Saturday, September 20, 2003

[9/20/2011] Perelman Tonight: Hawaii to Hong Kong -- Part 3 of "The Wild Blue Yonder" (Chapter 3 of "The Swiss Family Perelman) (continued)


The ancient leaky Wallah-Wallah was almost scuppers awash.

"Inevitably, of course, and by that nimble club-car ratiocination in which the upper brackets engage at the drop of a bond, the true culprit stood revealed -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Great Betrayer, working with his Red cohorts in the unions, had shackled free enterprise, deflowered the American Way, and reduced us to the status of witless helots."
-- from tonight's installment of "The Wild Blue Yonder"

The Swiss Family Perelman
Chapter 3, "The Wild Blue Yonder,"

Part 3 of 3

Five days after we had slid through the Golden Gate, the ship rounded Diamond Head and there ensued a feverish twelve-hour kaleidoscope of paper leis, tanned Miami bail-jumpers chanting spurious Hawaiian Lieder, and raw fish drowned in a species of library paste called poi.

Bowed under armloads of tin ukuleles and promotional literature lavished on us by the Chamber of Commerce, we parked the striplings at the Outrigger Canoe Club with orders to acquire a second-degree burn and canvassed the shops of Waikiki Beach. The boast that they contain the world's most hideous curios is, in my opinion, pure chauvinism. True, they have managed to torture rattan, clay, and sea-shells into some extraordinarily repellent knick knacks, but I saw nothing even remotely as emetic as the worry-birds and musical toilets of my own Sixth Avenue.

The afternoon was marred by only one slight contretemps. We were just leaving Gump's, where my wife had spent an hour cooing over that shop's collection of coral and spinach jade, when Mr. Richard Gump breathlessly overtook us. With some concern, he called attention to an angry swelling in my breast-pocket, offering to summon medical assistance if necessary. I pooh-poohed his anxiety, supposing it to be merely a hernia induced by overexertion. What was our surprise, therefore, to discover that a Han jade cup, formerly the property of the Dowager Empress of China, had fallen into my clothes unbeknownst to me. As soon as the mystery was cleared up, we all enjoyed a hearty chuckle at Gump's expense and he conducted us back to the dock personally to make sure we had incurred no untoward effects from our visit.

By mid-Pacific the tropical heat had wrought a subtle transformation aboardship; the officers blossomed out in whites, passengers sorted themselves into practical jokers, self-made men, close personal friends of Mr. MacArthur, and similar bores, and a spirit of merrymaking as uncompromising as that of the borscht circuit made itself manifest. Every evening vast, frenzied cocktail parties raged in the Bubbling Well Bar, tendered by salvage tycoons and kittenish Southern harridans ablaze with diamonds. At mealtimes the public address system was constantly warbling "Happy Birthday to You" to signalize the imminence of senility, and august executives in paper hats and rompers capered grimly through the passageways, braying on horns. It was a time to try men's souls.

To what degree the destruction of Manila and the anguish her inhabitants had endured shook the equilibrium of some of our fellow travelers was made clear soon after our arrival there. "Do you know what I had to pay for a box of beauty clay here?" I heard an elderly dragon with a resurrected face indignantly demand of her companion. "Three pesos -- a dollar-fifty! Why, you can get the same thing in Grosse Pointe for forty cents!" The other Eumenides hissed sympathetically. "It's a scandal," one assented, "and can you imagine living in all that rubble the way they do? Not an ounce of self-respect." Several other disgruntled observers, whose cabs had been delayed in traffic on the Escolta owing to reconstruction, surmised that granting the islands their independence had caused the mischief. The Filipinos were not ready for it, they declared sagely.

Inevitably, of course, and by that nimble club-car ratiocination in which the upper brackets engage at the drop of a bond, the true culprit stood revealed -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Great Betrayer, working with his Red cohorts in the unions, had shackled free enterprise, deflowered the American Way, and reduced us to the status of witless helots. Now, had Dewey been elected . . . Their shoulders were racked with dry sobs.

It demands hair-trigger caution on a trans-Pacific cruise, not to say the reflexes of a circus aerialist, to dodge the sightseeing which becomes epidemic the moment the ship touches port. Before the screw has quite stopped revolving, busloads of tourists begin disappearing into the scrub to eavesdrop on some rachitic aborigine at his vespers or gape at the headstone of a forgotten conquistador.

At Manila, while we managed to by-pass the usual shrines, dungeons, and fortifications, we were cozened into visiting a cigar factory, an experience which for sheer ennui transcends even the vaudeville turn of Benny Fields. It took a sizable number of gimlets and a trip to the Miramar, the boƮte de nuit favored of the moment, to dispel the effects. Anybody interested in ravishing women -- not in the Sabine sense, purely in viewing some exquisite lassies -- will find his sensibilities agreeably teased there. The dance floor swarmed with enchanting young Filipinas who wore the transparent puff sleeves of pifia cloth characteristic of the locale and danced the paso doble with the verve of Argentinita.

At the invitation of the manager, a sinister bonze straight out of Raymond Chandler sporting a mouthful of gold teeth, we passed an instructive hour in his gambling rooms overhead. I was amused to hear how quickly word spread that I had entered the establishment; the croupiers were taut with expectancy and on every hand I heard awed whispers of "There's the man who took the Greek Syndicate at Monte Carlo two years ago!"

Their apprehensiveness, however, was unwarranted. I was in no mood for play, and except for the trifling three or four thousand I negligently staked to humor my wife, stifling a yawn the while, I was richly content to study the passing scene. I had just become engrossed in studying a shapely, sloe-eyed mestiza with flowerlike hands who was dealing blackjack when the mem decided my eyes were overstrained and, grasping me firmly by the scruff, catapulted me into a droshky.

Amid a cataclysmic downpour that drummed against her ports like hail, the President Cleveland moved at long last into the harbor of Hong Kong. Narrowly missing Victoria and the Peak, shrouded in fog, the ship swung into its berth at Kowloon guided by the pilot and captain alone, for I was far too busy stealing pillowcases to give them the assistance they clamored for.

Eleven coolies in massive capes woven of rushes bore our baggage to the customs shed; in a lather of hysteria, scattering cumshaw about me like grain, I deposited in a bonded godown the hundred cartons of cigarettes I had laid by for emergencies ahead. Within a couple of hours, His Britannic Majesty's watchdogs had assured themselves that our gear contained no firearms, gold, or opium, and we were afloat again.

The ancient, leaky wallah-wallah bearing us to Hong Kong Island was almost scuppers awash under our luggage; bailing like madmen, soaked to the skin, the four of us beseeched the boatmen to pull for the distant shore. The little craft rose, fell, and rose again, and for a horrid instant I feared we were all foredoomed to Davy Jones's locker. Then I dauntlessly brushed the rain from my face, encircled my wife's waist, and spoke the words that give a woman the courage to go on.

"You got me into this rat race, sweetheart," I said. "I'll never forget as long as I live." A few simple words, and yet they gave her the stability she lacked. I saw her lips frame the phrase, "You utter, utter darling," but she was too moved to pronounce it. And so, hand in hand and neck in noose, we rode forward into the promise of a new dawn.

* * *

TOMORROW NIGHT: Part 1 of Chapter 4 of The Swiss Family Perelman, "Mama Don't Want No Rice"


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