Tuesday, 23 February 2010

This blog consists of posts published on my main blog between November 2008 and May 2009.

I have gathered them together here in one place to make it easier for people researching the Revo.

The thoughts and impressions in this blog are very much my own.  I represent no individual or organisation.

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This is the post I never thought I'd write.
And yet ... I can't help wondering if it hasn't been inevitable all along ...
As though everything that has come before has been building up to this moment.

Bear with me. Please. This is hard.
Some of you will know that I lived part of my story in Grenada. I've mentioned it before, here, here and here, but only ever in passing.
The time has come to put some flesh on those old bones.

I first went to Grenada in 1982, 3 years after the revolution.
I attended the anniversary celebrations.
My photo albums contain pictures of a smiling Maurice Bishop, PM of Grenada, embracing Samora Machel of Mozambique.
They're both dead now. History. I was there.
I was there too for the International Women's Day celebrations and heard Angela Davis speak.
Her photo's in my album too.
That first month that I spent on this beautiful island in the company of its strong, proud, resilient people convinced me. Somehow ... in some way ... I knew that my own destiny was meshed with this beacon of hope in the Caribbean.

My return there was delayed by an unfortunate accident, but eventually I found myself back in Grenada the following year, with the intention of helping to set up a mobile library. But it didn't feel quite 'right' in the way it had before. Beset by enemies, isolated and threatened by a paranoid US under Reagan, with murmurs of internal divisions and rumours of injustices - it felt as though the shine had gone off the revo.

I had been there about 5 months when on 19th October 1983, after weeks of growing tension and unrest, a crowd led by schoolchildren triumphantly released Maurice from where he'd been held under house arrest. The details of the casualties from the resulting attack on the people by the army have never been fully revealed. You can see some of them listed here. The revo had been ripped apart from within.

The coup was followed by 4 days of curfew. On 25th October, the US invaded. (Of necessity this is the most potted of accounts. You can see full details on this site if you're interested.) I stayed for as long as I could after the invasion, in spite of intense pressure to evacuate, but a few months later, penniless and heartbroken, I no longer had a choice. I returned to the UK to my frantic parents.

With hindsight, I suppose I must have been suffering from post traumatic shock, but no one had heard of that condition back then. I just think I was grieving. Even now, 25 years later, it's hard to describe the depth and intensity of the loss.

I returned the following year, but post-revo Grenada was a very different place and I couldn't see how to fit in or become a part of it. When I finally left in 1986, that should theoretically have been the end of my relationship with the island.

It wasn't though. The experience - seeing the hope and infinite possibility of the revo and then witnessing its destruction - had changed me forever.

Fast forward a couple of decades.
I'm an author with 5 books to my name. Friends often ask me why I don't ever write about what happened in Grenada.
'I sort of do,' I reply. 'Those experiences are part of me. They're part of my identity and so they inform everything I do and everything I write. It's just not explicit.'
Deep down though, I think I knew that this was only part of the truth and that one day I would have to bring the whole experience out of the shadows of my past and into my present.
I just couldn't see how.

A few months ago, I received an email from a guy in the US who had come across this photo on my website and wanted to know if I had any others.

I asked who he was and he told me he'd been part of the first wave of US soldiers in the invasion and wanted to see if he could recognise any of his old buddies in my photos. I politely informed him the images were not available.

The contact made me twitchy and a bit paranoid. I checked round the web and was shocked to see there's a big nostalgia trip in the US about the invasion. Grenada was a nice, short, simple war. And they won. Not like these nasty, messy, complicated wars they have nowadays in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, with their hideous resonances of the ultimate unwinnable war - Vietnam. I stumbled on a propaganda 'comic' telling the story of the brave US soldiers coming to the rescue of the grateful islanders, saving them from the red peril. The invasion took place a quarter of a century ago, yet I found forums where ex and current marines swapped stories and photos of the 'good old days in Grenada' when America could fight a war and win.

History. They were there and so was I. But my memories were very different from theirs.

More time passed. Then recently I 'met' Liane Spicer via the blogosphere. Liane lives in Trinidad and blogs at Wordtryst. We exchanged emails. I told her in about 4 lines about my involvement with Grenada. She said what other friends had already pointed out:

'What a fascinating story - your memoir will really be something! It's got all the elements: tropical island, politics, coup, invasion, romance, adventure, altruism... Are you writing it? Or maybe feeding it all into a novel?'

