Sunday, December 11, 2011

"WE ARE AT WAR . . . "


England, Sunday September 3, 1939

Outside, it was bright and warm, a typical English September day. The traffic streamed down from London to the Kent beaches, amid the all-pervasive summer smells of melted tar and the exhaust of cars.
They knelt together; Margaret in a powder blue dress and a matching hat, just like the Queen Mother's, wordlessly mouthing her aves, her rosary tapping on the pew in front of her. On her left knelt David, already, at eleven, studiously bespectacled and grave. To her right, nearest the aisle, was fidgety Christopher, seven and a half, at one moment watching the priest and the altar boys through half-closed fingers, at another staring at the people in the row behind. 
When Christopher closed his eyes tight he found he could still picture the altar clearly in his mind's eye. He could still see the sun shining down through colored glass on the golden candlesticks, the chalice Father Hauber was holding up for God to bless, the crystal decanters, one with deep red wine and the other with water. He could still see the flickering rows of candles.
Christopher always found it hard to believe this was the same Father Hauber who came to tea once a month at their house, laughing his big laugh and telling stories in his funny German voice. Though the old priest reminded him and his brother of Friar Tuck, he could jump over the flower beds like an athlete, and swing on the swing so high that his outstretched feet brought the apples bouncing down from the tree.
For this is the Chalice of my Blood . . . for you and for many unto the forgiveness of sins. 
Three times a little bell chimed, with long pauses between.
The Latin flowed comfortingly over the congregation. That Christopher didn't know what the priest was saying was unimportant. God was here. God loved us. God loved everyone.  Clouds of incense rose and swirled in diagonal strips of sunlight, bearing Father Hauber's prayers to heaven.
Father Hauber held the little white disc upwards and then, with bowed heads, the congregation prayed aloud together. "Our Father, who art in Heaven, allowed be Thy Name . . ."
Our Father, Christopher had always thought, was a prayer to Father Hauber. It had never occurred to him that it might be to God the Father, gray, bearded and stern, who was somewhere up there over the altar. And he knew it was not a supplication to his own father, who never came with them on Sunday mornings.
Dad was a Protestant, and rode his bicycle to the village church at Haversham.  Christopher was sad for Protestants, and for Dad because, while they said they believed in God, they could never go to Heaven. Sister Ignatius had told him that in class. Sister Ignatius said Church of England churches weren't like real churches.
In Protestant churches there were no confessional boxes, no stations of the cross, no little boxes for Peter's Pence, no shiny domed tabernacle like a secret treasure chest with its little gold embroidered curtain that opened miraculously when Father Hauber pulled a string. Dad was okay but, much as they loved him, being Protestant set him a little apart.
This Sunday, Father Hauber's sermon was about peace. Peace was the word he kept using, yet it seemed to make him angry. Christopher had never seen him angry before. His voice, always loud but louder than usual today, echoed through the rafters above them. He boomed about a "Gray Tide of Evil," and something about Poland, while his flock sat silent and immobile.
Christopher didn't know where Poland was, but he had often heard about it in the past few days. His mother and father talked earnestly at the kitchen table about the "Polish Corridor," and about some people marching down it. He knew what a corridor was;  when he went to the Cottage Hospital to have his tonsils taken out, there had been white corridors everywhere. In his head he saw hundreds of gray soldiers tramping down those shiny corridors.
He could see that the priest’s forehead, above his big red face, was shiny [1]with perspiration. He glanced up at his mother exactly at the moment that she seemed to be brushing something from her eye.  She caught Christopher’s eye for a second, and quickly turned away.
And then, in a mumbling monotone, they prayed for peace. They were half-way through the prayer when Christopher noticed a man standing just inside the altar rail. He was short and hairy-faced, in a brown robe belted at the waist with a thick white cord. He stood quite still with his hands hanging straight down at his sides. As Christopher watched, the man ambled up the steps and took up a position beside the priest.
Father Hauber stopped speaking and seemed to be listening intently to what the man had to say, stooping toward the shorter man and cupping his ear with his hand. The conversation went on and on, while all the people sat still. Some stayed on their knees in positions of prayer; others had eased themselves back onto the smooth wooden benches.
Christopher tugged at his mother's sleeve, whispering urgently. "What are they talking about, Mum? What's the man saying to him?  What --"
But his mother put her finger to her closed lips, and the congregation waited. 
Presently, Father Hauber turned and walked down to the communion rail, leaving the altar boys and the man in brown standing awkwardly together on the top step.
The old priest cleared his throat and then, unexpectedly, spoke in a voice that was almost too hoarse to hear. "Brethren, I have something to tell you  . . ."
The congregation craned forward to hear him better. The one hundred or more worshipers sat motionless in shocked silence, waiting in vain for more news, for encouragement.
"It has been announced on the wireless that Britain is at war with Germany. Please go home, now.  I have nothing more to tell you. Put your trust in God, and in the power of prayer."
And then, although the mass was not really over, he rejoined the little group at the altar and gave the final blessing.
Benidicat vos omnipotens Deus . . .
Amen. The congregation filed down the aisle and through the open doors into the bright street, still subdued. A little to the right of the church gates a black Austin police car was parked discreetly. Christopher watched an officer climb out, cradling his blue Bobby's helmet under his arm, and walk up the steps with studied casualness and into the church.
Minutes later, watched by his waiting, bewildered parishioners, Father Ludwig von Hauber was led gently out, carrying a large, battered suitcase. As the old man passed by Christopher on the steps he smiled at the boy, and rested a hand on his shoulder.
"Where's he going, Mum? Where are they taking Our Father?" Christopher asked.
His mother did not reply, looking away from him, apparently preoccupied with something else.         
His elder brother answered instead. "Don't you see, Chris? Don't you see, silly? He's a German. They're going to lock him up."
"But they can't do that; they just can't!"
Slowly, the car drew away, with the priest and the officer sitting side by side, like close friends in the back seat.


