CDS Column: 7 Billion Small

The world at times can seem quite full. Seven billion people all scratching out a living, with hundreds of different languages and customs. It sounds like a lot. But sometimes it’s not.

This past summer, I was working in Belize. I was there with an organization that takes American high school students around the world on volunteer service trips. The Americans were the native language speakers at a summer camp designed to teach Belizean elementary and middle schoolers English. We spent two weeks teaching and otherwise explored the country.

We were hardly the only program there. There were groups everywhere. Even our home base was not immune: There was a group of high school students there to learn about rainforest and barrier reef ecology, another group backpacking through the jungle and a third group of American middle school students who were doing adventure trips around the country interspersed with the occasional day of volunteer service.

This was at one rustic eco-resort, and there were similar groups at other sites across the country. It was a flood of Americans, all there to discover a new place and lend a hand. Our 26 kids were swimming in a sea of transplanted American youth.

Anyone who works on such programs knows there develops a brotherhood and a sisterhood among the staff. An affinity grows for others caught in the same situation, facing the same daily stress of chaperoning dozens of kids that aren’t yours. It must be the same among teachers, but in Belize there were no hallways or walls to hem them in, no busses home at the end of the day. We all worked from breakfast until bedtime, and at the end of the day the students hopefully settled back to their beds without incident. Hopefully.

That’s when we, the staff, would take our breather. We would sit together and chat. Program allegiances tossed aside, we would relax, sometimes solving as a team the complexities involved in individual programs.

It was in one of these impromptu summits that I saw the sticker. It was on one of the other program staff’s water bottles, a lobster next to the letters ME.

“Are you from Maine?” I asked.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “Originally. I now live in Oregon. But my family is still there.”

“Nice,” I said. “I live in New Hampshire. My sister lives just outside Portland.”

She smiled, and I thought that the end of it. But two days later I got an email my sister.

“I’m having dinner with a friend,” she said, “and my friend says her sister is working in Belize. Her name is Alison. Small world.”

“Tall teacher from Oregon Alison?” I wrote back. “No way! I met her the other day!”

Fast forward to now. The holidays are when people migrate across the country to visit friends and family. On Friday, I walked into my sister’s kitchen to see my niece and nephew, and there’s Alison, along with her sister, chatting with my sister. I couldn’t help but start laughing.

That alone might be enough to prove the world a small place, but these sorts of coincidences never travel alone.

Three summers ago, I was in Peru doing similar work, this time taking American high school students to build greenhouses at rural schools. With me were three other staff members — a couple from California named Miguel and Gigi, and a woman named Laura from Wisconsin who lived in Finland. We were all there for the summer, again to corral up to 30 American students at a time on multiple programs. It was two months in total, and we four spent a lot of time together.

For the couple, however, time off together was important. Miguel and Gigi did what they could to get away in the moments between programs, as well as most afternoon breaks when the students were there.

That left Laura and I to spend a lot of time together. We were paired by default, and while such a pairing could have been disastrous she had an adventurous spirit. Together we explored Incan ruins, traveled to remote villages, soaked in hot springs and got to know Cusco. We’d sit in the central square, me writing, her drawing, and enjoy the quiet of a student-less afternoon. Over the course of the summer, Gigi, Miguel, Laura and I all became close friends, but it was with Laura I spent by far the most time.

When the program came to a close I stayed in South America. I traveled to Arequipa and then to Chile. Laura, meanwhile, caught a flight back to Wisconsin and then to Finland. She and I stayed in touch for a time, emailing and chatting over Skype after I returned to New Hampshire, but life eventually caught up. We lost touch.

That was almost three years ago. Fast forward to Monday. This Christmas, I decided to draw my own holiday cards. I wanted to make them individualized, special, and I’ve been drawing a lot lately. So I bought card blanks at an art store and tackled a few, but inevitably it went slower than I’d intended. Most of the box sat unsent.

The day after Christmas I picked up the box, feeling a guilty about the remaining cards. On the cover was a beautiful line drawing showing just how creative cards could get, and underneath small print credited the artist. Four words: “Art by Laura…”

It was my friend. Her name was on my card blank box. I looked at the box and remembered her afternoon drawings in Cusco. Suddenly it was as if she was at my dining room table, in line form. I laughed out loud. I Googled to make sure it was the same Laura, and it was.

I tossed the box aside and wrote a much-belated email.

This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Stories, All

Stories, All

The PointIn families there are always stories. Some become legend, told and retold until every cousin knows them by heart. Others become myth so intertwined with hyperbole they only shadow the truth. And many become lost altogether, victims of time.

But some are held close, private, only whispered until poised to disappear. Their details seem so outlandish they hint of fiction, unlikely tales spun under the veil of the past. But they’re not.

Louise Royall died on a Monday. It was the first of June. She was 89, a mother and grandmother. She had lived in East Boothbay for five-and-a-half decades, died in the house where she raised two sons, the house where countless friends and relatives convened for birthdays, holidays and celebratory dinners. She volunteered her time and donated to charities, hosted card games and observed weddings, births and graduations. She was the matriarch of a sprawling family, the last monarch on a street literally named for her clan: Royall Road.

