As it happens, it was the occasion of many other “firsts” – more personal. It was my first time at sea… and consequently my first encounter with sea sickness, it was the first time I set foot on Portuguese soil, and my very first foray into Europe, or to any foreign shore, for that matter. “Portuguese discoveries” has a special meaning for me.
We anchored in the estuary, a couple hundred meters off the coast of Cascais – landing in a small launch that ran up a bit onto the tiny beach in front of the (current) Hotel Baia, right where the fishing boats and tourists congregate today. One small step for me… a really wet slog, in fact, for all of us. As we, too, were tourists of the moment, an excursion was arranged for the eager few who were not on duty on one of the few days we spent there. I never learned who planned the trip – probably just as well. Forty of us jumped on the chance to boldly go where none had gone before, and were loaded onto a coach for our day out. I list this event among my own top ten most mysterious undertakings.
Heading North into the hinterland that pre-dated the A-1 motorway, we fell into formation in the contiguous company of myriad vehicles, great and small, essentially a single, slow file. Four hours later the march halted; there were some trees over there… and some restaurants and shops off in the other direction.
“It’s noon. Be back on the bus at thirteen hundred hours.”
“Where exactly are we, Chief?”
“Our destination. Fifty-nine minutes.”
As it was looking like the only window for lunch, we deployed in squads, fanned out, secured and woofed whatever could be had by pointing at, and crushed back into the transport pretty much as the doors were closing. Four hours later we spilled back out onto the sea wall in Cascais – dazed, grumbling in “colorful sailor talk”, and still clueless. All I took away from the day were some 20 escudo notes, which I still have somewhere.
And with a dip and adieu, we vanished on a wave.
FAST FORWARD A DOZEN YEARS and fate has drawn me back to Portugal, this time with the University of Missouri, excavating a Roman city, and making discoveries once again. One of these was the sanctuary of Fátima, on the other side of those trees, 12 years away from where the bus had parked. The long lost journey of yesteryear, I now came to realize, had been to Fátima (of all places for a bunch of sailors with one day ashore) – a place of mysteries, indeed. I also now recognize that our trip was a day or two before the annual celebration on the 13th, and probably had something to do with the trek’s leitmotif, although no such orchestrated reasoning was ever revealed to us.
Another (re)discovery was “my” beach in Cascais, which I sought out with determination and perseverance one night in a rented car, following my instincts westward along the marginal. Feeling like a salmon that has struggled all the way back upstream, I crowned my triumph by (finally) eating in the restaurant in the square facing the beach where I had been out-voted by my buddies so many years before, who wished to recuperate elsewhere from the mystery tour, and employ higher-proof therapy.
Oddly, the greatest Portuguese discovery of all was made following my return to Missouri. Maria da Luz, a recent graduate from Lisbon, received a Fulbright grant to study at Mizzou, in my own department. The recurring-theme status of Portugal now became official, as did our marriage, about the time she wrote her Masters thesis. Eager to fulfill the two-year residency rule (which, in our case passed into a regime of “permanent renewal”), we relocated to Lisbon in 1985.
Since then, Fátima and Cascais have figured prominently among weekend destinations, and we have been to each countless times, often with our three children. Just for auld lang syne, I try to make a point of treading on the curb where I stepped out of the bus in 1969, and when I can, I linger at my beach a bit, always thinking back to that day. Prowling about on the sea wall these days, I wonder if any of my old shipmates have ever returned to Portugal – or better yet, made it back to the beach where we waded ashore – and the site of my first step onto the stage where the greatest part of my life was to play out. Alas, I don’t know. Still, when in Cascais I always gaze out to where the boat rode at anchor, and I scout the faces around, as if actually searching… would I even recognize any of them today? They me? Foolish, I’m sure. But to this day, I like to go down and plant my footprints in the sand where I did forty years ago. I know – like so many things, they don’t last – but I still like to see them there.
