Wednesday, February 15, 2017

THE GREAT FLOOD OF FLORENCE

I have contributions from some friends from other parts of the world, among them the Italian-born artist Marco Sassone...
Here's Marco as a young man, in his native city of Florence, 1966
... who left his home country as a young man and spent many years in the United States before relocating to Canada a few years ago. From this moment in time, it seems like he made a good choice! Marco honed his skills in his home city, Florence (would that we were all so lucky!) in a line of artists descended from the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. He has enjoyed great success as a painter, adapting those traditions to the contemporary world. Much of his work addresses the very personal theme of exile--a theme that drew him to a special interest in homelessness in the streets of San Francisco, where he had a studio for 25 years.

Marco Sassone, Tim Bare Land, 2015, oil on canvas, 48x60
(One of Marco's "Homeless" series.The title is a play on words with the famous American shoe brand.)

This story is taken from a chapter in the autobiography he is now working on--with a little help from myself. A memory of the great flood of 1966 in Florence, it foreshadows the recurring preoccupation with water that appears throughout Marco's work; it might also suggest, at a deeper level, the existential insecurity that is at the root of homelessness.



THE GREAT FLOOD OF FLORENCE, 1966
by Marco Sassone

Except where otherwise indicated, images were borrowed from public domain sources


            I was woken by papa at a quarter to six in the morning. It was November 4, 1966. I looked out the window and saw a torrent of water flowing down the street below. It had been raining heavily for the last two weeks in Florence.The night before I stood on the Ponte Vecchio, the “Old Bridge”, with my friends Bruno and Rolando, and the water level had risen so high we could almost touch it from the bridge. It was dark and eerie, yet we still could not have imagined what would be coming in the next few hours.
            Florence was still asleep, and the most frightful drama of its history was by this time unstoppable.  At four in the morning, at the threshold of the city, a monster wave unloaded by the dams of Valdarno was already cascading over into the Arno River. I couldn't tell how many hours it took for the terrifying body of water to reach and destroy Florence: its volume and power made a mockery of all normal sense of time. But perhaps even a few hours' notice would have been enough to grasp the situation, to have used that dire suspension of time to choose between an orderly removal of the more valuable treasures and the chaos of attempting to escape in a car, and being swept away to death. 
It took only two hours, we learned later, for the fury of water to crash through the banks of the river and flood the streets of Florence. An ocean of muddy water cut the city in two, isolating it from the world, and making it unreachable from either sky or ground. The first victims were already lying beneath the mud. The sick, the old, the invalids, and dozens of tenants of low income housing were screaming hopeless calls for help from the roofs of their homes. There were women crazed with fear, throwing things from their windows, imploring somebody to save their children. 
Wherever the water flooded into the basements it shattered the central heating systems in the city buildings, and a river of viscous, flammable black oil was mixed in with the mud. It would be that oily black line that would leave its mark on the walls for history to recall the level of the rising flood. It would be that foul black ooze that assaulted the masterpieces of Florentine art, forcing its way everywhere, into the heart of man as well as the finest creations of his ingenuity and knowledge. It was a punishment of humiliation and obliteration.
In Italy, November fourth is a national holiday--Festa delle Forze Armate--Armed Forces Day.  The flags of Italy that graced palaces and public buildings that day were whipped by the wind and rain, and the tragedy of Florence was already standing in the wings. But the fact that it was a holiday may have saved thousands of human lives. Had it been a usual work day, many more would have found themselves like mice in a trap. Anyone going about their daily tasks would have been caught up in the avalanche of fury that was driven along the banks of the Arno, inundating those places so familiar to everyday life.
Soon the BBC in London was issuing a desperate alarm: "The world is losing one of its gems--Florence." The network television stations in New York were broadcasting hourly news of the city’s fate. 
Meanwhile, for us, from the windows of our fourth floor apartment, it seemed as if we were doomed as the deluge continued its crescendo. Light, water and gas were out. And the news was spreading, we did not know how on that frightful night. It was as though we were all hallucinating. There were stories of people drowned like rats in the underpasses of the train station, stories of whole villages, of thousands of people submerged in the flatland suburbs that surround the city.  
           