End











Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Little Boy Who Couldn't


 

The Sacred Heart School at Sittingbourne, a market town in southeast England, was mainly a girls’ high school, but boys -- though heavily outnumbered -- were allowed there until the age of eight. I was five, and the place seemed to be a huge sprawling castle, entirely hidden from the town by high flintstone walls. Its centerpiece was its chapel, a miniature cathedral with gray stone buttresses and a lofty spire like a sharpened pencil pointing into the sky. Inside, the air was heavy with incense and the smoke from burning votive candles, and there was a pervasive and, yes, fearful sense that a grave, gray bearded God did indeed loom in its shadowy nave.
         There was an echoing gymnasium with slippery polished floors, seemingly unvaultable vaulting horses, and unclimbable climbing ropes that reached way up into the rafters. This was where, with the hall filled with folding chairs, we’d gather later to rehearse and sing Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture to welcome visiting bishops, archbishops, and, from time to time, beaming missionaries from Africa.
         And then there were the gardens, with dense beds of vegetables and flower borders as far as the eye could see, tended by some lower rank of nuns than our black-veiled teachers. In blue working habits tied at the waist with string, and ungainly wooden clogs, they waded waist-high among the lupines and delphiniums, and stooped over the cabbages and carrots with their rakes and hoes. Here and there in quiet corners were little stone grottoes, with gaudy statues of the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary, St. Teresa, St. Francis  -- with a stone bird in his outstretched hand -- and poor Saint Sebastian, pierced by arrows.
         Quarry-tiled corridors threaded through the school buildings, and around the kitchens and dining hall hung the permanent, sharp smell of boiling bones and cabbage soup. Up the uncarpeted stairs above lay a linoleum-floored reception room with hard, upright wooden chairs, massive sacred pictures and ceiling-high cases of holy books. Beyond this cold, forbidding place, behind a thick hopsack curtain hanging on wooden rings, was the no-go area of the nuns’ cells and the boarders’ bedrooms.
         Our classroom was mostly brown. The walls were brown, and so were the bare wood floors and ceiling. The gnarled oak desks with their little holes cut out for inkwells were brown, and the cracked varnish on the ancient wall maps had long turned golden. But the atlas of the world was predominantly red, covering Canada, most of Africa and Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Red was the color of the British Empire, on which we were so often told that, literally, the sun never set.
I can remember the names and faces of several of my classmates, but none more vividly than Michael Cummings, a frail, pop-eyed, redheaded boy with freckles. Even though I never knew him well, Michael’s vulnerable face, and a three-word sentence he uttered one day in class, has haunted me ever since. Michael, we were told in whispers, had a weak heart, and because of this he always sat in the front row of the class in a wheelchair. Instead of a desk, there was a board across the chair’s arms, on which Michael could do his work.
         Michael made his indelible mark on my life at one of our early arithmetic lessons. The air in the stuffy room was heavy with concentration, and the only sound was the scraping of our slate pencils as we labored over the addition of single figures. Madame Ambrose, our only teacher, passed from desk to desk, looking down at our efforts over her gold-framed half-moon spectacles.
         When Madame Ambrose reached Michael’s chair, the little boy looked up into her severe face and let out a choked, anguished wail that I have never forgotten. It embodied desperation, fear and hopelessness.
         “I can’t do this!”   
         The boy burst into tears and no one could stop him. Madame Ambrose wheeled him out of the room and we heard his unhappy voice trailing far away down the corridors into the garden.
He came back next day, his eyes solemn and reproachful, but only a few months later he was gone. They told us he had died.
         Ever since, Michael’s cri de coeur has come back to me on occasions when life has threatened to become too burdensome. It returned during two long and temporarily crippling depressive illnesses decades ago, again with a wrenching divorce, and other crises of confidence that we all endure.
Little Michael was dealt a rotten hand from birth, and had an inadequate frame with which to defend himself.  I was hugely more fortunate. Even though, later, I might have said – not aloud but only in my head – “I can’t do this” during some of life’s most testing moments, I knew I’d had a fairer deal, and lucky enough to have the physical and emotional strength to face such challenges and overcome them.
But I do sometimes wonder how different my life might have been, and how I’d have coped with its problems, without that brief, involuntary lesson in life from Michael Cummings.



