David Gershator











That bomb blast in the early part of the war still registers in my mind. No one remembers it now...not even the fallow field where it left a small crater after a big bang.   DG


Why not try to look at it positively? It gave me a point of reference.

It happened in the field next to our small, rented concrete house set in the oat fields and isolated at the end of a dirt road. The blast knocked me flat on the ground. I was a three year old playing near a line of eucalyptus trees about a mile from the prime target for Axis planes. Italy sent bombers. Vichy French flew over from Damascus.

The bomb came out of the blue on a workday morning. I know that because Ima wasn’t home. She was at work in the refinery.

The bomb was dropped by either a Vichy French pilot flying out of Damascus or an Italian bombing mission out of Bari, one of Mussolini’s boys. I’m guessing Italian because it must have been around the time of El Alamein. The Italians weren’t trying to bomb an oat field or kill a three year old. The target was the British Refinery in Haifa about a mile away from the one story concrete block house in the oat fields. So much depended on the oil refinery: the English Mediterranean fleet, King George’s armies, my mother’s meager salary....

Abba came running towards me, scooped me up and ran back into the concrete house. That was the start of the war game he invented. Eeejaboom: the sound of a bomb blast. EEEJABOOM: a game to laugh away the sound.

EEEJABOOM became a secret password for something big happening. Three syllables for BOMBS AWAY. My hearing was checked and I was o.k., but my parents were worried. Since the eeejabooms were falling too close to home I was taken to relatives living in peace and tranquility on a collective farm, a relatively new tarpaper shack kibbutz with orange groves and cows near Alexander’s stream in the Sharon. I was exiled to Mishmar and there I nearly died... a three or almost four year old sick with meningitis and feeling abandoned: I was going down. Only when Father came to look after me did I recover. He was the nurturing one.
Mother worked as a secretary-bookkeeper in the refinery. She supported the family. Every day she went to work and every day she didn’t know if she’d come back home alive.

I love French culture, but I remember Vichy. I love Italian culture, but I know Mussolini’s opera. It begins with a distant drone followed by blasts and ending with the whine of sirens. What if the bomb had killed me that day? There might have been a brief account in the local papers. And then what? Would my parents have stayed together? My father was supposed to be sterile after a dangerous ulcer operation. I was a post-op child. Wasn’t supposed to happen…. Plus there was that letter sent to Mother’s sister before I was conceived—about divorce.

I’d say the odds were 50-50 for divorce, even though in those days people didn’t divorce but suffered in silence. Mother was a pillar of strength and silence. A born stoic. “What a fool I was,” she told me before she died. My response: “I didn’t tell you to marry him.” A stale joke on my part. Lame lame lame.

She was modern American. Played tennis, read novels, loved films. He was East European, charming, scholarly, authoritarian, self-depriving. A Litvak. On his own more or less since the age of thirteen. He had never known about lettuce or seen an orange. He had known hunger. Somewhere he had learned to make bread. Bread was holy. He swore by bread. She worked. He controlled the purse strings. At first he allowed her to buy only one new dress per year! A mismatch made in Jerusalem and mostly downhill from there in a life of constricting poverty.

Getting back to the damned bomb. No one remembers it, but they do remember General Rommel, the Desert Fox, and El Alamein. It was one of those battles on which everything depends. And everything is soon.enough forgotten. It’s history with all its dead meat and statistics.

If Rommel broke through to Suez the refinery in Haifa would have been next. And the Yishuv--all of us Palestinians (in those days the Jews were the Palestinians)—would be caught in a Masada situation, and I wouldn’t be writing this story about a bomb in the oat fields.

Why not try to look at it positively? It gave me a point of reference.
The sky does fall. Time flies and explodes.

"Rommel and the Magic Carpet" seemed to write itself. It started in the aftermath of rockets falling on Haifa in 2006.  DG



General George Patton in North Africa referred to Rommel’s Infantry Attacks published in 1937 with soldierly admiration: “Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!” I can only think: “Good for you George. I’m glad you read what that s.o.b. had to say--and used it against him.”

I never read Rommel’s book. Why bother...I don't plan to attack anyone with infantry, tanks or peashooters. The days of toy lead soldiers are long gone and I have no lingering desire to be a five star armchair general with 20/20 hindsight. But when I was a young boy, enthralled by shiny military stars and buttons, I played war on Mt. Carmel, wearing my beloved Eisenhower jacket with the four exciting gold stars on its epaulets. 

Years after I learned to read, I dug into the front lines of El Alamein from the safety of a New York public library. Those two Arabic words for a  blood soaked killing ground meant everything: for a couple of weeks in the autumn of 1942, my family’s future and the future of Palestine and WW II was being decided somewhere out in the howling wastes of the North African desert. I was too young to understand much then, but the mental pictures are still there and the feeling--a feeling of dread and tension and, later, as the war came home, a feeling of desperation. 

Our family of three lived in a four story concrete building built into the slope of Mt. Carmel. This working class apartment building had an old olive tree in the front and a fig tree in the back that didn’t make many figs--too much shade cast by another building looming over it. The most intriguing plant in the garden was a night blooming cereus snaking up the front wall near the entrance. I saw it bloom once. I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime for the event. It was a full moon night--was that good or bad for bombing?--just me and my mother hanging around the snaky cactus in the moonlight watching the bud, twice the size of my fist, opening slowly for the moon. We called it malkat laylah--Queen of the Night. Its fragrance left me moonstruck: vanilla and cinnamon and some unknown spice. The pretty perfumed woman who lived upstairs passed by with her uniformed British escort. She said no perfume could match it.


