Friday, December 2, 2016

OUT FOR THE COUNT

They say nobody’s perfect, and I guess that’s true. We all have our little handicaps and imperfections, whether we acquire them by nurture or nature. We can be left-handed or color blind, or have irritating habits such as laughing too loud, or biting our fingernails. And I’m no exception.
          My problem is a constant humiliation. I’m arithmetically challenged, and can't do even the simplest addition and subtraction in my head. No, seriously, faced with what you’d probably consider the easiest sum, my mind seizes up. I've always been mystified by this shortcoming. After all, I had a pricey private education at upper-crust British seats of learning. I learned (and then forgot) one dead language and two living ones, mastered subjects from English, history and geography to physics, chemistry and biology, and most people would be quite happy to swap IQs with me.  Both my father and brother made good livings in banking, so why am I such a mutt at math?
          One time when this disability used to rear its ugly head was whenever I was signing the check in a restaurant, with my pen poised while I calculated the tip.  In those days, if you’d watched carefully, you’d have noticed that, though barely perceptibly, I was counting on my fingers while my brow furrowed with the concentration of the task in hand.
I went through this embarrassing process for years until, not long ago, I discovered a little printed plastic card called a ‘tip calculator,’ that tells me fifteen and twenty percent of any sum up to one hundred dollars. With this, holding the card surreptitiously under the table, I can now work it out. In this way I impress guests with my seemingly instant mental arithmetic. Of course, in the privacy of my own home I can whip out a calculator with the best of them, and do the most basic sums without the embarrassment I’d experience using it in a restaurant, a barber’s shop or a cab. Working out a tip in a taxi is a breeze nowadays electronically, though it always used to be too dark in the back to read my cheat sheet. 
          Lynn, my wife, who’s infuriatingly competent at absolutely everything, says, “It’s so easy! To work out fifteen percent of something, all you do is move the decimal point one place to the left to get ten percent. Then you just add half that number to it to get your fifteen percent.” And she calls that easy?   
          Of course, being afflicted in this way doesn’t begin and end with calculating tips. Every day there’s a need for mental arithmetic, such as working out lengths, heights and widths when doing do-it-yourself jobs. And then there’s the constant problem of working out the change I should get in a store. If normal people pay $13.37 for something and hand over $20, they immediately know how much change to expect. But not I.
          Was this inability inherited, or caused by some life experience? My very earliest memories of math at school couldn’t have been happier. In the mid-1930s, at a convent school at the age of five, I was taught very elementary arithmetic by kindly nuns. We wrote the numbers on wood-framed slates with slate pencils that made the most excruciating scrooping sounds. Later, we moved on to two-times tables, mouthing them in unison to our smiling, nodding tutors. “Two twos are four, three twos are six, four twos are eight . . .” I still have instant recall of those tables up to twelve twelves.
          But there were no kindly nuns when, only a few years later, I was sent to my first boarding school far from home. Here, a scruffy, mop-headed, sour-faced Welshman called Dai Griffin took over where they left off. Mr. Griffin – we called him ‘Dirty Dai’– galloped through multiplication and long division at a cracking pace that was fine for the brightest and most numerate of his class, but not for the rest of us. He had a thick Welsh accent, and was given to outbursts of rage, when he was liable to throw sticks of blackboard chalk around the classroom.
With Mr. Griffin, arithmetic became a fearsome ordeal, something to dread. It became even harder when we began calculations to do with money. Britain’s currency was not yet decimalized; instead we had pounds, shillings and pence. Now listen carefully, there were twenty shillings in a pound, twelve pence in a shilling, and two halfpennies (ha’pennies) or four farthings in a penny. How would you go about adding twenty-eight pounds, seven shillings and fourpence-farthing to seventeen pounds, three shillings, and eightpence-ha’penny?
Around the time when Mr. Dai Griffin was about to launch into algebra and geometry, something fortuitous happened – he died. That may sound harsh but, even if he was nice to his wife and children and kind to small animals, to us he seemed a mean-spirited monster. A master called Bob Hawkins took over our math lessons, a warm-hearted man who clearly loved his subject, made up jokes about isosceles triangles, and treated us like equals. In the next school, ‘Fuzzy’ Wheatcroft, a man of similar character to Hawkins, took us through the whole gamut of math, including trigonometry and calculus, in such a way that I actually looked forward to his lessons. Then, of course, we were using slide rules and charts, since desk-top computers were at least thirty-five years away. I thought trigonometry a futile waste of time then. Why would I ever need to know all this stuff about tangents and cotangents? I had no idea that, eight or nine years later in the British Army, I’d need it to plot targets for my 81mm mortar platoon during a bout of terrorism in the Mid-East.
I bet that would have astonished the late Dirty Dai Griffin.

