Mark Twain – a guest at the Virginia Pavilion

One day, you will have a little money, one day you will build a nice chair, one day you will win.

A portrait of Mark Twain taken in New York City, 1906 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A portrait of Mark Twain taken in New York City, 1906
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Casriel was pleased that the visit of US president Theodore Roosevelt to the Virginia Pavilion had been not just good, but even better than that.
“Casriel!” his boss almost shouted out. “You and your team proved the confidence that I had in the six of you. Not only did you finish the pavilion on time but when the president and his aides came – they barely could believe how well the pavilion, with the Monitor and Merrimac battle, operated.”
The two looked each other in the eye and then they hugged tightly. The great moment had come and passed but it was worth every bit of hard sweaty labor.
“Boss I appreciate your words of praise, but I have to be honest – I have to tell you – it was your confidence in me that made me try even harder. I was only in the USA a few months but you reached out and made me want to succeed. I will always remember you for that.”
Casriel teared up in joy but he also realized this basic step in his American education was over. He had to search himself to see what was next.
Without a moment’s notice – the next challenge was literally thrown in his face.
“Casriel, tomorrow morning after the presidential group is gone – we have another visitor who may even be more famous than Roosevelt. His name is Mark Twain. In his lifetime he has risen from riding ferry boats to being a humorist.
A humorist your perplexed face asks? Because a humorist is one who understands people and can make them laugh at themselves without losing themselves.
Mark Twain is a writer who, in his tales, has captured the beat of this nation 125 years after its founding.
“Casriel, I am giving him to you alone tomorrow morning. What you will learn from him will be lessons you cannot obtain anywhere else. Casriel, his words will touch your head and you will be another person completely.”
After not sleeping for days – after seeing the president of the United States, after getting a little too much praise – Casriel had to go to his room, first rest, maybe sleep, and then think.
“Who in the world is this Mark Twain? Why did my boss talk about him in the way that he did? I certainly want to meet this Mr. Twain, but what should I do to prepare for our meeting?” Casriel sat on his bed, realizing his clean shirt and pants were now all a mess of dark smudges.
He knew exactly how – it happened trying to make sure the president could enter the small arena where the Monitor and Merrimac battle was reenacted. He had realized the sealing tar was leaking down from the ceiling to the floor and if he did not stop the heavy drip quickly, the president would be covered in black as he walked through the pavilion. Casriel had moved quickly, bunching up rags to stop the flow, but not enough. So he took off his shirt and moved it over the tar again and again. The flow stopped, but his shirt was a dirty mess – and then he slipped into the black mess and his pants were filthy too. Off with the shirt, off with the pants, into bed for a few hours. Mark Twain at 11 in the morning.
When Casriel awoke, his clock showed six a.m. He had not adorned himself ritually for several weeks but today, after washing, he placed his prayer shawl over his head, frontlets on his arm and head and quickly whispered his prayers. With religion done for now, Casriel dressed to the fastest beat, ate some old hard bread crusts and bounded down the stairs. It was still quiet around Church Street when he saw the wagon filling up for the fair. He ran, jumped on and joked with other workers in the wagon, and 15 minutes later he was at the gateway of his Virginia pavilion.
He cleaned the site quickly – only a few early visitors came marching through and they were shouting out words in languages he could not understand.
Then they were gone. Silence. One hour, then another half hour passed, the meeting time quickly approaching.
Suddenly a fancy Ford car pulled up – driven by a young fellow with a bulbous hat on his head and boots too. Behind him, in the seat of honor, was a man dressed all in white – white shoes, white pants, white shirt, white tie – enormous white mustache – curly white hair.
“Mark Twain!” Casriel shouted.
“Mr. Birshtein, I presume,” were the first words Casriel heard. No one had used his family name for months.
“Birshtein, where were you born?” the venerable author asked.
“Czarist Russia,” Casriel responded.
“Are you married?” “Yes, but my wife and children are not here.”
“What do you mean?” Twain questioned.
“Only you? Who is taking care of them? Do you know if they are alive? Mr. Birshtein, can you understand what I am saying? Probably not.
“Here is a test – do you know what a frog is?” Casriel remembered that he had seen a little hopping frog when he was a boy.
“Now, Birshtein,” the author continued, “figure this out: I have two frogs who are going to jump from a tree five yards away – five yards.”
Casriel shook his head in acknowledgment.
“Jumping from a tree to the pond of water, which frog will be first?” Casriel could not talk, then he said that the big frog will be first because he has longer legs.
“Makes sense,” Twain said, “but try a little trick: Drop some little metal balls into the big frog’s mouth, start the jumping race, the little frog hops away, with the big frog unable to move, his ability to win is taken away.
“Birshtein,” Twain went on to explain, “when I was a man your age way out in California, I had the best jumping frog around. He was the best. Then, secretly, I did not know, he was filled up with the metal balls. He could not get off the ground.
“You are a foreigner as they say, but now America is your home. You will bring your family here – if you want to do your best – don’t get loaded up with whiskey and with owing a lot of money.
Don’t get all filled up and loaded down to the ground, be free like the little frog and jump as high as you can. One day, one day, Birshtein, you will be a big winner.
One day, you will have a little money, one day you will build a nice chair, one day you will win.
“I write stories, Birshtein. Here is a book of my stories. When you can read about Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and since you are a Jew, my adventures in Palestine, Innocents Abroad, you will be a real American.”
Twain laughed aloud – Casriel knew he would laugh like Twain some day.