This was my reply:

'You know, I never have. When you put it like that, I suppose it does seem like it has literary potential. But … I don’t know. I’ve never figured out a way of doing it that I feel comfortable with. One day, maybe. As for feeding it in – well I suppose like everything else in life it has made me into what I am, so informs everything I do, but no direct feeding yet. Or maybe ever …'

(You want more spookiness? Having just gone back to this email exchange, I notice Liane's was sent on 25th October - 25 years to the day after the invasion.)

Grenada was back on my shoulder again. It wasn't going to go away.
Then I read a couple of reviews of Pynter Bender. The book is by a Grenadian author, Jacob Ross, and is set on the island. I bought the book and as I read I was overwhelmed by his evocation of the familiar sights and sounds. Memories came flooding back.
Grenada was whispering urgently in my ear.

So it was almost no surprise when I received an email from this woman, who is making a documentary on the revo.

History. I was there. And now I'm here, though I have no idea what will happen next. This post is the beginning of the next part of my journey.

If you've made it this far, thanks for listening.
Some people suggested I start in the middle, others that I begin with a random image. The possibility of fictionalising my memories was mooted.
But the consensus is clear:
Just start writing.

So this is it.
Part 1 of The Revo Blog.
And it feels weighty with significance.

I've realised I need to give some background before I begin to tell what happened in that time when my own personal story became entwined with that of the island of Grenada.
This is not a diversion tactic, not is it control freakery.
I just don't want to keep interrupting the flow with distracting explanations once I begin.

So this post will operate as a kind of appendix. Scene setting, if you will.

Grenada - statistics
Area: 344 sq km (approx same size as London)
Population: approx 90,000 (less than the smallest London borough)
The people: 80% African, 3% East Indian, 10% mixed
Capital: St Georges
Principal exports: cocoa, bananas, spices


Grenada - a short history 1951-1983
1951 - Eric Gairy wins election
1962 - government dismissed for corruption
1972 - Gairy wins another election. JEWEL and MAP (see below) are formed
1973 - repression and unrest. JEWEL and MAP join to form NJM.
1974 - 3 month general strike. Rupert Bishop (father of Maurice) assassinated. Grenada achieves independence from Britain. NJM leadership arrested.
13 March 1979 - Revo! Gairy ousted in near bloodless coup
June 1980 - 3 women killed by bomb at rally
1982 - IMF congratulates PRG (see below) for economic performance. US becoming increasingly threatening and paranoid
Feb-March 1982 - my first visit to Grenada
1983 - Reagan refuses to meet delegation aimed at improving relations with US. Rifts appearing in NJM. Rumours and unrest.
19th October 1983 - coup
20th-23rd October 1983 - curfew
25th October 1983 - US invasion
June 1983-February 1984 - my 2nd stay in Grenada
September 1985-March 1986 - my 3rd stay in Grenada


Acronyms
Map - Movement for Assemblies of the People
JEWEL - Joint Endeavour for the Welfare, Education and Liberation of the People
NJM - New Jewel Movement
PRG - People's Revolutionary Government
PRA - People's Revolutionary Army
RFG - Radio Free Grenada

The people in Grenada's story
Eric Gairy - corrupt dictator ousted by revo
Maurice Bishop - charismatic Prime Minister and personification of the revo

Image of Maurice Bishop from Spice Islander
Bernard Coard - deputy PM. Widely perceived as the leader and would-be beneficiary of the coup (though he has consistently denied this)
Hudson Austin - head of the PRA and 'voice' of the coup
Jacky Creft - Minister of Education. Maurice's partner. 5 months pregnant with his child at time of execution

The people in my story
Me - nice(ish) Jewish girl from London
H - the English woman I traveled with during my first 2 stays in Grenada
C - the English woman and close friend (still) who I met during my 2nd stay
J - the English woman and close friend (still) who was in Grenada June/July 2003. Mother of Gorgeous Goddaughter, born October 1986.
L - my Grenadian partner
B - H's Grenadian partner
W - C's Grenadian partner
M - J's Grenadian partner. Father of Gorgeous Goddaughter
PC - local wheeler and dealer who acted as our mentor

In the next post, I will be starting at the beginning, explaining how I came to be in Grenada in the first place and sharing my experiences of the revo at a time when it was still filled with hope and potential. Over the following posts, I will be relating events as they occurred , using my diaries to ensure accuracy.