 oo0oo


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

CLIP JOINTS

        I read recently that an average man grows about ten yards of hair during his life, so I guess I’d look like an Afghan goat-herd if it weren’t for generations of barbers and hairdressers who’ve washed, cut and dried my hair.
       And what an incredible cast of characters they’ve been! I can't remember my earliest haircuts, but the first barber I recall, long ago in the mid-1930s, had a shop on High Street in our country town in Southeast England, between a pie shop and a movie house. He was a dapper little man with a neatly trimmed mustache and, believe it or not, his name was Mr. Tidy.
        Mr. Tidy’s barbershop was always busy. His customers sat in cane chairs along a mirrored wall, reading newspapers that my father, a staid and serious man, would never have allowed in our house. These reported little real news, but spicy stories about society divorces, or bishops running off with actresses. But for me there were also comic strips and, when I could read, I met Dagwood Bumstead and Popeye, and Dick Tracy.
Mr. Tidy’s barber’s chair was a miracle of chrome and leather on a swiveling pedestal that could be pedaled up and down, and had the words ‘Made in America’ emblazoned on a panel in its ornate silver filigree. When it was my turn, Mr. Tidy put a wooden box on the seat and lifted me onto it.  He worked quickly and I watched, fascinated, as the hair clippings fell on the floor around the chair. When he’d finished, he’d stoop and lift a wooden trapdoor by its tiny brass doorknob, and sweep the clippings under the floor boards.
When I was eight, I was sent to a boys-only boarding school miles from home, and later to another much bigger one. At both schools, barbers came from the town at regular intervals, carrying their equipment in black leather suitcases, and set-up shop in the sports changing rooms. After the quiet orderliness of Mr. Tidy’s shop, these sessions were rowdy and boisterous. The visitors clearly didn’t think enforcing discipline was a part of their job, and the older boys fought on the floor and elbowed the younger ones aside in the waiting line. For the smaller, younger boys, having a haircut could be an ordeal, and often took a long time.
        At Sandhurst – Britain’s equivalent of West Point – there was a full-time barbershop among the stables and stores tucked away behind the Academy’s elegant buildings. Haircuts were free, probably because the authorities thought we’d mutiny if forced to part with real money to have our hair cropped like convicts. It was little comfort to know that distinguished former graduates such as Sir Winston Churchill, Field Marshall (‘Monty’) Montgomery and other greats had sat in those very same oak chairs.
        The years passed and I suffered the attention of regimental barbers in half a dozen countries. But at least we were now officers, and could grow our hair a bit longer and indulge in a little individualism.
        Later I left the army to join a London public relations firm as a trainee. By then I expected to be able to pick and choose who cut my hair. But on a monthly salary of 41 pounds – today worth about $62 – my choice of hair cutters was limited to men who practiced in small back rooms behind tobacconists’ stores. The result was often little better than the clumsy attentions of a regimental barber. 
 But in 1959, on my wedding day in London, I had the most exclusive trim and shave of my life. I’d spent my last night of bachelor bliss at the apartment of a friend of my father-in-law who was shaved daily at Harrods, the venerable store that sells anything you can imagine at unimaginable prices to unbelievably wealthy people. In its low-lit, walnut paneled barber shop, respectful, speak-when-you’re spoken-to experts shaved my host and I with badger-hair brushes and cutthroat razors. We lay side by side on what seemed more like operating tables than Mr. Tidy’s chrome, all-American barber’s chair back in the 30s. There were hot towels and cologne to follow, and a massage of the neck and shoulders. The faintest sound of baroque music drifted from invisible speakers.
Nearly twenty years later, in the late 70s, came haircuts and shaves that were at the same time a wide-awake dream of fair women and the best barbering of a lifetime. South East Asia has turned a normally humdrum experience into an all-but erotic fantasy. Men’s hairdressing shops in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are a blend of an Arabian Nights harem and an Upper East Side beauty shop. It’s not that there’s any back-room impropriety going on, but simply that – however sexist this may seem more than two decades later – the dozen or more geisha-like young women in these places are recruited as much for their beauty and vivacity as for their tonsorial talents. Their deft, perfectly manicured hands seem not so much to work on one’s head and face, but almost to caress them, and any full-blooded male pulse quickens with their warm proximity. I wonder whether, now that I’m in my eighties, their welcome would be half as seductive.
Nowadays, accompanied by Lynn, my wife, I take my gray head to her place in Greenwich Village. The hairdresser is attractive and well groomed, but the place somehow lacks the mystical sensuality of the Orient. And, in place of the racy daily papers with their comic strips in Mr. Tidy’s shop, there are mostly fashion magazines, and books on hairstyling.
Things have changed. But so, of course so have I.


oo0oo


Saturday, October 1, 2016

OVER-PAID, OVER-SEXED . . . ETC.

At a museum in London a year or two ago I came across a revealing little pamphlet. Called Over There, it was issued during World War II to American servicemen being posted to Britain.

More than a million U.S. troops were stationed in England between 1942 and the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in June, 1944. Most of them had never been abroad before, and the aim of Over There -- according to The Oxford University Press, who have republished it -- was to prepare them for life in a very different country, and to try to prevent any friction between the newcomers and their British hosts.

Whoever wrote these seven pages had a remarkable grasp of simple, direct English, an impressive knowledge of psychology, and an amazing understanding of the most relevant differences between the Americans and the British. When the original pamphlet was distributed, its contents created more than a few raised eyebrows across the Atlantic, because it presented an unusually frank and objective view of Britain and the British; much more telling than they could ever have written themselves. The London newspapers were fascinated; in the London Times of July 1942, there was a laudatory if tongue-in-cheek critique of the pamphlet, comparing it with the works of Irving, Emerson and Hawthorne, all of whom, of course, had tried to interpret Britain to their American readers. In the self-important language of The Times of those days, an editorial said: "None of those American authors' august expositions has the spotlit directness of this revelation of plain horse sense, and an understanding of evident truths."

To us nearly 80 years on, the text of Over There may seem a trifle didactic and preachy and, with 20/20 hindsight, there is too much rah-rah breast-beating about "beating Hitler on his home ground." For example: "Hitler knows they (Britain and America) are both powerful countries, tough and resourceful. He knows that they, with other united nations, mean his crushing defeat in the end." The more likely truth is that, only a year after America had entered a war, and when Britain and its empire had been fighting alone for more than two years, Hitler must have felt the odds were strongly in his favor. At that moment the Nazis occupied pretty much all of Europe, and were already flexing their muscles in North Africa.

The pamphlet quickly gets down to business. Its first advice is to forget past history. If you're an Irish-American, it suggests, you may see the Brits as the persecutors of the Irish. Forget about the enemy Redcoats in the American Revolution, and the war of 1812, "There is no time today to fight old wars again, or bring up old grievances. We don't worry about which side our grandfathers were on during the Civil War, because it doesn't mean anything now."

It's with great tact that the anonymous author tackles the legendary reserve and -- though it doesn't say it in such terms -- the alleged stuffiness and stand-offishness of us Brits. The thing to do, the pamphlet says, is not to deny these differences but to admit them openly, and try to understand them. "For instance," it says," the British are more reserved in conduct that we are. On a small crowded island where forty-five million people live, each man (sic) learns to guard his privacy carefully -- and is equally careful not to invade another man's privacy.

"So if Britons sit in trains or buses without striking up a conversation with you, it doesn't mean they are being haughty or unfriendly . . . they don't speak to you because they don't want to appear intrusive or rude." Those aren’t the true reasons for the Brits' starchy aloofness, but it was a pretty good attempt.

