Saturday, March 5, 2011

My older brother Traug tells me that yesterday, March 4, my dad's birthday, the flag over the U.S. Capitol was raised in the name of young Traug Keller for recognition of his achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. That would have made for 3 proud Traugs! Maybe Emma would have gotten an extra treat out of the deal.

In my dad's journal he kept on a late and ill-advised trip he and my mom took to Antigua, he notes the great feeling he had on March 4 when all his sons called to wish him a happy birthday. It is rare for me to follow through on such social obligations, and I'm happy I did.

I have felt my dad's palpable presence lately. Most recently, in our living room, for several minutes I could all but see him in his wheel chair in the exact spot where he would sit when he'd be over for dinner. The next day I felt compelled to hunt for the following piece of my dad's, and hadn't felt right until I finally found it.

Survival, by Traug Keller

When a condo my wife and I owned on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat was made worthless by a 1995 volcanic eruption, I quickly found myself drawn into the subject of past volcanoes in the Caribbean islands. I found way more than I bargained for and wondered at how naïve I was in using so much retirement money to buy an interest in a piece of real estate that like all the Caribbean islands had been formed by volcanic eruptions over the centuries. Still, I did find many interesting stories in volcanic lore, not the least of which was the explosion of Mt Pelee on the French island of Martinique on May 8,1903. Here is that story..

The volcano that buried the tiny French resort Town of St, Pierre on the island of Martinique in 1903 left a single known survivor out of the more than 30,000 natives and tourists in the town who perished that fateful night in August. He was a husky 25 year old day laborer named Louis Auguste Cyparis who had been confined to prison after stabbing a tourist in a fight that erupted in a tavern filled with locals and tourists.

On the night of August 3, 1903, Louis was in solitary confinement in a dungeon deep in the bowels of the town’s prison, a tiny air grate his only source of light and air. His cell suddenly went midnight black and he was overcome by gusts of hot air and gas. He tore off his tunic and, burying his face in it, was able to breathe. He experienced intense pain but though severely burned managed to survive until rescued three days later by one of the many disaster crews that had come from around the world following reports of the tragedy.

When Louis Auguste recovered, he received a hasty pardon for his barroom brawl and joined the Barnum and Bailey circus, touring the world as “The Lone Survivor of Martinique.” Once, the circus people found that he had told an interviewer for a local paper that he had seen another man also loaded into a solitary confinement cell that night, but, of course, never knew what had become of the man.. He said in the interview that he often wondered about the man and his fate. The circus people warned him against such statements, lest he lose his billing as “Lone Survivor.”

The other prisoner was Pierre Jacques, a French tourist, and he did not die either. Those huge blocks of prison stones that had once confined the likes of Bluebeard and his crew served as retaining wall against the volcano’s fury. Trapped air fed in through volcanic fissures kept him breathing and later rain water that seeped into the cell sustained him. He fed on protein-rich kelp that violent storms washed in. He used wet sand to brush his teeth.

He grew old in the tiny confined space. Brown hair, tousled and thick, thinned and grew white as the years crawled by. He marked time, scratching days on the walls of his cell. He counted each day by his own bodily rhythms. He heard sound only from the dull thud of waves and the fury of the hurricanes in the Fall. Always an opera buff, he composed concertos in his head to the sound and fury of storms He had been an engineer in France. He designed tires and spent his days scribbling intricate algorithms that played with the coefficient of friction to design skid-proof treads. He had worked in a huge room with dozens of other engineers engaged in the same pursuit. Mathematics for him then had been the way he earned a living; now it was life itself and became a way to describe his universe.

He used his belt buckle to scratch on the face of the stone algorithms that measured air volumes in his given space, learned the extremes to which he could put his intake and outflow of air by controlling his breathing. He designed exercises to build his cardiovascular capacity and strength. He strode the 6 X 6 ft. space in tiny, mincing steps, endlessly walking the various islands in the Caribbean he had once visited. He had always been an opera aficionado and sang great arias endlessly. He wrote a complete opera to the external cacophony of the storms. He inscribed each note for each instrument in scratches on the stone block.


In the year 2000, a visitor to the island, Pierre Deschan, a professor in French literature at the university in Paris, was walking the beach with his oldest son, Simone, an oboe player with the Paris Symphony considered by many to be a musical savant as well as a fine practicing musician. Pierre stubbed his toe on the protruding edge of what turned out to be a very large stone block, much like the huge blocks that had once been used to build the island’s jetties and the town’s old jail house.

Scraping the face of the stone further, the two men discovered what appeared to be an intricate and complete musical score. Young Simone was flabbergasted. He used his cell phone to shoot several pictures of the musical notations. He sent them over the internet to musical colleagues in Paris and the two men left for their rented villa.

The two men speculated over dinner that night about their afternoon’s discovery. They were at a loss to explain it and concluded that it may have been the work of some visiting photo engraver who had been bored by the island’s natural charms and had spent time etching the musical notes on the stone face as a way of passing time. When Simone received a text message on his phone’s screen that night he and his father were even further confused. It seems that the musical notations he’d sent to Paris were part of a movement in Stravinsky’s complex Rites of Spring. A second message from Simone’s friend begged Simone for more information about the origin of the photos Simone had sent.

Simone and his father talked long into the night but could reach no conclusions. They promised each other they would do additional research. They never did, and over the years the sea again buried the great stone the two men had stumbled across.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great tale !!