A Man, A Plan, A Canal

Bunua-Varilla toyed with his coffee, swirling the petite silver spoon against the delicate porcelain cup. The president glowered through his spectacles across his vast desk, practically bubbling with impatience.

“The cause of the delay,” said the former director-general of the now-bankrupt French company, “is the lawyer Cromwell. Were it not for him, Mr. President, we would move forward.”

“You must understand, Mr. Varilla,” said Secretary Hay, “we are only speaking of hypotheticals. The United States Government doesn’t negotiate business deals.”

“He knows that, John,” said Roosevelt, fidgeting.  His usual restless energy was barely contained. “What will it take, Mr. Varilla? Hypothetically.”

At last, the question nobody has had the temerity to ask. “Independence for the new republic, of course,” Bunua-Varilla said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Immediate diplomatic recognition from the United States. An embassy in Panama City.” He allowed himself a smile. “And of course, a great deal of money.”

What Pegman Saw: Panama

The American president Theodore Roosevelt liked to boast “I took Panama”. He was referring to his part in the international negotiations and double-dealing that brought about the construction of the now-famous canal across the Central American isthmus in the early years of the 20th century.

Roosevelt’s aim was to ensure that the powerful navy he was creating could deploy as speedily against an Asian power (Japan) as a European one (Germany). The colossal engineering task was the first stroke of the “big-stick” diplomacy he preached. It also generated enough deceit and comic bravado for the plot of an operetta.

The former director-general of the bankrupt company, Phillipe Bunua-Varilla, wanted the United States to buy the concession that Colombia had granted the French, together with the abandoned works and equipment, which had been valued at a cool $109 million.

After many backroom meetings and a strawman Panamanian revolution fabricated by agents of the United States against a reluctant Columbia, a French intermediary was authorized to seek diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Panama and arrange the signing of a canal treaty with the US. Bunua-Varilla sent off $100,000 to the revolutionaries and the US State Department granted recognition to the new country within hours.

Mister Zero

He’s right there, lolling in Saigon Plaza, plain as day. An old man now, as are we all, but unmistakably him.

Not sure how I should play it. Unless something’s gone seriously wrong, he already spotted me. Knows I am here.

Take a deep breath, walk up to him.

He stares at the empty park through mirrored glasses.

“Did you miss it?” he asks as I approach.

“The place?” I sit.

“The place. The heat. The people, the bugs, the war, the hunt.”

“You really asking?”

“I really am.”

“Tell the truth, the only thing I missed was the food.”


 Friday Fictioneers

Ní Féidir Leat Dul Abhaile Riamh

“So you’ve come home, then.”

He’s not changed in the slightest as he stands behind the bar in the selfsame dimness common to all my memories of this place, this very place, my home.

But a shaft of pale sunlight catches the side of his face and I can see that yes, he has changed, he who always seemed to me a man of stone, granite hair and obsidian eyes, marble fingers and few if any words.

Many an hour have I sat my New York desk with closed eyes trying to picture him as he stands now, striving to summon words that might capture the wool of his collar, the muscles of his jaw shifting beneath the skin like a foot beneath the bedclothes.

In this shaft I see him as he is, see him as though for the first time, an old man alone in an empty bar.

What Pegman Saw: Galway

Here And Gone, Poof

I want to reach back to that San Francisco rowhouse, talk to that long-haired kid whose only goal was to get a real Les Paul and open for the Airplane or Moby Grape.

I want to tell him to pay attention, to enjoy the small moments as much as the large ones.

The summer tour with stadium shows and an honest-to-God tour bus, yes, but also the rotating bandmates, the county fairs and racetracks and house parties.

Look at that Les Paul now, every scratch and nick, years and years.

Marriage, divorce, children, grandchildren.

All of it here, then gone.

Friday Fictioneers

The Williams

The longhouse was warm and smoky and the blizzard howled outside. A spitted loin of venison dripped grease into the hissing fire as Massasoit squatted and smoked his new pipe, a gift from the Williams who now sat across from him, draped in a bearskin and shivering uncontrollably.

The Williams was one of the few Europeans that Massasoit trusted. He liked his candor in council, especially how he stood up to the others about their rude behavior and greed.

“So tell me, friend,” said Massasoit, “what you did that enraged them enough to finally cast you out.”

“I called them priest bitches,” said the Williams. “They got up to be mad liars, trying to tie me down.”

The Williams was learning Wampanoag, though his word choices could be both shocking and hilarious. Massasoit suppressed a smile.  “Yes, they are liars. We have seen this. But you are not a liar.”