The pamphlet takes a lot of trouble to discourage its readers from bragging or showing-off, especially about money. Saying, correctly, that American services’ pay was the highest in the world, it goes on, "The British Tommy is apt to be specially touchy about his wages and yours. Keep this in mind. Use common sense, and don't rub him up the wrong way.” This was good advice. The GI’s hosts were indeed resentful that their allies were paid tremendously more. On a more personal level they were jealous of the U.S. forces’ uniforms, which were better-cut with higher quality cloth. Dressed in their thick, hairy, poorly cut, clunky-looking battle-dress uniforms, the Tommies found themselves swept aside by the local girls in the pub, who were all over these apparently prosperous visitors who came with nylon stockings and PX goodies, and talked like Errol Flynn or Clark Gable. It’s not surprising that the British troops labeled these intruders “over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.”

The author tried to tell readers, many of them rookies, that for all their sissy accents and soft-spoken politeness, the British were strong and resilient, and deserved a little respect for what they’d so far endured. “Sixty thousand British civilians – men, women and children – have already died under bombs, and yet their morale is unbreakable and high. A nation doesn’t come through that if it doesn’t have plain, common guts. The British are tough, strong people, and good allies. You won’t be able to tell them much about ‘taking it’” And here comes the rah-rah again: “They are not particularly interested in taking it any more. They’re far more interested in getting together in solid friendship with us, so that we can all start dishing it out to Hitler.”

The pamphlet points out that comparisons are often invidious, and not a good idea; that England is smaller than North Carolina or Iowa, and that bragging about bigness – of buildings, mountains, family farms in places such as Texas and yes, money, wouldn’t go down in battered, small-scale Britain. The pamphlet says: “The British care little about size. For instance, London has no skyscrapers . . . they’ll point out buildings like Westminster Abbey . . . and the Tower of London, which was built almost a thousand years ago. They mean as much to the British as Mount Vernon or Lincoln’s birthplace do to us.”

And so it goes on. The GIs are warned to be sensitive to the stringent rationing of food, clothes and cigarettes and other necessities, because Britain was under siege. Few civilians were allowed gasoline, and their cars were shut up in their garages “for the duration,” on bricks or railroad ties. There’s a warning that the towns and villages will look scruffy and unkempt, and that even England’s famous gardens will now be growing only vegetables. Also, that many buildings will be unpainted and in disrepair, not only because there was little manpower, but also because most industries were hell bent on making tanks, guns and other war supplies for themselves, the British Empire forces and the Russians.

A part of the pamphlet describes “The People and their Customs,” covering such important topics as “warm beer” and the “impossible” money system. And there’s a none-too-successful attempt to describe cricket, soccer and Rugby.

Naturally, there’s advice about British vocabulary and pronunciation, which includes a caution that the natives “will pronounce all the ‘a’s in banana as in ‘father.’ However funny you may think this is, you will be able to understand people who talk this way, and they will be able to understand you.”

On the last page there are “Some Important Do’s and Don’ts,” most of which reiterate the points made elswhere. Noteworthy others are: “If you’re invited to eat with a family, don’t eat too much. Otherwise you may eat up their weekly rations. NEVER (actually in capitals) criticize the King and Queen. In your dealings with the British, let this be your slogan: it is always impolite to criticize your hosts; it is militarily stupid to criticize your allies.”

There’s one thing wrong with that mention of bananas. Because of the ever-present threat of attack by German U-boats that blockaded the British Isles, such luxuries were unknown after 1941, so people probably never mentioned them to their allied guests. I remember an American boy, a New Yorker, arriving as a pupil at my boarding school in 1942. His name was Lou Taylor. He was a quiet, likable boy, and we nicknamed him Long Island Lou, even though he came from Hoboken!

On his first day at the school, Lou brought a few bunches of bananas, and I recall the hush, and then the excitement, when they were carried into the dining hall with some ceremony by the headmaster who, with help from the head boy, peeled them and proceeded to cut them in pieces so that all the boys could taste them.

Each piece was probably less than half an inch thick, and we ate them silently, and very slowly. They were the last bananas we saw until 1945. 



ooo0ooo

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Aftermath 9/11

September, marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  A few days later, Lynn and I were staying with friends in Ojai, California when, in their garden, I read an account of the aftermath in the New York Times.




Aftermath 9/11

Ojai, California
September, 2001.

Here, all around me, lies a landscape
begging to be painted.
Beyond a redbrick terrace
blue and purple plants crowd in,
species that I’ve never seen before,
drifts of giant sage, lucantha,
and here and there a common rose.

Beyond all this stand orange trees and limes and lemons. Further out, beyond the reach of water pipes and hoses, are arid places with clusters of spiky succulents, and part-dismembered, unattended cacti.

Above the borders, bees dart
among cascades of flowering herbs,
while butterflies, like shreds of tissue paper, swirl and rise and fall.

The scene is mute and motionless.
No foreign sound, no breeze, no barking dog, no distant drone of planes or traffic, nor the laughter of playing children.

But now look down. Here, open on my lap, the Sunday paper shows an anguished and chaotic scene two thousand miles away.

A photo shows the silhouetted, crisscross lattice of the shattered towers’ remains.
A devil-made design that could,
were it left unsalvaged where it stands, become a starker and more telling monument than any man-made memorial.

And on another page, portraits of two dozen wanted men, their faces grave and troubled, even shameful,
as though they’d had some premonition of their act’s outcome.

Two pages on – the tragic flip-side of the assault – are fifteen portraits of dead and missing victims, their faces smiling, or in repose. Each bears some eulogistic paragraph: the scoutmaster; a man called Yang, who earned ten bucks an hour; Katherine who loved the stage; Ruben, the Michael Jordan fan who lived for sport.

Reflect. How different did these gentle faces look in their last fear-frozen moments?

Meanwhile, the nation reels,
vowing not to turn the other cheek,
speaking of revenge, and war.

