A SPIDER IN THE SAND, Paul Rudolph’s Antidote to Cold War Paranoia

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I set out on my auspicious little outing to Sanibel Island, driving across the lower instep of Florida, marshy light deflecting off the windshield, sheet-flow expanding incrementally as the car moves westward along the pencil-straight line of Route 75, otherwise known as ‘Alligator Alley’ (although I never spot a single gator along the way), past fences and swales and empty parking lots, the sky turning milky and oddly rippled with altocumulus clouds, sucking up moisture from the shallows of the Everglades.

I’m going to visit the Walker Guest House, Paul Rudolph’s little beach-house gem, built in 1952, just after Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House opened in New York City and the nightmarish “Tumbler-Snapper” nuclear device was detonated in the Nevada desert. Richard Nixon gave his infamous Checkers speech that same month and the USS Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine, was launched in Groton, Connecticut. Indeed it was the heyday of the Nuclear Age, the age of the “Good Bomb” and MAD (“Mutually Assured Destruction”) with the perceived threat of Communist infiltration and back-yard bomb shelters. Into this Faustian landscape, Rudolph’s little pod dropped as an antidote to Cold-War paranoia, open to views on all sides and liberating to the human soul.
The 24-by-24-foot frame of the original rests wistfully on a bed of crushed oyster shells, high enough to catch breezes off the Gulf of Mexico and also withstand hurricane floods. An outrigger structure provides support for the ingenious, Rube Goldberg contraptions that Rudolph devised for raising and lowering the large wooden window flaps. These are hinged along the top and operated with rope and pulleys. There are eight flaps in all, two on every side, and they can be set in a variety of positions.

****IMG_2124The most memorable elements of Rudolph’s design, however, are the eight counterweight balls (weighing 77 pounds each) that hang from steel cables and help to raise and lower the wooden flaps. This accounts for the nickname: “cannonball house” favored by family and locals, while others prefer the more prosaic “house with balls.” The spherical counterweights are said to have been cast in beach sand by pouring wet concrete into the negative form of a beach ball, a most poetic touch, but one that may be apocryphal.

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Rudolph’s single-family vacation homes of this period were thoroughly urban constructs with flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling glass. (The Miller Guest House in Casey Key, built in 1949, and the Cocoon House on Siesta Key, built in 1950, were the earliest examples.) They signaled independence, self-sufficiency, and a celebration of the natural elements: sun, sea and a well-shaken martini. While providing little more than shade and a place to sleep, the Walker house expressed an open-ended lifestyle for a generation who’d survived World War II and were intent on building a brighter, more hopeful future for themselves and their families. Today, the house can be seen as a prototype for sustainable living with its small footprint and simplicity of plan. It was inexpensive, self-cooling, raised against floodwaters, and easily closed up for hurricanes. Just as importantly, it was light-hearted, even whimsical, with its dangling cannonballs and flip-top walls, fitting seamlessly into the natural setting, and barely disrupting the sandy contours of the Sanibel beachfront.

Cocoon House, Siesta Key, 1950

Cocoon House, Siesta Key, 1950

The Walker house was the first independent commission after Rudolph established his own firm., and Walter Walker proved to be an ideal client: son of a prominent Minneapolis family, culturally sophisticated and with a love for the outdoors. He was the grandson of T.B. Walker, the Minnesota lumber baron who’d given his renowned art collection and part of his fortune to create the Walker Art Center. He went to Harvard medical school but ended up working in the family lumber business. In his 30s, he contracted tuberculosis; the family physician prescribed a warm, quiet place to recover. This was originally why Walter bought the waterfront lot on Sanibel Island as a kind of one-man sanatorium, but he didn’t think about building a house there for another few years. In 1950, he contacted Sarasota-based architect Ralph Twitchell, who advised him to hire his young associate, Paul Rudolph. “He’s fresh out of Yale and full of ideas,” said Twitchell. Walker took his advice and commissioned Rudolph to design a small guesthouse on a back corner of the property. (Later, in the 1970s, a much bigger house would be built on the dune overlooking the Gulf.)

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Paul Rudolph’s design for the main Walker house, 1950 (unbuilt)

Rudolph worked with basic materials that could be found at any lumberyard. Standard lengths of two-by-four lumber were doubled up to create I-beam-style supports for the footings, and the hurricane flaps were made from plywood and peg-board sandwiched together. It was to be the simplest of pavilions. Its many openings were originally designed without screens, but Walker insisted on having them to keep out mosquitoes and sand flies. He spent the next 30 winters living there until finally building a larger house on the top of the dune.

Floor Plan, Walker GH

Up at the main house, the sun is bright, almost blinding, and Mrs. Elaine Walker, a spry 91 years old, sits on a shaded porch, looking out at the liquid light rising off the Gulf of Mexico. She is warm and welcoming with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “There was ****Mrs. Elaine Walker - photo by AG.2157 2nothing here. It was the absolute boonies!” she says, laughing. “There wasn’t even a telephone!” Wearing a blue-green dress and bone-white spectacles, she sits in a low-slung hammock chair and explains how she met her husband Walter in the 1960s. He’d recovered from tuberculosis by then but was going through a drawn-out divorce, as was she. “We kept going out to dinner and then we fell in love,” says Elaine. After dating for almost two years, they decided to get married, but when Walter brought her to his little escape pad on Sanibel Island, she was shocked. “He told me that he had this little house in Florida and when I came down from Minneapolis I thought ‘Why would anyone want to build in such a place?’ It was so isolated and I’m a city kid by nature.” The roof leaked when it rained and there were gopher tortoises living in the crawl space. When Elaine wanted to make a phone callshe had to walk half a mile up the dusty shell road. “You call this a house?” she said. “Not exactly what I’m accustomed to–only 24 by 24 feet–you must be kidding!” But Walt loved it small and simple, and he liked to lie in a hammock strung between two palm trees and watch pelicans skim across the water, counting them as they passed. By the end of the first winter season, Elaine was learning to adapt to the quirkiness of Rudolph’s little experiment. “It was just like camping and I learned to be a good girl scout,” she says. “I’d always wanted to be a Girl Scout.” She and her husband would go swimming in the morning, collect shells along the beach and read books. Elaine pinned up a few art posters and Walt made little scenes out of driftwood and shell. He even agreed to put in a telephone. “It was really quite charming, after all,” she admitted.

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Walker Guest House - drawing - archival 2

Even with only 580 square feet of internal living space, the house felt expansive with its all-around views and basic geometry. The interior was divided into equal quadrants for dining, cooking, living and sleeping, something like a well-ordered boat, with everything in its place. Rudolph had worked as a naval architect during World War II. He learned about thin-shell construction and how to make the most efficient use of space. “I was profoundly affected by ships,” he wrote. “I remember thinking that a destroyer was one of the most beautiful things in the world.” Rudolph would apply what he’d learned in the shipyards to the Walker Guest House and other projects. In early photographs you can see that he’d originally used a deep indigo blue in the living/dining area to create a cool, cave-like space and offset the sun-struck dunes that surround the house. He designed most of the furniture himself, including a steel-and-glass dining table, a low-lying bookcase as spatial divider in the living room, and several deck chairs. Floors were charcoal gray linoleum and the ceiling was covered in a pale grass-cloth to create texture. “It was just as cozy as could be,” said Elaine Walker, remembering the times she stayed in the house during inclement weather. The flaps could be lowered half way to keep the rain out but there was still enough light for indoor activities. “You know, Rudolph told my husband that sometimes it’s nice to be in a cave and sometimes it’s nice to be in a pavilion,” she said. “With the flaps down it was a cave. With the flaps up it was a pavilion.” With a few adjustments the flaps could also be made to funnel Gulf breezes through the house, as there was no air conditioning, but occasionally it was sweltering and Mrs. Walker remembers having to run down to the beach every half hour for another dip in the Gulf. “I never got out of my bathing suit,” she said.

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The skeletal structure fulfilled Rudolph’s desire to make the house “crouch like a spider in the sand,” with spindly legs reaching out on all sides, eroding all sense of mass. The house’s profile would change almost daily, depending on the weather, the season, the angle of light and the moods of the homeowners. The counterweights moved up and down so that when the flaps were shut, the balls hung high and when the flaps were open, the balls hung low. The wood bracing, pull ropes and tension cables also created narrow lines of shadow–a kind of drawing or delineation–that Rudolph used to further animate his three-dimensional composition.