My father’s car, a yellow ochre Citroen, was parked on the street near the main entrance to our building.  We could still see the roof of the car. On an impulse, I decided to risk a trip down the stairs armed with a thick rope, in an attempt to secure the car to the wall of the building.  Once down, I plunged into the muddy black cold water and tied the Citroen to a large iron ring on the wall that had been used in Renaissance times to tether horses.  The attempted rescue proved later to have been a futile exercise.
            
The water kept surging, ripping out trees from the riverbank and vehicles from the streets.  It felt like the water level would soon reach the sky. It did not. But it reached as high as 18 feet in the Via dei Neri, our street, forcing our neighbors from the first and second floor to move to the upper floors. We were trapped for two days.  
Florence was devastated. 



The morning of the 5th, we awoke to find that the water had retreated from the streets of the historic center, leaving the city enveloped in a repulsive quilt of mud and sludge.
            
“Where are you going?” asked my father as I put on my galoshes.
“I need to see,” I replied as I went down the stairs of the building. Once out on the street I started wading through the slimy, sticky stuff, sinking in to half way up my leg. There were men and women who had been out since sunrise, doing battle with a river that was trying to rip the city from both its past and future.




The director of the Uffizi Museum had started recovery operations immediately, organizing and moving some of the most valuable artworks to safety, including Filippo Lippi's Coronation, a Madonna by Masaccio, two works by Simone Martini from the Berenson Collection, and a painting by Giotto. Also three hundred works from the Portrait Gallery, including Botticelli's Coronation. The director of the Science Museum had begun frantically to move all of the precious instruments to the upper floors, including Edison's phonograph and numerous scientific wonders from the 1700's... 
But the fury of the Arno River was relentless. The water continued to surge, now threatening to invade the second floor of the museum. "Allora mi feci coraggio," the director recalled later: “I summoned the courage I needed and crawled out through a window on the second floor and around a cornice, reaching a window of the State Archives where I broke the glass. With the water continuing to rise, I was able to save several objects of exceptional historic value, including the binoculars of Galileo Galilei."
The friars at Santa Croce Church were terrorized. They ran into the Pazzi Chapel and pushed through to the threshold of the Cloisters, using wooden tables as floatational devices: the spectacle that greeted them there was a picture of desolation in the wake of an apocryphal deluge. Large, dark pieces of flotsam were being whipped around in the swirling whirlpools: these were the documents, the manuscripts, the papers of the National Library adjacent to the Santa Croce Church, being swept out through a bottomless door the flood had created. Beyond that door, the waters were chewing up the inestimable wealth of the library. In the ancient refectory that housed the museum, the river had smashed a wonderful golden crucifix, the gem of Cimabue that marks the passage between the medieval art and Giotto's world. This would be the greatest of the city’s artistic losses.
At the same time, the torrent of water, sludge and tree trunks hit the Baptistery in the Cathedral Square, shattering the famous Andrea Pisano door. One after the other, the bronze panels of the Doors of Paradise broke and sank beneath the mire. Fortunately their weight and their protective gates held them in place, and they would be recovered in the following days.
 I slipped and fell a few times as I wandered through an immense dead city. The water had swept everything away. There was no food available for miles around. And there was panic. Where would our next meal come from? I was the first in my family to be out on the streets, and after hours of searching I finally came up with a small package of biscotti which would be our dinner that night.
The panic lasted several days before help began to arrive, but when it finally came the response was great. Organization eventually took the place of chaos. Soldiers, officials, police - everyone who was willing to work - helped out. Students, mostly Americans from Stanford, Syracuse University and Smith College gave their precious time and labours to the city of Florence. Every day there was new light in the sky and even though there seemed to be very little progress, after two weeks we could see through to the surface of the streets.
One thing that really affected me during those first days was the media coverage devoted to the tremendous loss of art in Florence, while the loss of human life and family security was sadly neglected; even though art is my life, I felt it should take second place to human suffering. Still, once the immediate human problems were eased, we very quickly moved to the damage to the city’s art: the miracle of Florence eventually took place. We all went to work in silence, with quiet dignity, equipped with only the most primitive of tools to save the salvable...




