Sunday, September 25, 2011

George Ford Morris

My grandfather Kent Miller aboard Comforter with Mom running beside them

In his day there was no finer American equestrian artist than George Ford Morris (1873-1960). By painting horses, riders and their owners, Morris captured on canvas the ever-changing world of "Town and Country" Americana. His paintings, featured in the 1952 book Portraitures of Horses, are as popular as ever, selling for as much as $25,000 in auctions.

In the early 1940's Morris visited my mother's home in Aiken, South Carolina. Her father, Kent Miller,and mother, Theodora, were hoping to get some lessons from the famous artist.

a composition study by George Ford Miller

This I finally consented to do, to the extent of allowing them to work two half days a week in my studio, during which time I would give them as much help and criticism as I could while continuing my own work. Although Mrs. Miller's chief object in trying to draw horses was, I believe, to avoid as much as possible being deprived of her husband's company while he was engaged in his art work, nevertheless, it turned out that she could draw horses so much better and with so much less effort than he could that he was forced to the stark conclusion, if his wife was a better artist than himself, he had better try to make his living in some other way, and I inwardly approved of his decision.
-George Ford Morris

Kent was a strapping, graceful figure of a man on a horse, and his first love before his marriage had been Saddle-Horses, of which he owned three well bred ones when I met him... - GFM

But in Aiken my grandfather's fancy turned to Thoroughbreds.His newest acquisition was a horse named Comforter which he entered in some some of Aiken's amateur chases. The horse failed to race well, but my grandfather met a famous owner of Steeplechase horses, Thomas Hitchcock.
When Hitchcock died, my grandfather bought a small racy looking horse from the Hitchcock stable. Veteran steeplechase men were amused by the persistence with which my grandfather trained the horse.

Elkridge and my grandfather

It was not long however, before little Elkridge and his amateur handler began to astonish them. In 1946, Elkridge won the Grand National at Belmont. (Elkridge would win 31 of 123 starts and be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966.) Stablemate War Battle won the Temple Gwathmey. The sporting press declared Elkridge the ranking steeplechaser of 1942 and 1946. War Battle won the title in 1947.

Another evidence that goes to show what youthful genius coupled with earnest endeavor can accomplish in this tough and ofttimes cynical old world.-GFM

Recently I received a photograph from Morris's great nephew who lives in Seattle. It's an 11 X 14 painting of Elkridge, finished but for the rider and saddle which are penciled in. Small world.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Uncle Saint in Hawaii: Dolphin Stampede

After two days in dry dock refitting the hull and keel, Uncle Saint and his companions set off for Tahiti once again. For two days they had fabulous sailing in their 33 foot boat, then heavy swells.
The days and nights began to merge with one another.

There was one night, however, which I shall never forget. I was standing watch, alone, about 2 AM. There wasn't a breath of air and, for once, the sea was glassy calm. Although all possible sail was up, we were "ghosting", or standing practically still. In memory of Dr. Van der werff I was actively engaged in "sokuten kyoshi" ( self-detachment in pursuit of heaven), when far off in the distance I heard the rhythmic sound of breakers. I knew we were nowhere near land, so I assumed a major squall was approaching and lowered the main.

The noise drew closer and closer but there was still no breath of wind and, I swear to God, I thought we were going to be hit by a tidal wave. I was about to go below to waken the others when the sea around us literally erupted with the bodies of over a thousand porpoises. They leaped and cavorted in absolute perfect unison - and the full moon reflecting off their flashing eyes and phosphorescent wake made it seem like we were surrounded by an underwater Milky Way.

The came so close to the boat I could have touched them --indeed, some of them actually nudged us ( I found out later they do this to rub the barnacles, etc, off their backs). There is no way in the world to describe this spectacle. I thought, afterwards, that they were like violin players in a symphony orchestra - performing the most incredible tricks while bowing in perfect unison. But a symphonic score lacks the sweeping grand loneliness of the ocean, and violin players lack the grace and power of porpoises. I sat there for an hour after they had gone, drenching wet and shaking. I could not think. "Vot comes to mind?"

After the night the ocean "exploded in his face" Uncle Saint and his passengers drifted into the full-scale doldrums. Someone tossed a paper plate overboard and watched it drift forward and out of sight. The decision was made to return to Hawaii where Uncle Saint helped his old friend John Honl with his charter marlin boat business. He moved into a small apartment with roommates and cockroaches.

I won't say we had a lot of cockroaches, but one morning I found an albino and this only happens once in 10,000,000 births!

I missed living in the yacht harbor though. The life, sights and sounds there were other worldly. I love to watch the tall masts rocking back and forth--scribbling the sky, The long drawn out belching sounds of the mooring lines as the boats strain against the docks. The incredible array of ragamuffin I shipped out again and went back to Kona where I have spent the last week diving for slate-urchin spines.