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When construction was finished, Walter Walker climbed up on the roof and detected a slight lateral movement in the bones of the structure. He called Rudolph and the architect quickly devised a solution: crisscrossing tension cables were strung across the openings to strengthen the structural integrity of the framework.

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McCall’s Magazine

The guesthouse received an inordinate amount of attention for such a modest commission. McCall’s Magazine ran a feature in 1956 with color photos and a breezy text about the “house for carefree summer living.” (Plans could be purchased from the magazine for 25 cents.) It appeared in architecture journals and became an inspiration to a generation of young American architects. Peter Blake, architect and friend of Rudolph, designed his own house in Water Mill, New York, in the same configuration with a 24-foot-by-24-foot floor plan. Instead of hinged wooden flaps, however, Blake used horizontally sliding barn doors that could be moved back and forth on metal tracks, but it was essentially the same idea: a box that could be shut up for a hurricane or a season.

Pinwheel House, Water Mill, NY, 1954, Peter Blake architect

Pinwheel House, Water Mill, NY, 1954, Peter Blake architect

“I had no idea that our little guesthouse would become so famous,” says Mrs. Walker. “It’s really quite revered in the world of architecture so we try to maintain it as best as we can.” The counterweight balls were originally painted a bright pimento red, like an exotic fruit, and stood out in contrast to the white walls of the house. Now, they’re more of an aubergine or purplish red, while the woodwork has been painted a pale gray in place of the original white. “I like a little bit of change now and then,” says Mrs. Walker who has kept the house in pristine condition ever since her husband’s death in 2001. Windows are re-sealed; wood surfaces are sanded and painted fresh almost every year, while an assistant keeps the mold at bay with frequent doses of bleach.

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Apart from a few minor repairs, the house is made of the same materials it was built with in 1952. Even the fixtures in the tiny kitchen and bathroom are original. After years of exposure, the wooden flaps have become water logged and harder to lift. It usually takes two people to open them. “My husband would stand inside and pull the rope while I would go outside and push with my fanny,” explained Mrs. Walker.

****Jack Priest, son-in-law of Mrs. Walker, Photo by AG. 2152 2

****IMG_2190 2Jack Priest, her son-in-law, stands in the doorway of the little guesthouse, wearing pink rubber clogs and a marlin-print shirt. He points to a metal escutcheon in the ceiling and explains how one of the pull ropes breaks every so often and has to be replaced and threaded through a hidden pulley, out through a hole in the fascia board. “It takes real concentration,” says Priest, who’s learned how to guide the rope through the openings with a stiff wire.

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Elaine Walker and her family — her children and grandchildren — continue to cherish the diminutive scale and close-packed ingenuity of a house that forces everyone to slow down and return to the simple pleasures of waterfront living — picnics, swimming, outdoor showers, beach combing, living in synch with nature — so that winter vacations on Sanibel have become a beloved family tradition. “I didn’t come to appreciate the architecture for a long time,” admits Mrs. Walker. “But it was wonderful to be in a place that made my family so happy.”

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Paul Rudolph’s name has been tossed about in the news lately because several of his buildings are under threat of demolition. While the early beach houses are generally cherished and well monitored, the concrete walls and bulky forms of his later “brutalist” buildings are harder to love. Many find them cold and alienating, such as the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY (1967) that is scheduled to be torn down in the next few months. As a kind of precautionary measure, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) recently announced that they are creating a full-scale replica of the Walker Guest House, one of Rudolph’s crowning achievements. Architect and contractor Joseph King is fabricating the facsimile in his workshop in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota. Sponsored by the SAF and Dr. Michael Kalman, the revision will be exact in every detail except for the fact that this 21st-century variation will be a demountable kit of parts, easily broken down and moved from venue to venue. King is milling all sections from micro-laminate lumber that will help to strengthen the structure. Parts will be attached with screws and bolts instead of nails, but as per the original, linoleum will cover the floors. (The Armstrong Flooring company happens to still make the same charcoal gray product.) When finished, it will be a walk-though artifact for the purpose of educating people about mid-century modernism and the architectural legacy of Paul Rudolph. Even the furniture that Rudolph designed for the interior is being replicated. The facsimile edition of the Walker Guest House will be unveiled in November 2015 and remain on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota for another 11 months. After that, it is scheduled to travel to Miami in time for Art Basel Miami 2016. For info: http://www.ringling.org/

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ALOFT: Pre-War Summer, 1939

There is still the sea, it shall not be dried up.

                                     – Aeschylus

Bdev 86_0016_NEWPhotographs from that summer look like stills from a silent movie. My father appears to be suspended in space, a happy marionette, in watery reflections and soft, billowing clouds, either dangling from a spar or balanced precariously on a bowsprit. There are no backgrounds, no recognizable features of landscape, just water and the hazy skies of western Scotland, the islands of Jura, Coll, Islay, Mull, and the blurred outlines of distant hills. He turned twenty-three on May 31, 1939, poor as a church mouse, but free to do whatever he liked, go wherever he liked. He rented rooms on Gare Loch and was as happy as he’d ever been, sailing the Clyde and swimming, reading Aeschylus in the original Greek with English annotations by Gilbert Murray, sitting up in his garret with an oil lamp flickering while unseen forces were already at work, plotting and reshaping his future.Through a small side window he could see the ships of the Royal Navy moored at the Tail O’ the Bank, making the words of Aeschylus seem all the more prescient: “Deep in that shingle strand, moored the sloops of war, and men thronged the beach of Ilium…” as if it were lifted from the front page of the Glasgow Herald but filtered through an ancient, amber lens.

EG sailing, 1939

There’d been reports of a crisis in Danzig and Spanish refugees crossing into France, and Daladier mobilizing reserve troops. Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March about when he’d been studying for finals at St. Andrews. He came down in early June, bringing only a few clothes and books (second-hand volumes on moral philosophy for Malcom Knox’s seminar on Hegel) to the temporary digs in Clynder. That same week, the Japanese imposed a naval blockade on the port of Tianjin and began their assault on southern China. While Ernest was aware of these events, they seemed far removed from his daily life and what he remembered was a pleasant bubble of peace, a dream-like respite between St. Andrews and Munich, between Spring Term and mobilization. “Skies were blue; winds were fair and warm,” he wrote twenty years later. “The Firth was saturated with beauty… I had no money, but I lived like a millionaire on what small skill I had as a yachtsman.”

EG Sailing #

Clynder was little more than a post office with a church and a few houses clustered along Rosneath Road but the hills gave it a kind of grandeur, gathering up to the north of the village as they did, veiled in mist. There was no proper kitchen but he could cook sausages and beans on a little propane stove and he toasted bread in the fireplace. Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, he would go to Bremer’s Tea Room near the ferry pier and buy a scotch egg and wash it down with a cup of strong tea. When heScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 10.52.08 AM wasn’t sailing, he was swimming Rhu Narrows to Blairvadach and back to the shingle beach at Shandon, or walking from his tiny flat on Brookend Brae, past the Presbyterian manse,across fields of slate and heather, past a greenhouse, a mossy weir, up Garelochhead Wood and a high, rain-streaked trail to Knockderry House on Loch Long. From there he looked across to Greenock, but already felt a world removed from his childhood on that distant shore. (He only went to visit his parents twice that summer.) In June, he went to a movie in Helensburgh: Goodbye Mr. Chips starring Greer Garson and Robert Donat. He also read Aldous Huxley’s new novel, After Many a Summer, about a Hollywood millionaire who fears his own impending death.

EG sailingIf the photos from that summer had titles they would be something like “Becalmed Before the Storm”, or “Adrift”, but none of them have titles and there’s no further information so I can only guess their chronology from clues like the shape of his face or the length of his hair. In one, he’s standing at the helm of Janetta, a yawl from Lorimer’s, on a stormy day and he’s smoking a pipe, which I’d never seen him do before. This is probably early summer because his face is closer in shape to that final semester at St. Andrews when he was still boxing and playing rugby. In another, he’s smoking a cigar and posing in the stern of a boat. His chest is thrust out, his hips are cranked, and his hand is resting on the backstay, as if to steady himself. Was he making a joke? Was he drunk? (According to Aunt Grace, he arrived back at Toward Point one night that summer with a black eye and a bloody lip.) An attractive brunette sits in the cockpit with her arm draped over the tiller. She has a coyly bemused expression on her face, suppressing a laugh or possibly trying to ignore my father for behaving like such an ass. It must be late July or early August. The water is glassy smooth, almost obsidian and barely ruffled from the wake of the boat, ghosting along under sail, a mid-summer light washing everything in a luminous glow, my father’s sun-tanned face, his hands, the teak of the deck, block and tackle, transom and traveler, a life-ring with the name of the boat painted on its side. (I can make out an “o” and an “n,” but the brunette’s head blocks out the rest. Could it be Dionne, the mythical ketch of my parent’s first meeting?)