No matter how different we might be as people, nor how quarrelsome or angry with the world, we found ourselves fraternally united in the great “Pietà” of Florence, washing and soothing the open wounds of the aching, lacerated body of a city brought to its knees.  It is this vision I recall, as both spectator and emotional participant, as the most beautiful moment of an otherwise terrible and unforgettable event; and I will always thank providence for the privilege of living it.
    In the years that followed, I carried this vision with me wherever I went.  It was an experience that left indelible memories of darkness along with a feeling of helplessness—and a new palette of colors I did not know existed...


Marco Sassone, Aftermath, 1968, oil on canvas, 71x71 inches
It was a vision that would surface unpredictably at any moment, providing the shadow that persists in my work to this day, the material for my dark series of paintings.  And often, later, it would prove a difficult paradox for my faithful collectors more accustomed to seeing my sunny landscapes.


Marco Sassone, San Francisco Marina Dusk, 1984, oil on canvas, 50x62 inches (private collection, Orange County, California)

Monday, February 13, 2017

CATHY

Oh, okay, back to sex for one more post...! This one was too good to resist. That headstrong thing of ours does tend to make its presence known at the most awkward moments, especially for one with the raging hormones of a teenager. Which of us didn't hide those magazines? But Stuart makes a good point, too: do women really understand the effect they have on us men in our secret lives? It may not be laudable but, hey, it's nature. And not really subject to our control when it, um, arises. What we do with it, though, is clearly something we can, well, take in hand. As the alcohol ads say these days, please enjoy, but use responsibly...



CATHY
by Stuart Balcomb

As a typical fifteen-year-old male, my hormones were on overload most of the time. It was that time of life when I was overly obsessed with the opposite sex. I kept girly magazines such as Pic, Tab, and Playboy under my mattress (what a stupid place to hide them from my mother!). During the summer going into my sophomore year I took a typing class at the high school, as did my good friend, Matt (my age), and his sister, Cathy (one year older and drop-dead gorgeous). The school was quite far away, but if there was enough time, sometimes we walked, and other times one of our mothers drove us if we were too late to get a bus.

The car rides to the class were usually torture for me because I was in close proximity to Cathy, and just the sight of her turned me on. It also did not help that the jostling of the car further stimulated me, and I very quickly had an erection. Painfully so. When we got to the school it was quite the effort to get out of the car without a) hurting myself and b) letting the whole world see my bulging crotch. I always made sure I carried a book or notebook to artfully hold in front of me while I went from car to school, and thankfully the erection usually subsided by the time I got to class.


During my life I’ve wondered if women really know the effect they have on us men. Sometimes I think they are oblivious, but then other times I’m sure they know exactly how we feel. In Cathy’s case, I don’t think she ever caught on. Even though she was a friend, because she was a class ahead of me, I wasn’t even on her radar.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

WOODBINES

I was at the movies yesterday and the usual pre-screening announcement about "no smoking" in the theater reminded me of this experience of my teenage years...

Smoking was strictly forbidden at my boarding school, and punishable by "six of the best", if caught. So of course any rebellious teenager worth his salt took to smoking--behind the hedges, in the woods,  in back of the chapel, wherever a safe place could be found.

It will seem strange to anyone much younger than myself, but in those days--the fifties--the seats in every cinema were conveniently provided with an ashtray affixed to the back of the seat in front of it. You could smoke to your heart's content throughout the movie presentation, without fear of recognition or discovery in the dark.

Unless I was particularly flush with pocket money and I could afford my preferred Dunhills, my usual cigarettes were the working class man's Woodbines. They were tiny, thin cigarettes, about half the size of your normal smoke, and they came in small green packages of ten, for what...? A shilling or so. They could be inhaled quickly, on a working man's break, and snuffed out with a tweak, if necessary, for relighting at a later grabbed moment.

So at every opportunity--my school gave half-holidays on Saints' Days, for example--when we were allowed off school grounds for the length of an afternoon, I would choose to go to the cinema. No matter what the movie, I would light up as soon as the lights went down and chain-smoke through the end of the performance. No matter that I'd return to school feeling sick to my stomach...