And after this carnage, dare I demand: where was God, all-knowing, just and merciful?


oo0oo

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Visitors

Minden, West Germany, 1952

The staff had cleared the big table in the officers mess dining room and, as they did every day, polished it until it shone like a new car. Presently, the three white-coated German stewards came out into the drawing room and quietly closed the tall mahogany doors behind them.
It was late autumn, around three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in 1952. Out of uniform, I sat alone by the fireplace, reading Friday’s Daily Telegraph, and looked up when Jürgen, the chief steward, stepped forward a little and was waiting to speak.
He was tall, built like a blockhouse, with cornflower blue eyes and blond hair cropped like a Junker. It was easy to imagine him in his black uniform and jackboots, and I hadn’t been surprised when he’d once told me that, promoted from the ranks on the Eastern Front, he was a troop commander in an SS Panzer squadron. He added that he’d been wounded and taken prisoner. At Stalingrad he’d said, as an afterthought. They all said that. We rarely met a veteran who admitted he’d fought the British or the Americans.
“Everything all right, Jürgen?”
Alles in ordnung, sir. We would like to go now, please.”
It felt strange. This man was in his late thirties, a veteran of the Wehrmacht, while I, at twenty-one, had been commissioned months ago, and had yet to hear shots fired in anger. But according to the unwritten rules of victory and defeat, he now had to ask me for permission to leave. I thanked him and said they could go and, almost like a drill movement, the group turned in unison and left the room.
The mess was always deserted on Sunday afternoons. A few of the majors drank heavily during lunch, and took a nap. Younger officers jogged through the frosty cabbage fields in the countryside not far from our barracks, or cycled along the bank of the river Weser, past the stark silhouettes of coal mines that seemed deserted. Some took a trolley car and strolled through the city of Minden, or watched a local game of soccer. Others wrote letters home.
I was about to go back to my quarters across the street when the front door bell jangled beyond the green baize kitchen door. Since the staff had gone, I went out into the hallway and opened the door. Two frail, elderly people, a man and a woman, stood holding hands on the doorstep. The man took off his fur hat and made a slight, deferential bow.
He spoke in German. “Good afternoon, sir. I must apologize for this intrusion.”
We shook hands.
“That’s all right,” I said, “what can we do for you?”
“My name is Helmut Kreig, and this is my wife, Resi.”
He turned to the woman, and back to me. “It’s . . . well, you see, Resi was born in this house and lived here until she went to the university. We live far away and, as you can see, we are old now. My wife has not seen the house for nearly fifty years, and we wonder whether we might see inside it once more.”
Krieg spoke hesitantly, in the softer, less gutteral hochdeutsch, the southern dialect of Bavaria. It sounded much more agreeable than the one we were used to hearing in Westphalia. He was clearly an educated man, and with my school-boy German I could just follow what he was saying, but doubted I could maintain a conversation for long.
“I’m afraid my German isn’t very good,” I said, “Do you or your wife speak English?”
Krieg smiled for the first time. “Jawohl!” he said. “Me, my English is not very good, but Resi still teaches English at the university in Munich.”
His wife, a sparrow of a woman with sad, anxious eyes, had said nothing, but now spoke in almost accentless English.
“Let me tell you something, so you will understand,” she said earnestly. “My family lived in this house for generations. Vati was a judge, and the mayor of Minden. Mutti died in the 1890s when I was a girl, but he lived until 1912. A few years before, Helmut and I had married and settled in Munich, where I was teaching. I was their only child, but we could not maintain this house, and so we sold it. It was sad, because I loved it and was so very happy here, but what could we do? It was so beautiful, but ever since, for many, years Helmut has promised to bring me back to see it once more.”
We weren’t allowed to let unauthorized Germans enter Army premises, but I was sure they were what they claimed to be. Anyway, what could be secret about an officers’ mess? How could I refuse them?
“I’ll be glad to show you around.” I said. “Come on in.”
Resi had seemed apprehensive and ill at ease until then, but now her big, expressive eyes had brightened with the excitement of a little girl.
She turned to her husband and said in German “There, I told you! And you said it wouldn’t be possible!”
The man smiled. “I also told you, my dear, that it is often not a good thing to go back. It could be strange and different after all these years.”
I took their hats and coats, hung them by the door, and we walked into the drawing room. To them, I thought, the room would seem more like a gentleman’s club than her parents’ living-room. Resi took in the big leather armchairs and couches, the paintings that depicted battles in which the regiment had fought, and portraits of long dead generals. Over the fireplace hung a portrait of the young, newly crowned queen, and her husband, who wore the dress uniform of the Royal Navy. Resi looked up at this and turned away. Her face was anxious again.
 Now they stood, apparently waiting for me to move on, and I eased open the big dining room doors and ushered them in.
The room was some forty feet long, and almost as wide. It, too, had a somber masculinity about it. No woman had been involved in its design and furnishing. The carved wooden table, already set for dinner, could seat fifty people. Pictures much like those in the other room adorned the walls between high casement windows with heavy burgundy curtains. Criss-crossed in front of the unused fireplace were our regimental colors, two unfurled, gold-staffed Union Jacks embroidered with the names of past victories from the two World Wars, the Boer War, Crimea, Waterloo.
Resi turned to me. “I would like to see the ballroom, please?”
Ballroom? There was no ballroom, what did she mean?
“We . . .we don’t have a ballroom,” I said.
“Of course you do,” the old woman said, smiling, “There is a beautiful ballroom through here! I will show you.”
She stepped ahead of us toward a double door, made of mahogany like the others, but even taller and wider. There was a tarnished brass key in the lock, which she vainly tried to turn. Beside her, I drew the door-handle toward me, and turned the key only with difficulty.
We went in. The room was two stories high, with an elaborate gilt minstrels’ gallery. Dark evergreen trees in the garden outside shut out the dying afternoon light through its grimy, undraped windows. One wall was stacked with wooden crates of Army stores, another with blankets. A rusty bicycle with a buckled wheel lay on the once polished floors of inlaid oak. Up in the lofty ceiling hung the shattered remains of six crystal chandeliers.
Resi’s mouth was open, yet at first I didn’t realize that the sudden anguished wail was hers. The cry seemed to fill the great room. She had turned and was stumbling back through the dining room, and her husband and I followed.
“She is very upset,” he said. “I warned her many times that it might be different. How could she think otherwise?”
Back in the hallway she had draped her overcoat over her shoulders and was leaning on the half open door, sobbing like a child. Her husband hurried forward and took both her hands tenderly, but she snatched them away, grabbed her coat, and ran down the steps and the pathway toward the street.
Helmut turned to me as he made for the door and grasped my hand. “You have been so kind, and I am sorry this has happened.”
We shook hands and he was gone.
Through the glass of the now-closed door I could hear her screaming, until the sound of a passing trolley car drowned her voice.


