Messina: A Day At Sea

The Straits of Messina

messinaAt dawn, on the second day, we are somewhere off from Naples, headed south toward the Straits of Messina. The toe of Italy, where we leave the  Tyrrhenian Sea and are out into the open Mediterranean. Sicily on the right, the Italian mainland, Calabria, on the left.

Right: Satellite Picture: The Straits

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Rome in a Day


I was, we all were, dead tired. It had been a long night helping that 767 get safely across the Atlantic and the European continent. We couldn’t, however, go aboard ship until late in the afternoon. They, Norwegian Cruise Line, had to get 2500 people unloaded from the last cruise, do a thorough clean-up, etc. before on-boarding a new group. So, we all got onto busses and went into the city to do Rome in a day.

My first two impression were:  this looks really Italian! If I had been asleep and suddenly waked up, I would have known, this is Italy … Rome. The houses, the cars, the umbrella trees were everywhere.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  … and … the ruins are all mixed up with the day-to-day city. I checked it on Google Earth: there really are apartment building just across the street from the Coliseum. The Vatican is only a short walk from soccer fields and tennis courts! It was a little disconcerting to look out and see six-lane highways crowded with Vespas and Fiats running alongside two thousand year old aqueducts.

One of Many Churches

The thing in Rome that I most wanted to see was not the Vatican or the Coliseum. It was the Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti: the Spanish Steps. The widest staircase in Europe, 138 steps between the Piazza di Spagna at the base and the Trinita dei Monti church at the top. Built between 1723 – 1725, at the behest of Pope Clement XI.

The Keats-Shelly house is at the bottom, just off to the right. Where John Keats lived, and died in 1821. The movie Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, in 1953, and later The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone made The Steps famous to American audiences.

But: it is the Guy Clark song Dublin Blues that does it for me: 

I’ve been to Ft. Worth, hmm, I have been to Spain
And I have been too proud to come in out of the rain
I have seen the David, hmm, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too
And I have heard Doc Watson play the Columbus Blues

Forgive me all my anger, forgive me all my faults
There’s no need to forgive me for thinkin’ what I thought
I loved you from the git go and I’ll love you till I die
I loved you on the Spanish Steps, the day you said goodbye

Well, I wished I was in Austin, hmm, in the Chili Parlor Bar
Drinkin’ Mad Dog Margaritas and not carin’ where you are.

 Spanish Steps

I loved you on the Spanish Steps … I think I’ll write a story one day. How many plot lines do you think a writer could come up with?

That Saturday, 10 November, was perfect: sunny and warm. There was a wedding on the landing half-way up the step while we were there. A festive atmosphere prevailed. Catholics from the world over: the green and yellow of Brazil, shamrocks from Ireland. Nigerians and Indians ( as in India ) proudly displayed their colors.  The only negative was the crowd … and the street vendors.

With the fading sun, we left The Steps, found the bus and motored north along the coast up to the port at Civitavecchia. The Norwegian Jade was waiting. Boarding was flawless; they, the crew, had done this before. By just-dark we were away from the pier. If Tuttle and I had dinner, I don’t remember it. By plumb-dark we were in the open sea, sailing south parallel to the Italian coast. I was in stateroom 9652 sound asleep. It had been some thirty hours since I had been stretched out horizontal in Manning, South Carolina.

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Unexpected: Cyprus, Turkey and More

The call came out of the blue.

“When are you gonna be able to walk again, Honea?” It was my buddy Bob Tuttle.

We had had several discussions re: doing the El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Northern Spain, from Bilbao along the Atlantic coast to Santiago de Compostela. One-hundred miles on foot.

“Can you be ready by November 9th?” he asked.

My first thought was, “S—! I’m having hip surgery a week from now.”

My response was a little more measured. “What ‘cha  you got in mind, Tuttle?”

It turns out he had a tour coming  up, needed an assistant; somebody to keep the stragglers rounded up. Twelve days in the eastern Mediterranean: Turkey, Cyprus, Israel,  and Egypt. The Greco-Roman ruins at Perge, the Wailing Wall, the Pyramids.  Every night on a Norwegian cruise liner. A big-ass ship. He does these treks all the time, leads tours to the Holy Land, Rome. Traces the steps of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, in Great Britain: those Methodist founder guys.

“You get to sleep every night on board ship,” he said. “… Even skip a day if you need to. Or, stay on the bus if you get tired.”

Not exactly my style.