The price is $50 per thousand and I have 6,000 of them in a big reeking sack at my feet. The wind has picked up a little and it's my turn at the wheel,Ma. We'll be back in time for the surfing championships and I am entered.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Uncle Saint in Hawaii 1962-1968, part three

Continuing a 1963 letter to his mother--

From the beginning (The Lady Pat on its way to Tahiti) took on water. We weren't unduly worried, however, for we were crossing the Alenuihaha Channel ("Laughing Water" we called it) - the roughest stretch of water in the world. We decided to play it safe and 24 hours later we put into a small, uninhabited ( except for goats) island called "Kahoolawe", or "Island of Death".

A strange thing happened on the way over. We had a fishing line out and we got an immense strike. The fish made a furious run and, just as we started to hand line him in, the line went slack. We brought it in anyhow, and on the end of the hook was a tuna which might originally have gone 15-20 lbs., foul-hooked through the tail. I say "originally" because a shark had taken off its head in such a way that all the entrails had gone with it--cleaning it as neatly as we could have done it with a knife. Our first dinner at sea was delicious.

Kahoolawe is a strange, barren little island, covered completely with 'a'a ( or sharp volcanic rock), kiawe thorns, and jagged shrapnel. (It was used as a target island by Navy dive bombers.) For three days we did nothing but explore the island until our feet looked like hamburgers and skin dive waters so thick with fish that you literally had to push larger ones away with your spear to get at the ones that would fit into the frying pan.

One funny experience: I "poked" ( as we say) a huge octopus--the largest I have ever seen in these waters. The tentacles were about ten feet from tip to tip, and when I threw him on board he stuck one of his tentacles down through a scupper hole. Two of us finally pried him off and with him came a five foot strip of white paint off the side of the boat. I cleaned him ( you turn his head inside out and strip off the ink sacs and brains) and stuffed him into the pressure cooker -- since we figured this would be the only way we could tenderize an old brute like this one. We turned on the fire and waited. Nothing happened. After ten minutes had gone by I heard this strange knocking noise, so I went below to investigate. The pressure cooker was literally throbbing up and down with such force that I was afraid it was going to blow shrapnel through the sides of the boat. I threw it overboard to cool it off, and when we brought it up and hour later and pried the lid off, the blast of steam which escaped still shot 10 feet across the decks. It seems the octopus, in his final revenge, had stuck the tip of his tentacle up into the steam release valve and blocked it -- and in another few minutes the ship would have gone down like a sieve. I'll say one thing--he was tender by the time we got him out of there.

We also explored the island and found a deserted army camp with a cache of 4 year old "C" rations. We swam about fifty cans of them ( "Ham & Lima Beans", Roast Beef & Mashed Potatoes", etc) back to the boat & opened up a few of them. The food was still good -- so good, in fact, that we never once dipped into our original supply of ship's stores.

Another time I ran down and caught one of the multitude of small goats which inhabit the island, but it baa-ed so plaintively I released it to its mother -- in far better shape, I might add, than I was in after the barefooted chase up the side of the cliff.

"What happened then, Mr Crusoe?"
"I went back on Friday".

Anyhow the hull did not swell up as tight as we had hoped and, to be technical in terms I won't remember 6 months from now, we were still taking water on in the Deadwood under the Lazarette. (I love to sail but I can't speak the language) So one night the four of us sat down to a top-level conference and decided that the smart thing would be head back to Honolulu for dry-docking and a general "overhaul". We had no sooner settled down to our usual nightly goat - serenade when the first explosion went off 100 yards away. Night bombing practice! We hoisted the anchor so fast we almost pulled the bow under and headed away from Kahoolawe with every possible light blazing up into the sky. Bombs were dropping all over the place and, while it was comforting to know we were being protected "while we slept", we somehow wished we weren't being protected quite so close.

We pulled into Lahaina again early in the morning - just in time to catch the divers going out - and they solemnly lined up on the dock and shouted "Iorana" which is the Tahitian word for "Hello".
They thought they were very funny.

Two years after Uncle Saint's visit, 500 tons of TNT were detonated on the island as part of "Operation Sailor Hat". The mission's purpose was to simulate a small nuclear explosion and survey its effects on offshore ships.
In 1993--after decades of Islander protests-- the Navy turned the island of Kaho'olawe back to Hawaii. Today the island is only used for native Hawaiian cultural and spiritual purposes. The Hawaiians do not refer to Kaho'olawe is "the island of death"

Because Kaho'olawe is still littered with un-recovered ordnance, the rare visitor is taught "if you didn't drop it, don't pick it up."

Monday, September 5, 2011

Uncle Saint in Hawaii 1962-1968, part two

From a letter Uncle Saint wrote to his mother in late 1963:

The summer passed more or less uneventfully. I lived and worked aboard a 48 foot sloop named "The Swallow", taking skin diving charters out for "South Seas Aquatics" in the Hilton Hawaiian Village. ( I also had a brief two week fling as a surfing instructor until a few mishaps--broken nose, chipped tooth, dislocated finger etc.--impressed me with the fact that there are easier ways of making a living than dodging your own pupils' loose surfboards.)

