Wednesday, February 1, 2017

BUZZ BOMBS AND DOODLE-BUGS

They came in the dark, 73 years ago, when I was 13. One evening, towards the end of May, 1944, a column of British Army trucks roared into the grounds of our boarding school in South East England.
Within hours a whole infantry battalion, its cheerful, foul-mouthed soldiery and their vehicles, weapons and supplies had taken over the grassy spaces around our school’s ancient stone buildings, classrooms, library and gymnasium. For several days, while the school tried hard to carry on as usual, the troops were hidden under trees and out in the open under camouflage netting.
          More soldiers poured into the area on their way south to the coast in the rural counties of Kent and Sussex, bordering on the English Channel. There was no doubt about it -- the invasion of Europe was coming.  We knew it, and the Germans knew it. But for us, in our early teens, it was all a schoolboy dream. Friendly fighter planes swooped and dove over our heads, while tanks, armored cars, anti-aircraft guns and heavy field artillery rolled through the village streets. The summer term at school had begun, but it was too hard to concentrate on dreary Latin and chemistry and algebra when there were such distractions on our very doorstep.
          Then, in the first few days of June we woke to find the troops gone and shortly afterward, on June 6, BBC radio news announced the invasion of Normandy. Suddenly the war seemed far away, though we were well within range of German fighters and dive-bombers, based only 21 miles across the English Channel. But the Luftwaffe stayed away from us for the rest of that month, otherwise engaged by the D-Day beachheads. Instead, shortly afterwards, we encountered the first of Hitler’s most terrifying secret weapons, 8,500 of which rained down on London and its surrounding counties, killing about 9,000 civilians.
          It was late at night when they came for the first time. They flew out of the southeast, low over the school buildings, with rowdy, rattling jet engines like huge, poorly-silenced motorbikes, and tongues of flame pouring from their tails.  We hung out of our dormitory widows, craning to see them as they careered overhead. No grown-ups came up to reassure us, and we had no idea what these noisy, mysterious aircraft were. But of one thing we were sure, they were hostile.
          On BBC radio next day we learned what they were. They were flying bombs, V1’s (“Vee Ones”), crudely built, pilotless, rocket-propelled aircraft launched from railroad lines only 21 miles across the English Channel in Nazi-occupied France. Each contained a ton of explosive, and when the fuel ran out, after fifteen or twenty seconds of unnerving silence, they crashed and exploded. In daylight, RAF fighter pilots quickly learned to deal with what were soon nicknamed buzz bombs, or doodle-bugs. Some pilots intercepted them by flipping them over with their Spitfires fighters’ wing-tips, causing them to veer off-course and crash, but the most effective way to stop their passage on their fixed courses was for fighters to shoot them down with cannon shells. Whatever the method, the result was the same – a massive explosion in a ball of fire in the fields and woods around our school.
          Soon after the first buzz-bombs plunged into London, more than 2,500 anti-aircraft guns were moved into the counties southeast of the capital, mainly to Kent, our county, and Surrey and Sussex.  A battery of these guns, 40 mm Bofors guns, that had already more than earned their keep during the Battle of Britain quickly dug-in on the edge of our school cricket field, a grassy plateau that looked down on the school in a river valley below. In their sandbagged emplacements the guns were right on the course the buzz bombs followed from their launch pads in the extreme north of France to London, their ultimate target.
          Sixty-nine years on, it seems incredible that on one hot summer afternoon in 1944, following a shrill warning whistle signal from the umpire, we schoolboys lay flat on our faces under the wooden benches around that cricket pitch, while the guns blazed away at a passing flying bomb.  Hot, jagged pieces of silver shrapnel pattered down in the fields and farmland around us.
          Oddly, none of us sensed real terror at that strange time in our early lives. Even in the darkest days of the early 1940’s, though we sometimes stumbled on the grisly wreckage of German and friendly aircraft in the dense woods around the school, and looked up to see the sky black with high-flying formations of enemy bombers heading for London, we somehow felt detached from the reality of it all. It was a dreamscape, like an over-long Saturday morning movie show.
          Unlike the Jews, The Poles, the Russians and millions of children in many occupied countries, we had enough to eat, and we stayed warm in the winter. No one took our parents or friends away, and we never actually met the enemy face-to-face.
          We were the lucky ones. For us, oddly, it wasn’t an ordeal, butt sheer adventure.