I like the air raids--the scary excitement of near and distant sirens, quickly followed by raised voices and footsteps rushing down the steps. Our ground floor apartment is the nearest to the cellar, our bomb shelter, and we’d always be the first into it and the first to choose a bench. Everybody in the building joins us, people we don’t even know.

Somebody brings a couple of dogs. Not allowed. I don’t like dogs with cold wet noses. Flashlights shine here and there before the warden’s order--“lights out”--and people telling people to put out cigarettes and keep quiet, everybody sitting in the dark hush, breathing the mustiness together. Almost like waiting for a movie to begin.

After a few dark minutes, the two little girls who live in the apartment next to ours start to giggle, people whisper and sneeze. lots of sneezing. Easy to  catch a cold down there. Everyone’s getting itchy twitchy and bored. Sometimes we hear explosions and concussions. When we don’t, people speak up, wondering, “Why are we still sitting here--it’s over.” The air raid warden warns, “Did you hear the all clear yet?”

The all clear sounds and the cellar door inches open--why they had to shut out the daylight I didn’t know--and people blink their eyes and stretch and complain about wasting time and everybody goes back to doing what they were doing, including the dogs that aren’t allowed...until another day and another round of warning sirens.

Meanwhile, Rommel’s Afrika Korps is rampaging across the desert beating the crumpets out of the British and spoiling afternoon tea and tennis for officers at the Nile clubs and resorts. Most likely, before you know it, Rommel will step on the gas and Egypt will fall. The pyramids will stand at attention and the Sphinx will be saddled by its new master--Rommel of the Nile: Liberator of Cairo and Lord of Suez. The Fuhrer Pharaoh will call the shots in the Near East. And the cradle of civilization will turn into its tomb--or a mass grave of the kind that was so popular among German armies dedicated to an Aryan Europe.

At the time Montgomery and Rommel are busy collecting artillery, trucks, and tanks for a showdown, I’m collecting Egyptian stamps, among others, getting to know the faces on each stamp, each face surrounded by little teeth. If the stamps are to have any value, the teeth have to be perfect. King Farouk is perfect; he’s young with a red fez and puffy cheeks. He became king of Egypt in 1937, the year I was born. A memorable year--we have something in common.

The Egyptians look forward to a grand reception for their Nazi liberators from English rule. Welcome banners stretch out across the streets and balconies of Cairo. Shopkeepers stock up on Nazi flags.

Allied Headquarters is burning its vital documents, causing a steady flow of smoke to darken the Cairo sky and rain ashes over the city. The Brits mockingly call this Egyptian darkness “Ash Wednesday.” Among those dependent on British rule, the plague of panic strikes quickly, triggered by word of mouth that the Royal Navy has withdrawn its fleet from Alexandria and dispersed it to Port Said, Beirut, and Haifa. Egyptian policemen and troops vanish. British supply dumps are promptly looted for food and emptied of anything portable. Railroad stations are mobbed. Roads out of Alexandria and Cairo are clogged with refugees trying to flee to Luxor and further south to the Sudan. Others head for points East, including British Mandated Palestine, where the British could still organize an orderly retreat.

The Reich is now busy stamping medals for the Egyptian campaign and printing occupation currency. Mussolini himself is ready and waiting to ride his white charger at the head of the Axis victory parade in Cairo.

The Egyptians can’t wait to celebrate.

Aren’t they Semitic, Hamitic? Doesn’t Nazi racism apply to them as “non Aryans”? But it’s not hard to understand their enthusiasm. The age old Arab dictum--the enemy of my enemy is my friend--seems good enough at the moment to sway the crowds. Rommel is their man, their hero.

If the Nazis break through, they could easily hook up with the Wehrmacht coming down from Southern Russia and win the Near East petroleum lottery. What a bonanza! They’d be swimming in oil. Next, they’d go on to India, meet up with the Japanese in Burma, and the British would be lucky to escape a second Dunkirk in a hasty retreat to Australia. And how could they do that if Japan controlled the seas? The Allies would be forced to think the unthinkable and sue for terms.

Mother worked in the offices of the Iraq Petroleum Company at the Haifa Bay oil refinery. The grounds of the IPC refinery supplied me with matchboxes full of ladybugs, thanks to an Arab gardener. And from its offices I would get a steady supply of cancelled stamps from around the world. It was also a major depot for supplying the British Mediterranean fleet, which made the refinery and storage tanks a prime target. First the Vichy French threat from Syria after the fall of France, then the Italian long range planes coming in with their bombs from Bari, Italy. One bomb missed the refinery and knocked me flat. No one knew when the bombers would appear. I recall one showing up at night. It got caught in the cross beams of searchlights and all hell broke loose as it tried to evade ack ack fire from the anti-aircraft batteries around Haifa Bay, the refinery, and the top of Mt. Carmel.

Though an American citizen, mother was paid native scale and treated like a native. To the British, with their rigid class and status consciousness and not so deft colonialism, she wasn’t quite on a par with the English staff, even though they relied on her English language skills. But for her, far worse than bureaucratic discrimination at work was never knowing if she’d make it back home alive.


In those intense Mediterranean days I was fascinated by carpets. I liked to help beat on a carpet if I had the chance. Some of our neighbors had carpets and they’d beat them on Thursday or Friday before the Sabbath. I can still hear the rhythm of carpet beating on the balconies of the town. I couldn’t help wondering which of the multihued and reddish rugs might be magic. Magic carpets were known to exist from Cairo to Baghdad and beyond--I’d had it on faith from a neighbor lady with a beautiful Persian carpet. One only had to know the secret words to make a Persian carpet rise up and fly. Maybe the Shah of Iran knew the words. I also collected stamps with his moustached portrait. Shah Pahlavi looked fierce, as though he ate a cactus for breakfast.