God knows what damage to heart and lungs was caused to movie-goers those days. I remember, the air was thick with tobacco smoke. It took me another forty years to begin to undo the damage to myself that I cheerfully started during those teenage years. If it hadn't been banned, would I have chosen a less destructive, and eventually less addictive path to rebellion? Who knows?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Book Review

As readers of my "Boyhood Memories" blog will know, I'm putting together a collection of intense and significant moments recollected from boyhood days, with the intention of publishing them eventually in book form. And here's a book that fell into my hands which is one long "boyhood memory." Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance looks back on a deeply disturbed childhood growing up in the
hillbilly country of the Appalachian mountains. Remarkable is the fact that he survived it, despite the odds against him, ending up at Yale Law School starting out on a successful career as an attorney.

It's not easy to read about such a painfully dysfunctional boyhood. Vance's father was an alcoholic (and later an evangelical Christian) who left the family when he was no more than a tot, and his desperately unstable mother teetered for years from one disastrous relationship to the next. Addicted to the (mostly) prescription drugs she was able to purloin as a nurse, she was unfit for motherhood and unable to provide the kind of home that any child needs. Any halfway healthy parenting the boy received came from his feisty, gun-toting grandmother, Mamaaw, and her not-quite estranged husband, Papaaw, who lived separately nearby.

And yet... the erratic, insecure hillbilly family and the community of the poverty-ridden small town in which he was raised inspired a fierce kind of loyalty in the boy, along with a shared suspicion and resentment of the world beyond its limited horizons. It offered him an identity to which he clung in a kind of stubborn, desperate bid for survival in an alien and unpredictable environment. If you're nicely brought up in the American middle class and even moderately well educated in a functional school system, this book will open your eyes to "how the other half lives"--the working class that was until recently a truly "working" class but has lately been deprived not only of work but also the dignity, the economic security and the hope that go along with decent and reliable employment.

How to escape such a culturally deprived environment? Vance joined the Marines. I myself am no fan of the "military-industrial complex", which wields far too much power in this country; but I have great respect for the men and women who have served in it. I never fail to be impressed with the stand-up quality, whether of leaders like General Colin Powell or those who served less prominently, but equally honorably in their way. I think it has to do, in part, with the whole idea of service--the experience of having to come to terms with something greater than oneself to which to pay allegiance, the understanding that one is no more than one part of a functioning whole. When you know that others depend on you, you learn to respect their needs as much as, perhaps even more than, your own.

It has also to do, surely, with simple discipline--something is that too frequently ignored in both family life and school these days. For Vance, after a life unconstrained by social convention or effective educational requirement, the Marine experience provided an invaluable lesson--one that instilled in him a kind of assurance and self-confidence he had lacked before. It was this, too, that equipped him with the persistence and determination he needed to step out of the life that otherwise awaited him--a life of ignorance and poverty--and into the experience of university and law school, where he learned more than what the books and professors had to teach him; he learned how to expect, and demand for himself, a functional life, a stable relationship, and a professional ladder to success. He grew a spine.

Vance's book offers a valuable insight into the rage and resentments that fuel today's political revolt amongst what used to be the working class. He learned to despise the dependency and seemingly willful ignorance of those unable--and eventually unwilling--to find work, even as he identified with them. He learned what threatened to develop, for him too, into a destructive self-hatred, resentment, and eagerness to cast blame on a system and a historical trope that left his family and community feeling neglected, unheard, and betrayed. For those of us mystified and dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump, this is a needed education.

Monday, February 6, 2017

LADY

Enough with boyhood memories of love and sex--for the time being at least. (I'd still like to get more of your stories!) 

I thought it might be a good idea to get back to fathers for a while. Good dads, bad dads. Absent dads, doting dads. Fearsome dads, loving dads... We all had them. Dads, I mean. Some good, some not so good. For most of us, they had an enormous influence on our lives, whether as role models or, in some cases, the cause of great pain or aversion. I've heard some horror stories, some inspiring stories, some stories of lasting love or lasting anger. 