Hilton Hawaiian Village in the early 1960's

The chartering was marvelous. We would leave the harbor almost every day with a party of 4 to 10 skin divers and sail around ("..spanked lightly by Waikiki's ever-present tropical trade winds") until we reached the first clear diving area ("visit Waikiki's fabled coral gardens") where we would push them overboard.

Usually I would go over with then, after running through the list of standard admonitions: "The thing that looks like a pin cushion is a poisonous sea urchin. Don't touch it.

The thing that looks like a purple balloon with strings is a Portuguese Man of War. Don't touch it.

The thing that looks like an eel is an eel. Don't touch it" etc., etc.

And while they were down looking at all the things they couldn't touch, I could go out and spear enough fish, octopus or lobster for our dinner.

I did have two bad scares. One when a 12 foot mako shark made two ominous passes at myself and two young children I was diving with, only to swim off for no apparent reason at all.

And the other when I was looking for lobster inside an old sunken wreck in about forty feet of water and a sudden, tremendous surge threw me into a tangle of rusted iron pipes. I surfaced, bleeding badly from a number of superficial scratches on my legs, and spent the next two weeks flat on my back with a fever of 105 on down as a result of blood poisoning.

When summer ended and business fell off, I went to Maui to dive for black coral. This species of coral, as far as we know, is unique to Hawaiian waters. It grows in a tree-like form at a depth of 150-250 feet, and its intense black color is, of course, attributable to the lack of light down there. Its value lies in its fabulous beauty. As a full tree it is a decorative piece; but when it is cut up and polished the coral is so hard and lustrous that it can be carved into a variety of "costume jewelry" items.

But the diving is dangerous. You have a powerful current, low visibility and sharks to contend with as a starter--but the worst thing of all is the risk ( and almost certain risk) of the bends.

Out of a dozen divers who work for black coral, at least half of them have had the bends and two of them will never walk again. It would never have happened if they had stuck to the standard diving tables (how long one can work at a given depth, how long he has to decompress at varying ascending depths, etc.) but most of them are young and blinded with greed.

(Black coral brings $5 a pound, a good tree can weigh $20 lbs., and it's possible to bring up two trees or more in one day's diving.) They even have a macabre little theme song to the effect that "If you want to be a black coral diver/ Save your money so you can buy a good wheelchair".

I frankly did not feel that the money was commensurate with the risk, and when the chance came to sail to Tahiti on the "Lady Pat" I took it.

Lahaina Harbor 1963

A touching scene took place at the dock at Lahaina when the other black coral divers came to see us off. The "bends" affects the leg muscles, mainly, and the whole group of them bobbed and weaved and stumbled about like paraplegics as they waved goodbye and shouted "Aloha" to us. A half mile out, I turned around and they were still there, lined up and waving. They looked for all the world like drunken, spastic marionettes and I wondered what cruel puppeteer was yanking their strings. I felt sick.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Uncle Saint in Hawaii 1962-1968, part one

In 1962, at the behest of his mother, Uncle Saint left New York City and its various temptations behind and moved to Hawaii. I wouldn't want to betray my family's reputation so I'll just say the move likely saved my 30 year old uncle's life ...or at least prolonged it.

In September of 1962 he wrote his mother:

I think I am a "nice guy" and, although I have two strikes against me to prove it, I am going to do my best to show myself and others that it can be done. Dr Jekyll makes a comeback!

With the money his mother sent as a birthday present Uncle Saint bought a used typewriter, a surfboard and, with $50, half an interest in vintage 1952 Morris Minor.

My life is complete and I am tremendously happy. I am lean, tan and muscular
( except for the lean --155 lbs) and am the spitting image of Charles Atlas, in the sense that our spit looks exactly the same.

He moved from busy Lauula Street to a small cottage surrounded by vine and avocado trees in the back of Waikiki. He shared this story with his mom.

The other night I went to a semi-posh restaurant here in town. The place was full so I took my place in line. Just then the door opened and a tall, magnificent blonde strolled in dragging a long ermine stole on the floor behind her, like a train. She wiggled up to the headwaiter and engaged him in a short sotto voce conversation, of which I only caught her phrase "bon soir". He shook his head, she stared icily at him icily for a moment, and unsheathed a jewelled arm, hurled it into the air and virtually shouted: "Qu'es que c'est que cette shit 'No tables'!"

Uncle Saint got a job as a crew member on an inter-island sailboat for a two week cruise with "pea green tourists", spending most of the time in the Molokai Channel where 15 foot swells are considered normal. Over 30 feet not unusual.

At the end of the letter he promised good things were on the horizon.

I feel wonderful. I'm accomplishing things neither of us would have believed possible a short time ago and I'm right in the middle of a good start for the rest of what is to come in my life.