Saturday, November 30, 2013

Park Benches

There are some great benches in the world--benches where you can sit and read or simply watch the world go by.  I'm not talking about the benches put
up for people waiting for buses--those are for tired people and loiterers.  I mean the bench placed in a spot designed for contemplation and deep thought.

My wife, The Doc's, favorite bench is in Pershore, England.  The local park, formally known as the King George V Playing Field, was donated to the town by William Chapman.  There is a great bench placed, presumably for the enjoyment of women and girls, where you can sit and read the sexist plaque and contemplate how much the world has changed since Mr. Chapman could get away with being a sexist pig.

I have a couple of favorite benches, too.  My absolute favorite is in Fort Worth, Texas--a town that pretends to be grown up, but is secretly a freckle-faced boy playing cowboy.  The town always wears chaps and a big hat two sizes too large.

It is surprising how many people get this backwards--grownups don't pretend to be children, it is always the other way around.  It is kind of like Halloween: every October 31st, we wear costumes for one day so that other people can get a glimpse of how we see ourselves all year long.

In Fort Worth, on the banks of the Trinity River, there is a bench with a life size statue of Mark Twain.  He sits there, watching the river and probably dreams of the Mississippi.  He has a copy of Huckleberry Finn in his hands, but he is watching the river.  The wry smile on his face is undoubtedly humor directed at what Texans call a river.  I can almost hear his voice:

"Back when there were real cowboys in this town, they probably amused themselves by leaping back and forth across it until they plumb tuckered out and then quenched their thirst by drinking it dry."

Tourists don't come across the bench very often, but enough locals come and bother Twain that it is easy to understand why he is only halfway done with that book.  They usually sit down next to him and then get some other fool to take their pictures.  Invariably, the author takes pity on their rudeness and doesn't say a word.  I left him alone, but while he was contemplating the current of the river, I quietly took his picture.

I know of another good bench that sits near an interesting statue.  It is far away, in Tegucigalpa, the capitol of Honduras.  Like almost every other town in Latin America built during the colonial period, Tegucigalpa follows the standard plan.  There is a plaza in front of a cathedral, surrounded by narrow streets and broad sidewalks.  This plan was set down by a Spanish regulatory agency called the Council of the Indies and was--quite literally--the law.  The Council was composed of qualified experts, a phrase which, when translated from legal lingo, means they were mostly lawyers who had never been to the new world. 

In the center of the plaza is a tall stone base topped by a beautiful statue of Francisco Morazán, the Honduran heroic revolutionary leader who briefly united all of the Central American Republics.  Today, the plaza is covered with men who will obligingly sell you lottery tickets from all over the world.  Honduras has always been obsessed with lotteries; at one point the Louisiana State Lottery was officially--and legally--operated out of Honduras.  (I could tell you why and how this came to pass, but that will have to wait for another day.  Or, you could just take my class on Modern Latin America that starts in January.  As I write this, there are two seats left.)

Damn it!  My mind has wandered off again, let me read the above and see where I was....okay.  Back in the plaza of Tegucigalpa, if you sit on the bench and ask politely--and purchase a lottery ticket--the ticket vendors will tell you the story of the statue of Francisco Morazán.

Back in the last days of the nineteenth century, Honduras had so many revolutions the phrase "Banana Republic" was originally invented to describe it.  During a brief period of relative peace, the businessmen of Tegucigalpa became interested in civic improvement and wanted to modernize the city.  Eventually, they decided on erecting a statue of their famous hero.

The business men donated money, held lavish dinners for potential contributors, and eventually held--naturally--a lotteria to raise the money.  The funds were entrusted to a prominent business man who hurried off to Paris to commission a bronze statue.  Unfortunately, neither the statue nor the businessman ever returned to Honduras.  I've been to Paris and I've been to Tegucigalpa, and I'm not terribly surprised.

The city fathers were understandably disappointed, but undaunted.  They started the fundraising project all over with more rubber chicken fundraising dinners and another lottery.  Understandably, this time, they didn't raise quite as much money as on the previous attempt, but they thought they had enough for the job.  And instead of sending one representative, they sent three men whose property holdings in Honduras would act as a guarantee that, this time, the money would not simply vanish into the bars and various other playgrounds of Paris.

Unfortunately, when the three men arrived in Paris, they discovered that statues were priced slightly above their ability to pay.  They offered the contract to many sculptors, but no one was willing to accept the commission.  They did, however, come up with a creative solution.

French politics change faster than French underwear, (or to paraphrase Mark Twain, "The French are wonderful people.  It is not their fault they are governed by prostitutes.") and when governments change, so do the statues in parks.  While I am sure that a lot of them are melted down for new statues, at least one of them emigrated to Honduras.

What the heck!  Morazán had died before photographs could be taken, and if put up high enough, and enough pigeons have paid the proper homage, I suppose almost any statue could pass for almost anyone.

So I sat on the bench and the former French military officer turned Central American revolutionary leader...and I contemplated the vicissitudes of political fortune...And I wondered why my official newly-purchased sweepstakes ticket had misspelled 'Ireland'.

No comments:

Post a Comment