Off Alyana, Turkey

Off Alyana, Turkey

“Let me make a phone call,” I said. “I’ll get right back to you.”

“I have to know before the day is over,” he said. “Got to let ’em know you ‘re coming.”

The next call was to Southern  Orthopedic & Sports Medicine, Mt. Pleasant. “Can I take a seven hour plane ride, go on a ten day cruise in nine weeks?” I asked. “… Eight weeks after surgery?”

The lady laughed. “Of course,” she said. “Have at it.”  They even sent me a card certifying that I have a stainless steel hip joint, to show security when I set off the alarm at airports!

So we set the wheels in motion.  Get a new hip in place. Recovery: the first week was a bit tough. Rehab: the therapist fired me after four weeks. “You don’t need me anymore,” she said. I did a lot of walking on the flat, level streets in the neighborhood in the weeks leading up to embarkation. Then it was a drive down to Charleston on 9 November, catch a flight to Washington Dulles International.

It always amazing me re: the people we encounter day to day as we make our way through this life. The lady in the aisle seat next to me from Charleston to Dulles was a pilot: on her way to pick up a FedEx plane bound to Frankfort, Germany! She does this three time a month. Then, on the long flight from DC to Rome my seat-mate turned out to be a person who lives less than two miles from my daughter in Garner. She and her husband were scheduled to be on the same cruise that my group was on.  We bumped into each  a couple of time in Alyana, Turkey or maybe Alexandria, Egypt.

Flights from the US to Europe are LONG ! … It is dark the whole way. I have learned that, if possible, to sit in an ‘A’ seat. For the first several hours you can see the lights of Boston and Portland. Then the fishing villages along the New Brunswick and the Maritime Provinces coast line. I, however, was in a ‘G’ seat, didn’t even get to see those scattered lights in the late autumn night. I was on the open ocean side.

After that it is just long and dark until dawn, or pre-dawn, begins to break over Europe. We flew over counties Kerry and Cork in southern Ireland, then Land’s End, Cornwell, England in the dark. There were occasional lights: Schull and Clonakilty in County Kerry, and Truro and Falmouth in Cornwell. We crossed the European mainland coast at Normandy: socked in, couldn’t see a damned thing.

It was that way across the European continent; across the Alps and on to the Mediterranean coast line near Nice and Monaco. Somewhere between the coast line and a point east of Siena the skies cleared. Off the right wing, to the west, was Elba and Corsica.

Then, finally, we moved in over the Italian peninsula, looking out toward the  Tyrrhenian Sea. There was the coast road. Miles and miles of green houses. Italy looked, to me, as it is suppose to look ( whatever to hell that means ) … the architecture, the umbrella trees, the green hills rolling down to the sea. Rome lay just ahead.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

Look for a day-to-day account of the trip over the next several days, weeks.

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2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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A Dangerous Man

A couple of pages from  the work I am doing now. … This is the kind of thing that makes writing a lot of fun ! … TEH

A Dangerous Man

Newport News                                                                                                                  June 1942

 The establishment was a holdover from Prohibition days, a speakeasy. The bar ran along one wall. Half-a-dozen or eight stools and three tables. There were two pool tables. Poker was upstairs.

“Any place a fellow can find a game?” Celo asked the bar keep.

The man pointed to the two pool tables just past the half-wall. A couple of twenty year olds had a game going. Neither of them was very good. They were just bouncing the balls around.

“Cards,” Celo told him. “Something with a deck ‘a cards.”

“You a high roller?”

“Just a fellow likes a friendly game.” Then: “Maybe enough money to make it interesting.”


“Ha,” the bar keep snorted. “You don’t exactly look like the friendly type.”

Celo laughed to show he wasn’t offended. He was not as big as people remembered him, thought he was. What they really recalled later was his eyes and his hands. The eyes were dark without being either brown or black. They never looked away.

His hands and fingers never stopped moving. It wasn’t a quick, nervous movement. It just never stopped: finger tips across the tabletop, brushing across the buttons of his shirt. If he had a beef with you he didn’t think about was he gonna hit you in the mouth. Other men thought about it first. Celo didn’t think about it, he just hit you in the mouth. The fact that you might strike back wasn’t a part of it. If you did, that was okay too. Most men didn’t. Strike back.

 He followed  two shipyard workers up the set of inside stairs, the poker game. Twenty minutes later he took the first available chair. He laid a stack of bills on the table, covered them with his elbow.