There’s tension in the air. The radio is on every evening for the latest news. And now there’s the ominous sound of approaching thunder: ROMMEL ROMMEL ROMMEL ROMMEL.

My always cool and stoic mother comes home from work one day, and
she’s upset. I’ve never seen her so upset. 
      “What’s wrong, Mary?” 
      “It looks bad,” she tells my abba. “They’re leaving. They’re starting to load up the lorries. Files, documents, all the important records....”
      “Where are they taking them?”
      “To Baghdad, then on to India. I don’t know what’s to become of us. Seems they don’t give a damn. Only English citizens will be evacuated.” 
      “They can’t leave you just like that! If you’re needed here, they need you there. Somebody has to straighten out the company files. Those bastards. They’ve got to help us out!”
      “What if they don’t!”
      “You’ve got your American passport. What’s the American embassy doing? There must be some way to get to Baghdad. Anything with wheels will do. Talk to them, Mary, do something. Any papers will do. Anything. Something in writing. Get friendly with one of the drivers. Charm one of the bosses.”
      “Listen to you! I’m not Queen Esther and this isn’t Purim.”
      “Maybe we can bribe someone to get on a lorry, any lorry.”
      “And after Baghdad then what?”
      “I’d better withdraw our savings before they freeze the funds. Talk to the people at work. Talk to the drivers.”
      “I will, I will.”

We don’t go to Baghdad, even though mother got an offer, or maybe a proposition. Her boss offered to take her. I can imagine the conversation:
      “With my child?”
      “Hmmm. An added difficulty...but I suppose so.”
      “And what about my husband?”
      “Dreadfully sorry, Mary, but you know we have only so much leeway, and he’s not American is he? We have to draw the line somewhere. Nothing personal, simply a matter of protocol. Think about it, Mary.”


Between Field Marshal Rommel and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and ally of Hitler, the Promised Land is a death trap and everyone knows it. The only hope is to flee on a carpet to Baghdad. My family doesn’t have a Persian carpet. We don’t have any carpets. None at all.

At the start of the battle there’s a blackout on information. More lorries are packed and sent off across the Syrian desert to Baghdad. Later the battle would be called El Alamein after a village not far from Alexandria. El Alamein, meaning “two worlds,” a fitting name for worlds in collision--and very possibly a new world order: the Hitlerian world, the Nazi world. In the first round--June and July, summer of ‘42--Rommel drove the British back to the El Alamein line, just seventy miles west of Alexandria. The second confrontation in the Fall of ‘42 was the Allies last stand in North Africa.

The battle, actually a series of battles, lasted for approximately eleven days, October 23rd to November 3rd. But in Mary’s diary not a clue, just “sunny day” or “first rain” or “D has an ear ache.” She was terribly stoic. Couldn’t even confess her anxieties to a diary. 

Troops from all over the British Empire as well as European units were gathered for this do or die mother of showdowns: kilted Scots and swarthy Sikhs, Aussies, New Zealanders, Irish, Welsh, Gurkas, Greeks, Sudanese, South Africans, Canadians, Poles, Czechs, Free French, even Egyptians--a virtual United Nations. How we all loved the Aussies with their jaunty hats--brim turned up on one side, the Scots with their bagpipes, and the Sikhs with their turbans! America too was involved, managing to deliver 330 new Sherman tanks to add to Montgomery’s array of armor.

There was an aura of mythological prowess around Rommel. Hadn’t he faced difficult odds before and defeated the British decisively in the Battle of Gazala and then incredibly took the port of Tobruk which assured Axis supply lines? Dash and daring helped him beat an army more than twice the size of his own. No telling what might happen next.... What happened next? Churchill appointed Montgomery head of the combined allied forces.

Good old Monty. What if he lost? I can hear my mother muttering in her adopted English accent, “Oh, for pity sakes alive, this Montgomery, what in heaven’s name can he do? He better be better than the incompetents he’s replacing!” What if he were forced to retreat? Would he use some ringing rhetoric like Churchill or promise to return like MacArthur or simply say to one and all as he retreated through Palestine: “Cheerio and good luck. Of course, you Palestinians (meaning Jews and the Jewish community in those days) are free to defend yourselves as you see fit, but we must evacuate our positions. There’s no holding Jerusalem--we can only hope and pray for your salvation. Awfully sorry we can’t give you any weapons. We simply cannot spare them.” Monty was no lover of Zion, unlike General Allenby, who liberated Palestine from the Ottoman Turks in 1917, or Captain Orde Wingate who gave military training to Jewish fighters in Galilee in the mid-Thirties.

How fortunate for everyone that after days of ferocious combat Rommel finally ran out of gas, literally, and that the resupply didn’t arrive until it was too late and his retreating forces dumped and burned the gas in the desert. The overwhelming logistics--men, arms, equipment--were on Monty’s side. He was cautious to a fault. Some claim he moved too slowly, in the manner of a WWI general, letting Rommel retreat with the remnant of Panzer Army Afrika to fight another day. He certainly was no risk taker like Rommel, but when he moved he moved en masse. Alamein was a strategic success, and along with Stalingrad (the bloodiest battle in history) a pivotal turning point for the Allies. From then on the Axis powers were on the defensive.

King George, whose handsome face was on many of my stamps--stamps with perfect teeth, never smiled. But he must have smiled after El Alamein, somewhere in his bomb shelter in England.