                                    ooo0oo

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Memories of Fire



England, 1937

Outside, the rain flooded through the gutters in front of our Victorian row house on Belmont Road. My father snored gently on those fall and winter Sunday afternoons and every so often my mother, asleep and dreaming beside him on the settee, would let out what seemed like surprised little grunts. The only other sound was the sudden shifting of the coals in the fireplace.

Wide awake, my brother and I sat together on the hearth rug, the fire hot on our faces, in the safe little enclosure formed by our parents on their couch and the big, empty armchairs on either side of the fireplace. The coals glowed the colors of the rainbow, and if you looked closely you could peer into little fiery caverns that would collapse from time to time, creating new fantasy scenes.

That comfortable picture, two years before Britain was at war, was the first of a whole lifetime of memories of fires, some as benign and emotionally warm as this one, while others had grimmer, even terrifying associations.



For the next dozen or so years we had bonfires every year on the fifth of November, when Britons -- for whom, of course, there’s no celebration of the fourth of July-- celebrate the burning at the stake of Guy Fawkes. Fawkes, a traitor who, in 1606, tried to blow up the Parliament building in London. Guy Fawkes Night is a subtle combination of Independence Day and Halloween. A week or two before it, children dress up at night as masked and caped conspirators, and scurry from door to door, seeking not trick-or-treat candy but ‘a penny for the Guy,’ to buy fireworks. Somehow the grisly horror of burning a man alive has been lost over four hundred years. With a few invited friends, we’d gather in the first winter weather at the bottom of our garden, stuffing kerosene-soaked rags under a pile of dry tree limbs, old wooden bedsteads, and fruit and vegetable crates begged from the local greengrocer. Our parents watched solicitously from the shadows, coming forward to supervise the lighting of bottle rockets, Roman candles and Catherine wheels while we gazed at the flames licking around the masked, straw-filled effigy.



My first memory of a fire as an adult was in Finnish Lapland way above the Arctic Circle in the winter of 1951, heading south toward the end of a sledding adventure. The temperature hung around 50 degrees below zero as we followed the frozen river Teno. Gliding along the icy river late in the evening, and with the moon high, we halted at a deserted cabin on the riverbank. This, and others like it, were provided for travelers to take shelter. The snow had been blown up to the eaves of the cabin on the eastern side, but on the leeward side it was relatively easy to clear it from the doorway.

We tethered our reindeer and heaved open the door. Inside was a room measuring maybe 25 by 30 feet. At the far end was a fireplace of roughly hewn boulders, in front of which stood a rough pine trestle table. The walls, floor and ceiling were of dark bare wood, and there were six iron bedsteads, with neither mattresses nor blankets. Matti, our Lapp guide, led us outside and, with his sleeve, swept the snow and ice from a pile of pine logs, which we carried inside. Then in matter of seconds, with a little razor-sharp axe, and with the assured skill of an expert chef chopping shallots, Matti rapidly chipped out a fan of wafer-like slivers of bone dry resinous wood that, miraculously, caught fire as though they were doused in oil. In a few minutes the huge stone grate was aflame, making the whole cabin flicker and glow.



A year or two later, in Northern Ireland in the spring of 1952, two of my Army comrades and I had attached ourselves at weekends to the Royal Air Force mountain rescue team, which scrambled over the Mountains of Morne that really do, as the song says, ‘sweep down to the sea.’ The team was on standby to help with any emergency on the range, from an air crash to the rescue of lost or injured climbers and scramblers. The mission entailed day and night patrols, hauling stretchers over the rocky, heathery gullies, and down the steep faces. We never had to do any of these things with real accident victims, but the constant routine of rehearsal was real and exciting enough. And in this setting there is another memory of fire. Near the foothills of Slieve Donard, the highest of these hills, which rises up to nearly 3,000 feet from the sea near Newcastle, County Down, lay a ruined mansion. By now the once-proud house, commandeered by the Army as part of a training area in World War II and never reoccupied, was nothing more than a shell, and pock-marks in the brickwork showed that the place had been shelled and fired on with mortars from time to time. Its roof had caved in, and the windows had long gone. If you looked carefully in its overgrown gardens you could see the last vestiges of expensive and exotic shrubs, and wildly overgrown pear and apple trees that some painstaking gardener had trained and trimmed on the garden’s sun-facing brick walls.

It was in this house, on its brick-strewn, earthen floors, that we set-up our base. At night, after meals of canned food -- maybe beef stew, peaches and strong tea brewed with evaporated milk and sugar -- we’d build a fire from the fallen roof beams, and sit around it, exhausted but content, smoking and drinking Irish stout, our faces flushed by the intense heat of the fire, and maybe by the brew. Beyond us, the red sandstone house glowed in the firelight, its hollow window spaces black and empty. And above it all, on moonlit nights the mountains towered through a constellation of sparks. More than 60 years on, I not only see it; I can also smell it, almost like incense.



Only a few years later, in 1955, we were in Egypt on another spring night. Four of us, young officers on an off-duty desert journey, were driving in jeeps from our camp in the Nile Delta, half way between Port Said in the north and Port Suez in the south. Our destination was a tiny fishing spot by the Red Sea called Al Qusayr, two hundred miles short of the Tropic of Cancer. The going had been good, on tarred roads as far as Suez. Then, for maybe 70 miles, oil men from the rapidly growing refineries around the port had made arrow-straight roads of flat, oiled sand that seemed to head nowhere. Now, a narrow road hugs the coastline south, but then we made the journey a little way inland over virgin desert, with not a sign of a house or a road for more than 200 miles.

