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Vacation Memories : The Story of the Miraculous Pendulum in HaitiFollow the Pendulum in Haiti

Vacation Memories: This is one of a continuing series on memorable vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel section.

March 10, 1985|WILLIAM A. KRAUSS | Krauss is an Ojai free-lance writer.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — I rubbed shoulders with a miraculous pendulum in this West Indian black republic not very long ago, a homemade pendulum that defied science yet performed miracles.

The beginning was a blue tropical morning in a dusty village on a desolate plain called Cul-de-Sac (meaning Dead End).

It is a few mile east and north of this city from which I write, Haiti's capital. The curtain rises on me sitting uncomfortably in the rear of a beat-up flatbed truck, embarking on a traveler's adventure, the unlikely pursuit of wild horses.

You didn't know there were wild horses in Haiti? Well, nobody can say for sure, but rumor has long persisted. The way it's told, stunted descendants of Spanish conquistador horses are alive and friskily reproducing in the forests of this country's highest mountain chain, the Massif de la Selle.

My long-time Haitian friend, Joseph Nadal, is certainly not among the believers in hearsay reports. Haitian peasants, Joseph says, would long ago have trapped and eaten char-broiled any runaway descendants.

So one afternoon Joseph suggested that I knock off the idle fancy and head into the mountains to damn well see for myself.

I bought a sleeping blanket and some canned beans, and a truck picked me up just before dawn. With half-a-dozen market women and me aboard, we rattled out of town and headed toward Fond Parisien--first stop.

Sun and Dust

This Fond Parisien is a village made listless by sun and dust. It has no history, nobody knows who named it or when it was founded, or why. Yet it was at Fond Parisien that I had the rare fortune to meet Father Fils-Aime.

We had pulled up in a swirl of dust for presentation of identity cards, and were starting afresh with a desperate clashing of gears when a priest--a white man, black-robed, disheveled--trotted onto the roadway and waved us down.

In the Creole patois of the peasants, he meekly addressed our driver. He had, he said, no money for fare, yet urgently desired to travel into the mountains on business directly related to his flock. Might he ride without payment?

The driver spoke of the high cost of gasoline, the hard times generally, but added that he was, after all, a devout Christian and supposed that the awkward detail of fare could be overlooked--once.

Welcome Aboard

The priest tossed his scarred Gladstone aboard, hoisted up his cassock and clawed his way over the side. Two or three of the peasant women knew the priest and called him by name: "Bon jou', Pere Fils-Aime. " Seating room was scarce, and I offered the good father a place on my mat.

He had an odd accent, the priest. He told me he was Belgian, which accounted for it. He was stout, with heavy shoulders and a great prow of a nose.

He told me that he had once spent three days in New York, between ships, that he had recently read in translation a work by the great Thomas Jefferson, and that he hoped some day to own a battery-powered radio.

The truck banged around crazily on the rough dirt road. In time, the driver shouted back to us that we'd reached an elevation of a thousand meters. There was a spring off yonder in the bush, he said, "Cool, clean water." We'd stop for a drink.

So we did that, and Father Fils-Aime and I sat under a mombin tree in a spot of shade. How long, I asked, had he served the parish of Fond Parisien? A long time, he said, "Four years." At the moment, he added, he was also in charge of Ganthier Parish.

"Ganthier," I said. "I know the place. I know Pere Leconte there. I called on him several years ago. Haven't I heard that he's ill? Gone to the United States?"

"Exactly," Father Fils-Aime said. "We sent him three weeks ago to a hospital in Baltimore. Hopkins something. He underwent an operation for a sad condition of the kidneys."

"You have word of him? How is he?"

Strength Gone

"It was touch and go. He lacked strength," the priest explained. "The operation was scheduled for one week ago today--last Saturday," he said gravely. "Father Leconte barely survived it. Sunday he was very low, Monday at the door of death. On Tuesday he showed a trifling improvement, only to sink again on Wednesday.

"Thursday no better, but yesterday, thank heaven, he rallied. This morning he is much improved. This morning, for the first time, he is really out of danger."

"Good," I said. "That's very good. But, mon pere. . . "

Fond Parisien is, in effect, wilderness. The telephone service cannot be counted on. In these days of rapid air mail, it was understandable that Father Fils-Aime might have had word from Baltimore covering events as recent as Wednesday. To have had yesterday's news was unlikely; this morning's, impossible.

I asked diplomatically, "You got through on the telephone to Baltimore?"

"Oh, no. No, no," he said again. "But you are astonished that I have the news?"

"I am astonished."

"I accomplish it," he said, "with my so-called miraculous pendulum."

I murmured that I knew nothing of a miraculous pendulum.

Based on Science

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