EILEAN, 1938

In another photo he’s been hoisted aloft and is clinging to the mast of a gaff-rigged yawl, looking young and agile while he doffs his cap, mugging for the photographer below. His right foot rests on one of the mast rings while his left hand clings to the halyard. His body is soft and supple, slightly overweight, but well proportioned and you can see how women must have been attracted, but there’s also something uncouth and wooly about him. In another shot he’s wearing baggy black shorts and a velour shirt with a pattern of crowns and diamonds, Glasgow gangster style, and when I first came upon this photograph I thought it had to be someone else, certainly not my solemn Reverend Father. There was Rose in Colonsay and another–Maira?–when he crewed to the south of Ireland on Vagrant. The old Clyde Forty hit a nor’easter on the homeward leg and limped into Dublin for repairsDione? Below Decks. Later in July, he crewed on the 6-meter Circe, the Bermudan yawl Zigeneur and Dragon-class Primula. In early August, he earned ten pounds skippering a ketch up the west coast to Tobermory and out to the island of Muck, “seeking harbor by night in lochs protected by hills ancient with wisdom and offering a rare serenity to those ready to accept it,” he wrote, also mentioning a “beautiful redhead” who he’d met on the pier at Tobermory, but couldn’t remember her name–Ainsely? He wasn’t sure.

On August 20, Germany announced that they’d reached a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Two days after that, Prime Minister Chamberlain renewed Britain’s pledge of support for Poland, while appealing to Hitler for truce. But the worst was yet to come and on August 23, while Ernest was sailing Dionne to Cowes, seven hundred miles away,chamberlainmunichGermany and the Soviet Union signed their non-aggression pact, paving the way for the invasion of Poland, and as the summer drew to an end, he sensed that his days of lofty indolence were over, and marked a passage with red pencil in his copy of Aeschylus: “What is this insistent fear which in my prophetic heart set and steady beats with evil omen, chanting unbidden a brooding, oracular music? Why can I not cast it out like a dream of dark import?” But he could not cast out that brooding, oracular music from his heart, and he had no doubts that war was imminent and he would be killed.

Robertson Yard 8

Alexander Robertson

My mother, Helen Macintosh Robertson, was on board Dionne for the first leg of the Cowes Race, from Hunter’s Quay to Arran. She was the daughter of Alec Robertson and granddaughter of Alexander, the barrel-chested patriarch of the Robertson family and founder of the self-named yacht business based on the Holy Loch. (Alexander reached prominence in 1902 when he made overnight repairs to Kaiser Whilhelm’s yacht, Meteor III, and was thereafter rewarded with a commission to build the Kaiser’s next boat.) According to my mother, she and Ernest barely exchanged a word the whole time, my father standing on the foredeck, raising another jib while glancing aft to the willowy figure in black oilskin. There were dozens of handsome young men that summer, and she pretended not to notice the tanned, shirtless man in the bow. He remembered the way she chain-smoked and chatted madly in the cockpit, flirting with Sandy Garvie whose father owned Dionne. Maybe he’d been trying too hard to impress her, showing off, she scoffed. Who did he think he was in those shabby shorts and rope belt? “Common” was the word she used forty years after the fact, but he was also darkly handsome and tall and her calculated method of gaining his attention was to ignore him all the way to Arran.

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Dionne placed third in her class and won a bronze plaque. The Garvies put on a festive luncheon for the crew (cold lamb, shepherd’s pie, pickled onions) at the Royal Marine Hotel, a granite pile in Hunter’s Quay with Neo-Tudor gables overlooking the Clyde. Toasts were made all around and my father stayed until the end when everyone stood up to sing God Save the King just before it was announced, almost as an afterthought, that Germany had invaded Poland. After that, everything seemed to unravel and the lofty, loving summer of 1939 came to a rather sudden and squalid end.

Earlier in the week I drove east across the narrow waist of Scotland, doubling back through industrial hinterlands, with black smoke rising over Royston and Wallacewell, through the flatlands of Castlecary to Queensferry, across the Firth of Forth Bridge and up the east coast to Fife. After his “mishap” in the RAF–the crumpled plane, the broken collar bone–my father returned to the comforts and relative safety of student life, this time at St. Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university where he studied from September 1937 to May ****College, St. Andrews 21939 at St. Salvador’s College on North Street with its high tower and courtyard shaded by the venerable thorn tree that Mary Queen of Scots is said to have planted. He took Introductory Hebrew with Sandy Honeyman, the youngest professor at St. Andrews. He sat in a drafty lecture hall and listened to T. Malcolm Knox, a prominent
Hegelian, who taught Moral Philosophy. “In nature everything which happens exemplifies a universal law,” wrote Ernest in his miniscule penmanship with a Burnham fountain pen–speckled orange Bakelite and gold nib–that his parents gave him for his 21st birthday. He drew diagrams of Kant’s Categorical Imperative with a list of sensations–taste, smell, touch–and traced three lines that converged near the middle of the page:

I: (Mechanism)—Thought or Consciousness

II: (Freedom)—Thought – Self-Consciousness

At one point he even considered making a career of moral philosophy. He wasn’t sure how that would work, but anything seemed possible during these idyllic pre-war days. He loved the Old Town, the students, the professors, the ancient golf course and the pristine strand of pale sand that stretched to the north. Again I don’t know much. He didn’t speak very often of these days, and if he did it was usually only a brief anecdote about rugby or drinking beer or saber fencing. He once mentioned his friend Bill McLean who had also signed up for Officer Training Corps (OTC) and how they trekked through the soggy glens of western Fife on weekends dressed in their OTC uniforms of gray kilt, green shirt, long woolen socks, and leather boots. There’s a photograph of them, bivouacked in a field somewhere, lying in the heather, their fresh faces pointed towards the sun.

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St. Andrews

I stroll down Largo Road to Nelson Street where Ernest leased student digs during that final semester before the war, and I follow the same path that he took every morning, past the lawn bowling club and up the well-trodden footpath that crosses Kinnes Burn and tunnels through Louden’s Close, a narrow wynd that passes between stone walls and beneath a low archway onto South Street, now bustling with students in medieval robes, laughing and going about their business. I try to imagine my father here in his crimson robes and thick curly hair, walking up Market Street to the eastern end of town, wandering through the 12th-Century ruins of the cathedral where the relics of Apostle Andrew–fisherman and brother of St. Peter–are said to be buried.  Some of the walls are sill standing but most have collapsed and there’s a mossy bed of grass in place of the floor. It’s a garden puzzle of granite and empty spaces where the sky pushes in and the cruciform plan is still evident in the stones that remain.

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EG at St. Andrews, 1938

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All of this was behind me, driving a rented car, passing the Ferguslie lawn-bowls club in Paisley, near the street where I was born, past gray housing and chimneys, and I’m thinking how I like to simplify everything, while my father liked to complicate and obfuscate, or so it seemed, and how my own son feels the same about me and sees excess in almost everything I do. I took M898 across Erskine Bridge and up Great Western Road (A82) toward Crianlarich, through a series of confusing roundabouts, around the far end of Gare Loch, via the old black-topped Haul Road to A814, south onto Rosneath, then all the way down the opposite side of the loch to Clynder. The village seems much the same today as it was during the summer of 1939. There are only a few streets, restaurants, Tam House, Straid-A-Cnoc, Kentroma House, and a more recent block of council flats off Braeside. The steamer ferry’s long gone, but I can see a row of rotting stumps where the old pier once stood. The rusted metal cutout of a kettle hangs in front of the GrDictance Swimmereen Kettle Inn, but it’s closed for business, so I walk the shingle shore, trying to imagine my father swimming the breadth of the loch, the opposite shore being quite distant, the water cold, but I always knew that swimming was like breathing for him. At ten, he’d been inspired by Gertrude Ederle, fabled “Queen of the Waves,” when she swam the English Channel to beat the previous man’s record by an astonishing two hours. My father learned the effortless Trudgen Method from Max Ferguson of the Gourock Lido, a seawater pool built on the rocks near the Caledonian ferry terminal. After months of training in the pool, he began to swim the wilder waters of the Clyde and won his first long-distance race in 1930. Two years later, at 16, he won the Royal Life Saving medal for a two-mile swim between Kilcreggan and Gourock, and by then he’d perfected his own version of the Australian Crawl. (I used to swim far out with him in Gardiner’s Bay, trying to keep apace, and even in his eighties he would push away from the beach and swim hard for a hundred yards before taking a rest.)

