BITS and PIECES # 26

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April 17, 2013 by palamow

 BITS and PIECES # 26

Hello again from Luquillo,

First, a bit of local news — if you live in Puerto Rico, or if you are lucky enough to be visiting our island on vacation (or business) — consider visiting the El Yunque National Forest on Saturday, April 20th. As in past years, the Rain Forest’s annual Clean-up Day event attracts volunteers from surrounding communities, and from public service organizations as wide-ranging as the Sierra Club and the Boy/Girl scouts. Participants form into teams to collect and bag trash from the forest’s nature trails and roadways — food and refreshments are available throughout the event — local entertainers will provide music and. of course Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl will be there to keep the children blissful…

This year, I’ll be there too — signing copies of my two most recent rainforest natural history books ‘The Animals of El Yunque’ and ‘The Trees of El Yunque’ — if you’ve already got a copy of either (or both) books, bring them along and I’ll sign them for you — it you haven’t (for shame!), this is a good chance to purchase a copy and know that profits resulting from your purchase go directly to the El Yunque National Forest to help preserve this precious ecological gem for your grandchildren!  I’ll be  there to greet you and sign books at the Eastern National tent in the upper parking lot of the El Portal Rainforest Center (PR road 191, km 4.3, in Rio Grande) from 9:00 am until 11:00 am — come on up and join in the fun!

 Now for a little ‘blog business’ — in case you’ve been wondering — I’m still alive and kicking – up each morning at 5:00 and writing/editing until noon — I’m considering taking what I’ll call a “Leave of Presence” from the blogosphere — in the six months since I began doing this column, I’ve concocted 25 entries — one almost every week — so, before the blog begins to rule my life (and the quality of my narratives becomes ‘iffy’), I’m going to reduce my entries to one every two (or possibly three) weeks — the quality should improve  — and the reduced workload may even increase my time on the green side of the dirt…

At the moment, I’m apportioning my time between 10 (no kidding) new stories which I hope will please you as they become palatable enough to share…

In the interim, here is an old selection from my book of memories ‘Snapshots from the Road’ — If you haven’t read it before (and even if you have), I think you just might enjoy it — and I’m sincerely hopeful that it will be interesting enough to bring you back again to this blog to read my new ‘stuff’…

TWO ARTISTS AND A BANANA BOAT

Famed portrait and landscape artist, caricaturist and eccentric Hollywood character John Decker was a much-loved family friend and frequent guest at our home in Beverly Hills in the 1940’s.  He could often be found, along with actors John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Thomas Mitchell and other members of the infamous ‘Hollywood Bohemian’ gang, quaffing drinks while playing billiards in our rumpus-room, or making nefarious plans and trading stories with my father late into the night in his study.

Mr. Decker enjoyed lounging out by our swimming pool, smoking cigarettes and drinking tall glasses of whiskey and soda, while he prepared rough sketches for his paintings.  An intriguing character, he was always scruffily dressed – he looked like a pirate and gave off a fascinating fragrance, a mixture of cigarettes, booze and oil paint – a compelling aroma to an impressionable young boy… 

I would watch, fascinated as he sketched with a piece of charcoal on a canvas covered board – occasionally working with brush, pallet knife and oil paint to magically bring his drawing to life.

He patiently accepted my intrusions, answering all of my questions with dramatic cadence in his mellifluous baritone voice…

I wanted to be just like him!

My mother, who accepted Decker’s many eccentricities with composure and grace, eventually succumbed to his advice and my eager pleas, buying me an elaborate oil painting kit and artist’s folding easel – it came in a large wooden case which contained all the arcane tools that a budding artist might use – palette, a collection of fine haired brushes, charcoal pencils, palette knives, canvas covered boards of various sizes, turpentine for cleaning the brushes, and a large selection of oil paints in metal tubes with black Bakelite caps – and an artist’s smock to protect my clothes, and to help me to look the part of a struggling artist.  The paints had exciting, exotic names – Atazarin crimson, Burnt sienna. Quinacridone magenta, Ultramarine violet, and so on – and they all had that wonderful, unforgettable oil paint scent… 

I set to work immediately – out by the pool near to Mr. Decker of course.  My first (and last) painting was a seascape – I followed Mr. Decker’s lead, sketching the outline in charcoal and then began with brush and paint – a yellow hulled sailboat on a frothy blue and white ocean with a white beach and green and brown mountains in the background.  When it was done, I shyly showed it to my mother; when she let Mr. Decker see it, he muttered softly in her ear ‘He seems to have a feeling for color, but, I sense that he might not have the necessary artistic outlook for proper composition, detail and depth of field’. 

