Tolling Bells

By Margaret King Zacharias


     I did hear the bells ringing. I just did not expect that I'd have to leap across the widening gap in an opening pontoon drawbridge. I did not expect to be surrounded by uniformed police officers wearing riot helmets and carrying rifles, on the other side.

     Most people who visit Curacao head straight for the pristine beaches, the floating fresh fish and vegetable markets, the distilleries where the island's famous liquer is produced. I was on my way to the Slavery Museum.

     When I first heard the bells, my mind went straight back to Knox College, listening to the cast bronze bell that sits atop Old Main ring out our years from 1968 to 1972.(1)

     I wondered if it rang on October 7, 1858, to herald the Fifth Debate between future-President Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. I was thinking about Lincoln's response to Douglas:

     "I belong to that class who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil."(2)

     I'd already been told about the serious efforts underway in Curacao, to clean up the drug traffic from Venezuela. I certainly didn't expect to find storm troopers lined up all along the Punda Handelskade with their guns pointed -- just in case -- at every Venezuelan vessel passing through the bridge that links the Otrabanda and Punda districts of Willemstadt.

     But most of all, I did not anticipate the power of Kura Hulanda Museum.

     The brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker, and part of a complex that includes luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants, this anthropological museum is the only one of its kind in the world.

     Walkways through shade provided by a grove of fruit-bearing banana palms led to quiet meditation areas around a central courtyard. A sculptural profile that suggested a face with African features presided above the open-air plaza, the contemporary centerpiece of the museum's multiple galleries. Its countenance seemed to gaze with sorrow and compassion at the stories told inside the gallery walls.

     The first gallery was filled with examples of the earliest known forms of  human writing. An engraved cornerstone, three feet wide and two feet deep, recorded 20 different transactions in barley. Another wide piece, probably prepared for a funeral, gave testimony to how a man lived his life.

     In addition to these large stones which served public purposes, another case in the same room displayed smaller mineral slabs; cone-shaped stones, notebook-sized stones, memo pad stones, pebbles that could be held in the palm. Each of approximately fifty stones in this large glass case was covered in the same ancient script; yet each was clearly graven in the writer's own hand. 

     Although these stones had not been translated, they evoked a picture of people not so different from us today. I could easily imagine them carving out their reminders, grocery lists, sales slips, and observations as they went about their daily activities, just like we carry around our smart phones and ipads today.

     In the next room of this gallery, surrounded by vessels -- jugs, pitchers, vases and bowls in the shapes of animals -- stood a magnificent bronze frieze, as tall as I am, and wider.

     The frieze depicted a hunter in stance, his arms raised up to shoulder level. In each hand he grasped a living lion by one hind leg.

     The lions' heads were turned back in raging snarls towards the hunter. Their second hind legs clawed ineffectually behind the hunter's hip. His face held the serene and satisfied expression of a man in control of his own destiny.

     As I walked back into the central plaza, I discovered a second gallery, this one an open-air hut. It contained comfortable looking antique wooden chairs, carved in the shapes of elephants, with their companion table. They invited me to sit down and stay awhile. I accepted the invitation, sat down, and stared in shock.

     Arranged on simple metal pedestals, at the secluded side of the hut and not readily visible from the plaza, resided twenty-three skulls. Their bony eye sockets stared down at me with eerie wisdom.

     Display tags reported that among these skulls were an ancestor of the monkey, a modern monkey; an ancestor of the baboon, a modern baboon; Australopithecus (a representative of the first hominids scientists recognize as vaguely human, although they were probably hunted by saber tooth tigers rather than hunters themselves; Homo Erectus, who first stood upright; Homo habilus, the first tool maker; and Homo Sapiens himself, the species to which all modern human beings belong.

     Most of these skulls were intact, and many still had teeth.

    Although anthropologists distinguish the evolutionary species of man by technical characteristics such as prominence of brow ridges; to the casual observer  -- me -- all of these cranial remnants looked disconcertingly alike.

     After recovering from skull shock, I slipped through a glass door, into a third gallery not identified by a sign. I found myself staring at the life-size statue of an exquisitely garbed woman, probably once the figurehead of a sailing ship, holding a torch aloft.