Bremer’s Tea Room is no longer there but the building where my father rented rooms is still in tact, a half-timbered boarding house called “Seasgair”, on Brookend Brae with white chickens out back, wire cages, straw and mud, a few plum trees, and a blackened stone wall with patches of moss and miniature ferns sprouting from its mortared seams. I park the car and try to follow the path that he used to take on his Sunday walks, past the manse, up through the woods and over the top of the hill to Loch Long. I go as far as a barbed-wire fence, and stop to look back across the village and the loch, trying to imagine him standing on this same hill, catching his breath, looking out on the same leaden light falling over the inlets of the Clyde that summer more than sixty years ago. His memories were fractured, disconnected, and I have to work with what I have, a few photographs, a few stories, something about the Loch Long Hotel and Sunday walks over Luss Ridge, the highest ridge. He would go for kedgeree with hard-boiled eggs and curried rice after church, on weekends, when there wasn’t a regatta.There used to be a small-gauge railway that stopped in Tarbert and sometimes, when tired from walking, he would ride it through Ardmay and Finnart, across the hills to Garelochhead, then get off in Rhu and take the ferry across Gare Loch to Rosneath and walk down Shore Road and back to his flat in Clynder.

***AG PIX, SCOTLAND, 0188 copy

The Loch Long Hotel is still there, catering to bus tours, a cluster of white buildings running down to the sandy flats of Loin Water. I leave my car by the restaurant, and stand on a stone parapet. I can smell low tide wafting up from the muddy flats and kelp beds. A man is walking a Collie along the water’s edge. I head up the path through an orchard and along the edge of a pine forest with a stream that I could hear but couldn’t see–water gurgling, muffled by pine needles–until I was up to the weir where the hidden stream spilled into a small lake. Further up there was a keeper’s cottage with the Duke of Argyll’s crest emblazoned on the front gable. Straw had been laid out in bails beside a fence. I walk through an iron gate, careful to secure the latch after I’m through, and cross a small stone bridge. There are more trees at this altitude and I continue up an even steeper path that switches back and forth to the very highest part of the ridge where there’s a small pavilion with a bench and a glorious view to the west. It feels much wilder and remote than I expected, and the mountains appear to lift themselves up from their own reflections in the placid waters of the loch. Am I looking for my father’s past or is it something else, my own imprint in all of this? I’m not sure. At times it feels as if I’m chasing the flimsiest shadows through these lochs and glens: mysteries of seaweed, hake and haddock, plaited ferns along the shore, water lapping over gray shale, while across the way the clouds press down against the lower foothills. I suppose it’s the afternoon light and the wetness in the air, but the mood of the moment changes and there’s a downpour followed by a breeze that spreads fan-shaped ripples across the loch. A saturation of light hangs over the glen, and for a moment it feel as if the entire world were pulling back to the horizon–a general ebbing–as happens before a tsunami, the clouds hanging low and ribbed in dull streaks of purple like the cartilaginous underside of a skate’s wing. I think of the way my father would say, “Ochh...” in a weary, drawn out voice when something broke in his hands. Was this the bitter cry of his father or was it his own sense of disappointment?

*** AG PIX - SCOTLAND, 0198 copy

He often seemed unapproachable, disconnected from his own body, even when standing in a crowd of people, yet he was hyper-aware of immediate surroundings, aware of who was approaching, who was coming through the door, as if on the alert for a surprise attack. He would scold me for slurring my words and in the way of instruction would enunciate his own words slowly and distinctly like an old-fashioned radio announcer. In the summer he walked around the house naked, without the least bit of modesty. After swimming, he stood in the sun and sucked in his stomach while flexing his abdominal muscles in an undulating motion. He had black spots all over his neck and shoulders–moles, odd pigmentations and blotchy discolorations–from over-exposure to the tropical sun. He was good at grabbing moths in mid-flight and crushing them between his fingers. He preferred not to use toilet paper. He suffered dizzy spells, palpitations of the heart, black outs, fainting spells, and other after effects of malnutrition. He almost never fell into a deep, restful sleep, but would nod off in the living room with a hand draped on his face–his index finger crooked over one eyelid in a guarded way. Sometimes he woke with a start and lashed out, disoriented and confused. He was surprisingly clumsy, well beyond the average, big-man clumsiness. Whenever my father fell on the sidewalk, stumbled down a staircase, slipped on the ice, tripped over a carpet or cut his hand on the lid of a tin can or broke his thumb or accidentally put his hand through a window, it was always extreme, with blood, stitches, curses and ugly bruises that took weeks to heal. Sometimes my father would eat his food like a rapacious dog, stuffing meat or bread into his mouth, swallowing without chewing, jamming it down as if he was still afraid of starving. His favorite sandwich was ripened banana on whole wheat. When he ate an apple, he always ate the whole apple, including the core and seeds. After moving to America in the 1950s, he became even more Scottish in his actions and reactions. His West Highland accent grew stronger. He had his tweed jackets custom-tailored in Duddington Park and he polished his hand-stitched brogues with a special brush. He marched smartly along Prospect Street, nodding and saying “good afternoon” to every student who passed as if he were their commanding officer and they were his subalterns.

The rain passes quickly but leaves a heaviness that lingers for the rest of the afternoon, made all the more poignant by the wind whispering through pine needles. I drive over the hills from Arrochar, along the old Military Road to Tarbet and south through Stuckgowan and Culay, along the tourist-crowded banks of Loch Lomond, through Rhu Wood and Strone Wood and into the village of Luss with its pretty parish church. By now, my head is aching so I stop for a cup of sweet tea at the little Glendarroch Tea Room, overlooking the spot where Luss Stream spills into the loch and leaves a swathe of pebbles in the spreading shallows. I sip my tea and watch the evening light sweep across the water, highlighting one of the little islands–Inchfad, or is it Inchmurrin?–to the opposite bank and the rising slopes of Rowardennan Forest, mythical place of fairies and changelings, the light turning the surface of the water into a spectral entity, skimming the upper reaches of Ballinjour Hill, dipping and cupping the heathery shadows, making the clouds appear wanton and unruly above the higher peaks.

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It’s late summer and I’ve been searching for missing threads to my father’s pre-war life, but all of those threads seem to unravel here and I find myself wondering why I bother. I’ve learned almost nothing that I didn’t already know, other than a feeling for the landscape and the fickle Highland light that shaped his moods during that pre-war summer. He kept everything compartmentalized and discrete. He hardly ever spoke about his mother or father. He hardly ever spoke about the years just before the war and that’s what makes it so hard to link up the disparate parts of his life and create a single, comprehensive portrait of the man. Sometimes I feel as if I’m on the right path, following his footsteps, reaching a clearing of some sort, and then the path peters out and I feel hopelessly lost.

How many stone-bound fingers of sea cut into this broken coast? How many lochs? It’s hard to say but there are at least as many as the ancient inlets of the Aegean: Loch Long, Loch Goil, Lock Eck, Loch Striven, Loch Ridden, Loch Craignish, Loch Etive, Loch Spelve, Loch Sunart, Loch Shiel, Loch Arkaig, Loch Quoich… all the way up the coast from here to Durness, the sound of their names clashing together like claymores… Loch Slapin, Loch Cluanie, Loch Duich, Loch Shieldaig, Loch Assynt… Germany invades Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declare war on Germany. On Monday, September 4, Ernest packs up his little flat in Clynder and goes to his parents’ house in Toward. He remembers the feeling of being placeless, as if he’d fallen into the “ebb and flow of fate” that Aeschylus described in the Aeneid. The next morning he takes the bus to Dunoon and walks into the enlistment offices of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on Moir Street.