                                                     ooo0ooo

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lucy, Soapy and Dogs

       It took many years for me to realize that the best teachers in my schooldays were the ones who taught from their hearts rather than their heads.
       I enjoyed languages, and Latin, French and German came fairly easily. I also felt comfortable enough with biology, chemistry, geography and history. The people who taught these were competent enough, but what I learned about art, music and literature has lived with me forever, simply because these were taught with a transparent passion for their subject matter.
        But math? Forget it. Mr. Griffin, the math master, taught only from his head. As a result I'm arithmetically challenged. I count on my fingers under restaurant tables to work out how much to tip. I can’t read a balance sheet to save my life, and making change is always a puzzle.
        At the time I thought I was a dunce at math because I was plain dumb, and later that it was to do with being a right-brain person. But now I’m convinced it was because Mr. Griffin, our fast-talking Welsh math master, was all brain and no heart. Gray-haired, short and irascible, he galloped through his lessons, scrawling illegible equations and proofs on the board, laboring under the wrong assumption that everyone in the class was keeping up with him. At almost every lesson he lost his temper, shouting and hurling sticks of blackboard chalk into his bewildered audience. It was only then that he displayed any passion or emotion. Griffin died halfway through my time at the school, and for me the only sad thing about his demise was that although his successor – Mr. Hawkins – was patient and paternal, it was too late to start again. By then the die was cast.
        World War II was raging for the first few years of my days at Cranbrook, a boarding school in South East England. Most of the masters were either too old to be in the armed services, or had some physical or other reason not to be in uniform. Oddly, there was not a single woman on the teaching staff. It seems it occurred to no one then that a woman might be capable of explaining the difference between an equilateral and an isosceles triangle to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds.
        Mr. Lockett was one of the masters whose love of his subjects – art, fine arts and workshop – endeared him to his students. He was a gangling, bony man with hugely thick horn-rimmed glasses who we nicknamed ‘Lucy’, after the character Lucy Lockett in a nursery rhyme. He was a Communist and also a conscientious objector, but never preached about his politics or pacifism. He was impassioned about art in all its forms. In his painting and drawing classes we inherited his love of the Post-Impressionists and Surrealists. It’s no wonder that visitors touring the art room on the annual Parents’ Day were puzzled to find the pervasive influences of Cezanne, Matisse and Dali in our own efforts displayed on the art room walls.
        But it was Lucy Lockett’s fine art classes that affected me for life. He'd amassed what seemed to be hundreds of color postcards of paintings. They ranged from the nativities and crucifixions from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the Romantics, the Realists, Dada, and contemporary work that included Kandinsky, Klee, Ben Shahn and Homer Winslow.
        With a contraption called an epidiascope, Lockett projected these images on the whitewashed walls of the art room. So profound was his knowledge that he held us spellbound while he explained the artist’s intent, the focus and symmetry of each picture, its balance and the minutiae of the painter’s life and environment. Sometimes we’d discuss a single picture for the entire forty-five minute period, while over a month we’d study, say, the Florentines, the Pre-Raphaelites or the Cubists. So, through the history of art, with Lucy’s help, we dissected the astonishing detail of Vermeer’s interiors, recognized the social messages in Daumier’s grim portrayals of peasants at work, witnessed Van Gogh’s craziness creeping into his pictures, and the threat of Nazism looming over the German painters of the 30s. We weren't only learning about pictures hanging on walls in dusty galleries, but also about the artists themselves, history, psychology, religion, human nature, and life itself.
