FIRST PERSON

Stories of nomads and monsters

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"My Santa, Langston Hughes"

By Ervin Dyer

My nephew Adame crossed the big sea this summer, traveling to Paris and La Rochelle, France, to study French and research immigrant Africans in Paris. He went there poor, hungry and dreaming of an adventure away from the States. He loved it.

Being enamored with the nomadic life of writer Langston Hughes, I was reminded by my nephew’s journey of the Paris travels of the American poet. Hughes arrived in Paris on a cold February morning in 1923. When he landed at the north train station with only $7 in his pocket — poor, hungry and dreaming of adventure — he would have been only a couple of years older than my nephew.

After two months, my nephew returned home. Hughes had managed to stay in the city of lights for a year, scratching out a living as a cook and a busboy and bearing witness to the emerging African-American presence in Europe.

For a Christmas gift, I thought my nephew would appreciate discovering this kindred spirit. So, I thought I should give him a copy of Hughes’ autobiography “The Big Sea,” where the writer details his stay in Paris.

Then a light bulb. Why not get Adame a French edition of the autobiography?

So, off I went to Caliban, an Oakland bookseller, in search of a copy of “Les Grandes Profondeurs.” They didn’t have a copy, but told me how to find one online.

“By the way,” the bookseller says as I prepared to leave, “if you’re interested in Langston Hughes, we have this??!!!”

“This” was sitting on a bottom shelf behind the glass counter, like a diamond in a jewelry store. “This” was a vintage 1949 edition of “ One-Way Ticket,” a volume where Hughes tried to not only write about black Americans but for black Americans, using a tone and idiom organic to the sounds and sights one might witness on a Harlem street corner.

It was in gleaming good condition, with the original plastic casing still blanketing the hard-cover book. An added gift: The book contains the illustrations of master artist Jacob Lawrence and a photograph of Hughes taken by the legendary Gordon Parks. Hughes, Lawrence and Parks: a triumvirate symbolic of the bright communal spirit that Hughes believed made Harlem special.

Then, there was this: Inside is the swooping, smooth calligraphy of Hughes’ signature. It flows on in a trail of green ink. Signing in the distinguishing green ink became a practice for the poet sometime in 1949.

“Especially for Evelyn,” it reads, “Sincerely, Langston Hughes.” And, at the bottom, the date and place it was signed. Brooklyn, May 3, 1958.

When Evelyn had purchased the book, it cost $2.75. I won’t reveal what I paid. But it was worth it.

The moral of the story: When you do something good, like buying a book for a studious nephew, sometimes you’re rewarded in ways unimaginable.

I feel as if Hughes was looking down on me this holiday season, a literary Santa who’s gifted me beyond measure. But my unexpected find reminds me that the truest gift is to know that when we bless others, we bless ourselves in ways tangible and intangible.

Ervin Dyer is senior editor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt Magazine and a graduate student in Pitt’s Department of Sociology (eedyerson@aol.com).

 

"Gib vs. Godzilla"

By Alan Van Dine

My younger brother Wayne — who until recently was a regular on KDKA News — just sold the house in the country where five of us grew up. He had bought it when Mom died at ’94 because he couldn’t bear to see it go and has since spent 16 years fixing it up, pruning the trees, mowing the lawn and a field that once served as a one-and-a-half-acre “victory garden” during the rationing of World War II.

So the old homestead has served as the venue of choice for family reunions and other get-togethers ever since. But Wayne and his wife Rose live 80 miles away, and eventually the maintenance work would become too much.

Sale of the property evoked a flood of memories by email back and forth from the then-kids and their kids, and even their kids, culminating in some stories from my older brother Gib, who had just returned from a trip out West.

But one story went unreported, and I’m here to tell it.

Gib was maybe 15 at the time, so I was 12 and Wayne was 7. Sisters Connie and Carol would have been 14 and 11 but had matured beyond any inclination to get involved in their brothers’ misadventures.

Gib was already a prolific inventor, destined to become an electronics engineer and earn a sheaf of patents for Bell Laboratories. At age 8 or 9, he had fashioned a miniature gas stove out of a large orange juice can and a smaller soup can, weighted for stability by pouring molten lead into the bottom.

He tapped the telephone party line from our basement and installed some kind of motion detector on the front porch so that when a visitor arrived, every Christmas light, inside and out, blazed into life. When there were snowball fights, it didn’t do much good to build a snow fort because Gib would make a catapult that would throw snowballs the size of basketballs.

One day Gib’s ingenuity was tested by the appearance of a monstrous black snake in the woods at the edge of the lawn. I saw it as a 6- or 8-foot snake — an awesome anomaly in our world — so it was probably 4 or 5 feet. At any rate, Gib fearlessly advanced on it with a shovel. I protested because I had heard that if you have a resident black snake, you don’t have to worry about copperheads or rattlesnakes, and Gib finally relented.

He went into the basement and found a hand-pump weed sprayer, put some water in it, then some kerosene, came outside, pumped it a few times and lit a match to the spray.

Have you ever seen a large snake look back over its shoulder? Well, no, they don’t have shoulders, but pursued by a mad scientist brandishing a flamethrower, a snake may exhibit an extra undulation or two in its accelerated slithering.

Gib walked behind the black snake as it slalomed frantically through the woods and across the property line. Gib returned satisfied that his siblings were no longer in danger of being snake-bitten.

So much for the theory of copperhead deterrence. But that may have been a folktale to begin with, like the companion legend that if there’s a copperhead in the vicinity, you’ll whiff the smell of cucumbers.

I never detected that aroma back home, even though we raised cucumbers, so it’s possible that cucumbers actually smell like copperheads, but no one can detect that.

Alan Van Dine is a retired advertising executive and poet who lives in Squirrel Hill (avdzzz@bellatlantic.net). He blogs at www.horse-you-rode-in-on.com.

 


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