Half a century later, I wake up to trivia on the radio one morning--and discover that it’s happy anniversary El Alamein! It seems like a fable, or a desert mirage. Rommel rides again. The name itself still conjures up a rolling though faded thunder. He wasn’t our friend like King George or mysterious Uncle Joe with the thick black mustache. Rommel was our nightmare. He had over 100,000 men and 500 deadly tanks. And his panzer tanks were as fast as desert foxes. 

But what if...? If his Italian Korps would have held the center line, if gasoline for his tanks had arrived a day earlier...he might have won the battle of Egypt, and if Rommel had routed the British a second time, it’s obvious that my parents and I would’ve been toast on the Carmel.
Field Marshal Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel, the priest of Ba’al, would’ve sacrificed children and driven adults to concentration camps and slaughter. Panzer tanks would’ve rolled up to Haifa and Mt. Carmel.

The prophet Elijah himself couldn’t have saved the day. Only one flaming chariot against all those tanks? Hopeless. The Carmel of Elijah would have been the Nazi’s Aryan altar. And the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem would have given his enthusiastic Islamic blessing to the bloodbath.

The Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, never had his face on any postage stamps. According to German archives, he met several times with Adolf Eichmann to prepare for the genocide of half a million Jewish inhabitants of British Mandated Palestine. That half million, including my immediate family, would add ten per cent to the sum total of the Holocaust. What a coup for the Nazis to raise their swastika flags over a judenrein Jerusalem!

Haj Amin al-Husseini, Hitler’s “honorary Aryan”--thanks to a red beard and blue eyes inherited from his Circassian mother, was slated to become the titular head of a Muslim fascist state and most likely would have had a portrait stamp issued in his honor. A stamp I’d be unable to collect.

The actual overseer of the prospective liquidation process was to be SS Obersturmbannführer Walther Rauff. The designated mass murderer had previous expertise in using mobile gas chamber vans in Russia and was posted to Athens in the summer of ‘42. Since the killing centers of Europe were too far away, Rauff was ready to deploy his “Einsatzgruppe Egypt” to Palestine, hot on the heels of Rommel’s anticipated victory over Montgomery’s Desert Rats. Smashing the 8th Army and hurling it back for a second time would leave the road to Jerusalem wide open. Rauff’s mobile death squads and the Mufti’s recruits would be free to implement a slaughter that would make the massacres carried out by the 11th century Crusaders look like child’s play.

They say the Carmel might have been the last Masada, another site for future tourists to visit or ignore. There are still signs of siege preparations on the mountain. Torn up railroad tracks, barricades and fortifications--remnants of just another potentially apocalyptic last stand. A momentous moment in secular Holy Land time impossible to deduce or reconstruct from an almost blank maternal diary, a little black book with indications of health, weather, visits to friends, and the appearance of the first wildflowers--cyclamen and anemones--after the rains. There's even one desiccated anemone of 1942 stuck between the pages, but nothing, absolutely nothing about Rommel and El Alamein.


Field Marshal Rommel saw the handwriting on many ruined walls and advocated a negotiated surrender before Germany was destroyed and overrun by the Allies. A furious Hitler rejected Rommel’s realism as defeatism. Once Hitler’s favorite general, Rommel was forced to commit suicide by the Fuhrer for his alleged involvement in the Hitler assassination plot. At Rommel’s funeral Hitler sent the biggest wreath.

Haj Amin al-Husseini, Jerusalem born Muslim cleric and jihadist, mixed Islam with Nazism to become the godfather of Muslim extremism. From 1941 to the war’s end he was in Berlin on the Nazi’s payroll as Hitler’s protégé. Himmler gave him the title SS Gruppenführer (Major General). Upon his urging, Adolf Eichmann stopped ransom negotiations to save 5000 Jewish children and sent them to Auschwitz instead. Responsible for the mass killing of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, Haj Amin al-Husseini was indicted by Yugoslavia as a genocidal war criminal but was never held to account by the Allies. He found asylum in the Cairo of King Farouk. His distant relative (some say cousin), born in Egypt, was Yasser Arafat.

SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Walther Rauff escaped to Ecuador--and from there to Chile--with the aid of the Vatican’s notorious Nazi sympathizer, Bishop Alois Hudel, who helped many high ranking Nazis, including the commander of Treblinka, evade capture. Later, Rauff had a protector in Chilean dictator Pinochet and was never extradited.

The author celebrated his eighth birthday in Marseille, December,1945, en route from Alexandria, Egypt, to New York on the Gripsholm, the first civilian ship to cross the Atlantic after the war. He no longer collects stamps.

And to continue the tale with a haibun, a Japanese form of storytelling that mixes prose and poetry:


Last night I fell asleep with a heavy book on my chest. Flashback to Alexandria, Egypt. Dingy Hotel LeRoi. Right after World War II and in transit to the New World. American mother eager to see her family and introduce her child to her sisters and relatives after nine years and repeated Axis bombing of her place of work. 

“Oh, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” was the song in the air and also “Three Blind Mice” and we were a family of three and New York might as well be Tipperary--someplace special, even fabulous with the world’s tallest building which I’m promised I’ll see and eggs the size of a fist ( I don’t care for eggs), but the size is impressive and to top it off I’m promised a set of electric trains. With smoke. I’m crazy for trains.

My parents had gone out for the evening. It was late November. The air in the city was very mild. Autumn in Egypt. They’d left me with a book revealing the sacred secrets of the Pharaohs and the pyramids. I was almost eight years old. Very impressionable and overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Alexandria. I was bone tired but so engrossed by the book about ancient Egypt that I fell asleep with the book on my face. The book spread open forming its own pyramid over my eyes and nose.