        It was Lockett who brought bags of broken Lucite into the workshop, fragments of the cockpit covers of enemy and friendly fighters and bombers that plunged from time to time into the farmland and woods around the school. These we cut and polished, fashioning them into useful objects – letter-openers, signet rings, paperweights and napkin holders. Later, we carved figures of humans and animals that bore an almost passing resemblance to pieces from Lockett's treasured collection of Japanese netsuke, exquisite miniature ivory sculptures.
        And then there was Mr.Hudson, the music master who also, like every one else – except the late Mr. Griffin – had had a nickname. ‘Hudson’s Washing Soap’ was the best-known brand of laundry powder, and so he was labeled ‘Soapy’. A darkly handsome man with a perennial five-o’clock shadow, he played seventy-eight-speed records on an ancient phonograph. Much like Lucy Lockett and his artists, Soapy Hudson knew his composers and their lives as though they were members of his own family.
        In the 1940s, the world’s greatest composers were believed to be Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and Brahms. Soapy Hudson taught us their names in order of birth with an impossible-to-forget mnemonic – Please Bring Half a Hundredweight, Mother, Because Sister Wants Bananas.
        These nine, and many others’ works, were played again and again during my seven years at Cranbrook. We became so familiar with the great symphonies that we could hum along with them. We felt we’d been there when Beethoven was composing his ninth and final symphony, angrily pressing his ear to the lid of the piano in a vain attempt to hear the notes, even though by then he’d been stone deaf for seven years. We all but heard Schumann, a chronic manic-depressive, whistling softly to himself, facing the wall in his favorite coffee shop before his early death in an asylum. We felt for lonely Brahms, a lifelong bachelor who, even when well off, lived in a rented room in Vienna. He rose every day at five a.m., brewed himself cup after cup of pungent black coffee from a samovar, and smoked equally strong cheroots. How, Hudson asked us, could such a man write music that was so heartfelt, so romantic? But he never told us about Brahms’ curiously profound relationship with Clara Schumann for thirty years after her husband, Robert Schumann’s death.
        And then there was ‘Dogs’ Saunders, who taught English Literature. Larger than life, he was as different from Lucy Lockett and Soapy Hudson as chalk is from cheese. Since he had fought in several campaigns in the trenches in World War I, he was probably in his sixties, as much as thirty years older than his arty and musical counterparts.
        Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, before his blondish hair had grayed, earlier student generations had called him ‘Sandy.’ But by the 1940s, because he could be ferocious at times, and actually bared his teeth when he was upset, he had become ‘Dogs.’ Yet it didn’t take us long to discover that his bark was worse than his bite.
        Dogs Saunders was florid-faced, gravel-voiced, and corpulent, and had an oddly distinctive walk. Seeing him hurrying to a class, or heading down the village street for one of his all too frequent visits to the bar of the George Hotel, even on the calmest summer day he walked as though he were wading into a strong wind. Besides teaching English lit., he was also the school’s deputy headmaster, and the commanding officer of its highly active wartime unit of the OTC, the Officers’ Training Corps.
        Dogs’ classes focused almost entirely on three playwrights, whom he called ‘The Three S’s: Shakespeare, Sheridan and Shaw. These weren’t remotely representative of the whole compass of English letters but, luckily, two other masters more than capably handled the real gamut from Chaucer, through Milton and Wordsworth, to Joyce and Woolf. There are ample reasons why Saunders belonged up there with the two other memorable teachers; he had an abiding and infectious passion for Shakespeare, and taught it superbly, if idiosyncratically. As a student himself, he must have studied the plays and sonnets with almost the same labored devotion with which an Imam learns the Koran. For me, a thorough grounding in Shakespeare turned out to be a perfect foundation for a later, broader study of English. Like Lucy Lockett and his postcards, Dogs unveiled insights that formed the beginnings of an early understanding of human personality and behavior.
        It certainly wasn't the major’s ability to read aloud that endeared us to Shakespeare's plays. In fact, he read them terribly badly, with a total absence of feeling for the words. His reading of Richard III's impassioned plea for "a horse . . . my kingdom for a horse . . ." had all the fire and pathos of someone reading a telephone book. And when he read the lines of Ophelia and Cordelia – two of the Bard’s most tragic and feminine characters, he made no attempt to alter or soften his voice. His pitch and key were no different from his voice for Hamlet and Lear.