     Above the wood statue, words were painted on the wall:

     "Venice center of North African Slave Trade -- Black-a-Moor."

     The quality of the woman's painted garments reflected the wealth and taste of Venice. Representations of sleek satin, gold fringe, and embroidered flowers adorned her costume. This ebony woman held her head high, and she had a charming smile on her face.

     Moving further into the gallery, I found old pictures and Bills of Carriage describing the historical Dutch slave trade. Each was meticulously matted and framed.

     Along the full length of this large rectancular room, these documents alternated with well-preserved examples of forged-iron handcuffs, leg shackles, gang chains; and collars with protruding styluses inserted into them to hamper the wearer's movement through a forest, as well as to prevent sleep.

     A tiny pair of handcuffs, precisely created to restrain very small bones, hung by itself on one wall.

     A beautiful example of the traditional plantation owner's costume was displayed in this same gallery, with equal care. At the end of the room, an exquisitely-rendered, five-foot long model of the ships that transported slaves to these Caribbean islands rested quietly in a glass case.

     In another gallery across the courtyard, antique Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods hung on department store dummies, surrounded by framed newspaper stories about the Abolition movement in the United States. Old bloodstains, still visible on the robes, told their own story.

     I did not have enough time to visit the many other galleries devoted to Africa in Maps, African Kingdoms, Religions, Dogon Cultures, and Benin Bronze.

     But before I departed, I stepped into the small room, three feet by five, marked with this sign:

     "Medical Hut - a place where slaves were taken when they were ill, and when they had been beaten."

     The mirror across the back wall, thoughtfully provided by the owner to reduce claustrophobia for visitors, was not an original feature.

     As I wandered away, back into the hospitality and vitality of Curaco today, I meditated about why the museum's touring route began with the sign: "Children of Abraham."

     The ancient Sumerians, whose writing tablets I had so much admired in the first gallery, took as their slaves many other early tribes of the Middle East.

     Hebrews, who were taken as slaves by the Egyptians and Babylonians, kept slaves themselves under their great King David.

     Kura Hulanda's creator Jacob Gelt Dekker's ancestors, and those of many contemporary Europeans, were taken as slaves to the Roman Empire.

     The drugs modern Curacao is so determined to keep from its shores are enslaving Homo sapiens around the world right now.

     Salvery is a human problem, shifting only its geography through history.

     Human trafficking (for sex and forced labor) is the second largest criminal industry (after drug trafficking) in the world today. And it's the fastest growing. Lest anyone believe that only the Third World is at risk, it's a fact that several American cities are among the top three targets in the world, for human traffickers these days. (3)

     According to UNICEF, there are nearly two million children held hostage in the commercial sex trade. An estimated 600,000 children, women, and men are trafficked across international borders annually.(4)

    The International Justice Mission works to raise consciousness in today's world, and acts to rescue these captives, whenever and wherever they can be located.(5)

     I keep in my heart a vision of the Black-a-Moor woman, her clear eyes looking past her particular place in history.  Her right arm was curved wide to embrace humanity, her indomitable courage held up her head, and her left hand lifted high her torch, to enlighten the 21st Century. 

     Abraham Lincoln's work, begun on the lawn of Old Main at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois on a rainy autumn day in 1858, is still not finished. 

     Toll the Bell.(6)


1.  See http://www.knox.edu/about-knox/we-are-knox/our-traditions.html
2.  See http://lbrary.knox.edu/archives/localhistory/ld_debate.htm
3.  See http://ijm.org/sites/default/files/resources/Factsheet-Sex-Trafficking.pdf
4.  Ibid.
5.  Ibid.
6.  This essay is originally based on a visit to Kura Hulanda Curacao in March 2004. The author's knowledge about the extent of contemporary human trafficking is indebted to a program organized by Loralee Scott-Conforti at the Assisi Institute in Brattleboro, VT, in May, 2012.




Copyright Margaret King Zacharias, 2012
Originally published in 40 Years After Catch
Special Edition, Catch Literary Journal 
By Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois
     
     




*****

 

Mass on the Rock

By Margaret Zacharias

 
'Twas what the Irish ironically call a ‘soft’ day – a drenching afternoon rain falling close after the cold and misty morning. There were some among us who worried, that it mightn’t be worth the effort. ‘Twas difficult enough to walk when the ground was dry, never mind through a spooky meadow that rolled under your feet like a ship on the waves. 
 
