Thursday, October 8, 2015

Marconi's Oranges

One dreary winter afternoon we drove out to the coast along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay with our Norwegian neighbor Agnes, and her sister Borg Haugen, who both loved the sea. The Haugen sisters also drank like Vikings, hitting the bottle after breakfast was not unheard of during the holidays.

We pretended we didn't notice, we played along with Toofta, an invisible wight (similar to our leipreachán), who had a fondness for screwdrivers and eggnog. After a morning's liberal libation, the sisters grew restive, and longed to be in sight of the sea. So we piled into the green Packard and would often wind up, somewhere along the coast.

As we headed out to Marconi Station near Marshall, my grannie who sailed over from Bantry Bay on the world's largest passenger ship, the Lusitania, Lady of Inverclyde (it was torpedoed in 1915), told us a story about Valentia Island, off the coast of Kerry. She said that Valentia Island was hooked up to the Marconi Station in Tomales Bay.

Somehow Hawaii was also involved with my childish equation of Marconi Station, as Agnes received ship-to-shore calls from her husband Lucien, a merchant marine. No matter that I thought those sea cliffs of the Farallon Islands were Hawaii. Borg said that she sailed to Waikiki on a Cunard ship and it took days to get there, yet I could see the islands from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sunday evenings we'd gather round Agnes's radio and listen to Hawaii Calls on the radio. The idea of Pearly shells from the ocean, shining in the sun....crackled across the sea, fired my imagination.

As my grandmother elaborated upon the stringing of those transatlantic cables, the wonderous Guglielmo Marconi, Morse Code, telegrams, or marconigrams, I was confounded. I envisioned those really long cables stretched under the oceans still being used a hundred years later.

Though I was only a child, even I knew that Ireland was a long way from the shores of Americay, and that we were due west of west. And the world was a really big place, Hawaii aside. Not only was there the Atlantic ocean to cross, but the entire continent of North America in the way.

The old ship-to-shore Marconi telegraph receiving station was built after my grannie had left Ireland for good, in 1912. After a mishap, she was late and missed the boat, which happened to be the good ship Titanic, laden with Irish immigrants—otherwise I wouldn't be there to tell you this story.

The old Marconi Station, near the site of the old Coast Miwok village Echa-kolum, had been closed since 1939. During the early 1960s, it was converted to a drug rehabilitation center called Synanon. It seemed like a good idea at the time. A sober utopia. There was a big spread on it in the Sunday Paper. We had no idea that Synanon would become synonymous with evilness incarnate, but that's another story. It should've been renamed Narconi Station.

It must've been mid-winter when we took that drive north along Tomales Bay toward Dillon Beach. It could've been a day straddling either side of Christmas. The sky was overcast. Perhaps it was drizzling. A soft Irish day, my grannnie would always say. 

Perhaps I was grousing over a lack of adequate Christmas gifts, or perhaps I was was ever hopeful for pie in the sky kind of Christmas. Seeding the field, so to speak, for Christmases to come. Christmas was a meager affair, as my grannie's small pension barely covered the necessities. I was dependent upon our neighbors for gifts.

My grannie also told me that every Christmas her brothers and sisters each got one sweet Valentia orange wrapped in foil for Christmas. That was it. It was something to be savored, its seeds duly counted. One for each member of the family, if luck would have it. The trick was to hold out and eat it after everyone else had eaten theirs. Then eat it in front of them. Slowly.

Sometimes my grannie and her siblings got a few walnuts and sultana raisins, or tiny currants—like the kind she added to Irish sodabread—too if her parents could afford it. Sweetmeats were considered luxuries in the west of Ireland at the end of 19th century.

There wasn't anything much to see at Marconi Station. Not even a plaque. A disappointment. I kicked the sand as they admired the pullout off Highway One. I didn't understand it was the end of an era. They had no camera, but the day is indelibly etched in memory.