Groggy, I regain consciousness. My eyes open to an oppressive weight-- and darkness. I freeze in a flash panic. Trapped in a tomb! 

I hear voices... deliverance! My parents are back. The light goes on. My mother says with a smile in her voice, “Look how he fell asleep!” She lifts the book off my nose and laughs. “There you are!”

The room is lit by a garish bare bulb. Oh, the light, the wonderful light! But my heart's pounding and my arms seem to weigh a ton. I’ve slept under a pyramid.

half a century
after falling asleep
waking up in Egypt



It's amazing to see the Center for the Blind right across the alley from the porno movie house. The Center for the Blind is the old ice cream factor and the porno movie house stands in the reconstructed, almost unrecognizable stone house of the Arab effendi who was so rich no one ever saw him. He was the richest invisible presence in this worker's neighborhood. He even had a goldfish pond in his big yard, mostly paved over with gravel and concrete. The pond was also concrete. I saw it more than once. It was dry when I last looked over the stone fence topped by broken glass.

It's too many summers later now. Wars and calendars have come and gone and the ice cream factory is approached by people with canes tapping their way forward. Some young, some old, some born blind, some blinded by accident, war, or disease. So many born after I first saw the light! I'm humbled by so many walking in darkness to a place where sweetness was once manufactured and stored on ice.

A formidable fat woman dressed in blue from head to toe lived in the basement of the hewed stone ice cream factory. It must have been cool down there beneath the ground floor. I used to imagine she ate most of the ice cream herself.  She always wore a faded blue peasant gown embroidered with black and red. She had blue tattoos on her face and on her forehead a chain of silver coins. A small fortune in shillings and piasters and other coins with holes through their center. According to some she was a gypsy, a nomad, a bedouin. Did someone buy her and put her in the basement to watch over the ice cream?

She looked mean as an evil eye...not sweet like her brown eyed son who watched kids playing soccer or hide-and-seek in the dead end alley. He never joined in. He just watched. Once I said, "Come--taal hon," and he turned around and ran away. It seemed his mother didn't want him to play with us. She chased me, shouting and yelling. "Manyouk," tattoos flying from her face.

I once reached for a pomegranate in her yard but couldn't grasp the prize. She chased me right past midnight over several nights. I couldn't imagine what she'd do to me if I was caught red handed with a pomegranate. Would she tattoo my behind? Would I have permanent blue marks all over my body?

I never saw her with a man, probably because I wasn't allowed out in the alley after dark. Maybe the boy had a father. I don't know. But I do know that she made me dislike tattoos, and I can still hear her cursing manyouk--bastard--across the years and up the alley, the entrance so hidden now the by movie's massive air conditioning equipment it's almost not an entrance anymore. Cars can no longer enter. Donkeys no longer deliver milk. Besides stray cats, only bikes and motorcycles and the prophet Elijah can hope to squeeze through. How many camels have gone to their reward carrying sand in their burlap bags, their neck bells tinkling down the hillside street?

The blind belong to the dark, and the fat gypsy lady belongs with the camels. Somewhere in another dimension of milk and honey and ice cream, I can see her growing fatter and fatter, like a mammoth belly dancer with a string of silver coins on her forehead.

It's a hot hamsin night in Haifa as I help a blind man about my age across the street. Suddenly I'm ageless and in dire need of ice cream,
chocolate or vanilla.

Three Island Stories


The side effects of the Kodachrome Syndrome are well known. Caribbean colors go to your head. You get into orchids. You get into sunsets. You get into peacock palettes. You start collecting empty jars at the end of rainy season rainbows. You stare into the blue, into the glare of sun and sea.

An optometrist sold me on a strong pair of shades. A visual paradise can be hell on the eyeballs. This is sunblock SPF 30 territory, too––ultraviolet central. You tend to get very interested in the latest moves of the ozone layer.

The phrase Kodachrome syndrome sounds scientific enough to be patented. My psychiatrist friend invented it, or maybe he borrowed it from a patient. He was a dropout from the school of life but didn’t want to veg out completely. He was going to redeem his island getaway guilt and write a book on the effects of beauty––sudden, overwhelming beauty--on the beauty challenged individuals coming from some dark or florescent 9 to 5 climate into a kodachrome paradise. How personalities change. How side effects become main effects....

My friend drowned in beauty, mesmerized by the island he chose as his tropical garden. “It’s wonderful––this sudden release of a depressed spirit from the dungeon into the light! No such thing as too much is too much!”

I disagreed. Newcomers can go overboard on the rock, sink into the syndrome, stare too long at the turquoise sea. There are lots of ways to count sand. There are lots of ways to collect seashells.

Maybe that’s what happened, or part of what happened.
Since I worked school hours, my friend asked me to help him brainstorm some chapter headings. Catchy, kitsch, whatever would grab the attention of a short attention span audience. Sun bites and sound bytes for the masses. Something snappy like his T-shirt which bore the legend:

He recognized he was under the KS spell, his excuse for hiring me to help with the first chapters of his book, to be called, naturally, The Kodachrome Syndrome. I did contribute a few chapter headings, i.e., Caribbean Kiss, Sun Bytes, Lazy Works Best, Shark in the Dark, Rapture of the Shallows, Scuba Bubba, etc. We were keeping it light.

Was he in the KS mode when he went off on his own for a swim between two small islands? He was never seen again. Not a trace. Presumed devoured by some anti-Freudian shark who specialized in psychiatrists with flippers. The only thing left floating was the rumor.