What Pegman Saw: Rhode Island

Roger Williams was a puritan minister who sailed with his wife for the Massachusetts colony in 1631. Upon arrival, he immediately clashed with the colony’s religious leaders,  decrying the hypocrisy in the way they dealt with the native peoples.  Williams himself treated the Wampanoag fairly, trading English goods for furs and meat. He learned their language and respected them as fellow human beings, equal in stature to Europeans as God’s creatures. He became special friends with Wampanoag Sachem Massasoit. Williams wrote:

Boast not proud English of thy birth & blood
Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good.
Of one blood God made Him, and Thee & All,
As wise, as faire, as strong, as personall.
By natures wrath’s his portion, thine no more
Till grace his soule and thine in Christ restore
Make sure thy second birth, else thou shalt see,
Heaven ope to Indian, but shut to thee.

In 1635, the Salem Colonial council grew tired of his arguing and convicted Williams of sedition. They passed a sentence of deportation to be executed as soon as a ship was available.

Williams fled.  In the depths of one of the coldest winters in recent memory, this city boy from London, made his escape on foot from Salem. The English settlements at Plymouth and Boston were closed to him, but a Wampanoag hunting party found him and gave him shelter before bringing him safely to Massasoit’s home near present-day Bristol.

Williams founded his own colony soon after, embodying many of the principles that became the guiding forces of the US Constitution.





Island Fever

I walked out of the Sheraton Waikiki half-drunk, the warm air heavy with the smell of sea and flowers and grilled food.

Kalakaua Avenue was jammed with thousands of Japanese tourists, most of them a full head shorter than I.

I drifted against the crowd as the sky above us turned a sudden purple, vivid and brief, giving over to the neon wash from the Avenue’s colored lights.

A row of gleaming classic cars stood beneath the towering bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku, his neck draped with leis of fresh flowers.

I closed my eyes, my heart filling with possibility.


Friday Fictioneers


The Minister Reports

Xiang kept his eyes on the armored carrier, not wanting to crash into it. It did not have taillights and the oversized tires threw immense amounts of dust into the air. A collision would be more than disastrous.

He risked a glance in the rear-view to check on the minister and the general. Both were dressed in what seemed like ballroom finery, the minister wearing a black silk suit with starched white shirt, the general in a high collar encrusted in golden oak leaves.

The carrier stopped. Xiang put the limousine in park.

The soldiers tumbled out of the carrier and formed an honor guard, weapons held tight to their shoulders.

Xiang got out, went to the minister’s door and opened it.

The general climbed out too, placing his oversized peaked cap squarely on his head.

He walked out into the marigolds, looked around.  “Yes,” he said. “This will do.”


What Pegman Saw


In 1958, Deng Xiaoping selected Haibei to be the epicenter of China’s nuclear weapons development efforts, building the Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy based on Soviet designs. The academy was the site of much of China’s early weapons design work, including the development of China’s first atom bomb and first hydrogen bomb. It was also the earliest site for the centralized storage of nuclear weapons.

The fact that it is also the Tibet Autonomous Region was not considered.

A Wrong Un

The dump entrance was chained shut.

Cringle swore and smacked the steering wheel. “I am so sick of this pandemic shit.”

“So now what?”

“This is what. ” He popped the truck into reverse, spattering dirt and gravel against the city’s CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE sign.  He slammed the shifter to drive and fishtailed up the rutted road.

Cringle reached down between his legs and pulled up a can of beer, opened it one-handed and gunned it down in one swallow.

He crushed the can and threw it out the window. “Keep your eye peeled for a side road,” he grinned.


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Maiden Voyage

Rene gripped the strap of his new sea-bag as he gazed up at the ship. It was bigger than any building he’d seen, a towering wall of riveted steel.

Uncle Juní came up behind and put his hand on his shoulder. “You excited?”



Rene shook his head.

His uncle laughed. “You’re a better man than I, then. My first voyage I was terrified.”

“What were you most scared of?”

“Everything. Seasickness, falling overboard, hurricanes. You name it.” He looked down at his nephew. “But none of it happened. Well, the seasickness, but that’s quite common. Even some old salts get woozy the first few days. Other than that, though, no problems.”

The ship’s whistle blew. Rene hoisted his seabag.

“One other thing,” his uncle said. “Keep your mouth shut. The other sailors will rib you. Let it roll off. Six weeks at sea is a long time.”




Last Respects

Gino walks through the dining room, smoothing tablecloths, straightening chairs, lining up silverware.

He picks up a wineglass and holds it to the light.


In fact, the entire place is spotless, the staff having stayed late to make sure their restaurant will be at its best for this, its last day.

Gino walks to the maître d’ booth and inspects the book.

A solid Wednesday,  reservations from 11 right to close.

So many familiar names, regulars coming to pay their last respects.

He turns to the next pages.  All of them are blank.

The new owners will have their own book.

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