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EG, at center: Argyll & Sultherland Highlander’s training exercise, near Stirling, Scotland, October 1939.

 • • •

This is the fourth in a series of “discoveries” about

my father: Rev. Ernest Gordon (1916-2002).

See also:

#1: Reconstructing my Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2: Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3: Landscape and Trauma: Glen Coe, 1945

LANDSCAPE AND TRAUMA: Glen Coe

 In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness.                               – Samuel Beckett

**Milner diagram 1

I reach the black hill of Sgòr na Chiche and follow the trail that dips up and down, wending my way through slate, heather and deer grass. I climb the craggy outcropping known as Signal Rock and look back over the glen and the river and can see smaller streams that converge at the Meeting of Waters and flow into the Loch of Achriachtan and beyond to the Field of Dogs at a place called Achnacone. (There’s still snow on the higher reaches of Bidean nam Bian.) It’s thought to be a preternaturally gloomy place, the so-called “Glen of Weeping”, where more than thirty MacDonalds were massacred in 1692, including Alastair Maclain, my namesake and 12th Chief of Glencoe, but it’s not just the memory of blood and betrayal that makes it such a memorable landscape. It’s the brooding scale of the “munros,” the dark mountain masses that crowd against one another like mourners around a grave. There’s a sense of sublimated violence in the outlines of Bidean nam Bian, a massif created when volcanic eruptions took place during the Silurian Period, followed by a million years of glacial erosion.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe,” goes the local ballad, while invading Norsemen called it the “Place of Wild Dogs”, and when Dorothy Wordsworth visited in 1803 she and her brother William couldn’t wait to get out. “Never did I see such a miserable, wretched place!” G. K. Chesterton visited after World War I and saw an allegorical landscape of death and resurrection with “star-crowned cliffs hinged upon the sky” and “clouds as floating rags across them curled.” Douglas Stewart came in 1924 and composed his well-loved “Sigh, wind in the pine; River, weep as you flow; Terrible things were done Long, long ago,” and when T.S. Eliot came in 1934 he was struck by a bleak sense of foreboding that he attempted to capture in verse: “Here the crow starves,” he wrote. “Substance crumbles, in the thin air, moon cold… shadow of pride is long, in the long pass. No concurrence of bone.”

My father made his own pilgrimage to the sacred bone yard in October 1945, a few weeks after repatriation and eleven years after Eliot’s visit. He took the “Silver Line”, a cream-colored bus with snout-nosed grille, to Oban and continued thereafter by small-gauge railway and foot. It was raining most of the way north and he wore a black oilskin and carried the leather valise his mother had given him as a homecoming gift. He brought extra socks, a small blue Service Bible and his new “hobby”  camera, the Leica IIIC that his friend, Eric Moss, brought back from Dusseldorf. LeicaScreen Shot 2014-03-02 at 10.53.05 AMMoss sold him the black-market camera for eight pounds. It came in a black leather case with three Zeiss Jena lenses and a copy of Douglas Milner’s Mountain Photography: Its Art and Technique.  He spent one night at King’s House and another at Clachaig Inn where he met an Army lieutenant named Graydon who’d been blinded in one eye at Chindwin River. Together, they hiked up the old Wade Road, across Rannoch Moor and onto an undulating green pasture that led to the River Etive and the foothills of Bedean Nam Bian. They scrambled halfway up the boulder-strewn escarpment called the Devil’s Staircase and on the way down, stopped to take a rest. This was when my father took the first of his landscape studies: Stob Coire Sgreamhach.

****Milner photo 3

Graydon was an experienced climber and soon split off to try a more challenging trail, while my father, who had sore knees, continued through the lower-elevation moonscape, and tested  a range of different exposures while making notations in a little blue notebook: “From the Coire Bar. looking over tip of Beinn Bhan. Taken with 13.5 cm. wide angle,” numbering every shot, recording the name of the mountain or loch, the time, date, type of lens, shutter speed and f/stop. It was quite unlike him to be so precise, so scientific. I can only imagine that he needed some kind of reference or benchmark and that the mountains, the so-called “munros,” served as a kind of framing device for his own process of recovery. I’ve heard how victims of trauma return to the scene of a crime to re-live and process their experiences. Was that what my father was doing? I don’t really know because he rarely told me anything about this period of emotional adjustment. In fact, he preferred not to talk about it at all, and would only answer my questions if I prodded him and even then it would only be some minimal detail, a date or place name, something about the camera or what he was carrying with him on the trip, but nothing of much substance. I only discovered the photographs when I was going through a box of his things and found them mixed in with old family travel shots, birthday parties, beach picnics, Christmas dinners.

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They were oddly sized, almost square, deckle-edged, black and white, and stood out from all the other snapshots. Each one was moodier than the last with no buildings or people depicted, hardly any trees, just mountains, sky and rock, clouds and shadows, but they were strangely beautiful in their starkness. I picked them out and placed them on the dining room table, going from left to right, from lighter to darker, from smaller to larger scale, so that the photo of a loch gave way to low-lying hills, to a gorge, then to an actual mountaintop. This seemed like the most logical and lyrical sequence. Over the next few weeks, it gradually dawned on me just what the photographs were, when they were taken and what they represented. I was fascinated and felt as if I’d found an entry point to an otherwise unknown period of my father’s life, the otherwise blank period between his release from the camps–on August 12, (three days after the bombing of Nagasaki)–and his marriage to my mother, almost four months later, an agonizing period that, for the most part, he’d blocked from memory. I became quite obsessed with the photos and began wondering how, for instance, my father had managed to frame certain scenes and make the mountains look like overlapping folds of cloth, or how he came to choose the angle of light, the depth of field, or the length of a certain exposure.

**Milner diagram #4

In one shot there are rhythmically stacked layers that rise along Aonach Eagach with morning light brushing the edge of one peak, radiating behind an almost vertical precipice of pitch-black granite, a composition for which my father notes dryly: “taken with Tele P. lens,” in his unmistakable penmanship. Another shows a patch of snow on Beinn Fhada with darker striations, knobs, shadows, a fractured tumulus near the top of Sgur-mam-Fiann. In yet another, there are bands of moss at a lower elevation, and light streaming from behind one of the “paps” turning a solitary pine into a blurred emanation. But as much as I wanted to find answers, the photographs were surprisingly devoid of sentiment or conventional meaning and I found myself seeking clues to a “narration” that wasn’t necessarily even there.

EG - Glen Coe photos_NEW

Parts of the glen appear to be without exit, closed off from the rest of the world. The north side is formed by the almost vertical Aonach Eagach ridge, while the conical Pap of Glen Coe (Sgurr na Ciche) encloses the western end of the U-shaped vale and eventually opens out to Loch Leven. A facile reading might be to see an allegorical chasm of dark, impenetrable walls, lowering clouds, inescapable truths–at least one of my father’s fellow survivors had taken his own life since returning from the camps–but I don’t think he ever considered suicide. More likely, he was bewildered by such a precipitous reentry to the civilized world. I kept going back to one photograph in particular that had a mysteriously dark foreground and the peaks of the Three Sisters looming along the right-hand side of the frame. A narrow roadway threads through the bottom of the valley, reflecting the sky and providing the only contrast in an otherwise leaden composition.

Glen Coe by EG 2

Was this a thread of hope, a narrow escape to salvation? It’s the same road that Eliot wrote about when he visited Glen Coe in 1935: “The road winds in / Listlessness of ancient war, / Langour of broken steel, / Clamour of confused wrong, apt / In silence. Memory is strong / Beyond the bone…” My father hadn’t allowed himself the luxury of a future, any sort of future, much less the prospect of marriage or a family life. He’d seen my mother once on the promenade at Inellen and once at a tearoom in Ardentinny, although that may have been after the Glen Coe outing, I’m not sure, but he was starting to think about the possibility of a romantic relationship, a thought that would have seemed ludicrous only a few weeks earlier. However much of an amateur he may have been, however many ideas he may have borrowed from Milner’s Guide to Mountain Photography, he achieved a surprising sense of scale within the 2-1/4-inch-square format by consolidating the major landscape elements and rendering them as monolithic forms. The light throughout is crepuscular, elegiac; the skies high and wide, alabaster panels veined with gray and there is something about the gradations of shadow that made me start to read the photos as self-portraiture, as if the lens of his Leica were pointed inward as well as out towards the scenery.