Somewhere around midnight he realized there ain’t been a queen-‘a-hearts played all night. Somebody’s holdin’ a queen. His blood pressure went up a notch. He breathed deep.

“Bring me a Scotch whisky,” he told the cigarette girl.

The dealer and another player folded early. Three men pushed money onto the table. “Hit me,” they said, asked for another card. The man to Celo’s left doled out cards, one at a time. The pot grew. The only sound was from the jukebox in the bar below and the occasional scrape of a chair leg.

It’s gonna happen now, Celo thought. And it did.

Which one of ‘em ‘s got that queen?

Across the table the uniformed soldier laid his cards down on the table, took out a railroad bandanna, wiped his face.

“I don’t know why I play with you fellows,” he said. He folded the handkerchief, put it back in his pocket. “If I wasn’t shippin’ out I’d just take my money and go home. … Wake mama up and fool around a little.”

He wiped his face again. “I’ll raise you one,” he said. Pushed more money onto the table.

That army dude’s got it. I know a Dago in Ponchatoula can pull this off, Celo thought. This hillbilly asshole ain’t got a clue.

Celo checked his hand, knew he didn’t have the cards to see it through. He added bills to the pot. “Raise you one,” he said.

The third player matched.

The sergeant threw a five onto the pile of money. He had not looked again at the cards he held.

“Shit,” the third player cursed. Threw his cards down.

“What you got?” Celo asked. Looked straight at the soldier. “I wantta see what you got.” He matched the five. Laid his cards on the green felt. Kings over eights.

“Maybe I can play with you fellers,” the sergeant said. He laughed.

He reached out to rake in the pile of money in the middle of the table. The ice pick flashed out like the strike of a snake. Drove through the sergeant’s hand between the index and middle metacarpal bones, through the assorted bills, and into the cheap wooden table.

“Don’t touch that money, soldier boy,” Celo said.

The sergeant stared wide-eyed at the still quivering pick penning his hand down to the table. The blood beginning to flow from underneath his palm onto the money, the green felt. The pain had not yet registered.

Celo turned over the soldier’s cards. Three queens and a pair of fives. “Looks like you got a extra queen there,” he said. “Been savin’ it all night.”

He pulled the pick from the man’s hand, wiped it twice across the sergeant’s uniform blouse, wiped the blood away.

“”You might want to pour some whiskey on that hand,” Celo said. “I ain’t sure where that pick’s been lately.”

He swept the pile of money from the table, left the loose change, stuffed the bills into his pocket. He walked down the stairs, through the bar and out onto the late night street. The lights reflecting off the rain-wet pavement. Celo lite a cigarette, blew smoke into the damp night air.

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A Pig Pickin’ …

Word just came in last night, via email, that Belle Bridge Books wants to use one of my short stories in their upcoming Sweet Tea Anthology, May 2012!

The only guide lines were:  twenty or so pages, Southern, and food oriented. Easy enough, right? I  pulled out an old unfinished piece, Funeral Food, which is good … the story, the concept. But I couldn’t get the humor to work right.

I wound up going back to one of the early chapters in A Confluence of Rivers, my finished novel.  It needed editing to make it work as a stand-alone short story, and to build up the food aspect. Three day later, lord help us all, we are having a pig-picking!

Here is a sample:  


By noon there was a crowd. All of Cut Bank came. The cooked boar hog was moved to just off the veranda at the store, set on a hastily built plank table. The keg of beer on the shaded end of the veranda.

“Has this food been blessed?” the young preacher asked.

“No,” Papa Thomas said. “Would you do the honors, reverend.”

“Let’s read some verses from the gospel of St. Matthew,” the preacher said, opened his bible.

There was an uneasy silence.

 When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities.

he read …

 And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.  When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.”

 But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

 And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.”

He said, “Bring them here to Me.”  Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes.

So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children

The roasted pig were carved up. Francis sliced off slabs of ham and  shoulder. A ring of people three deep circled the table. Food seemed to materialize from wagons and buggies, from canvas sacks hooked over saddle horns. Roasted potatoes, pots of cooked greens, corn bread, whole bake yams … a cauldron of baked beans.

“I’ve had beef jerky was easier to chew,” Otis Butterbaugh announced to the gathered crowd. He held a carrot sized chunk of pork shoulder in his left hand, filled his mug from the keg. He glanced to be sure the young preacher wasn’t watching too closely.

There were pies, a pound cake with the requisite pound each of butter and sugar, and a dozen fresh eggs. The four cups of flour seemed almost superfluous.