There was beauty all around his disappearance: the sky was clear, the water was clear. Visibility must have been at least forty miles to the horizon, and the sunset that day was beyond stunning. I recall taking a picture of it: gave it a ten.  


It’s been more than a year now, and his mainland widow is still trying to get his status resolved as legally dead. There’s serious money involved. Property, cars, insurance. I didn’t know he was married. He never mentioned it and it never came up. He did have a girlfriend on island but as far as I knew that wasn’t serious.

I still have my doubts about his disappearance. I hide them behind dark glasses. Those doubts are based on the postcard I keep under one of my prize shell jars. It’s stamped with a nearly illegible postmark posthumously dated from Belize. No signature, just “Aloha!”...his favorite greeting. But I’m not going to say a word, not one aloha to anybody. I’m just going to work on my own syndrome and fill up another jar with seashells.


Two poets--we ran into each other in Petionville, a suburb in the cool hills overlooking Port-au-Prince. The famous one, traveling incognito, didn’t mind the poverty. He accepted it as a matter of unfortunate karma and besides, wherever he was, it was “om sweet om.” Nothing fazed him in his all accepting mode.

 “This place is like India,” he said. “You have to treat it like India.”

Little Africa was more like it I thought, but if it’s India for him, okay. Wasn’t it India for Columbus too?

I definitely wasn’t buying India, not after reading up on the Black Jacobins: Toussaint, Christophe, Dessalines. I felt the poet was out of his element and didn’t really know where he was. He was on vacation, a tourist among tourists in the Indies and nowhere near India.

Though the Nazarene said poverty was here to stay--“for the poor ye always have with you,” we would do our bit to help the local economy. We made an appointment to meet for dinner at a four star restaurant in the heart of Port-au-Prince. It turned out to be a nice place downtown with big plate glass windows, polished hardwood tables, tablecloths, candleholders. 

It was a bit early and there was an ample choice of tables. We chose one by the window. He ordered vegetarian. I ordered chicken and rice, but no soup. People in the kitchen can do obscene things to soup.

Street vendors came up to scrutinize us, pressing their faces against the glass. They reached into their bags and started raising and lowering wooden masks and statues slowly, very slowly. Masks and statues went up and down without a sound, in an impromptu mime show.

“Look who’s coming to dinner,” I said.

“Yes, we have guests.”

The vendors probably did this every evening, hustling their wares while customers waited for food, and when the food finally came the statues and masks looked on.

I was being watched. I felt like an animal in the zoo at feeding time, and my appetite went out the window.

“If I crawl under the table and howl, will you throw me a bone?” I asked my dinner companion.

He said, “Impossible. I’m a vegetarian.”

He excused himself and went outside. The waiters, about to chase the hungry masks and statues away, looked on astonished while the bearded poet made deals. He was pleased with the masks he brought back to the table. What a mitzvah I thought. All I’d done was spirit away some bread in a napkin for after dinner distribution.

The masks making faces at me might not have wanted my offering anyway. I can see them confronting me with a wooden grin or staring me down as if insulted, and they’d be right. Wood is wood. Since when does wood have an appetite for bread?

We had an entourage as we headed for our next stop, the cemetery. We told the mask vendors we had a rendezvous with Baron Samedi. One of them laughed and said “We all have a rendezvous avec le Baron.” Another murmured, “Ils sont fous. Zey crazee.”

The poet claimed that every mask had a mouth and they were talking to him.

“Who’s the ventriloquist?” I asked.

“Spirits,” he said, “Masks are that way. Some talk to you, some don’t. Some keep their secrets to themselves. Beware!” he said, in a mock oracular voice. “They know something.”

We didn’t intend to lead a parade, but whether we liked it or not we were being followed by artisans and street vendors with bags full of masks and more masks. We weren’t interested in creating a commotion or attracting the attention of dark men wearing dark glasses at night.

“How do we shake our loyal following?” 
“Let’s bag the cemetery,” he decided.

“O.K. with me. The Baron can wait.” 

We grabbed a taxi that appeared out of nowhere, and a dark silent man with broken glasses drove us into the hills. The back seat of the taxi was full of masks.


Take One:

It’s hot downtown and getting hotter, but there’s always the island library. The air conditioning is working and the young librarian doesn’t bite.

Transients take advantage of the library. The librarian claims she’d rather track a handful of hurricanes than all the missing books.

I urged a lunchtime buddy to return his batch, told him I’d stand by him for moral support. I’d even help him do the daring deed if he was man enough.

“Damn right I’m man enough. Just stand by me and hold my hand. Together we’ll take the library by storm.” 

“You’re on. You don’t need the books on your conscience.”

Take Two:

“Is your name Paine?” The librarian checks the books in.

“Yeah, I’m the original one and only.”

“Your books are way, way overdue.”

“Yeah. I know I know the books are overdue. Yeah, my name fits don’t it, pain-in-the-ass-Paine, but I brought them back, didn’t I? You gotta gimme credit for that. They’re not off on some boat headin’ for Trinidad. I mess up and miss the dates, I panic, and it kills me to pay. Paine hates payin’.  Look, it’s not the zillion dollar fine, it’s the psychology of it, it’s the undeserved punishment, you understand don’tcha? C’mon, do it for Paine, please, I mean the government supports the library and I’m near broke and the books are back and my friend here is a witness I brought ‘em back in good shape and in good faith expecting your kindness, forgiveness, and mercy.”

“O.K., O.K., you can sweet talk me out of it once and that’s it. You’re off the hook this time, Mr. Paine, but don’t push your luck too far.”

