, equally wheedling, insistent, enticing, completely charming. The children, curious, tireless, playful, sometimes not quite clean . . . as expressive of the city as the peddler’s outstretched hand and his typical “Hey, Joe . . .”
Rome. Magical city of contrast – of spaghetti and ancient ruins, of vino and the Victor Emmanuel – St. Peter’s and a thousand raucous pigeons battling for attention in the huge square – the rich treasure of the Vatican, filled with marbles, tapestries, and the traditions of ageless centuries – the Forum, site of history almost lost in the huge, modern, industrial city that is Rome today. The entire city seemed a monument to the past, to glories long departed, in sharp contrast to the starkly modern buildings, beautiful modern women – the Catacombs, the Colosseum . . . these, too, were Rome, a memorable stop, a picture postcard view of centuries transformed.
Split, Yugoslavia. Split . . . Once a small, dim fishing village, then capital of an early Roman province, later under the shadow of the crescent and star. . . today, Split is a hammer and sickle on the break water, greeting us at anchorage with a visual reminder of the city’s long political upheaval. Here in this Yugoslavian city, we were the tourist attraction. . . the people paused. . . stared. . . moved on. The children were friendly, as children everywhere are, bridging the gaps between civilizations. It was a strange experience to be here, beyond the Iron Curtain . . . but we learned that people everywhere are pretty much the same, whatever the flag that flies overhead.
Istanbul, Turkey. City of mysterious sights and sounds. . . gateway to the Black Sea, its minarets rising straight and precise into the hazy sky. . . we remember narrow streets, antiquated trolly cars. . . the fabulous Covered Bazaar, filled with an array of glittering objects from the Orient and the Near East. . . St. Sophia. . . the beautiful Blue Mosque. . . where blue tiles and gold inlay merge into intricate mosaics of color. . . the Sunken Palace. . . the many languages and costumes of the milling crowds. . . the reminder of western civilization. . . even here. . . a modern Hilton Hotel.
Beirut, Lebanon. Beirut, commercial center, chief port, largest city, capital of Lebanon, Paris of the Near East . . . a city of confusion, of primitive, archaic clothes, customs, and buildings, set off by the ways of the western world. Hovels and ox carts, turbaned men with trays on their heads, ancient camel routes, a babel of sound . . . In sharp contrast to modern hotels and automobiles, wide highways, new housing developments, a smart, cosmopolitan society. The ruins of Baalbek and souvenir shopping were the greatest attractions, as well as the sense of another time, another place caught here in a modern East-West mixture.
Rhodes. The legend-shrouded isle of Rhodes turned out to be quite different from other Greek ports at which we touched. Of course, no one could visit Rhodes without hearing about the Colossus, huge statue of the Sun God, and one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Tradition says that the Colossus straddled the harbor entrance in such a manner that ships could come and go between his legs. In 224 B.C. an earthquake brought it smashing down . . . no trace remains today. But the story adds color to this breezy, sun-kissed island of the Aegean Sea.
Only pictures, “pour oublier il faut partir” – “but I will never forget, completely.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.