**GLEN COE, EG, 8

When I look up to my own sky, it’s patterned with sieves of pink and purple that alternate with furrowed pockets of gray. The valley seems an infinite funnel between present and past, a worm hole through time, and I feel as if I’m still moving along the narrow tarmac of A82, even when I park the car and start to walk across the moor, over humps of gorse and moss, it’s not what I expected. There are hardly any points of transition except for where the main trail intersects with other trails, an occasional cattle crossing, or a small cluster of birches near the Etive River Bridge and a triangular white sign that reads “King’s House Hotel, circa 1754,” pointing up a narrow track that leads to nothing. I’d driven in the morning from Tarbet to the head of Loch Lomond and onto Rannoch Moor the back way, from the east, while my father had come from the west, through Oban and Ballachulish. I carry his photographs in a waterproof folder, the idea being to track his movements and stand in the same spots where he stood when he came here in 1945, but it’s almost impossible to line up the angles. The light and shadows are oddly skewed and images everything’s saturated with a deep, living color: the heather, the rocky knolls and peat bogs fringed with moor-grass. It’s so different from the black-and-white world of post-war Scotland. Nothing seems to be in the right place, and while I’m sure there’s a way to triangulate his movements from exposure to exposure, it’s beyond my capabilities. In fact, the very thought makes me light in the head and I have a kind of spatial-temporal dyslexia, a horizontal vertigo, in which foreground and background become inverted, and for a moment I feel as if I were walking through a pinhole aperture into one of my father’s own photographs. There’s too much information, too much material to work back from. His were tightly framed views that left almost everything to the imagination. His glen was more compressed and packed with shadow than mine, his depth of perception more shallow, like bas-relief. I’m standing in the same place as he was and can see what was left out of those closely bracketed landscapes, how the glen is all around and continuous, even wilder than imagined. My boots are soaked and I’m distracted by a group of hikers who say hello in a such a cheery way that it brings me hurtling back to the soggy present. I take a slow breath and remind myself that I’ve come here to retrace my father’s footsteps, not for a leisurely stroll or an afternoon of sightseeing.

**Milner diagram #7

I have always marked and measured my life against his, to a sometimes pathological extent–my age, my gains and losses, my accomplishments, my career, my two marriages, my own children–wondering what he was doing at different stages of his life, at twenty, thirty, forty, and comparing it to whatever I was doing at the same age. Where others saw a selfless servant of Christ, I saw a needy, sometimes helpless man, who always had to be the center of attention. I loved him. I adored him. I happily acknowledged every part of his legend, the stories and heroics, the near-death experiences that so many admired. He was a war hero but he also read ancient Greek. He read Anglo Saxon. He read Plato. He read Kierkegaard. He read everything and possessed a golden Rolodex of names and dates and philosophical notions that rotated constantly inside his head. You could see it, spinning in there, behind his watery green eyes. I never understood what he was talking about until I was older and even then I found it impossible to keep up, impossible to compete. If I threw out a name, or a book, or an idea, he had twenty other names and books and ideas ready to throw back at me, to impress, contradict and confound. It was exhilarating but it was also exhausting, and I learned to assume a quiet, deferential attitude whenever I found myself in his presence.

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William Aytoun visited Glen Coe in 1835 and described the moorland as “black amidst the common whiteness.” Horatio McCulloch came from Glasgow to paint the unruly wildness of the glen with radiant bands of gold falling across the Aonach Eagach ridge. Thomas Moran traveled across the Atlantic to make studies of the morbid shadows and extreme weather. In his Pass at Glencoe, a storm sweeps over Bidean nam Bian as the Etive floods beneath the Bridge of Coe. Edwin Landseer painted sentimentalized renderings of a stag rearing his head against a multi-hued background of glowing mountains and wind-ravaged trees. All of the artists and poets, all of the ones who’d come before, were seeking some sort of convergence with the Sublime, but why did my Dad come?  I can only guess that he was trying to recapture the landscape he’d lost during six years of war and find a way to map himself back into the world of the living. As E.M. Forester wrote: “Landscape is personality,” and for those few days in October, 1945 my father claimed the rugged landscape of Glen Coe as his own.

**Milner diagram #5

His camera and the photographic process with its f-stops, apertures and technical rigor, gave him a methodology and a set of coordinates that were both spatial and emotional. It gave him a reason for wandering these hills, for being aware of the position of the sun as it moved across the sky and the angle of light and how it extended or distended shadow, emboldened or diminished a silhouette. He could reassure himself along the way that he wasn’t losing his mind, even though he was still haunted by the faces of the dead. He had palpitations and night sweats and diarrhea and the lingering effects of dyptheria and malaria and beri beri and tropical ulcers. He would pray every morning but it wasn’t quite the same as when he prayed in the camps. He could hardly sleep and when he did he saw clouds of insects and railways cutting through jungle. He saw his friends, Dusty and Stewart, standing over the mass grave at Tarsau and the faces of the dead laid out for burial, faces from Clydeside and Liverpool, faces from Hull and Aberdeen, all the ones he failed to save. The River Coe flows west along the glen before turning into a waterfall near the head of Loch Leven. This was where my father stopped to compose his final photo and it shows Eilean Munde, the burial island of the MacDonald Clan, probably the most conventional of all his studies, but one that captures some of the unfathomable emptiness that he felt that week. The moon reflects off the surface of the loch and turns it into a darkly enameled shield, an image that seems all the more spectral for the way that the surrounding trees lean away from the camera. It’s a photograph about time and memory and the mysterious banality of death, or so it seems to me.  

EG Ltr 1945, 2 copy

Only a month earlier, he’d been on board the M.S. Boissevain, an old Dutch liner that left Rangoon on September 18 and crept slowly across the Indian Ocean. He was sitting on the upper deck, writing a letter home to his parents and smoking one of the “Navy Cuts” that the captain had handed out to all the officers.  Sept. 20, 1945: Dearest Mother, It’s really true! We’re at sea, bound for Blighty. Corstrikemepink! Now I believe that I am Free… When he dozed off he saw an emaciated body rolling out from its covering and the cruel eyes of Lieutenant Sasa looking on. He awoke to thick coats of paint on the Boissevain’s smokestack and the Bay of Bengal shining silver and bronze under a tropical sun.

*BOISSERAIN, EG Returns from POW copy

There’s a photograph that shows David Leckie standing in the middle, while my father’s on the left wearing baggy shorts and battle jacket. Tim Smythe, a Captain in the Norfolks, stands beside him, very tan, almost black, with a boney David Niven face (both Smythe and my father survived the death wards at Chungkai) and you can see a capstan in the background and the temporary officers’ quarters made from shiplap with a corrugated metal roof sloping down to the gunwales. In the letter, my father was explaining that the ship was expected to arrive by the first week of October, but didn’t know where. He was hoping for Glasgow because it would take them past the island where his parents lived. “There is a possibility that I might come sailing up the Clyde,” he wrote. Tell Dad to look out for me – I’ll try to borrow a flashlamp so that I can morse my name as I pass. We are to pass through a Transit Camp first, but should be home within 48 hours. I’ll ‘phone you whenever I get ashore…” It was an almost delirious sensation to be writing these words, imagining what it would be like to come home after so many years.  Would his family and friends even recognize him? He was no longer a boy, but a hardened man of twenty-nine. He’d lost the bushy mop of brown curls. His face was dark and gaunt from starvation. “I’m putting on weight as fast, as fast can be. I weigh myself daily and find the score mounting. As well as good food we are being stuffed with vitamin pills. At times I feel rather like a turkey being prepared for the Xmas Dinner.”

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The Boissevain stopped for two days in Ceylon, then crossed the Arabian Sea, passed through the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar and finally turned north towards Great Britain. The ship never did go up the Clyde as my father had hoped, but sailed up the Mersey and berthed at Wapping Dock in Liverpool. An express train from Lime Street Station took my father and dozens of other repatriated soldiers to Glasgow. On the way north he sat on the patterned velvet seat and envisioned the white buildings gathered like a village on the point. He nodded off, somewhere near Carlisle, and saw the skerry slip that cut through rock at a diagonal, the prow of Vim cutting through the current off Ardrossan, his father walking on the shore, distant and unreachable. It was only when the train reached Glasgow Central and his brother Peter was there to meet him, waving from behind the barrier, that he snapped out of his reverie and realized that they wouldn’t be going to Toward Point, but to an island that he hardly knew. The train to Largs was late and he could only see some murky roofs passing in silhouette against the night sky and the dim but familiar platforms at Lanbank and Wemyss Bay. The train picked up speed as it moved inland through Knock Hill Cut and curved back to the coast with a sudden, shuddering stop at the old station on Crawford Street, but the actual moment of reunion was so eerie that it eclipsed the train ride and everything else he’d had in his mind that night.

