Ralphie on the Road #6: Marfa and Mysko

On Monday – the 14th of January, birthday of Benedict Arnold – I pulled off of State Route 90 in Texas and into the fabled town of Marfa.

Madeleine Mysko, author of "Bringing Vincent Home."

Pushing east – traveling like the tortoise and not the hare — I hit Marfa on deadline for a story about a woman who, some 40 years earlier, spent time in Texas altogether more profound, horrific and transcendent than the stones I skipped from El Paso to Beaumont.

Madeleine Mysko, a Baltimore poet, had just published Bringing Vincent Home, a novel about her time as a Vietnam-era nurse in the burn unit at San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston.

Years ago, I was introduced to Madeleine by the journalist and poet Ann LoLordo, who graduated from the Johns Hopkins University writing seminars with Mysko in 1992.

When I sent LoLordo a note from Marfa saying I was interviewing Mysko for the Baltimore Examiner, LoLo – then writing editorials for The Sun – dispatched a bushel and a peck of questions.

Q: “Why are you writing for the Examiner?”

A: “Because I’m on strike with the writers in Hollywood and the Examiner has been publishing anything I write.”

Q: “How much are they paying you?”

A: “Not enough.”

And then this about the place that Ann and I both called home for more than half our lives: “Things are really dicey/crazy at the paper,” she wrote. “I almost quit and now find myself one of the last people on deck.”

Marfa shown with red dot.
The slow death of journalism on Calvert Street would only get worse as 2008 wore on and the S.S. Arunah S. Abell kept taking on water, so much that LoLordo and some 40 other editorial employees would be washed away the following year.

A one-time UPI wire service reporter whose childhood family road trips were Long Island to Florida jaunts with stops at South of the Border for fireworks and pecan logs, Ann had worked at The Sun as a respected reporter and editor since 1980.

“When things started going south, I always felt I could keep up or do rewrite because I was an ex wire service reporter,” lamented LoLordo.

It was not to be and the tough, once-a-reporter-always-a-reporter with the Jesuit education found solace in writing that doesn’t perish with the next news cycle. As did Madeleine.

In the prologue to Bringing Vincent Home – published in 2007 by Plain View Press of Austin – Mysko assumes the fictional persona of Kitty.

“Last year,” says Kitty, “a photograph of me appeared on the front page of The Baltimore Sun. I’m the one in the big hat, holding the sign with the number of soldiers killed in Iraq.

“We’re out there every Friday between noon and one, unless bad weather forbids. I usually wear an over-sized black T-shirt with a white peace symbol on the front. If it’s cold, I wear my good black coat.

It’s a great photograph, and after it appeared I got phone calls from people I hadn’t seen in ages, including Alma Henderson, who lived next door to me forty years ago.  Alma is ninety-two now.

“The first thing she said to me was, “Are you crazy, hon?” and we had a good laugh.

“I put the clipping from the Sun on the shelf in my dining area, next to the old photograph of me with my son Vincent, which was taken in December 1968, on the Sunday before he left for Vietnam.

“In that photograph, we’re standing in front of the house on Constance Avenue. Vincent is wearing his uniform, and he’s smiling right into the camera. Of course I’m smiling too, though perhaps less confidently.

“In truth, all these years I have never been one to take part in peace demonstrations. And so the irony in a newspaper clipping of me—an old woman now, sitting out there on a beach chair with a peace symbol on my shirt—wasn’t lost on my daughter Mary Kate.

“Look at you, Mom,” she said, with a sly smile.

“I like it that on Fridays this group of women sits silently at the curb, dressed in black and holding up calls for peace to the cars passing by. But week after week, as I held the number of the dead on my lap, something was gnawing at me: Was it enough?

“One day I sat down at the computer the children gave me for Christmas and began to write for all I was worth.

“My name is Kitty Duvall. I’m eight-four now, and/ I know my memory isn’t perfect. But in the writing I lived it all over again.”

-o-

In Marfa – an hour north of Mexico, population about 2100 and location of James Dean’s final movie, Giant — I interviewed Mysko by phone on the parking lot of the Pizza Foundation, a cheese and tomato pie landmark built into the service bays and office of an old gas station.

She spoke about 1969, when she was a newly commissioned Army nurse — a 22-year-old second lieutenant — and I was an 11-year-old kid simultaneously rooting for the most feared, and ultimately doomed, team in baseball while imagining myself at Woodstock.

Mysko: "I don't remember my Dodge Dart looking as cool as this."

Accompanied by her mother, Madeleine made a road trip toward an experience about as far removed from Woodstock as white shoes and white stockings are from nakedness and mud.

“I set out from Baltimore in my own car — a white Dodge Dart I bought with my own money,” remembered Mysko. “We headed for San Antonio following AAA maps. I had never driven further than Washington DC and didn’t know what I was doing.

“I got a speeding ticket in rural Virginia and then we stopped at some place called Crappie Hole. My mother still talks about that place to this day.”