“Oh thank you thank you thank you, Miss Library, let me kiss your date due hand.”

Take Three:

Peter “Karate” Paine is a fast talker. When we talk it’s as if he’s hovering above me like a dragonfly. I get the feeling he’s in another space. On earth but not grounded. He’s got charm and a super macho presence, a Hollywood caliber ladies man. He’s got that pheromone chemistry. The ladies can sniff it in the air. And he knows it.

Take Four:

If I ever see Peter Paine again I’d like to ask him a couple of questions, man to man. 

How the hell did it happen? Did you mean to do what you did? Of course, the second question is the important one, but who am I to ask? We all lie to ourselves––self-deception is the rule.

Take Five:

I spot a teacher I know and a security guard talking at the beach bar and I join them.

The barman points a finger pistol at another arrival. “Let me introduce you to an old customer, just flew in, the world famous maraschino bird.” The barman likes teasing the bar bird, a pearly eyed thrush hopping boldly around the counter.

He holds up a cherry and says, “If we’re gonna take sides, I vote for murder. I always vote for murder. This is the place for getting away with murder.” As if on cue, the bird hops off with the cherry.

The security guard shakes his head. “Look, They were both wearing karate outfits. He’s a black belt, an instructor. He was teaching her some karate moves, it got too intense and things happened.”

“Yeah, he taught her a lesson!” says the teacher sarcastically into his drink. “C’mon, man, he’s an instructor, an expert, and he lost control? I don’t buy that.”

“Did he get into it so much he turned into a psycho?” asks the barman,  “Stay tuned!”

The barman shoos the bird off the cherry bowl. “Hey, leave me some  of those cherries!”

I chime in, “Who knows what happens between two people? Maybe drugs, maybe drinks, maybe he didn’t know his own strength. There were blue bruises on her throat.” 

The barman, a part time calypsonian, sings, “It’s very suspicious, it’s very suspicious.”

“So what do we know?” Security asks.

 “Karate Paine is alive,” says the barman, “his woman is very dead, and this damn bird eats more than its weight in cherries.”

Before we shove off we join our bartender in an alcoholic chorus of “It’s very suspicious, it’s very suspicious.”

The truth is I have more than two questions.

Take Six:

Peter Paine was a striking figure, six feet something, high cheekbones, part East Indian, part Black Continental. He was a man about town doing odd jobs, teaching, bar tending, clothes modeling. He liked being a clothes horse, looking sharp, working the fashion shows around the big resort hotels: the Marriott, the Westin, the Ritz Carlton, but he was also a community activist type. He went out of his way to participate in teen events and help motivate kids in trouble. Martial arts was his calling card.

I was having a cheeseburger down by the harbor at Pier 7 when he walked in alone, dressed in a retro dashiki. It was after lunch and the place was nearly empty. I waved him over. He sat down at my table and started talking, “Hey, man, this island’s getting boring! I need a woman. I really think I miss my wife. Never thought I’d say that. Yeah, I’m running up some wild phone bills. It’s crazy, it’s too damn much! It would be cheaper if she came here, man, I’m tired of supporting AT&T single handed.”

“Ask her to come down,” I said.

“Yeah, I’m gonna talk to her. I’m gonna ask her to come on down —the water’s fine. Come back down, kiss the subway goodbye, catch a plane to Paine’s paradise and shake down some coconuts. One thing though, she’s got a good job up there working night shifts at Mt. Sinai. Maybe she can take a leave of absence or get a job at the hospital. They sure need nurses down here, always need nurses. Everybody needs a nurse.”

“How long you been separated?”

“Too long.”

“Are you comfortable with that? People get lonely.... All those young doctors....”

“She does what she has to do. I don’t mind. I do what I do, she does what she does, we’re A-dults you know? I don’t worry about that.”

“Just jivin’, man, I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

“It’s those phone bills you know, they’re driving me crazy. I gotta cut them down. It makes no sense. I’ll ask her, I’ll beg her to help me cut those phone bills."
“Call her, bring her down.”

“Yes, I will, I’ll call her.” 

“Go on, call her tonight. It’ll be a second honeymoon.”

“Yes it will. I’ll tell her exactly what you said––tell her you told me to. Ha ha, that’s right, tonight’s the night.  I’ll make that call.” He chomped down hard on his veggie sandwich.

“What? No hamburger?”

“No man, I don’t like the idea of killing cows. Go on, be carnivorous, eat your bleeding meat, don’t mind me. I used to eat it but I’m a changed man. I got the bread, the lettuce, the tomato but you can keep the bloody meat.”

Take Seven:

“You still busting bricks with your hand?”

“You heard about that?”

“Man, that must’ve been rough on the bricks!”

“Don’t feel sorry for the bricks, they did all right. Nearly broke my hand. Messed up bad. Gotta practice, gotta practice. Whole junior high audience watchin’ me and I mess up! It hurt and the kids are hootin’ and hollerin’. Man, was I red in the face.”

“You can’t be red in the face.”

“You’re right.”

“So Superman had an off day.” 

“Tellin’ me! Way, way off.”

“Better luck next time.”

“Next time I’ll use a chisel! You know, simply simplify the operation and teach those mothereffin’ bricks a lesson.”

Take Eight:

“You ever meet my wife? I’m so excited she’s coming down tomorrow-- can’t wait to see a nekked wooman. Had to make lots of promises. I promised I’m gonna be good goody good, good as gold for as long as she can stand me and she said O.K. You ever meet her? Real blond, about 5’8”.”


“I’ll introduce you, the man who helped me deal with the phone!”