When my sister Patricia saw my painting, she hooted with glee — calling it my ‘Banana Boat picture’ – she said that it looked like ‘An overripe banana with a toothpick for a mast and a dinner-napkin for a sail’ – as of course it did, much to my embarrassment…

I packed up paints, brushes and easel, placed my still damp ‘masterpiece’ under my arm and trudged dejectedly upstairs to my room to consider my future artistic options. Upon due reflection, I realized that Mr. Decker and my sister were being both truthful and precise – I had neither the commitment nor the ability necessary to develop into an artist – my single attempt was indeed laughable – I briefly considered cutting off an ear like Van Gogh, but soon realized that wouldn’t change things, so I packed away paints, brushes, palette, easel and smock,  and began to consider other avenues and outlets for my future – I could become a fireman, an explorer, a cowboy, or – hey, I could become a writer!

One of my father’s ‘Hollywood Bohemian’ friends was the renowned author Gene Fowler – when I was given a copy of his epic poem “The Jervis Bay Goes Down’, I avidly read the rhapsodic account of the brave deeds of Captain Fogarty-Feegan, master of an unarmed merchant ship, and his encounter with a German battleship while leading a convoy across the Atlantic at the height of World War II.  Like most young boys at that time, I was fascinated by war stories, listening enthusiastically to soldiers and sailors as they recounted their exploits while visiting us on weekends.  I had developed the habit of writing down what I overheard in a journal my mother had given me for my birthday…

 I was always ready to accompany dad to Mr. Fowler’s home in Brentwood – besides being a ‘fellow writer’, he had a huge willow tree in his backyard – its leafy branches reached all the way to the ground – it became a favorite place of escape when I realized that I could hide within its cover for hours, observing the adults at play while vigorously noting the goings-on in my journal, without fear of discovery…

But, Mr. Decker and I were not finished with each other just yet…

Our home boasted many of his works – family portraits done in the style of the old masters, a couple of Modigliani ‘knock-offs’ that Mr. Decker had whipped-up when my mother needed ‘Something interesting’ for her newly redecorated sun room, and a number of other paintings bestowed as gifts, or attained as repayment for loans when dad would be called in the middle of the night to bail his artist comrade out of jail after he had been arrested once again for driving while drunk…

I began to write fanciful stories in my journal about the interesting figures depicted so vividly in his paintings – inventing what they did for a living (doctor, lawyer, villain) and attempting to describe their further adventures.  When I showed my stories to Mr. Decker he would invariably mutter ‘you have a flamboyant imagination, boy – nurture it, don’t waste it!’

On my tenth birthday, Mr. Decker presented me with an antique sword – a saber that John Barrymore had brandished as French poet, thief and vagabond, Francois Villon in the 1927 film ‘The Beloved Rogue’.  In the short note accompanying his gift, he wrote ‘More fertilizer for your mind’s eye – JD’

In the late-1940s, Mr. Decker moved his studio from its Bundy Drive setting to a larger, more conveniently located site just below Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.  His new studio was filled with intriguing objects. He had acquired a raucous, bad mannered African parrot that had free reign of the house. Mr. Decker spent many unsuccessful hours trying to teach it to say “Mr. Decker cannot take your call at the moment, he is busy drinking” whenever the phone rang…

My sex education began, albeit prematurely, on my first visit to his new studio…

Since he lacked the financial resources to hire live models to pose for his paintings, Mr. Decker persuaded actor Errol Flynn to buy him a discarded female mannequin that he had discovered at the May Company department store on Wilshire Boulevard.  After repairing and cleaning her up, he named her ‘Mona’, covered her bald head with a fashionable wig from Wetmore’s, and then skillfully employed paint, glue and bits of hair applied strategically to portions of her plaster anatomy to bring his new ‘model’ to life, so to speak…

Normally, Mona could be found, clad in a fur coat, net stockings, high heeled slippers, and little else, leaning seductively against the bar in Mr. Decker’s living room –  I discovered her by chance, entirely unclothed while wandering unattended through Mr. Decker’s upstairs studio as the Bohemians were otherwise occupied downstairs.  Since her nakedness seemed to cause her no embarrassment, and the expected bolt of lightning failed to strike me down for my sins, I relaxed slightly and enjoyed my first visual encounter with an unclad lady…

I wrote at length about this serendipitous experience in my journal when I reached home that evening – I was far too shy to share that story with Mr. Decker, although, in retrospect, I’m confident that if I had, he would have roared his delighted Rabelaisian approval…    

© 2011 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

 

 

 

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