Writing this as fiction is impossible. For me, the whole point is that the truth should be known. The truth, unvarnished and unpalatable though it may be to some, as I saw it at the time.

I said in the comments on my previous post that I only cried once during my 4 hours with Faye, the film maker. That response crystallised everything for me. I remembered all over again the exact moment when the Grenadian revo, and with it my own world, fell apart. And I remembered also how crucial it had seemed to me at the time to ensure people understood. I felt this huge weight of responsibility and it's never been discharged.

As the years passed, it was clear that the defining event that most people associated with Grenada was the invasion. Not the revo. And not the coup. I too succumbed in the end. US Imperialism was an easy enemy to focus on. War is something people think they're able to wrap their minds around. And traumatic though the invasion had been, it became less painful for me to reflect on than the events that preceded it.

Over time, my experiences coalesced into a series of well-worn, neatly-packaged anecdotes. Gone were the days when I had first returned to London in 1984, when people would go to great lengths to avoid my Ancient Mariner-esque intensity, determined to force them to see what I had seen and learn what I had learned.

Well, those days are back. The posts that follow will comprise a true and full record at last. Being a blog, people can choose whether to read or ignore, without me having to deal with the angst.

But the words will be out there. Accessible to all. At last.
I know I said I would plunge straight in, but I think you need a bit of my own back story first. A sort of 'laying my cards on the table', so you can have a picture of the young woman who arrived in Grenada in Feb 1982.

So - who am I? That was a question I asked myself throughout my youth. It wasn't until I emerged from my turbulent teens, that I knew I wouldn't be fulfilling my parents' expectations. I was never going to marry young, to a nice Jewish boy, and bring up kids in a semi-detached within walking distance of where I'd grown up.

Once I'd managed to work out that didn't mean I had some fundamental design fault, I set about finding myself. And found 'me' in politics.

The 70s were my decade. While working in straight jobs, all my energy and enthusiasm went into changing the world. They were exciting times, when that felt like a genuine possibility. The revolution was always just around the corner. These were the pre-Thatcher days, before greed triumphed over altruism. I was active in all the radical movements of the time: the women's movement, anti-racism, Northern Ireland, anti-nuke, community politics ...

Though many of the people I knew were members of the Socialist Workers' Party, or one of the myriad other left wing parties that abounded back then, I was never a 'joiner'. If anything, I was more radical, leaning to anarchy.

People associate anarchy with chaos and disorder, but when you think about it, a belief in anarchy as a workable alternative implies a fundamental belief in human nature: that, left to our own devices, human beings will choose to work together for the greater good. That we'll choose to access the capacity to do good that's within us all, rather than the potential for evil, greed and exploitation. It's not about every person for themselves, but about every person for every other.

Starry-eyed? Naive? Without a doubt, but it's still the way I feel deep inside. It's called hope.

So this was the young woman who decided in her mid-twenties that she needed to broaden her experiences and the best way to do that was to travel. To see other ways of living. To learn about other cultures, systems and attitudes. In 1980, I spent several months travelling across the US. The following year, I moved around, criss-crossing Europe. This last journey was undertaken with H, and it was at an open farm in Italy that we met J.

Travelling together by train when we left the farm, the three of us talked about possible destinations for a next trip. Grenada was mentioned in the list. I'd only vaguely heard of the island, and knew little other than that it was in the Caribbean and shouldn't be confused with Granada, in Spain.

Oh, and they'd had a revolution. Obvious choice.

The three of us worked and saved, planning on a week in Trinidad at Carnival, followed by a month in Grenada. At the last minute, J's father fell seriously ill and she had to drop out.

And so, in February 1982, H and I boarded the plane heading for the Caribbean with little idea what to expect, but filled with the desire to learn.
Feb - March 1982

H and I spend a week in Trinidad for Carnival. We stay with the aunt of a friend. I say 'stay with' but in truth we're not there much between dropping off our bags and then picking them up again several days later. In between, we eat little, sleep less and party non-stop.

I had been at every Notting Hill Carnival for years, but this is a whole different league. By the end of our stay, we're giddy and punch-drunk. Literally.