It looked to be quite a distance, too, at the end of what had already been an exhausting agenda that day. You’d understand if you yourself had a knee or an ankle or a hip needing surgery. We had eight or ten of them.  

Our hosts, who’d spent the whole wet day in the field preparing for our arrival, did indeed understand. They kindly offered us the church in town to celebrate Mass for any of our pilgrims who felt they couldn’t make their way to the Rock.

Then somebody said, “The rain’s letting up!”  Somebody said – I think it was Father Jim – “Let’s those of us who feel we can go, let’s go and give it a try.” 

With Father’s encouragement, everyone managed to clamber off the bus and onto the gravel road. At the open fence gate, a bright-eyed young woman smiled and said, “You’re very welcome!”  

Just beyond her, Himself inspected our eyes, pilgrim by pilgrim, nodding his personal welcome to each as if ‘twere a matter of life and death. For over three hundred years, it was.

Everyone helped someone and we all set out across the fields together, breathing in the thick green air. We shivered in our raincoats. 
Most of us had no idea where we were headed.  

If you knew what to look for, you might be able to recognize the place by spotting an ancient grove of sacred Druid trees perched on the far horizon. But eventually our guide pointed out the entrance, hidden among shrubs that grew towards the front of the grove.  

We pushed through a narrow opening to discover steep steps cut into a muddy hillside. Six feet below, the freshly-excavated chapel stretched out in an ell.  A pearly grey boulder held the corner. Heavy cinder blocks had been stacked along the sides of the ell. New boards had been laid on top of the blocks for benches, and boards laid below for walking across the mud.  

The atmosphere surged with vital aromas – freshly sawn lumber, damp peat and fertile earth. We felt humbled to see so much labor expended to offer us hospitality.  

“Why, they wouldn’t have known that we’re Flanagan’s people, now would they?” someone said. “If we'd hadn’t the courage to come!"

The Rock itself turned out to be a smooth but asymmetrical chunk of granite, nearly three feet tall, and four to five feet in diameter. It sparkled as if it had been scrubbed with rainbows. Pictures of Our Lord and Our Lady, with bouquets of autumn flowers, stood vigil on either side of a simple Crucifix. 

Father Jim laid his communion kit directly onto this altar.  He passed the scripture book to Lector Tom and handed off his coat to Lee. Our holy priest vested for the Mass right there on the soil among us. 

Worn over a short sleeved shirt, his surplice flew in the chilly gale.   But the flame of the Holy Spirit emitted a visible glow as he made the sign of the cross to open our liturgy. 

Marsha and Margaret and Mary June together began to sing at the same moment, the same inspired song:
  
“This is holy ground.  We’re standing on holy ground, for the Lord is present and where He is, is holy.” 

Across the ell, Lucy mimed the words for the verses while everybody sang:  “He’s given us holy hands, He’s given us holy lips.”  

Father Jim maneuvered from plank to plank, carrying the Lord to His people, as if he’d never celebrated Mass in any other way. We sat together in silence while the Body and the Blood dissolved on our tongues.  

Stalks of ripened grain swayed in the breeze, blessing us like banners in the fields above our heads. Though we knew we would be invisible from the road, we could almost hear the tramp of soldiers’ feet on the wind.  

We reflected on Father Jim’s homily, thinking about how many generations of Irish people had gathered for a Mass like this, under penalty of death. They hid below crops they were forbidden to eat, celebrating Eucharist without the luxuries of raincoats, candles or songs. All that nourished them was the Lord; and they did not consider His Feast a meager meal.

In the pregnant silence, Father Jim asked if anyone had water, to purify the chalice. We all sat sheepish, embarrassed that none of us had thought to bring it.  

Then Ginny looked lovingly over at Dick and Dick gazed back at Ginny. Dick reached a hand into his bag. Like a miraculous Celtic monk of old, he drew forth a new bottle, full of water, and passed it to Father at the altar. The Sacred Heart provides.

When we returned to ordinary time and contemporary place, that luscious green labyrinth still shimmied under our feet. But this time the walk did not seem long.  
 
