Friday, March 6, 2009

Travel--grist for the writer's mill

Travel can provide grist for the writer's mill. It's what sparked the idea for my first published mystery novel. Of course, when you've been around as long as I have and visited as many places, you accumulate much more than you can use.

I haven’t done everything, not even close. I never climbed Mt. Everest or swam the English Channel. Somehow those failed to appear on my to-do list.

I wish I could remember more about all the places I’ve been and things I've seen. Back in the early early days, my Dad liked to maneuver rickety old cars over bumpy roads when that was about all we had. When I was quite small, we drove to places like New York and Chicago, where my mother had siblings. All I remember of New York was the magic bed that pulled out of the wall in my aunt’s flat and getting scared out of my gourd on the Observation Deck at the Empire State Building. You could walk right out and gaze down from the railing in those days.

All I recall from a trip to Chicago was getting bonked in the nose by a baseball while playing with cousins who spoke a strange language called Yankee. I have only vague recollections of attending the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934. I was eight at the time. Looking at photos on the Fair website, I saw one at the Enchanted Island on the Midway that could have been my mother bending down talking to me.

It’s funny how you remember little snapshots of the distant past. I recall a ceramic washbasin and water pitcher in a tourist cabin on U.S. 41 somewhere north of Nashville. They had strips of flypaper hanging around to trap the flitting varmints.

The memories become more vivid as I aged a bit. On one trip to Florida to visit a great uncle who had a farm near St. Augustine, I had another frightening experience as a result of fog near the ocean. Due to conditions resembling a whiteout, Dad missed a turn and we wound up at the edge of the Atlantic, with the surf slurping around the tires.

I have since traveled most areas of the U.S. and in several foreign lands. My first trip to the Far East, and my first shipboard venture, came in 1952 courtesy of Uncle Sam and a bit of unpleasantness called the Korean War. I have a 16-page letter I wrote to my wife during the voyage aboard the USNS Gen. W. F. Hase. I read all the way through it recently for the first time since I wrote it. There were mentions of working on a mystery story, but I have no idea what happened to it. I haven’t run across it in the last 57 years.

My first overseas junket since Korea came in 1984 when my wife and I embarked on an almost three-week grand tour of Europe. Traveling with a group from Nashville, we landed in Amsterdam. Our bus took us to Cologne, then we cruised the Rhine to north of Heidelberg. From there we drove to Munich and took a side trip to the Concentration Camp at Dachau (it was a gray, dreary day that set the mood for the horrors experienced there). From southern Germany we traveled to Lucerne, then Innsbruck, and through the striking Brenner Pass to Venice.

After doing the mandatory gondola ride and disturbing the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square, we headed on to Florence, climbed the Leaning Tower in Pisa, and drove to Rome. This was one of our three-day stops to make time for the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Catacombs, and a side trip to Tivoli Gardens. Then it was up the coastal highway to the French Riviera, Monte Carlo and Nice. After hitting the major spots in Paris, we traveled to Calais, boarded a hovercraft to Dover, and wound up in London. We had another three-day stop to see such sights as Westminster, the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard, and a cruise on the Thames. We made a day trip to Bath and Stonehenge, then headed back to Atlanta.

As an association executive, I attended annual conventions all over the U.S., including Hawaii, plus Acapulco and Toronto, taking side tours in the process. In 1987, we spent a month touring the Far East with my son, who was in Army Special Forces, and daughter-in-law.

We began at Travis Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay area. Since I’m an Air Force retiree, my wife and I flew space-available from there to Tokyo aboard a C-5 for $10 each. From Tokyo, we flew to Korea on a C-117. It was my first visit to Seoul, where I was stationed in 1952-3, since the war. What a change. We also toured Okinawa and Singapore, including the Tiger Balm Gardens (now called Haw Par Villa). In Thailand, we visited numerous colorful Buddhist temples in Bangkok, crossed the Bridge over the River Kwai, and flew north to the mountain town of Chiang Mai (I understand the city has grown considerably since my visit). While there we shopped at a village where they made brightly painted umbrellas of all sizes and watched elephants haul logs at an Elephant Nature Park.

From Thailand we headed to Hong Kong. We visited a friend’s daughter’s high-rise condo with a breathtaking panoramic view of what was then a British colony, dined at a restaurant with a tiered lazy Susan, shopped the Kowloon malls among hordes of Orientals, and enjoyed speedily crossing the bay on the Star Ferry. Our tour ended in Manila, where we bused out to the Subic Bay Naval Base in hopes of getting a space-available flight back to the States. After a day at the Cubi Point Air Station, it became obvious we’d have a long wait, so we returned to Manila and flew home on Northwest.

Shortly after my wife died early in 1998, I took a 14-day Holy Land tour with my brother’s Sunday School class. We flew into Amman, Jordan, visited the striking pink stone-carved facades in Petra (photo at left), then moved on to Israel. We hit most of the main biblical sites from the Old and New Testaments. Some of the more striking were Masada, the Dead Sea, the Mount of Olives, the Temple Mount, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, and the Golan Heights. We wound up touring Haifa, Tel Aviv, and the ancient port city of Jaffa.

That was the trip that led to the writing of Secret of the Scroll, the first Greg McKenzie mystery.

My last major foreign fling took place in August of 2000 after Sarah and I were married. We did a tour of France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We saw more of Paris than on my 1984 trip, visiting the Louvre and Eiffel Tower among other spots. We also viewed General Patton’s grave in Luxembourg. Most of our time was spent touring Austria and Switzerland. We took the cog railway from Zermatt up to a perch above 10,000 feet, looking across at the majestic Matterhorn. We visited the cheese town of Gruyere, Zurich, Berne, and took a boat ride on Lake Geneva. At Chillon Castle we saw the dungeon where Byron's Prisoner of Chillon was shackled. After covering much of Austria, including Vienna, we returned home.

I took my first non-military cruise in 2007 with my high school alumni group. We sailed out of Mobile on Carnival's smallest ship, making ports of call at Cozumel and Progreso on the Yucatan Peninsula. Unfortunately, Sarah has an inner ear problem, and the Gulf of Mexico was not kind to the small ship or to her. I enjoyed the trip, though I can't say that was the case for Sarah.

So, the question remains, how much of this traveling experience has made it into my books? Not as much as it should have. I mentioned my novel that takes place partly in the Holy Land. Some of my earlier books that are yet to appear on a printed page involve several of my travels. One takes place in Korea, another has portions in Vienna, Hong Kong and Toronto.

I haven’t given up on using lots more, however. Stay tuned.


Morgan Mandel said...

You've certainly done a lot of traveling. Good for you! We don't get around to too many places. We usually end up at our cottage in Wisconsin every vacation.

Morgan Mandel

Brooke from The Bluestocking Guide said...

You always have future novels to correct this.

One year later