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Three separate pyres were burning along the shore, casting a milky, orange glow through the veil of fog. The rolling of the launch and the smell of diesel fuel made him queasy as he watched a single figure standing on the beach waving her arms and beating on a metal pot. It was his mother, Sarah, beating the pot and keeping the bonfires stacked with driftwood to guide them into shore. She almost fell over herself running up the concrete landing, reaching out to embrace him when they made their landing. He knew nothing. He understood nothing. He had arrived, but his sense of home, his internal mapping was completely askew. It wasn’t the cozily familiar cottage with whitewashed walls and slate roofs that he’d left in 1939, but a rugged, slightly terrifying landscape in the outer-most reaches of the estuary. My grandfather had been posted to Cumbrae in 1940, and Ernest had only ever stepped foot on the island once, eight years earlier, while sailing Myfawny on the final leg of a Royal Clyde regatta. They’d limped into the castle side of the island with a broken spar, anchored in the lee of South Gellet, which was nothing more than a cluster of sharply slanting rocks, and it seemed as if they’d reached the end of the world, even then, on a relatively calm summer day in 1937. Sarah made every effort to make his return as comfortable as possible. The bedroom was tucked beneath a gable in the keeper’s house. There was a rugby ball, a few books and a framed photo of a boat tacking up the Clyde. His mother had brightened the room with a vase of blue bells on the bedside table.   Oh where does your highland laddie dwell, He dwells in merry Scotland where the bluebells ***CUMBRAE House, Chimney Pot copysweetly smell…   But he felt trapped, and in the morning looked out the corner window, past the flame-shaped chimney pot, across the estuary to the hills of Bute, streaks of silver-pink light streaming down the channel, and he was already making plans for an escape. During the next few days, he went shivering up and down the High Street in Largs, back and forth in the launch to Millport, up to Gourock and over on a Clyde steamer to Dunoon. He couldn’t sit still. It was as if he’d awoken from a nightmare in the middle of the night but couldn’t find the light-switch. He had leg cramps and headaches. He wrote furtive entries in his journal and went for long walks to escape the suffocation of his parents’ house on Cumbrae. Cousin Sally was playing Peevers–a Scottish form of hopscotch–in the laundry court, clicking her heals and slapping hands against her thighs, picking up stones in one square and placing them in another. She was terrified of the dark stranger who’d arrived late in the night like an apparition. “He stayed at Cumbrae for some time to get himself back together,” she wrote in a letter to me from the south of England in 2010. “Mum had the room next to him and could hear him shouting in the night and pacing the floor but they were told not to go to him as this might be a little dangerous because of all that he had been through.” Those first few nights were Hell. The bed was too soft, the goose-down pillow impossible, so he lay on the drafty floorboards, his toes twitching like the wings of a dying moth, spasmodic leg muscles, hands clenched into fists, flailing arms, torso turning and twisting beneath the woolen blanket, and then–it was as if he’d kicked himself in his own forehead–awoke with a gasp as he heard the strange half-echo of his own voice beneath a bell jar, that’s how it sounded, and the words were meaningless, random names and threats shouted at no one, into the void, and this would snatch him from the shallow ditch of sleep.

Jimmy Donaldson spotted my father on the dock at Kirn, waiting for the ferry, less than a week after his return. Margaret Dutton saw him walking up Argyll Street and thought he looked surprisingly fit, considering his ordeal. He ate the buffet lunch at the Buchanan Hotel and went to the Odeon Cinema on Renfield Street to see Fantasia, Disney’s epic animation, and found himself weeping for the colors and Stravinsky’s score. He kicked around the yards at Lorimer’s and Robertson’s looking over the yachts that lay idle through the war. Dionne was ravaged with her teak pitted, varnish peeling, and in desperate need of repair. (He dreamt of sailing her to Tobermory.) Skilly the Poacher, otherwise known as Wull Allan, saw him walking briskly round the head of the loch, near Dalinlongart, where Skilly Robertson Yard 2lived throughout the war inside the upturned hull of an old fishing boat. Jean Robertson, my grandmother, first heard the news of Ernest’s return from Kathleen Lorimer who told her that the Anderson sisters had already invited him to tea at Rubislaw. The Andersons! Gran passed the news onto my mother, Helen, who was pretending not to hear, fixing her hair in the hall mirror at Ardmillen, trying to ignore her mother who seemed particularly agitated and out of sorts. Helen stood back from the mirror and turned to look at her own figure, sideways, smoothing down the folds of her jacket. She would get her hair cut. She would throw the ATS uniform into the bin and find the dark blue woolen suit, the one that hung in the upstairs closet, the one that made her look so tall and slender. Ernest did go to the Andersons, on at least two occasions. Rubislaw was a stately Victorian house made from pinkish stone with high windows and steep gables. There was an iron gate, a greenhouse and a stream running in the back, and inside there were four sisters standing by the window, looking out: Jean, Sally, Eileen, Maureen, all of them attractive and available except for Sally who was engaged to an officer in the Royal Navy. When I met Eileen many years later, she told me the impression that my father made walking up the pebble pathway that day, how thin and dark and good looking he was. What she remembered most was the swooshing sound that his kilt made as he walked up to the front door–that’s what had stuck forever in her memory–the way that the pleated tartan fabric swung back and forth across his knees.

*Ernest & Helen, Wedding Day, 1945 copy

A week after his photographic odyssey to Glen Coe, my father found temporary digs in “Brading”, a boarding house on Nelson Street, just off Largo Road, not far from the St. Andrews campus, where he hoped to complete the classes that had been interrupted by war in 1939. The following week he sent my mother a marriage proposal, “I’ve been thinking and thinking, going almost mad…” and it came with a package of silk stockings, a photo of himself, and a poem called “Escape” that he’d started to write while still aboard the Boissevain on his way back from Rangoon.  Helen received the proposal on the morning of November 30, a Friday, and accepted it in writing by return post: “Darling, I don’t know whether I’m on my head or heels. Your 2 letters this morning put me right into a flat spin. I’ve been thinking of you every minute since you left and wondering if you were serious and knowing that I was serious and the answer is yes, I’ll marry you, darling. As you say, it’s so obvious. It was always meant to be this way…” My parents got married on December 17 at Ardmillen, my grandmother’s stone house in Sandbank, and it was a simple affair with a small group of family and friends in attendance, and Reverend Lithgow of the Kirn Parrish Church conducting the service. The next morning, they were off on a honeymoon, down the west coast of Scotland by train, to Girvan where they stayed four nights at the Royal Hotel. It wasn’t much of a hotel, certainly nothing royal, but it was all my father could afford and it had a little pub and a decent view over the estuary.

ROYAL HOTEL, 34

The Royal is still there, just off A77, a busy road that runs from Dumfries to Ayr. It’s a simple, two-story stone building with whitewashed walls and pale blue trim. I approach from the north but miss the turning and have to pull off at a gas station and swing back. I tell the rosy-faced proprietor about my parents. He smiles and insists that I take a peak at their former honeymoon suite. He hands me the key to Room #4 on the second floor, and it’s pretty much the same as it was when they stayed there in 1945, only now decorated with peach-colored wallpaper with two single beds–“Twin Peach” is how it’s described on the hotel’s web site–but it has the same view they had then, across the estuary to Ailsa Craig, the oddly symmetrical dome of rock that looms up from the sea, bleak and solitary, inhabited only by puffins, seals, and a lonely lighthouse keeper.  My parents could see it out the window of their room and whenever they went on one of their chilly outings along the beach, or poking around the ruins of Crossraguel Abbey, or following the footpath up Dow Hill, it appeared as if the Craig were following them like a luminous presence. And what was this strange volcanic rock rising from the waves, struck by moonlight? In the morning it looked blurry and distant, but as the sun rose higher and caught the contours of its vertical granite shafts, the island appeared to jump up from the sea and come alive with so many facets and craggy outcroppings. To early Scots it was a hiding place for mystical, sentient beings and the name in Gaelic, Aillse Greag, literally means “Fairy Rock,” but it was also known as Carraig Alasdair, or  “Alasdair’s Rock”, and when John Keats traveled through Scotland in the summer of 1818, he sat, transfixed, at the King’s Arms Inn and wrote a poem about the geological anomaly across the water: “Hearken, thou craggy ocean pyramid… Thy life is but two dead eternities, The last in air, the former in the deep!