The Eastern Desert is not at all like the romantic dunes in Lawrence of Arabia. While there are such areas, much of the territory is flat and stony, and as hard as a drill parade ground. Scrubby bushes grow near the wadis; dry river courses down which sweeping torrents flow in the rainy season. Pye-dogs and tiny deer roam the area at night, and yellow, slothful lizards as big as dogs bask in the sunshine by day. On the evening before we reached our destination we camped on a beach of silver sand. The sea was shallow and warm and, with a shrimping net, we hauled fat shrimps out of the sea, to supplement our dull, tasteless K-rations.

Afterward, tired but well-fed, we drove around in the dusk around our camp site, scavenging for the bleached woody stems of camel bracken and other growth in the wadis. It took a while, but fairly soon the jeeps were piled with fuel for a fire. We felt good. Here we were, comrades together at the very center of the world. Across the sea, 50 miles east, was Saudi Arabia. Down the beach lay the beginning of the Nubian Desert and, beyond it, the Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, where the Red Sea merges into the Indian Ocean. The fire crackled and spat, and sparks flew up into a moonless sky.

We were sitting on the sand, well into our stock of warm beer, and singing a song:

‘All de world am sad and dreary, everywhere I go . . .’

I gazed up at the flying sparks. What in heaven’s name was that up there above us, and had the others seen it? Lit by the fire, far, far up in the sky, it seemed, was a bearded, hooded face. Could this be God himself, Mohammed, or Moses? We’d stopped singing, rendered dumb. He was still there but, looking down, his head moved a fraction.

My neighbor broke the spell. “My God, It’s a ruddy Arab!”

And so it was. For days we’d seen no one, but here was some nomad, crossing the desert alone on a camel, who’d seen the fire and ridden over to investigate. Now, still mounted, he towered above us while we sat, staring up at his impassive face.

None of us spoke. Another comrade, John Gregory, who died decades ago, raised his hand in friendly recognition, and his response to this mystical visitation was more like that of someone meeting a stranger in his London club.

“How do you do?” he said.

Without a word the man reined in his camel, and rode away into the darkness.



A year after that desert crossing in Egypt, in the summer of 1955, my unit was ordered to Cyprus to deal with recent outbreaks of terrorism. We set up a tented base near Nicosia, the island’s capital, and were pitched into two very different kinds of action. Sometimes we faced riots in the city’s warren of narrow, twisting streets, using batons, tear gas and water-canon. At others, with more lethal weapons, we’d patrol the Troodos Mountains, the island’s rugged backbone. Here, EOKA -- a well-armed unit led by the partisans who’d once helped the Allies drive the Germans and Italians out of Greece -- was now hiding, and harassing the British troops.

That year, in the foothills of Troodos, there was an incident in which a dozen young British soldiers were burned alive. Though I never witnessed a single moment of it, I was a member of the three-man court of inquiry that followed the blaze, and re-lived it shortly afterward through the horrified eyes of the men who’d escaped it alive.

The enemy wasn’t EOKA, but fire. It happened on a warm October afternoon. On a narrow single-track road through a sheer rocky gully, a convoy of the Gordon Highlanders was making its way with trucks loaded with ammunition and other stores, led by an armored scout-car. The sides of the road were piled high with tinder-dry undergrowth and limbs that had fallen from the pine trees that overhung the pass. The road grew rougher and more uneven, and the scout car overturned, trapping the driver on the rocks half in and half out of the vehicle, which caught fire in seconds.

Ferret scout cars, like miniature tanks, but with wheels instead of tracks, had gas tanks that held at least 40 gallons, and more in jerry cans strapped to their sides. The Ferret exploded in a ball of flame, killing the injured driver and spreading quickly to the truck behind it. Jammed nose to tail, the convoy could move neither forward nor backward, and in minutes several trucks behind the Ferret were aflame. Later, expert evidence showed that there was a gusty wind that day, and a draught of air blew up the gully, fanning the flames. Although some troops tried in vain to use the vehicles’ puny fire extinguishers, many of their comrades were suffocated in the inferno.

As the junior member of the court of inquiry, I sat with a major and a colonel at a trestle table in an echoing room at the Chief-of-Staff’s headquarters in Nicosia. We’d already visited the charred site in the Troodos foothills with technical experts, and now eye-witnesses gave evidence that was scribbled down laboriously by a clerk who had no shorthand. Young Scots, mostly boy-faced privates and junior non-coms, all of them draftees, told how their brother soldiers had huddled together, their uniforms in flames, terrified and beyond help, unable to scale the perpendicular rock wall of the pass. In the court, several of the young survivors hesitated and wept while giving their evidence, as did a gray-haired veteran staff-sergeant, whose voice cracked with emotion and remorse as he told how he tried to wrap his burning boys with blankets in a futile attempt to smother the flames.

Then came the experts, fire officers and engineers giving their opinions on how and why the vehicles caught fire; military lawyers outlining the regulations about correct distances between vehicles, even a pulmonary specialist from a nearby military hospital. In stark contrast with the soldiers, all of these spoke in a casual, matter-of-fact way, as though they were witnesses in some everyday county court case back in England, dealing with some petty larceny, or a minor driving infringement.

We deliberated late into the second night. There was some discussion about whether anyone should be blamed for the closeness of the vehicles, but in the end we ruled the case a misadventure.



There was another fire in Cyprus. A year later, I had fallen for a girl named Anita, whose photograph I first saw as the island’s Girl of the Week in the Times of Cyprus. I managed to trace her and to meet her, and in a short time we were very close. She was Armenian, an alluring, dark-eyed, Mediterranean beauty, two years younger than I, and so much more exotic than the girls I’d known at home in England. When I could get away on occasional weekends, we’d meet at Greta’s Garden, a faded but still elegant hotel in a villa with apple green shutters, on the edge of the city, surrounded by an orchard of orange, lemon and fig trees, where peacocks strutted by day and cried eerily at night. But the affair, though sweet, was short-lived, because I was soon to leave the service and return to Britain. I missed her terribly after we parted on my last day, and believed I’d never see her again.