FORTY IS NOT ALWAYS FORTY, of course, and history sometimes yields to story-telling. Ali Baba and the forty mariners journeyed 40,000 leagues for forty days and nights into the land of Fátima, where they banqueted in ignorance – reveling in food and drink, without revelation. Spinning the fact and fantasy into a single strand makes the episode juicier, and unraveling the yarn is not the sailor’s usual task. Yet here I am… maybe out of my depth, trying to secure that line. Moreover, sometimes forty is exactly that – forty young men – and making sense of a forty-year old memory is a riddle of fortyfold challenge. Enigma interpreted with the passage of time is not an unknown theme associated with Fátima, and perhaps our puzzling expedition there four decades ago is a micro-reflection of its mysterious attractive energy, even though the faith that drove us there that day was not the one that motivates the majority. Occupying a position between revelation and uncertainty as it does, it is probably appropriate that this hub of pilgrimage is a conspicuous way station on the unfathomable path that ultimately drew me into this land – and out of my own. This is all the more profound, I suspect, because I am not a Catholic, and am more guarded in what I profess, I confess.
Sense making, like the itinerary of fact and fantasy we spin during our lives, goes only so far. Nevertheless, in some primeval sense, I emerged from the sea, journeyed toward the event horizon, came away without answers, and sank back into the abyss – then returned seeking to sound the depths of a larger story, and found my own instead. Or maybe I just got stuck here – a less cosmic scenario. Realizing one’s destiny and just getting stuck are probably side A and side B of the same LP. Yes, a dated analogy, lost on many these days, but a favorite in my generation.
THE FULBRIGHT COMMISSION WAS THUS AN INTEGRAL, albeit unwitting factor in the events that turned Lisbon into my home port. And as it does so often, the Foundation has surfaced elsewhere, now affording me the chance to give a bit back to this extended family that has exerted such a powerful influence on my own, immediate one. It is my great good fortune to serve on the Board of Portugal’s Fulbright Commission today, and I cannot help but let my imagination off the leash with every grant we approve for this country’s young scholars bound westward across those familiar waves, to that familiar shore. Not one of these grant recipients was alive the day my Portuguese journey began. How strange to think that the fellow with wet socks and wide eyes would one day dwell on the prospects of their many journeys in the other direction, and the exponential in their potential.
As the details develop, their stories will surely be similar to Maria da Luz’s, and surely different. Their return will be precisely like hers – and even my own – like nothing ever imagined. And though the path that unwinds may sometimes seem untoward, these travelers, too, will discover small beaches that grow into vast coastlines and interiors – maybe forty acres all their own – they will recognize that slight and sometimes empty events residing at the heart of swirling super cells are indeed part of the overall system – and they will rise after every dive. I do not doubt that their Fulbright experience will accompany them in the early, obvious steps attending to the cap and gown, and the opportunities those visible trappings bring. What I hope earnestly is that the Commission will endure throughout their entire lives – or rematerialize – even as it has with me, one who was never a grantee at all.
The fact that even a peripheral element such as a spouse is impacted so profoundly by the Fulbright Commission continues to stir me, and that is something I wish to share with others – those bound to the organization in one way or another, and those who perhaps don’t even recognize the name. The nescience of the Fulbright name I have sometimes encountered used to surprise and sadden me – but no more. I realize now that the first group is a course laid out on the chart, while the second is just the high seas on the far side of the horizon, and the Fulbright, like any good crew, needs both if it has somewhere it wants to go. And to the advantage of all, as the journeys multiply, the chart grows in dimension and detail.
The Portuguese Commission marks its 50th anniversary this year. Well, that’s all right for some. When I am asked, however, the Fulbright is forty – forty scholars, forty triumphs, forty thousand leagues through the deep blue that links every shore of our world, and a chart forty times better than it was forty years ago.
And whether spinning a yarn, an LP, or the globe we inhabit, everything’s circular – including a lot of the logic presented here. There are cycles, too – like home residencies and homecomings – like whatever goes down must come up (a sage submariner once tutored me) – like my impressions and the tides that erase them.
So, I say again… I marvel at my path, inbound – and at the outbound paths of others. And even to this day, I like to go down there and stick my feet in the sand where I did forty years ago. I know… but while they last, I still like to see my footprints in this land.