Take Nine:

It’s a slow, bright and sunny afternoon in the Virgins. I put on the radio for the one o’clock news and I hear Peter Paine’s name mentioned. I listen closely--is that the same guy I know? Taken into custody. Found leaning over steering wheel. Bleeding from chest wounds. Hysterical. Horn beep beep beeping for half an hour until neighbors got angry, checked it out and called the cops. Wife found dead in white karate outfit.

An investigation is underway.

Take Ten:

Did she walk into a sudden move? Blue bruises around her neck. A karate chop to the windpipe? On purpose or did he get carried away? What the hell’s going on. Peter Paine... my Peter Paine?  Too out of the blue. Too, too strange. So out of character. Or is it.

Take Eleven:

The lady psychiatrist at St. Ursula’s hospital doesn’t know what to make of him. He claims she’s trying to seduce him. He yells at her: “Go away, get away from my bed. I don’t want to see you. I’m tired of you comin’ on to me. Leave me alone. Get outta here!”

He carries on, threatening to rip open his stitches again, the way he did when he was first brought to the hospital, crying, “I don’t want to go on, I want out.”

Big act or schizophrenia?

Take Twelve:

The police are supposed to be building a dossier. He’s friendly with a few members of the force. Taught them some karate.

A few weeks later, the evidence file is lost. All charges dropped for lack of evidence. It’s a small island. It pays to have brothers on the police force.  

Take Thirteen:

I see him a couple of months later looking good downtown near the Fort with a strapping blond Swedish gal.

“Hey, man, how you doin’,  you know Ingrid? No? We’re getting married! A  man needs a wife, yes indeed.”

“Pleased to meet you.” She laughed. A bright, toothy Swedish smile.

“She’s so yummy, she’s my kind of dish.” He licked her lips with his tongue in a roguish, doggish way. “We’re heading for California, start a family. That’s right, Ingrid is pregnant. Show him your beer belly Ingrid.”

“Nothing much to see yet.” She patted her belly, ”But it’s there.”


How long have they known each other?

Was she on island when it happened? Fast operator or cool operator. I keep my thoughts to myself, keep my mouth shut.

Wonder what she knows. Did he tell her anything about what happened?
They tell me she looks like his first wife, only taller.

Take Fourteen:

Good news. The librarian is back after a mainland vacation. Could be she was looking for another job. Everyone does that after a couple of years on island. I ran into her near Market Square and she asked if I’d seen Peter Paine.

“Peter? Why?”

“He has a couple of books way overdue again. Karate books. Those are really popular. I told him to be sure and bring them back on time. I let him get away with a big fine once--he’s such a good talker.”

“Yes, he could talk the dead out of the ground. Maybe the police have them.”

“The police?”

“I assume they confiscated whatever was in his apartment.”

“What for?”

“Darling, you’ve been off island too long.”

Take Fifteen:

“I heard Karate Paine changed his name. Goes by John Hancock.”

“Who says.”

“Grapevine. You know, one of my P. D. contacts. He’s in California.”

“Busting bricks?”

“Running for governor!”

“Changed man or changed identity?”

“Maybe the name he went by here wasn’t his real name either.”

“What’s a real name?”

“Could be anything. Whatever.  I wish him luck.”

“Hope he’s a nice daddy.”

“I wish his new ol’ lady some luck too.”

“They sure got together fast.”

“Yep, good luck to both of ‘em, and the baby.”
Take Sixteen:

What about the autopsy? I ask myself. Rules and regulations say it’s required but I seriously doubt they did one. The corpse cutter was off island. And if they did have an autopsy––so what? It doesn’t matter if you know how to file the files. It’s just paper games. Besides, the gal was a mainlander. So who gives a damn. She’s gone, right? Why ruin a guy’s life?

Call it temporary insanity. Call it murder. Call it manslaughter. Call it what you will. After his wounds healed, Paine was released from the hospital and he was back in action as if nothing happened––home again up in Estate Scott Free.

Take Seventeen:

The dead wife’s parents came down, identified the body and took it back to New York. Their only child. 

Take Eighteen:

Maybe I shouldn’t have teased Karate Paine about what his first wife was doing up there all by her lonesome in New York surrounded by young doctors. Did I push some hidden button? Do I give myself too much credit? 

This is the Caribbean. Sun, sea, and sex. For some, it’s paradise, for others the opposite. People act out their fantasies and move on. These are the islands of come and go. “Like hangovers,” says the barman.
Guilt, innocence, or an unholy mix of both: the security guard just shrugs. He thinks life is like algebra––it’s easy to forget the equations and nobody’s interested in solving for X. The police never talked to me or anybody I know.

Take Nineteen:

The barman told me that after one too many he can talk to the maraschino bird and get good advice which he can hardly remember the next day. Of course, the bird has to be bribed first.

I wonder if I should pay the bird another visit. Peter Paine might be in California, but with me he’s here to stay. All I know is I know what I don’t know, which is a good line to give to the bartender. Let him build a calypso on it.

What’s the perfect crime? And what about intent and motive? I’ll put those questions to the bird. I hear that even Albert Einstein used to talk to his bird.

Take Twenty:

My psychologist friend says I’m not responsible. Easy for her to say. Not responsible. It can cut both ways. Depends on how you say it.

Take Twenty-one:

The librarian is pissed off at the police. She claims that whatever the police confiscate they rip off. I say, “Really!” and we share a smile.

The librarian’s looking good. I might be overdue for a date with the library. We’ll see. I’ll try to get the books back for her. If the police don’t support the library, who will?