Jim Bradshaw: Sailing the world at Grandma's table
The lucky accident of where I lived gave me at an early age the idea that, well past the front door of my home, there was a much larger world populated with people and ways and ideas not exactly like the ones I was commonly associated with.
My home was on the lakefront midway between the port of Lake Charles and “town.” Sailors from merchant ships visiting the port regularly walked past our house, and, more important, my grandmother’s home next door.
In those days, aunts and uncles and cousins gathered every Sunday for the noon meal at my grandparents’ and as often as not there would be a stranger at the table — especially at this time of year, when the charitable spirit ran strongest.
The stranger would be a sailor from one of the ships, invited randomly by my grandmother, because she noticed him passing by and decided he looked like he needed a good meal.
After the last of the fried chicken and potato salad were gone, the dishes would be cleared from the table and my grandfather would pull out his collection of National Geographic maps and the stranger would trace his voyages for us.
Language seldom presented a barrier. Most of the sailors spoke at least some English. An uncle who served in Europe during World War II could get along in several languages. On occasion a neighbor who spoke German and French fluently would be called in. When the sailor was Scandinavian, we’d get a double treat, because Capt. Fred Nelson would be summoned. Not only would we get the visiting sailor’s stories, but those of Capt. Nelson, too.
He was a fascinating fellow. He was in his sixties when I was 10 years old and had run away to sea from his native Norway when he was only 14. In a long career at sea — part of it spent on the last of the giant sailing ships —he’d visited practically every port of substance in the world. He retired to a little cottage in our neighborhood and worked as a channel pilot, helping to guide freighters from the Gulf to the Lake Charles port, 27 miles inland.
He had no children of his own and semi-adopted me. He taught me knots and splices and how to sail a little boat he kept anchored in front of our house. I can still smell the salt from a canvas-covered scrapbook he kept, and, a stronger memory, the aroma of the cookies his petite English wife baked while he told his stories.
Between Mamaw’s Sunday dinners and Mrs. Nelson’s cookies, the ideas of geography and good food are somehow intertwined in my head. Maybe that’s why it’s always been one of my favorite subjects. But that’s also because I learned as a kid that it involves more than places on a map. These places have stories that go with them — good stories that make them more than a dot on a piece of paper and a paragraph in a book. Stories that are the stuff of sailors’ yarns.
Because of those experiences, I thought briefly about going to the Merchant Marine Academy and a life sailing the seven seas. It broke Capt. Nelson’s heart when I told him I’d decided to try my hand at journalism instead.
I don’t regret the decision. I’ve been doing this for more than 50 years now and have met some really great people, shared experiences tragic and joyous, and somehow managed to keep bread on the table doing something that I really love to do.
But I’ve still got my grandfather’s National Geographic maps, augmented by more recent ones, and still pull them out from time to time to trace an imaginary journey around the world and wonder what might have been.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.