Taken For Granted: Talking to my neighbors abroad

Snippets of interesting conversation are the special dividends of travel. They result from the surprising openness, almost intimacy, of sojourners confined to the metal bubble of a plane, boat, cab or train.

A flight to Miami, stops in Florida to see friends and a train ride up the East Coast to New York, last November, refreshed my sense of the human diversity that so enriches our great country. The focus of the trip was a reunion of the Navy junior officers I served with during the Vietnam War. The following are brief “outtakes” from conversations with those I met along the way.

My seatmate on the plane was coincidentally a Vietnam War Army vet headed to a reunion of his old helicopter crew. He confided that his limp was the result of a recent surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel he had taken home from Nam as a “souvenir” some 40 years ago. It had remained dormant all those years, finally working its way down his foot and causing him great pain.

At the reunion I observed that the comrades of my youth had all aged noticeably, while I alone retained my youthful good looks, if you squint and ignore my lack of hair, wrinkles, 40-pound overhang and limp. The oft-repeated “sea stories” have become more extravagant and thrilling with each retelling. As our ranks have thinned, we make a valiant effort to recapture the enthusiasm of those shipmates who first told the tale but are no longer with us.

A cab ride to the train station had a talkative cabbie describing the generosity and friendliness of Yankee and Phillies players he had transported during spring training in St Petersburg. Another late-night cab ride with a bunch of strangers resulted in a chat with a young woman who had done production and editing work on a couple of Ann Rice vampire movies.

A train stop in Charleston and a ferry ride out to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years ago, provided an exchange with an avid fan of UConn’s great women’s basketball team. He expressed pessimism as to the team’s fortunes this season because they had lost five starting seniors. He was right. They did not repeat as national champions.

In Charleston, the “moonlighting” professor who was our tour guide pointed out elegant old homes with distinctive “open air” dual staircases, which approach the entryway landing from both sides. Women used the left staircase and men the right. Consistent with antebellum chivalry and modesty, this arrangement precluded Southern gentlemen from sneaking a peek at a southern belle’s exposed ankle as she ascended the staircase.

Waiting for the train headed north, the older gentlemen on the bench next to me disclosed that he was headed up to St James Bay to hunt caribou, and that on last year’s trip he had bagged three of them. In fact he still had caribou meat left in his freezer at home.

Back on the train, the college student sitting next to me talked enthusiastically about his father being head of the music department at a major Texas college. The shocker came when he disclosed that he was an expert tuba player. It crossed my mind that if the kid had any musical talent at all, why would the old man saddle him with the tuba! No offense to tuba players; I’m sure they are among our nation’s finest citizens.

After his departure, another young man sat down, pulled out a lined note pad and proceeded to sketch a profile of the cute young girl sitting across the aisle. Completing the sketch, he handed it to her. She expressed both admiration and embarrassment, but definitely wanted to keep the sketch. Great pick-up technique, but unfortunately she was getting off at the next town!

My next confidant was a beekeeper who follows the planting season across country with his hives pollinating fields of various crops, from apples to almonds. He expressed great concern regarding the recent spread of so called “missing bee” syndrome. The problem involves worker bees going on strike and fleeing the hive for unknown reasons. Perhaps the governor of Wisconsin should be consulted as to how best to bust their union!

Flying back to L.A. at the conclusion of my journey, I had an intriguing conversation with a crab boat captain who was headed to Seattle and on to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for the season. He was very matter-of-fact in describing how very profitable but taxing and dangerous his profession was. He did not, however, claim to be able to see Russia from the bridge of his boat.

And so the journey ended with touchdown at LAX and a taxi ride home with a cabbie who disappointingly had no story to tell since he barely spoke English.

PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at tfgranted@gmail.com.
 
 

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