I can't pretend we saw much of the island. Enough to get an impression of somewhere large, bustling and - in the city at least - industrialised. Apart from the tropical setting and the sheer scale of Carnival, it doesn't seem that unfamiliar in many ways.

At Port of Spain International Airport, that all changes as we board the tiny island hopping plane that is the only way to reach Grenada by air in those days. Soon after, we touch down on the airstrip of miniature Pearls Airport. The relaxed and smiling greeting we receive from the people checking our passports gives us the feeling their interest is more curiosity than anything else, a far cry from the usual suspicion of airport officials elsewhere in the world.

The impression is reinforced as we get into a cab to the capital, St Georges, on the other side of the island and pass by a massive hand-painted billboard - Welcome to Free Grenada. Our hearts soar as we realise that we are privileged to be in for an experience unlike anything we've ever had before.

The cab climbs into the hills, bumping along the pot-holed road - the only connection between the two coasts. Within minutes, we're swallowed by the rain forest. Dense, lush and seemingly impenetrable, shades of dark green studded with occasional splashes of vibrant colour, it exudes a sense of hot steamy mystery.

We pass few people on the road, but those we do, all stop and stare. Some smile at us and wave. Every so often, we see more of the billboards, each hand-painted, no two the same. We don't know the exact significance of them all - only later, for example, do we understand that CPE is a Freedom School refers to the Centre for Popular Education, which aims to wipe out illiteracy on the island.

But if we don't always know the precise meanings, the intention is always clear. These are messages to uplift and inspire. The contrast between a unique billboard, portraying a smiling woman driving a tractor, and the ubiquitous ads we're bombarded with back in London, selling lingerie, cars, beer etc, is overwhelming.

The road drops as we crest the island's mountainous spine. We emerge from the rain forest to see St Georges laid out below us. Though sprawling, it's little larger than a rural English village. As we drive through the outskirts, the wooden shacks and corrugated iron roofs give way to colonial style white and pastel concrete houses and shops.

We stay the first couple of nights in a guesthouse in town, but we're on a tight budget and can't afford to spend the whole month there. On our first day, we go to visit Y, whose name was given to us by a Grenadian friend in London. Y is the head of Grencraft, the co-operative set up to produce, market and export the crafts that Grenadian people have been making for years, using the resources available: coral jewellery, spice baskets, shell artifacts, bowls and hats woven from palm fronds, wooden carvings, guava jelly ...

Y explains that Grencraft is a powerful symbol of the Revo, both in terms of its success and because membership of the co-operative is voluntary. The people have said they want a mixed economy so that's what they've got. The will of the people is paramount. Is Freedom We Making.
Y introduces us to a woman who rents us a little board house just up from Grand Anse beach which, at two palm-fringed miles of silky sun-drenched sand, is the largest and best-known beach on the island. It isn't long before it's clear that the house may be 'little' to us, but it's palatial compared with the homes of most of the people we meet and having running water, electricity and an indoor toilet are luxuries denied to many. Another thing that soon becomes obvious though is that the people who have the least are the most generous. In that at least, Grenada is not unique.

Everyone we meet is hospitable and friendly, almost without exception. In no time at all, we've learned how to cook on a coal pot using local ingredients and we're washing our clothes at the outdoor concrete sink.

There's this amazing spirit of energy and empowerment in the air. It's palpable. You can feel it, taste it. People are proud, you see. Proud of their Revo and what they have achieved. They want to share it. They know full well that what they are doing is unique. The people of Grenada have created a different way of living and being. And as such, they are a beacon of hope to the rest of the world that another way can and does exist.

Gradually, we begin to overstand, as people there call the state beyond understanding. The Revo on 13th March, 1979, had replaced a corrupt dictator, Eric Gairy, whose increasingly repressive (and bizarre) demands had been enforced by his gang of hated and feared Mongoose Men. At the time of the coup, Gairy was out of the country (something to do with preparing to table a motion at the UN on his pet subject of UFOs) and the Revo was almost bloodless.

Ordinary people had been oppressed and living in fear for so long, the coup - initiated by a group of young Grenadian radicals educated in the US and UK - had been joyously received, with the support of the vast majority of the population.