Back in London I transferred to the Army Reserve, and spent the next 18 months as a trainee in a public relations firm. By then I was engaged to a British girl. But, because my wealthy father-in-law forbade the marriage until I was better able to support his daughter, took a far better paid position back in Cyprus, as the press officer for the island colony’s emergency police force. I returned to the island without my fiancée for the year before the wedding; the mores of the day prohibited our being together there. Anyway, there was still too much violence for her to be safe, though Cyprus was by then moving toward the granting of independence. I suppose it’s not surprising that, alone, I often thought of Anita, but I was determined to keep her in the past and, though tempted, never sought her out.

But one night I had a call from police headquarters. There was a huge blaze in Nicosia. A gang of Greek Cypriot hotheads had set fire to a Turkish-owned timber yard and, since it was part of my new job to be at every incident to brief the press, I was there in minutes.

The yard was in a maze of narrow streets in the old walled city, and before I reached the site I could hear the roar of the fire, and see the sparks flying above the rooftops. Turning a corner into a cul-de-sac, I stared into a wall of flame that licked up into the night sky. Unable to reach the fire from that point, the firemen had backed their vehicles out, driven round and attacked it from another flank. Presently, the flames on the edge of the burning yard died down a little, enabling me to see the other side of the blaze more clearly. There were four fire engines, their ladders fully extended, and crews towered over the inferno with their hoses. A crowd had gathered, and my heart leapt when I saw that, among them, in the floodlights and the brilliance of the fire itself, was Anita. A tall dark, young man stood beside her, his arm round her shoulders. She was looking out over the flames, her face composed but somehow distant, as though her thoughts were lost in the fire. At that moment, all my memories of her flooded back, and it was all I could do to keep from calling out to her.

But I didn’t, and never saw her again.



And then there was fire in India, every bit as deadly as the blaze that raced up that mountainside in Cyprus.

Nearly 20 years ago, my wife, Lynn, and I were in Varanasi, an Indian city so ancient that it was already 2500 years old when Buddha preached there in 530 BC. Despite that connection with Buddhism, Varanasi, on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, is predominantly Hindu, and believers come here from all over India. For the healthy, the city is the center of kasha, or divine light, where people come to pray, to cleanse and purify themselves, and begin life anew. The city’s inhabitants can experience this every day, and take part in a daily drama on the ghats, huge stone staircases, more than seventy of which sweep down to the water for the length of the city.

On the ghats, loin-clothed men and sari-clad women come down for the ritual washing of their bodies, heedless of the impertinent eyes of foreign tourists. Others wash their clothes, kneading them on the rocks, beside other locals and visitors who stand, partly immersed in the holy Ganges, their lips moving in silent prayer.

Known as ‘The City of Light,’ Varanasi has another, darker aspect for which it might more aptly be called ‘The City of Life and Death.’ Nearly two thousand bodies burn every week on the ghats, in full view of passers-by. Hindus – there are eight hundred million of them in India and Nepal -- believe that coming to Varanasi to die brings instant release from the torment of everlasting reincarnation, and forgiveness of their sins. This is granted even to those unfortunates who, if their relatives cannot afford enough logs to finish the cremation, are heaved, partly-burned into the river.

We’d been told that the best time to experience the ritual panoply of Varanasi is at sunrise. The phone in our hotel room shrilled at 5 a.m., and we showered quickly, pulled on yesterday’s clothes, gulped down a cup of coffee and walked with our guide through still dark streets, already milling with people. Everyone seemed to be going in the same direction through the narrow, twisting alleys, heading for the Ganges. We reached the ghats a little before dawn. Already there were scores of rowboats on the river where thousands of candles, each buoyed up by a lotus leaf, bobbed and flickered around them on the water. With other travelers, we boarded a boat and paid the oarsman a few rupees for candles, and nursed their flames while he rowed us out some fifty yards from the riverbank. There, after we’d floated our little lotus lanterns off on the water, the boatman heaved on his oars and we glided upstream.

To one side, across the mile-wide river, the sun rose misty-gold, more like a full moon over the purple horizon, casting its swelling light on the crumbling sandstone buildings on the waterside: palaces; pavilions and temples. We passed the bathers, who seemed to say little to each other. Some were unashamedly naked, and more intent with the ritual pouring of the water over their bodies than taking a morning bath. At another ghat, the washing of clothes seemed to be a much more social affair, where women chatted and laughed together, helping each other fold their still wet garments, stacking piles of bed sheets, and what seemed to be tablecloths. Could these, we wondered, be for our own hotel?

Close by, we drifted past a ‘burning’ ghat. Hindus are cremated before sunset on the day they die, so blazing pyres are rarely seen early. At the back of the site stood a smoke-blackened temple, one of a thousand temples in this city of a more than a million souls. Alongside the building was a massive stack of logs that dwarfed the low caste workers -- untouchables – demolishing several smoldering black mounds. From each of these they dragged out the bones that even the 650 pounds of timber used for each body can never destroy: the skull, hip bones and femurs. Traditionally, the skulls are cracked open, to allow the spirit to leave, after which the remains and ash are raked into the river where, not a hundred yards downstream, people drink the water, wash themselves and their clothes, and even brush their teeth.

Earlier that week, farther north and across the border of Nepal in Khathmandu, we’d seen a funeral party, strangely cheerful, chanting, threading its way through the crowd with the yellow-shrouded corpse shoulder high, tossing coins to children along the route to the cremation site. Both here in Nepal, and also in Varanasi, people who are near death come from afar and lodge nearby. Sometimes the sick and aged wait for months or even years to die, but all are aflame within an hour or two of death. By the Bagmati river in Khatmandu, we watched the flames lap round shrouded bodies on several elevated platforms that extend over the riverbank, making it easier to sweep the remains into the water. The air was redolent of wood smoke, and the acrid smell of burning flesh.



Finally, year after year, there was my own slow-burning ceremonial of autumn fires in my garden at home in England where, under a towering tree, the smoke curled over a pile of crisp fallen oak and chestnut leaves, rose prunings, tomato and bean plants, and dead summer flowers.

In those days, about 30 years ago, a fragrant mist hung for days over our Surrey house and garden, heralding the frosts and the coming of winter. To me this was the purging of my little patch, a pleasing preparation for the cold, dormant months, ready for a new beginning in the spring; a perennial round of ashes to ashes.