Three-year-old Michael led the charge to the bus. He scampered across the landscape with a wild flower in his hand. He went spinning around the meadow, cavorting in tall grass under the wide sky. He shouted out greetings to his sister Deirdre, to his elder brother John. 

And every single one of us danced right along behind him, all the way back to Ballymoe. 


This essay honors the legacy of Father Edward J. Flanagan, founder of Boys’ Town in Omaha, Nebraska, who grew up in Ballymoe, Ireland. I’ve told the tale in a dialect of Irish folklore, with just a wee drop of poetic license taken. It owes a debt to W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, who first recognized and recorded the contributions made by folk myth to Irish Catholic practice. If anything in my story encroaches on the domain of the gentry, I beg their pardon, and I thank them for their forbearance.  

         

Copyright 2007 by Margaret King Zacharias.
Earlier versions of this story have been published in print by Miraculous Journeys, 
Omaha, Nebraska; and by St. Theresa Parish, Des Moines, Iowa .

*****


The Salisbury Auto Classic:  

More Than a Car Show

 

By Margaret Zacharias

 

            I thought I had done it all in fourteen years as a Salisbury House Foundation volunteer. Chamber Music Concerts, Mystery Theater events, Holly and Ivy Holiday Tours, History Series lectures, Reader’s Theater – those were my forte, and satisfying enough for me. 

            I regarded the Car Show as exclusively for the guys. My complete lack of automotive IQ is legend in our family.

            So I was unprepared for the thrill of riding up the seldom-used rear driveway of Salisbury House, in the left front passenger seat of an elegant 1954 Triumph Renown Limousine.

         Auto Classic Sponsor Bill Unger skillfully maneuvered its fifty-year-old clutch, gear box and steering wheel up the steep curved incline, while explaining the Renown’s original purpose as a chauffeur-driven English businessman’s town car.

            Bill even owns the hat. He tossed his keys into it, on the seat beside him, when we reached the top of the hill. 

         Wow!

            Displayed around the circular drive, perched on grassy knolls, glowing against the backdrop of the Salisbury House brick and chalkstone splendor, a fantasy garden of stunning metal sculpture had appeared overnight.

            Gleaming chassis, their swoops and angles polished in a rainbow of colors and their interiors embedded with leather, spread out as far as I could see.

         While I gawked, Bill learned that his designated display spot had been given to another driver, because he had been off rescuing a damsel in distress. 

          Fortunately, on the spacious ten-acre English manor house property bequeathed by cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks to Drake University, later preserved under the stewardship of the Iowa State Education Association and now owned by the Salisbury House Foundation, another excellent display position was still available.

          Earlier on Saturday morning I had nervously approached three men who were standing together in the north parking lot of Roosevelt High School. 

          “Are you here for the shuttle bus to the car show?” 

         These friendly fellows nodded and introduced themselves. They were clearly eager to begin their day of vehicular excitement.

            I told them I was a Salisbury House Foundation volunteer, worried about arriving late.  I felt embarrassed when they started asking me questions about the antique autos gathered for this year's show.          

         Although I felt confident I could explain to any visitor the antique architectural features imported from England; the historical Library documents collected from around the world; and the magnificent oil paintings among the Salisbury House collections; I found myself tongue-tied and clueless when it came to talking about the cars. 

          Worst of all, our scheduled shuttle bus had not arrived.

         Like the medieval knight whose ancient but well-polished suit of armor welcomes visitors to Salisbury's Great Hall, Bill pulled up on Chamberlain Drive in his shining black beauty. 

          I relaxed as he quickly assessed Saturday’s road construction closings, assigned volunteers to direct traffic, and called to ask the bus drivers to greet visitors in both the south and north parking lots. 

         Best of all, he offered me a ride to the House in his distinguished automobile, so I could check in on time before the gates were opened to the public.

            Once we were parked in Bill's new position on the grounds, Salisbury House Foundation Executive Director Scott Brunscheen greeted us with his characteristic charm, while answering questions simultaneously uphill and downhill.

         Without delay, I found myself safely on duty in the Common Room, with favorite buddy Pat Schnepf, who was decked out in one of her splendid vintage outfits. 