Unraveling my grannie's convoluted stories is probably why I became a writer. I couldn't see or hear that silent 't" in Valentia, and confused it with Valencia oranges. The conundrum haunted me. See? Suits you to a "t," as my grannie might say as she handed me a proverbial orange. 

But then, adults were always doing inexplicable things—like driving up the coast on a  whim, not wanting to stop so we wound up in Gualala staying the night with not even a toothbrush between us, let alone pajamas.

What I learned was: Valencia is in Spain. Valencia, spelled with a "c" was once a river island. They grow Valencia oranges there. Apparently they wrapped them in gold foil for export, a real Christmas treasure. Valencia oranges came from India, or China. 

My grannie loved Valencia oranges. Too sweet for me. I prefer tangy tangerines or naval oranges—don't even ask me about the conflation of bellybutton (really a lost orange twin) and nautical equation). A good thing I didn't know about Valencia, California.

Valencia, located on the orange blossom coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was once spelled Valentia, in rough Latin, meaning strength/valor.  Its Moorish nickname was Medina bu-Tarab/Turab (either city of joy, or city sand, depending on the mis-translation.) However, a Marconi station was built in Aranjuez near Madrid, Spain. It means hawthorn in Basque. So, magic was afoot. It seems those Marconi stations were everywhere.

Valentia Island, spelled with a "t." is located in County Kerry, Ireland. Why they called it Valentia, after Valencia, Spain was a complete mystery. Maybe they really liked Christmas oranges, my ten-year-old mind reasoned. Or they liked Marconi. Of course, I confused Marconi with macaroni and wondered what pasta salad had to do with Yankee Doodle.

Then, there's one of the old Roman names for the fifth province (Northern England (Eboracum /York) and Southern Scotland), also called Valentia, either named after Valentinian, or his brother, the Eastern emperor Valens ("Land of Valens,"), or it's a wordplay on the Latin vallum ("wall"). Or it could be a wordplay off  the Welsh, as in Wal/Val.

Valentia Island is a malapropism, a corruption from Oilean Dairbhre—means the Island of the Oak Woods (pronounced dwervne). I was disappointed to discover that Valentia Island is not even remotely located in Spain, but it is one of Ireland's most westerly points off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.

Before the Transatlantic Cable was installed, it took a fortnight or longer for messages to reach North America from Europe by boat. Valentia was where transatlantic telegraph communications cables were laid from Telegraph Field, the "birthplace of global communications" at Foilhommerum Bay, Ireland, to Heart's Content, Newfoundland in 1866, some 2,300 nautical miles away—after six unsuccessful attempts (1857).

Valentia was formerly an island studded with oaks and apparently some rampant resident druids. The telegraph was one of history's game-changing moments, global telecommunications, the ancestor of the internet. That's pure wizardry at work. Imagine that. It was like a case of Marconi's oranges colliding on Christmas. 

On 16 August, 1858, transatlantic communication was established. The message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” Unfortunately the overexcited engineer fried the cable. In 1866, the final cable was laid. The Valencia Transatlantic Cable Station was laid to rest in 1966. And in 2013 it was up for sale. I wonder who bought it?

I know I've wandered far and wide in this memoir, but that's the shape of memory. Back then, if I knew what he adults were up to, I wouldn't have had this story to tell now, would I? Perhaps that tangled up day was the first day of the rest of my life. A self-examined life, as told through memoir, itself, an oxymoron for truth, such as it is.

Writing too, is an addiction, from which there is no recovery, nor cure. I understand that full recovery is impossible. As I write these words, I discover anew, that today, as always, is the first day of the rest of my life.