        Where was the magic, then, the fascination, the thrill? Strangely, Dogs’ monotonous tone didn't matter. It was his self-interruptions, his asides and translations of the language that made him the wizard he was. There seemed to be nothing he didn't know about the characters, their motivations, the different facets of their personalities and the actual construction of the plays. But for him, when seeing As You Like It on the stage, we’d never have known that melancholy and philosophical Jaques (whom Dogs correctly pronounced ‘Jaqueez’ and not Jacques) was there to inject some gravity and reflectiveness into what would otherwise have been little more than a saccharine Harlequin romance. In the same way he explained comic relief, showing how the bawdy nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the wisecracking grave digger in Hamlet and the lewd Porter in Macbeth were inserted at exactly the right point in the plays to offset these tragedies’ stark horror. Here was one of our first lessons in the craftsmanship of writing.
        There was no doubt that Saunders’ favorite play was Henry V. He was, after all, a bemedaled, battle proven veteran who profoundly believed that King and Country came before all else. Henry V is an enactment of war, courage and loyalty to the Crown, and probably the most patriotic play ever written, so it’s not surprising that the old man became watery-eyed, and his voice sometimes cracked when he read Henry’s rousing speeches. Is it too fanciful to believe that, in his mind, he was not a spectator at Agincourt, but back at war in France himself? Instead of the chaos of Henry’s battlefield in France, was he hearing the chatter of German machine-gun fire at Ypres, or on the Somme, the sudden bursts of flares in the night sky, the silence before the charge? Could he see and hear the writhing, unattended wounded, or smell the first pungent whiff of poison gas?
        Dogs could become fiercely loquacious whenever anyone dared suggest that the superhuman outpourings of Shakespeare, a mere glove maker’s son and a grammar school boy, were written by someone else. He scoffed at the suggestion that more worldly, university-educated men such as Bacon, Marlowe, an earl or two or even the well-educated and studious King James I might have been responsible. He took the side of the ‘Stratfordians,’ who were equally dismissive of the theory, but whose case these days holds as little water as that of the Flat Earth Society, or the Creationists. Even then, half a century ago, I found his rebuttals over-defensive and unconvincing.
       Dogs’ other playwrights – both Irishmen , Sheridan and Shaw – received short shrift compared with Shakespeare. But during our study of two of Sheridan’s plays, The School for Scandal and The Rivals, he seemed to become a different person altogether. The sheer zest of these two Regency comedies, with their racy tales about marital infidelity, fraud and mistaken identity, seemed to bring him beaming out of his shell. He was tickled by the very names of the characters such as Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour in School for Scandal, and Lydia Languish and verbally-inept Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, and he positively chortled at their antics.
        When it came to Shaw, the major unexpectedly revealed his true political colors. Who would have thought that this dyed-in-the-wool, stiff upper-lip Englishman was not a staunch Conservative but instead leaned somewhat to the left? There was no hint of this when we were immersed in Saint Joan, but when we got to Pygmalion there was no doubt he was a latent lefty. Unlike My Fair Lady, Shaw’s play is almost a political tract, a parody of the idle rich, an attack on class distinction and a billboard for the cause of feminism. Dogs made no secret, at least in the classroom, that he, too, was a champion of the working man and woman.
        Lucy, Soapy and Dogs were three men with uniquely different personalities and beliefs. They shared their passions and played a part in making me whatever I‘ve become. In their way they were the lions of my boyhood – a pride of pedagogues.

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. 



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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?


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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.


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