“We better cook us up another batch ‘a these peanuts,” Mr. Otis told JJ in the deepening afternoon. There was a steady line of takers for boiled peanuts. When the second round was dumped onto the plank floor, Torie, standing in the doorway, straw broom in hand, asked, “All right, now, who’s gonna sweep up these hulls?” There was no shortage of volunteers.

Earl Dupree’s seventy-seven year old mama, down on the Row, said, “Toughest meat I ever eit.” She stripped another thumb sized piece off the hanging hind quarter, worked it into her nearly toothless mouth. They would ate pit roasted pork for the better part of a week.

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Chicken Wire Juke Joint

Hello, all …

haven’t posted anything in a bit. … this is the first couple of pages of a short story i’m working on. i like it so far …

A Chicken Wire Juke Joint

It was a chicken  wire junk joint alright.

“You  furnish the towels?” Leonard asked the man, looking at the chicken wire,  knowing we was gonna need ’em. “We gotta have our own?”

“Folks  don’t throw bottles much they still got beer in ’em,” the man said.  “Mostly it’s just empty bottles.”

“Anybody  messes up my guitar I’m gonna bust ‘im,” I said.

The man looked  at me. “We heard you was a real bad ass,” he said.

He looked at  Leonard. “How come you put up with a man’s gonna bust payin’ customers?”

Leonard laughed. “Ain’t nobody else picks like Jimmy,” he said. Then: “I recon we
got to have our own towels?”

“I’ll round you up some bar towels,” the man told Leonard. “Park around back. Close  up against the door. We git a crowd, we ain’t got enough spaces.”

We watched the crown start gathering. Pick-ups with rifle racks. Arkansas plates, come over from West Memphis. Some from Mississippi, Olive Branch and Senatobia. Red
necks, all of ’em. But that was okay, we was too: red necks.

“Goddamn, it’s gonna be a show tonight,” I said. Took a deep drag on a Chesterfield.
“Look at all them farmers, them truck drivers.”

“Long as they got real money,” Leonard said.

The man had sent out for some burgers. Real burgers, not that Daisy Queen shit. I’ll say that  for him. Real burger with fries, washed it all down with some Dixie Beer he had in the back.

“And it’s some lookers too. … That redhead yonder.” I pointed the Chesterfield  toward a Crown Vic convertible just pulled up, hadn’t even parked yet. “I might try her on for size.”

The dance floor was built up a step higher than where the tables were. Would hold, I figured, thirty couples. Thirty-five, thirty-eight for a slow dance. We didn’t plan on  playin’ much slow stuff, just one at the end of each set. Maybe two some time around one-thirty.

The little stage for the band was another step higher, the chicken wire stretched between the front of the stage and the dance floor.

Leonard started plinking on the piano around 8:45, just dark. Two guys all the way in the back corner threw a couple of Miller bottles against the wire, laughed. Hell, they weren’t even drunk, pissed yet. Just part of the goings-on, getting in the mood.

The fellow with the Crown Vic and the red head pushed his way up front, dropped a couple ‘a  twenties on an occupied table against the wall. Suggested to the early arrivers
already sitting there that they consider giving up their spot. The guy at the table suggested that the fellow with the twenties go fuck himself, stood up, took off his Razorback cap.

His wife, however, grabbed the Andrew Jackson’s, grabbed the Razorback’s arm. “This
is four football tickets,” she said. “A week’s groceries.”

“Goddammit, Rose. You the one wanted to git here early. A seat up front.”

“I know,” Rose said. “I know …” She pulled him through the growing crowd.

I played the first line of Move It On Over … Hank Williams. Move over little
dog, the big dog’s moving in
. The red head winked at me. Sat down, touched
her hair, swayed her shoulders side to side. Set of nice boobs moving underneath a buttoned up white blouse.

“This is  gonna be fun,” I told Leonard. “What you wantta play first?”

We gave them a twelve minute version of What’d I Say. Heavy on music, light on lyrics.
Ray Charles would have been proud. I could smell the sweat. It was gonna be a hot night, more ways than one.

At about minute number 10 into What’d I Say the red head caught my eye. She was dancing, facing the bandstand, looking across the Crown Vic guy’s shoulder. Looking
straight at me. I gave  her a look, held that Martin guitar out at arms length, pointed the neck straight at her, played a riff. She licked the sweat off her upper lip. That set ‘a boobs was lookin’ nicer all the time.

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