The California State Parks Foundation acquired Marconi Station in 1984 with Buck Trust funds, turned it into a conference center, and gave it to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. So communication continues on at the old Marconi site. Another Marconi Station was located north of Bolinas, on the mesa at RCA Beach, which was strictly off-limits during the Cold War. 
 In 1913, an American Marconi Company transmitting station was established in Bolinas (Marin). The receiving station KPH was about twenty miles further north, at Point Reyes. In 1914, the stations at Bolinas and Marshall would allow messages received from New Brunswick, New Jersey to be retransmitted to Hawaii....In the early days of wireless communications, Marconi used the Hawaiian Islands as a test run. (Bolinas might've been built later:) ...Built in 1919 by Marconi, it was taken over in 1920 by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
Why two Marconi stations in Marin? The reason the transmitters were far away from the receivers is because their powerful outgoing signals made it difficult to pick up weak incoming signals from faraway ships on the same frequency channel.

The First Marconi Cable The manufacture of transatlantic cable began in 1857 and was completed in June. It was stowed on the American Niagara and the British Agamemnon. They both left Valentia Harbour in Ireland on 5 August. Cable laying went well but six days later, the cable snapped, a brake mishap. Only 380 miles had been laid. The ships returned to port. An extra 700 miles of cable was made for a second attempt, in 1858. The two ships met mid-Atlantic where they joined their respective ends. The cable broke. They made another splice: and managed to string 40 miles before it broke. The fourth time they laid 146 miles before the cable was yet again lost. It was decided that, despite the loss of a considerable amount of cable, they still had enough for another attempt. On 29 July they made their fifth attempt, starting from mid-point. On 5 August 1858 both ships reached their destinations – Valentia Harbour in Ireland and Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. The two continents were joined. On 16 August communication was established with the message “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” Unfortunately the engineer in charge, used high voltage rather than the weak current that had been tested during the cable laying. Within three weeks the cable ceased to work. Fried. (Go to the site for the 2nd and 3rd cable story).

Historic site of first transatlantic telegraph cable on Valentia Island up for sale

Synanon's Sober Utopia: How a Drug Rehab Program Became a Violent Cult Their motto: today is the first day of the rest of your life.

The weekly journal, the Point Reyes Light was the only newspaper to take on  Synanon, (cult activity, child abuse, drugs, mayhem, munitions, and murderous threats in the form or rattlesnakes in mail boxes), David & Cathy Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for their in-depth reportage.

How a country newspaper won a Pulitzer; The Light on Synanon, by David Mitchell, Cathy Mitchell, and Richard Offshe.

Toofta an invisible singular wight—like a Norwegian leprechaun—is not in the internet, he's unlisted. Perhaps that's a good thing. He's a thief with a fondness for booze. Perhaps he's a Nisse, a Vittra (but they're plural social beings) or a singular entity, Tomte
"Other names are tuftekalltomtegubbe or haugebonde, all names connecting the being to the origins of the farm (the building ground), or a burial mound." 
Tomt means house, or farm loft.

What excites me is finding the word: tufte-kall. Toofta, is that you? He was associated with Christmas.... And perhaps Toofta was the Haugan's own personal wight. Haugkall means mound man... Think Harry Potter's house-elf, Dobbin.

When my grannie talked me about Valentia Island, I was confused. Valentia Island was hooked up to the Marconi Station (in Tomales Bay!), and every Christmas they each got Valentia orange wrapped in foil for Christmas. Unraveling my grannie's stories is probably why I became a writer. I couldn't see that silent 't."

Valencia is in Spain. Valencia with a "c."They grow Valencia oranges there. Apparently they wrapped them in gold foil, a real Christmas treasure. My grannie loved Valencia ornges. Too sweet for me. I prefer tangerines or naval oranges (don't even ask about bellybutton and nautical equations).

Valentia Island with a "t." (Oilean Dairbhre—it means the Island of the Oak Woods) is not in Spain, but is one of Ireland's most westerly points off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.

Valentia was where transatlantic telegraph communications cables were laid from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1866. Formerly an island studded with oaks and druids.

See? Suits you to a "t," my grannie always said.

yet another Facebook post that prompted a blogue! Thank you Jane Allen!

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