But that is one story, and there is always another.

In July 1956 Louise Royall was none of these things—mother, matriarch, monarch. She wasn’t even Louise Royall: her name was Mrs. Louise Townsend Booth. From Long Island, N.Y., she lived in Paoli, Penn., with her husband Samuel Babcock Booth Jr., an engineer. The couple was newly married, wed the November before. Louise was 31, and she was eight-months pregnant.

It’s a story told in news clippings, yellowed and torn, stored in a photo album from her youth.

Her children and relatives knew snippets, but nothing complete. There was no full account of what happened on July 7, 1956.

But the clippings’ headlines are stark:

“Man dies, wife hurt in Long Island plane crash.”

“Son is born to plane widow.”

“Gives birth to son, learns Dad’s dead.”

And the newspaper accounts themselves are grim: “The baby was born just a day after Samuel Booth, 28, plunged to his death in his light cabin plane in the water off Sea Cliff, Long Island. Knocked unconscious in the crash, Booth drowned while rescuers pulled Mrs. Booth from the plane.”

“Heroic action by a quick-thinking young lifeguard who picked up a shovel, swam to the wreckage, and beat a hole through the roof of the cabin saved the life of the woman,” another news story says. “The 22-year-old lifeguard, with the help of others who had arrived, dragged the woman from the submerged cabin by her hair.”

But even stories told in black and white can be part myth.

“I’m not a lifeguard,” said Donald Mortimer, 81, the man who 59 years ago pulled then-Louise Booth from the cockpit. “That’s why I grabbed a boat.”

Mortimer lives in Mattituck, N.Y., just 65 miles from Sea Cliff, where Samuel Booth crashed. He, like Louise, has lived a lifetime since that day. “I tried to run it through my own mind,” he said. “I had a few blank spots.” But the story is still there.

“I heard the airplane overhead, and it was sputtering,” he said. Mortimer’s father ran a beachfront swimming pool in Sea Crest. The single-engine Piper Cub Booth had rented for the day from a local radio announcer was running out of gas. The Booths, on Long Island visiting Louise’s mother in nearby Plandome Manor, were onboard.

Mortimer watched the plane fall. It buzzed the beach then went out to sea, where it nosedived, “maybe 1,000 feet from shore,” Mortimer said. “I said, ‘Call the Sea Cliff Fire Department!’ I ran down to the beach, and for some reason I grabbed a shovel. I have no idea why.”

The news reports say Mortimer swam to the plane, but he wasn’t that strong a swimmer. He grabbed a nearby lifeguard boat, threw in the shovel, and rowed. When he got to the plane he climbed aboard and started bashing at the metal topwing with the shovel. “We broke the roof, and a little dog jumped out,” he said.

The terrier is mentioned in several of the news accounts. Mortimer said the dog swam ashore as they worked to get Louise and Sam out.

The newspapers said Samuel Booth drowned as Mortimer worked to extricate Louise. Mortimer said others came to help, and once the hole was open it didn’t take long to get both of them out and to shore. Rescuers looked at Louise in her pregnant state, he said, and assumed she’d swallowed water. So they gave her abdominal thrusts. His guess was that’s what pushed her into labor.

27 hours later in Glen Cove Community Hospital, Samuel Babcock Booth III was born. He weighed 6-pounds 11-ounces, and he had suffered irreparable brain damage. He would survive to his teenage years, but Sam Booth III would not reach adulthood.

The newspaper reports say Louise was not told Sam Booth Jr. was dead until after she had given birth. She “cradled her newborn son in her arms today as she wept for her husband,” one story reported.

Louise had saved them all. She didn’t talk about the accident, didn’t share much of her story, but she had lived it. The faded clippings were her reminders, a story she kept for herself.

And Mortimer too was her reminder: every year for the next 59 years he would get a Christmas card. He would look to the mail each December, he said, and in return he would send a card to her.

Among the news clippings are several about Mortimer: stories about commendations he received for his actions, reports calling him a hero. But he is put off by such talk.

“It was all instinctive,” Mortimer said. No one told him to go out and be a hero. It’s like if you see someone stumble and fall on the street, he said: you go out and help them back up.

“As far as I was concerned it was nothing,” he said, “It’s a thing you do.”

But to Louise’s sprawling family, to those who mourned her passing on June 1, the story of Louise seemly begins with the crash: it was in the wake of the Booth’s death that Louise moved to Maine. She came to start over, to let go of the tears and find something new, and in a sense Mortimer’s shovel lit the way: without it Louise would have drowned too. She would never have met her second husband, Robert Royall, the man who would father her two children, the man who introduced her into the clan that would eventually swarm around her. She would not have moved to Royall Road, where she lived and held court in her kitchen for more than 50 years. She would not have become all that she was—mother, grandmother, matriarch, friend and host. That vision of the future clung to the lifeboat as Mortimer paddled. It stood in silence as he breached the metal hull.

Or at least that’s one way to tell the story.