What ensued was government as we know it in reverse, with the ordinary people at the top making the decisions and the government at the bottom, carrying them out. In a series of meetings at local, parish and national level, people spoke out about the issues that mattered to them: poverty, unemployment, exploitation, education, agriculture, imports and exports, health, illiteracy and together they discussed possible solutions.

This was a pure form of democracy, where every single issue of importance affecting people's lives was debated on and decided by the people themselves, making a mockery of the idea that putting a cross on a piece of paper every four years, to choose between frying pans and fires to supposedly represent your interests, can be called 'democracy'.

The energy and enthusiasm, the passion and clarity, the sheer 'rightness' of it all sweep us up and carry us along in its wake. We go to the International Women's Day celebrations and hear the iconic Angela Davis speak. The following week is the 3rd anniversary of the Revo and this is when we first see Maurice Bishop, PM and head of the People's Revolutionary Government.
Warm and inclusive, articulate and charismatic, and underlying it all, his obvious love for his people and pride in their achievements, his words bathe us in a glow, uplifting us as no other individual has before. Imagine the oratory and presence of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and now Barack Obama, and you'll come close to understanding how I feel on this day - that I am honoured and privileged to be in the presence of a man who appears maybe once in a generation and who exudes hopes of peace and justice and a better way.
A couple of friends whose opinions I trust have told me they're concerned that my use of the abbreviation 'Revo' might be sending out the wrong signals. Since I'm very anxious this should not be the case, I thought I should explain.

While in official circles and on printed information the period was always referred to in Grenada as 'the revolution', on the streets and in conversation it was colloquially referred to as 'the Revo'. For me, this implied affection and ownership: there had been other revolutions in other places, but what was happening in Grenada was unique. It belonged to them. It was their Revo.

For this reason I chose to use the abbreviation in these posts. I would be appalled to think that anyone who didn't know the context, might think that my decision to refer in that way to what happened between 13 March 1979 and 19 October 1983 implied I was trivialising or belittling the Grenadian revolution.

I hope that it is clear to anyone and everyone reading this series of posts that my respect, admiration and genuine awe for what the Grenadian people achieved in that time against all the odds know no bounds.

I was - and still am - humbled by what I witnessed.

The Grenada Revolution Online



February-March 1982 (continued)

Halfway through our stay and we're learning.

Limes are the most versatile of fruits. You can use them to make juice of course, but you can also use them to clean fish, as a disinfectant to scrub down work surfaces, in a marinade ... If you step on a sea urchin, half a lime rubbed on the sole of your foot will dissolve the spines.

The brown fibrous coconuts we've seen in funfairs are just the inner nut. Slice the top off a young green waternut and pop in a straw to drink the fragrant water. Then split the nut open and use the sliced off piece as a spoon to scoop out the jelly.

You don't drink the liquid inside a mature coconut. Instead, once you've ripped off the outer skin, slam the nut on the floor to break it. Drain off the liquid and and, using a sharp knife, gouge out the flesh. Grate it on a lethal home made grater made from a sheet of metal with holes stabbed into it and bent onto a wooden frame. (The skin on the ends of your fingers will eventually harden once the cuts have healed over.) Soak the grated coconut in water and squeeze it through a strainer. It's this liquid which you use to cook with.

Callaloo may look like spinach but don't even think of tasting a raw piece. It'll take off the roof of your mouth.

Saltfish should be soaked. boiled and rinsed several times before adding it to soup or rice and peas.

Bananas are known as figs. Some, like plantain and bluggoe, have to be cooked but there are many different edible varieties too, each with their own unique taste.

We see cocoa being dried and visit a spice co-operative. Nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves, along with bananas and cocoa, form the most important sources of Grenada's income. But the biggest source of all is tourism.

And here's something else we soon learn. Toursim is a two-edged sword.

Cruiseships have just started including Grenada again as a stopping off point on Caribbean cruises. The tourists come ashore for just a few hours. They descend on St Georges, sometimes dressed in skimpy beachware that is considered disrespectful by the modest Grenadians. Some are rude and arrogant.

The money they bring is vital, but their behaviour can sometimes cause resentment. It's a delicate balance. The Revo has discouraged the old practice of children swimming out to the ships moored far out in deep water to dive for coins thrown from the deck. The self-respect and dignity engendered by the Revo means that these days few young men will agree to shin up a palm tree to pose for a photo for a couple of dollars.