         We observed that most of the visitors for this particular event appeared in pairs. The men had come to see the cars. The women wanted to see the House.

          I watched a young husband trying to convince his wife to play the Common Room's massive Steinway grand piano, custom-made for the space when Salisbury House was built in the early 1920's. She demurred, saying that she simply did not play well enough.

         When I went over to greet them, she told me that her mother had studied at Julliard and that her sister was a professional musician. After further cajoling from me, however, she was able to admit that her mother would be quite disappointed in her, if she turned down an opportunity to play our world-famous Steinway.

          This young woman's interpretation of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata brought tears to the eyes of more than one visitor, as they gathered in the room from other parts of the House to listen. 

         Another young couple was inspired to take her picture, with the sun pouring through stained-glass windows that overlook the instrument. They promised her an email and a print for her family.

          I was delighted to greet my three friends from the shuttle stop again, when they came in to explore the Common Room. Hopefully, my tour patois about better-known territory convinced them that I am not a complete philistine.

            But eventually, my volunteer shift ended, and with no other recourse, I returned to the unfamiliar world of automotive history. 

         While a fellow volunteer coveted a bright blue 1925 Kissel Speedster 8, I decided that the sumptuous butter yellow 1937 Lincoln K, Rubble Seat Roadster was my personal favorite. It made a perfect match for the color I just painted my kitchen.

         Once my car-collector husband arrived, though, I had to get serious. He was the guy to point out the specially-built golf bags attached to the Kissel’s rumble seat running boards. 

          Naturally, those convenient wicker club containers were the first thing a man just in from 18 holes would notice! 

         As the sign perched on a gorgeous 1936 Packard Victoria from Nevada, Iowa suggested: 

         “Ask the Man Who Owns One.”

          Since Charles is also the proud owner of a limited-edition Cadillac Eldorado, a replica of the 1973 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car, we enjoyed visiting this year’s Special Interest display of vintage Cadillac models from 1916 to 1966. 

         We both admired a silver Rolls Royce with its full-size hardwood fold-down dinner trays. Why aren’t those handy tables featured in contemporary cars?    

          Charles particularly appreciated the sleek red 1965 Porsche 356SC Coupe, exhibited by Peter Kovacevich of Waukee.

          As wonderful as the cars became with an expert guide, though, I wanted to talk to the people. 

         People like Alice and John Cline, who told me that their 1928 Whippet Model 96, Touring is “Our Little Pride and Joy.” With the exception of its upholstery, John did all of the restoration with his own hands.

     “It’s a lot of work,” Alice said, “cleaning up the car and bringing it over, exhibiting it all day.” 

         Then she added, “I watched a very large man, dancing around over there. He came up to me and said,      

         '‘Isn’t it wonderful to be alive?’"

         "That’s what makes it all worthwhile!”

          When I asked Jim Verba if he was an Exhibitor, he said,  “No, just a car nut! I go to a lot of shows.” 

     I admired his jacket appliquéd with patches identifying each of the major American motor manufacturers through history, including Buick and Studebaker. 

          He said, “This is my American jacket. I have a different one for the International car shows.”  

         Jim tours in his wheelchair.

          Eleanor Jewett’s 1960 Rolls Royce, Silver Cloud II was a wedding present from her late husband, Kirkwood.   She told me about the first time she saw Steve and Martha Davis. 

         “The ladies from 3660 Grand Avenue were having dinner at the Des Moines Club,” she said. “Across the room, I saw a man and a woman with a little boy, who was behaving beautifully. I thought, there is a picture of the perfect family.”

     Later, Eleanor, Steve, Martha and young Steven became good friends while they were all volunteers at the Des Moines Art Center. 

          As Eleanor advanced in years, she decided to ask the Davis family to undertake continuing stewardship of her special wedding gift. 

         “Now,” she said, “They're the family I didn’t have.”

         If you think the Salisbury Automobile Classic is all about the cars, you're right. 

         But then again, at Salisbury House there's always more than you might be expecting -- or could possibly imagine.




Copyright 2004 by Margaret Zacharias

An earlier version of this article was published in Beneath the Rafters print magazine by the Salisbury House Foundation, with a full spread of photos from the 2004 Salisbury House Automobile Classic.