If you have a father story to add to my collection, I'd love to receive it. 

For the moment, here's one I found particularly moving. It's a complex story, combining not only the memory of a strong father brought to tears, but also a boy's relationship to his dog--and the larger theme of death. The feeling of guilt, too, plays a role... My thanks to Stuart Balcomb, the musician and composer, for submitting it.



LADY
by Stuart Balcomb

My parents bought a Doberman Pinscher puppy when I was in first grade. It was the first family dog for my younger sister and me, so “Lady” was quite a big deal for both of us. My dad had her ears clipped and tail bobbed (as was the custom) and took her to obedience school. We lived in a rural area in the North Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, amidst pastureland next to the Rio Grande, which was the perfect place to have a dog.

Lady was a sweetheart, and we loved to romp with her whenever we could. As she grew to a full-size, majestic Doberman, she became a fierce protector of us all. She kept her sweet disposition, but woe to anyone who dared enter the yard unannounced.

A fine Doberman (not "Lady")
The area where we lived became an incorporated village, and my father served as sheriff and fire chief. I once rode shotgun in the firetruck to a brushfire in a field, and was with dad when he stopped someone for a broken tail light. He sometimes patrolled the Village on foot, with Lady on a leash, so one can imagine the air of command that a black Doberman added to the authority of a Smith & Wesson and a badge.

One day my father was standing on the patio, looking across the large field that separated us from the main road. He saw a car speed by, and then suddenly swerve as it disappeared from view behind trees at the edge of the property. Something told him that all was not right. He ordered me to stay put and took off running down the long driveway to the road. After awhile my father came into view, carrying Lady’s lifeless body upside down by her legs. I didn't know what to think, then realized that she had been hit by the car. I became frightened, and the sight of blood running from her nose was horrifying to me—it was my first experience with death. And what made it worse was my father crying as he carried his dog. I had never, nor have since, seen my father cry. Those two new elements, death and parental grief, made for a very terrifying moment. 

I cannot remember if my father blamed me for leaving the gate open. That part of my memory is gone, but something deep inside thinks maybe he did. It most certainly could have been me. I really don’t know, but that didn’t lessen the tremendous guilt I felt.




Saturday, February 4, 2017

THE BLUEBERRY PATCH

Another early sex story--the last in this series. It's by Don Blaisdell, a Los Angeles-based artist who also has the exceptional good fortune (or smarts!) to have a studio in Montmartre. He sends this from Paris.



THE BLUEBERRY PATCH AND THE BOAT ESCAPADE
by Don Blaisdell

As I paint Montmartre in my studio in Paris, my memories are sparked by the Bridget Bardot documentary I watched last night. These images of her, which we all grew up with…got me thinking about my childhood. This stirred my imagination of my boyhood sexual experience. This vision ignited the memory of an astonishing shared moment, and anexhilarating experience: hence, this story...

We were fifteen and in love and passionate. I invited Renee (not her real name) to my camp in Maine for the weekend. I lived there with my aunt and two brothers. My aunt was a pious (and a critical) person. Early one morning I suggested to Renee that we go blueberry picking, with a passionate plan in mind--I knew the woods and fields. We took two blueberry cans and headed off into the woods, telling my aunt that we would be back shortly.

Renee knew what I had in mind. We got to the blueberry patch quickly and the passion mounted in each of us, along with the hungry desire. The day was sunny and warm for Maine in August. We couldn't wait to make out in the heat of passion. Soon we lay down in the blueberry patch, she on the bottom, me on top. In I went, joy, desire, and passion all fulfilled…

We spent the day making love, it must have been three or four times. Time disappeared. But then I realized it was getting late and said we should head back. We got back to the camp, where my aunt greeted us with an investigative eye. "Where are the blueberries?" she asked. "We ate them on the way back, " I lied. She eyed us critically and I realized we were both covered with blueberry stains from head to toe, especially Renee's back and ass, and for me, my arms and knees. My aunt gave us an "I know what you two have been doing" look, but said nothing. Just chuckled to herself.

The weekend was just glorious. The boat escapade came the next day...