Then there are the longer term tourists. There is an ugly scene going on that is common in parts of the world where people are desperately poor. Unemployment is still rife and many people have the same desire to see other places and cultures that brought us to Grenada, except their desire is driven by poverty.

Many young men in particular see their only means of survival as hooking up with a woman tourist, who will pay for food, drink and so on during the stay. For some, these relationships can ultimately provide the only likely way off the island.

As for the women tourists, many come with absolute awareness of the power this gives them and some - not all, but plenty - are more than prepared to abuse this power. In fact, we are shocked to realise that many seem to come to the Caribbean for this specific purpose. Time and time again, we come across women behaving in ways that we consider exploitative and ignorant. We are determined to demonstrate our difference from these women in everything we say and do.

These are just some of the things we learn during that first month in Grenada. And through it all, underpinning everything, is the Revo.

We visit a woodwork co-operative on the other side of the island. We go to a ceremony to hand over new fishing boats - a gift from Cuba. We see a small military parade and thrill to know that those good-natured men, proudly carrying their guns and cheered by the bystanders, are not to be feared. Everywhere we're met with the same warm welcome, shy dignity and quiet pride. It is clear we are among a people who feel they are in control of their own destiny.

And all this in the face of growing opposition from a paranoid US to the north, under the old cowboy himself, Reagan. And you know what? They're right to be scared. It's not that anyone really believes that tiny Grenada, even if they aligned with Nicaragua, Cuba and El Salvador, is going to topple the US beast militarily.

No. It's the ideology that scares them. They're worried that their own people will look at Grenada and see proof that a better and fairer system really can work. A system based on peace, love, justice, equality - not just a hippy Utopian dream, but in Grenada, a living reality.

The US administration tries everything to destablise and isolate the Revo and their propaganda machine pumps out their desperate attempts to portray the Revo as monstrous.

Look at who they're aligned with! Russia, Cuba, North Korea ... the US screams in panic.
Yes, Grenadians reply, but only because they're the only ones who will recognise and trade with us. You've refused our every attempt to establish links.

They hold no elections! the US gibbers in desperation.
One day we might, Grenadians reply, but right now we don't see it as a priority. Meanwhile, our system is far more democratic than yours.

There's only one newspaper! the US rants, scraping the barrel.
True, but it's not difficult to get foreign papers. That's hardly full-scale repression, Grenadians reply with a shrug.

For every accusation, there is a plausible and logical response. It's not too good to be true. It's real. And it's happening. Here. Now.

At what point do we decide we have to return, and not just for a holiday? That somehow, in some way that is appropriate, we have to contribute and be, as much as possible under the circumstances, a part of it all? Not to leech off the Revo, but to find a way to use the resources we have access to back in London to support it ...

It may have been earlier, but if not, it could have been on our last night. We hold a party in our little board house, perched on the hill overlooking the bay, and invite everyone we've met. As the evening draws to an end and we have to prepare to say goodbye to our new friends, to whom we have become so close, so fast, something phenomenal happens.

One by one, each person there stands and makes a solemn speech. They tell us how much they've valued our friendship. How they appreciate our efforts to truly overstand their island story. How they hope to see us again. We should hurry back. Or rather, forward. No one uses the word 'back' with its negative connotations. The motto of the Revo, is Forward Ever, Backward Never.

Or maybe the final decision came on our last morning. The woodwork co-operative had asked us to come in on our way to the airport. We were running late after all the farewells nearer home, but couldn't leave without saying goodbye. Jumping from the cab, we're met by one of the workers. She looks anxious when we say we can't stay long and says she's not sure if they're dry yet. Mystified, we follow her round a corner and see a row of handmade wooden trays lying on the ground, their glossy varnish drying in the sun. Each is painted with a map of Grenada.

With a smile, the woman picks up two of the trays and hands them to us. We're overwhelmed. Like I say, it's the people who have the least who are the most generous.

We board the tiny plane at Pearls, sad to leave but with eyes that have been opened and lives that have been changed. We know beyond any doubt that the story of our connection with Grenada has only just begun.

Over quarter of a century later, I still have that tray. Still use it. Though the varnish has dulled and the map has faded, it's still here. I can touch it, gaze at it, run my hands over the smooth wood.

If only the Revo had lasted as long ...