Nowadays, as here in America, such fires are taboo for environmental reasons, and though I know and accept the reason why, that was a ritual whose passing I regret.





oo0oo

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My Dads Boss

My  homework  by Micky Edwards (aged 7)
23, Latimer Rd.,  Southampton, England, April 1943.

My Dads Boss                                                        

Mr Sneads fat and shorter than my Dad. Hes got a red, round face and a mousetash like Adolf Hitlers, and a pot belly with a watch chane hanging over it from one pocket on his waistcoat to another. Dad says the chanes made of real gold.  Mr Snead always wears the same dark blue suit with light brown shoes, which Mum says look low-class and dont go together.
Dad works for Mr Snead at Westminster Bank. Hes the chief clark and Mr Sneads the manger. The bank looks after peoples money so it doesnt get stolen by burglers and people like that. When the custermers want some money to spend, they write out a check saying how much they want and then the tellers give it to them.     
Mr Snead and Dad keep all the money in a great big safe in the cellar that has an iron door on it that ways about a ton. Nobody can go into the safe if they dont know a secret number and a special key thats made in two bits. Dad has one bit and Mr Sneads got the other one, and when they want to get more money they have to put their bits together to make one key that opens the lock.
          Dad doesnt like Mr Snead very much, and gets angry when he plays golf on work days, leaving Dad to look after the bank and tell all the people what to do. Sometimes he plays too days in a week. He tells Dad he only does it to build the business, so he can make friends with people who could be custermers. Dad says hes a lazy bugbear, and that when the bank inspectors come every year Mr Snead pretends he does all the work, and never tells them how hard Dad and everyone else does.
Mr and Mrs Snead havent got any children, but every Christmas they have a party in there big flat over the bank. The kids of all the grownups who work at the bank come, and lots of others from custermers families. There are little sardine and tomato sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and lemonaid and brandy snaps and playbox biskets and scones with goosberry jam on them. They used to have ice cream but now the wars on you can't get it any more. Mum says we wont see any ice cream again till peacetime comes.
          Sometimes Mr Snead has a conjerer at the party who can turn sheets of white paper into five pound notes with a little machine. Once my brother David, whose eleven, asked him for one of the notes, but the conjerer said he couldn't have it.  David said why not, wouldn’t it be easy to just make himself another one? But the man looked really cross and went as red as his Turkish hat with a tassel on.  Then he put the fiver in his pocket, made a mouse disappear and took a pigeon out of Mrs Sneads purse.
          The best thing about Mr Sneads Christmas parties comes just before we go home. We all go downstairs into the dark spooky bank.  Mr Snead gets out a cart they use to take the money in a lift from the safe to the counters where the tellers hand it out to the custermers. You can get four or five kids on the trolley, and we take turns. When wear all on it Mr Snead pushes us round behind the counters really really fast.  He shouts out all aboard, and then zoom, zoom, zoom as we go along, and turn the corners so fast you think your going to fall off.  Because we can't see over the top of the counter, it's like rushing through a dark scary tunnel in a fairground.
          But last Christmas the party was different. We were playing musical chairs just before we started tea when the air raid warning siren went off at the bottom of Canal Street. Mr Snead got up on a chair and told us not to worry and everything would be all right, and said to follow Dad down into the cellar where weed be safer. He said not to run, but to walk down the stares where weed be told what to do.
          We went down lots of stares and it was a bit dark down there. Dad and another man were lighting candles to make it look more Christmassy, and someone else carried down the gramophone and started playing records. Mr Snead got us all singing songs like Run Rabit Run and the White Clifs of Dover and Therell Always Be An England, and when weed sung for a while we heard guns firing. A few girls cried a bit but David and me started going back up the stares, hoping we could see the searchlights and the shells going off, but Mrs Snead ran after us shouting and made us go back in the cellar.
There must have been a lot of germans flying over on their way up the river to London, because the guns went on and on. By then, the grownups had brought all the food down and we played blind mans buff and charades and games like that. But then all of a sudden there was a great big bang not far away. Everything shook and little bits of whitewash and stuff fell off the ceiling.
Dad and Mr Snead must have thought a bomb might land on top of us, because they put their bits of the safe key together and unlocked the safe. They pulled and pulled to get the heavy door open, and then Mr Snead said come in boys and girls and dont touch anything.
So we all went inside and it looked like a sort of Alladins cave. There were shiny metal shelves with thousands and thousands of pounds of bank notes in bundles with paper bands around them. There were also little sacks of pennies and shillings and things, and lots of drawers with keyholes in them.
We all sat on the floor talking and the conjerer came in and told us jokes. They kept the door open and it was fun in the safe, and sort of exiting. But we hadnt been there long before we heard the all clear siren. Everybody walked out and went upstares again and Dad and Mr Snead locked the safe up. Dad told us later that Mr Snead wouldve lost his job if anyone knew hed broken the rules and let us go in that safe full of money. Dad said it was reprahensable.
Before we went home Father Christmas came and gave us presents. He was a fat little man with a red face and Peter said it was Mr Snead, but I knew it was really Santa. I got a kit to make a Spitfire and Peter got one for a Junker 87 Stuka dive bomber, the one with the funny turned-up wings.
On the way home we walked along Market Street and there was smoke going up in the air on the corner of Park Road. A bomb had dropped on Mr Gladwyns grocery shop at the corner of Park Road and Market Street. The shop was still burning and a fireman told Dad that Mr Gladwyn was all right but his wife was dead. She was sitting listening to the wireless in their sitting room above the shop when the bomb came through the roof.  There was an ambulance outside with its lights flashing and another fireman said theyd put Mrs Gladwyn in it.
Mum said we didnt need a big supper after eating at the party all afternoon, so when we got home she made us a fried Spam sandwich and a mug of cocco.
When I said my prayers at bedtime I said one for Mrs Gladwyn but David said that was silly, because she was dead. I really liked Mrs. Gladwyn. She was kind and nice and I cried a bit before I went to sleep, but quietly so David wouldn’t hear me.                                                                                                                                    
         
                                        THE END
       
Micky  Edwards

Michael Edwards: Good story, but very poor spelling!
See me.
Mr. Smales