[Cartographer’s note: With a name that has delighted generations of kids staring out the backseat window on a long road trip, the Crappie Hole is a bait-and-tackle joint in the town of Chapin in central South Carolina, some 550 miles south of Baltimore.]

By the time we got to Texas, we started hearing about a tornado on the radio and my mother was terrified. Stupidly, I drove on, stupidly. Later we learned that we were close to the touchdown! That’s about all I remember about the trip.”

A simple road trip – unyielding cops, crappie holes and tornados notwithstanding – could not stand with what awaited Mysko at the Fort Sam Houston burn unit.

So transcendent was the ordeal – one that included an impulsive marriage to a soldier she believed was imminently bound for Southeast Asia (but wasn’t) — that she chose the art of fiction to tell the greater truths of the experience.

[“I’m a poet first, novelist second,” explained Mysko. “It’s very slow going.”]

Over satellite signals from Towson to Marfa, she spoke of soldiers who had no recollection of the fresh hell each new day brought.

“By releasing myself from the worries about remembering exactly how it really was,” she said. “So I tended to the story in a way that was somehow more pure …”

-o-

I said goodbye to Madeleine and scooted over to the Marfa post office to launch a cache of 4 x 6 inch missives – no doubt affixed with frenetic collage in addition to the 27-cent stamp — to folks behind me on the road and those up around the bend.

Standing in line for my turn at the counter, I made small talk with a grade school teacher who reminded me of my third-grade teacher at Linthicum Elementary School, the late Jean Ortgies.

Mrs. Ortgies — born Jean Cameron Mathewson in New York City — read the classics of E.B. White aloud to us in the afternoons, with the blinds pulled down, passed away in 2006 at the age of 98. I had the good fortune to speak at her memorial service, which I did in a Dr. Seuss t-shirt.

The woman at the post office taught the fourth grade. After I gave her one of my books from the back of the truck, she invited me to speak to her class the following day about the writing life.

The prospect of a child abandoning themselves to art drives most parents batty. Numerous are the times a mom or dad has come up to me at high school “career day” event to say: “What do you really think about this writing thing? I mean, I don’t mind if she wants it as a hobby, but I’d rather she have something solid to fall back on.”

True artists know that there is nothing solid in this world. And talking to little kids about writing — especially those about 8 or 9, the age when I decided to become a writer in Mrs. Ortgies’ class – is especially important to me.

But I couldn’t wait a day. I had to get back on the road.

-o-

Headed east, I took U.S. Route 67 through Alpine, one of the base camps for the Coen Brothers when they were making No Country for Old Men, from the 2005 Cormac McCarthy novel.

I cruised about 50 miles on Route 67 before hooking up again with Interstate 10.

On the radio, Garrison Keillor informed me that it was the birthday not just of the traitor Benedict Arnold, but a writer who left behind a long shelf of work, one I had not heard of: Emily Hahn [1905-to-1997.]

Emily Hahn, a writer in the habit of taking her pet gibbon to Shanghai dinner parties.
What grabbed me was this: Hahn could not resist the lure of what lay around the next corner, which more times than not for her was the curve of the Earth.

And this: Hahn’s entire writing career – more than 50 books and 200 essays and short stories, a vocation which saw her published to the very end — can be summed up in a phrase from the headline on her New York Times obituary – “CHRONICLER OF HER OWN EXPLOITS.”

It is what I have strived for – fought for and paid a pretty price for – from the time of my first by-line in 1977 for the infant City Paper.

Once, while in conversation over eggs with David Simon about a book I hoped to write that might be my ticket out of The Sun newsroom, he suggested: “Why don’t you just call it Me.”

Simon was being sarcastic and I was dead serious – “I always wrote about me when I could,” avowed John Lennon — which made his point all the more sharp.

Hahn’s career began with a road trip, a 1924 excursion across the country at age 19 in a Model T Ford; a 2,400 mile trip in which she and a girlfriend disguised themselves as men to better do as they pleased.

Her letters home were exquisite and compelling. A brother-in-law sent them to the then-fledgling New Yorker. The dispatches were well received and thus began a lifetime association with the magazine, which made her their China correspondent a few years later.

Hahn’s first book – Seductio ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practices of Seduction — A Beginner’s Handbook — was brought out in 1930 by Brewer & Warren of New York.

Some 51 titles followed. The Baltimore County Public Library has none in their collection, the result, surmised director Jim Fish, of none being borrowed over the years before the “DISCARDED” stamp came down.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library lists more than two dozen, including a first-edition of Lorenzo: D. H. Lawrence and the Women Who Loved Him, from 1975. It appears someone borrows a copy of an Emily Hahn book from the Pratt about once a year.

Soon after Hahn’s passing (she was in her New Yorker office a week before “popping off,” as Doris Lessing refers to death),  Faber and Faber of Boston published Ken Cuthbertson’s definitive biography of her, its title taken from the author’s favorite phrase.

Nobody Said Not to Go.

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