THE BOAT ESCAPADE

The very next day, in the evening, we took the small motorboat out to the island in the middle of Little Sebago Lake. I shut the motor off. We lay down in the bottom of the boat.

We made love furiously and passionately. Without our knowing it the boat drifted down the lake, right in front of my aunt and uncle's dock. They were sitting in chairs at the end of the dock, enjoying the evening. Both of us naked, we sat up and there they were, looking at us!

"Good evening!" said my uncle. As the reader may remember, my aunt and uncle were hypocritically pious and puritanical.

 What a surprise…in more ways than one!


Don Blaisdell, "It takes a spark to light a fire", 1972, giclee of 4 drawings each 7" x 9", Framed 30" x 12", graphite, ink, ink wash, collage


Friday, January 27, 2017

PLUM BRANDY


Still on the theme of first love... This one's my own. It's quite innocent. No sex please, we're British!



PLUM BRANDY
by Peter Clothier 

I was in France. I took the train to Paris, leaving my home country alone for the first time, and arrived in Maisons-Lafitte, a suburb to the north of the capital that is famous for its chateau and its horse-racing track. I was thirteen years old. My sister, Flora, had come here the year before to stay with the family of Philippe, our French exchange student. Now it was my turn. It was Philippe, by the way, who taught me how to masturbate… He was a year or so older than I was at the time.

But that’s another story. This is a story about plum brandy.

But first it’s a story about bombs. Because Philippe had a best friend, Jean-Claude, who lived a few houses away from Philippe’s, down a dusty lane that led to a garbage dump, And the two of them, Jean-Claude and Philippe, were adventurers. They loved danger. They smoked—they taught me how to smoke black Gauloise cigarettes. They boasted of their success with girls. And they made bombs.

This is how: first they stole shotgun shells from Jean-Claude’s father’s basement. Then they opened up the shells and poured out the gunpowder from inside. Then they filled a length of pipe or a small soda can with gunpowder and tamped it down with a length of rag. Then we took the “bombs” down to the garbage dump and laid them on the ground, leaving a trail of gunpowder a few yards long. Then we’d light the end of the gunpowder trail and turn and run away as far as we could before stopping to watch the sparkling trail reach the bomb… and the explosion that followed.

But this is a story about plum brandy. Or really it’s a story about Nicole.

Nicole was Jean-Claude’s sister, twelve years old, two years younger than Jean-Claude, a year younger than myself, something of a tomboy in her colored jeans and white blouses that hid secrets about which I longed to know. I fell in love with her the instant that I saw her. A thirteen-year old who’d never known anything but boys at my English boarding schools, I found this creature wildly exotic, beautiful beyond anyone I had ever seen in my life before, desirable in ways I could not yet fully understand.

I was in love. It was the first time. I was shy. I was innocent, ashamed of my innocence, too, beside those worldly French boys who seemed young men already and who knew secrets about girls that I did not yet know myself. I blushed easily. I hardly dared utter a word in the presence of the one I loved. And, yes, I was working hard at being a bad, bomb-making boy.

But this is a story about plum brandy.

It was summer time, and it happened that the plums in Jean-Claude’s back yard were ripening. Jean-Claude’s father, a thick-set, heavily-mustached, pipe-smoking Frenchman of the laboring classes, was not slow in recognizing cheap labor when he saw it, and soon put us all to work. We filled baskets with masses of the ripe plums from the ground where they had fallen around the tree, and from the tree itself...


 We lugged the overflowing baskets from the orchard to Jean-Claude’s father’s garage, and we stuffed them into the small opening of the wooden barrel in which Jean-Claude’s father would make his annual supply of plum brandy…



And it was in stuffing the plums into that dark hole at the top of the barrel that my little boy’s fingers could merge, in a secret, forbidden ecstasy, unknown to anyone but myself, with the object of my lust, Nicole’s. Unless, perhaps, somewhere deep in my dark soul, I hoped, I yearned… that she might know it too. I know that she looked at me as our fingers touched. And a sudden flash led me to hope that she might feel the very same thing that I did…

A couple of weeks later it was back across the Channel, back to boy's boarding school, with nothing but the memory of the first girl I ever loved.