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CarnivalThe Samba School


Morse family photo

Brazil, 1975: Mick and Jane get into the spirit of Carnival, a festival that has "sex in the air."


By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

At night in Rio de Janeiro, the huge statue of Christ the Redeemer is lit up, creating the impression that the Savior is floating in the air above the city. Never was there a more appropriate piece of public architecture, for if ever a city needed a redeemer, it is Rio.

The Christ statue atop Mount Corcovada stretches his arms out, as if to embrace the poor, crime-ridden shanty towns on the hillsides before him. He overlooks Copacabana. Perhaps he was ashamed to witness what was happening on a recent Saturday evening along one of the world's most fabulous beaches.

Dozens of prostitutes and pimps patrol the strip. The women come in every shape, age and color, from pale blond to Brazilian mocha. They attract lots of attention, from men in passing autos, from taxi drivers, from cops in police cars, who seem to be flirting rather than hassling. The action stretches as far as the eye can see.

It was clear to Mick and Jane, from the time they moved here in 1975, that they were not in Union City, Mich., anymore.

One of the first snapshots taken of the Morses in Brazil shows them ready to celebrate Carnival. Jane wears a cute Hawaiian floral print dress with a yellow lei around her neck. Mick has shed his midwestern reserve for the occasion. He wears what looks like an Indian-print loin cloth, a matching headband and a broad ceremonial necklace over his bare chest. Sort of Aztec Chieftain meets South Sea Islander. Mick grins broadly and the photo reveals the well-toned, athletic frame that set records back at Fennville High School.

To understand Rio - and what happened to Mick and Jane - you must understand Carnival. New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. Ancient Rome had its Saturnalia. Sodom had, well, it had its sodomy.

But for pure unadulterated carnality, nothing comes close to Rio at Carnival time.

The word carnival comes from the Latin word for "meat," which reminds us the Carnival is a religious celebration. In Rio it spans the five days before Ash Wednesday, the first of 40 days of Lent, the period of fasting and abstinence that leads up to Easter in the Christian calendar. Church laws prohibit the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday, so Carnival can be thought of as the filling up before the emptying out, a period of sinning before repentance, a feast of licensed misrule.

That does not begin to describe it. For weeks leading up to Carnival the samba rhythms build in the streets and hillsides. Samba is Brazilian soul music, the rhythm beat by drummers in the stands of soccer matches, and by barefooted children playing homemade instruments in the dusty streets of the favelas.

Dancers and musicians organize themselves into "samba schools," who parade through the city in astonishing feathered and sequined costumes to compete for first place. The poor forget their troubles and act rich. The rich cavort at balls in which scantily clad women sometimes outnumber the men five to one.

Common descriptions of the event say "there is sex in the air."

Here is one observer's description of the 1984 Carnival: "There was no sense of decency anywhere in Brazil. Lots of nude people everywhere, women with no clothes on at all the bars, orgies in all the well-known nightclubs of Brazil, all shown on TV all over the country after midnight. The schools of samba of Rio de Janeiro went crazy with incredible luxury and spending in these times of financial problems for Brazil. It was just amazing. Almost all the women went into the streets and parades topless. Sex was on everybody's mind."

Jane felt liberated in Brazil, not so much from the excesses of Carnival, but from the warmth and hospitality of the people. The local customs suited her. She easily greeted people, men and women, with a friendly embrace and kiss on both cheeks. She loved to lie in the sun and join the other Carioca, the name for these hospitable citizens of Rio, in their daily celebrations of life. The bronzed men and women, clad in tiny bathing suits, played soccer or volleyball on the beach. The soft bossa nova or samba rhythms were as ubiquitous as traffic noise. The feasts of barbecued beef or black beans, washed down by beer or tasty fruit sodas, satisfied body and soul.

Mick's job as teacher and administrator at the American School earned him an excellent salary with lots of benefits. Mick and Jane could afford to live in a comfortable apartment in a section of southwest Rio called Gavea. They had the services of a maid named Maria, who grew close to the Morses. They became important players in the social life of the school, an influential institution in the city.

If there was sex in the air in Rio, Mick and Jane breathed in some of it because on Feb. 15, 1976, Meghan Morse bopped into the world. She was playful and gorgeously blond and adored her older brother David. She brought the Morses a renewed sense of the fertility of this earthly paradise.

Jane describes the event in her journal: "Meghan was fast. Hard labor started at 3:00 a.m. & she was born before five. The ride to the hospital was classic. For starters the cobblestone road was hard on my behind!!! And Mick started going the wrong way. The hospital was on the way to Corcovado - straight up. We were blocked by a bus about 3/4 of the way. Mick showed his true colors - the raving expectant father. Shouting all the right words but in the wrong language! Coming home was just as bad. This trip our road was blocked by a herd of goats!"

The experience of a new birth in a new place makes Jane grow reflective: "It's a difficult job making or molding an individual. So much to learn and so much to give. I know that we'll 'get there' because Mick & I are working together. We want love, kindness, respect & fairness for our children. 'Happiness is getting there.' We'll see."

The year Jane wrote these words, doctors in the United States were treating gay men for outbreaks of hepatitis B and venereal disease. Soon they would begin to wonder why gay men were coming to their offices with rare forms of cancer and other odd parasitic and bacteriological illnesses. It was as if something was wrong with their immune systems.

THE SERIES: This is the ninth installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 10, Sticks and Stones


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