***AILSA CRAIG, b&w

Two dead eternities… I stand in the doorway, staring into the room, and try to imagine them snuggled together, but something stops me cold from going any further. I feel like a time-traveling voyeur, a peeping tom, gazing in at my own parents’ love nest. I hurry back downstairs, oddly embarrassed, and order a Belhaven lager in the pub. Evening descends and I walk outside, past a stone barrier, and watch the light shifting wildly across the slopes of Ailsa Craig, rocky vision, wondering about my parents’ oddly intertwined destinies. Ernest was stronger and more confident than he’d been during his trip to Glen Coe a month earlier. He was madly in love and had even started to write poetry again, encouraged by my mother. He carried the collected Keats and a brown notebook tied with string with his initials scribbled on the cover. He was reading the final part of Endymion while reworking one of his own poems: The wings of great birds are beating / Against the window pane… that he’d started aboard the Boissevain sailing back from Rangoon, and had picked it up again in his parent’s living room, overlooking Kilchattan Bay: My soul flies out to greet them / One with the wind and the rain… I found it sixty years later among his papers, printed in fading blue typeface, copied for posterity on a mimeograph machine. Inside the same manila envelope, I also found the original receipt from my parents’ stay at the Royal.

Honeymoon - EG & HMG 1945 copy

22/12/1945, Capt. & Mrs. E. Gordon: 4 days and morning tea at 15 shillings per person… 2 high teas for 6 shillings… 13 shillings/ 8p for “Beers, Wines, etc.” / Total: 6 pounds, 19 shillings and 8 pennies, a modest honeymoon to be sure, but they were lucky to have survived the war and found each other like that in the shortened daylight and freezing rain of Scottish winter. He was no longer scarecrow thin like he’d been on the ship coming back, and was up to 10 stone–close to 140 pounds–the hollowness in his face filling out, almost back to his handsome former self. Girvan’s Atlantic Breezes Cures Winter Sneezes read a poster in the railway station, and they kissed in the lee of the lighthouse and walked along the edge of the links, across the fairway and made their way through the rolling dunes to the beach. He’d been married for two days and couldn’t suppress a smile on his face. Despite the frightful weather, despite his crumbling teeth, he couldn’t stop smiling. It was a peculiar sensation.

A few weeks later they moved into a small, cold water flat at No.100 Willowbrae Avenue in Edinburgh, and spent the rest  of the winter there, attending classes by day, seeking simple pleasures by night, lying in bed beneath the eaves, reading verses out loud, picking their favorites and reciting them again with rain lashing against the windows of the second-floor flat, dining on shepherd’s pie, baked beans and Bird’s Custard. Rationing was still in effect and everything from eggs, milk and tea to toffee and chocolate were scarce. It was a miserably cold winter and my father remembers inserting endless pennies into a heater–some kind of paraffin-powered device–that was always breaking down and almost setting the place on fire.

_45334988_rationbook_pa_466

Memory is strong beyond the bone and Helen was the one who endured his midnight shakes, his twitching toes and flailing arms, his sudden outbursts of anger, and irrational mood swings, and the ravenous hunger that was never fully sated. She was the one who brought him back, finally, to the land of the living and the righteous. In January she gave him a copy of Other Men’s Flowers, a popular anthology of poetry compiled by Field-Marshal Viscount Wavell, published by the Alden Press, Oxford, in 1945. I know this because I have the book in my possession and can see that the frontispiece is signed in my mother’s distinctive handwriting: “Edinburgh, Jan. 1946. With all my love, darling. – Helen.” It’s not much to go on, but inside, there are dozens of markings, under linings, dog-eared corners, checks and dots in almost all of the margins. It seems as if every poem had not only been read, but had been analyzed and reread, swallowed in its entirety. My father was still starving, in a sense, no longer hungry for food but craving something beyond the superficial routines of daily life, and the books that came into his life at this point were far more than cherished possessions: they were bulwarks against darkness 61b+MLmtGdL._SL500_SY300_and death. “Who sings unconscious of their song, / Whose lips are in their lives” was heavily underlined on page 174 with blue ink in “The Song of Honour,” a lengthy ode by Ralph Hodgson which I understand in some ways–whose lips are in their lives–as I imagine my father still trying to put the horrors into perspective, looking for meaning. I know that the little pencil chicks on page 316 have to be his because this was how he always marked his books. The passage that he singled out–“A prison wall was round us both / Two outcast men we were…”–was from a poem by Oscar Wilde and had been annotated in several other places with pencil and then again, with pen: “The world had thrust us from its heart, / And God from out His care…” and then, underlined twice: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves, / By each let this be heard…”

I take a taxi to Willowbrae and walk up the long curving street on a clear morning to find a two-story stone house, still split into separate apartments, set back with a small but neat front garden, a painted gate and old rain-spouts made from lead. It’s a quiet neighborhood, buffered from the city’s clamor by the hills of Holyrood Park. I stand there for a moment, feeling no connection or further insight, just a kind of claustrophobia and desire to be somewhere else, so I hail the next taxi coming down Abercorn Road and return to my hotel on Princes Street. My father was still torn between secular and spiritual forces, wrestling with horrific memories, trying to forgive and forget the worst, while adjusting to the weather and day-to-day austerity of post-war Scotland. He went twice a month to Dr. Duggan, a tropical specialist at the Royal Infirmary off Dalkeith Road, where they took blood and stool samples and made him pee into a glass vial. He was given anti-inflammatory pills for ms-135-16-2-bottles-1000diphtheria, copper sulfate for his jungle ulcers, charcoal and creosote tablets for lingering effects of dysentery, and a foul-smelling vermicidal called Thiabendazole that he took for hookworm. Duggan also prescribed an early version of Chloroquine for malaria but the drug made my father throw up so he stopped after the first few weeks. In general, however, he was feeling stronger and loved to walk through central Edinburgh looking at the bridges and railway lines beneath the North British Hotel, the broad steps leading down to Waverley Station, and the saw-toothed roofs of the big train sheds. He watched shoppers mingling on Princes Street, gazing at the displays in Jenners, or climbing the Scott Monument and always, wherever he went, he felt the brooding presence of the Castle high upon its rocky perch. He was taking classes in the Faculty of Divinity, studying under the tutorship of Rev. Charles S. Duthie M.A., B.D., attending classes in Old and New Testament Studies, Systematic Theology, Dogmatics, Ethics, Apologetics, Homiletics and won the prize that semester for Elocution.

**Milner diagram #3

He would make it back to Glen Coe five years later, a changed man, his future bright. He finished theological seminary in Connecticut, accepted a position at Paisley Abbey and purchased a second-hand Vauxhall Velox. Again, he brought a camera, but the results were nothing like the photos he’d taken in 1945. The corries of Bidean nam Bian look buoyant compared to the ominous silhouettes of the earlier black-and-white shots, as if he were seeing the world in more granulated and aspirational tones. The Leica IIIC had been stolen on the way back from his honeymoon and the lens of the new camera, whatever its make, was inferior to the finely ground Zeiss Jena lenses that he’d used before. He was also trying out a new kind of film, Kodachrome Transparency, and the slides have brilliant but highly unstable colors that create a kind of Fauvist distortion. In some, the azure sky turns deep cerulean, almost black at the edges of the frame due to silver halide breaking down the integrity of the film’s sixty-year-old emulsion. Viridian green of the pines jumps out sharply in some of the slides, but rock, moor-grass and heather bleed together with watery edges, purple being the least stable of photographic dies, thereby flattening any sense of depth.

**GLEN COE SLIDES, 1951 - EG_0003 2

  • • •

All line drawings are from C. Douglas Milner’s

Mountain PhotographyLondon: The Focal Press, 1945.

All of the square-format, black-and-white photographs

(and the last image in color) are by Ernest Gordon, 1945.

This is the third in a series of “discoveries” about

my father’s life.  See also:

#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#4 Clynder: Summer of 1939