Thursday, August 11, 2011

OVERPAID, OVERSEXED, OVER HERE


         In London a year or two ago I came across a revealing little booklet. Called Over There, issued during World War II to American servicemen 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 Oxford University Press, who quite recently 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 leaflet 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 more than sixty 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 author tackles the legendary reserve and -- though it doesn't say it in such terms -- the stuffiness and stand-offishness of the Brits.  The thing to do, the booklet 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. 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 “overpaid, oversexed, 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 booklet 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 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 book 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 of the pamphlet 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, a quiet, likable boy who we nicknamed 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 brought into the dining hall with some ceremony by the headmaster who, with help from the head boy, peeled them and proceeded to cut them into 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 the war ended in 1945.

oo0oo

Saturday, July 2, 2011

LEAVING HOME

It was Aunt Janet’s idea. A year or two earlier, at a rare family get-together -- either a wake or a wedding -- she’d insisted that my older brother David and I go to boarding school, and since she’d offered to pay the bills, nobody had argued with her. As she’d pointed out, our father, her brother Harold, could never afford to educate us privately on his bank clerk’s salary. My brother was eleven and I was eight, so wasn’t it high time? And shouldn’t we be jolly grateful to be sent to The Grange, a boarding school 70 miles away from home and 30 miles from London?

It was the second week of September 1939, ten days or so after the outbreak of the Second World War. On the first chilly autumn mornings a few days before we left home, David grew morose and silent. His eyes were red each day at breakfast, and he spent most of the time in his room and, when he came down for meals, lowered his eyes and picked at his food. Sometimes I could hear him crying through the locked bathroom door.

“This is the next-to-last lunch before school,” David told me. And in the same way he’d mark ‘the last go on the swing,’ and ‘the last walk in the garden,’ and, finally, ‘the last day at home.’

I was already a bit of a show-off, and viewed the situation differently. It seems I couldn’t stop talking about it to everyone; not only to Tom Gamble, the gardener, and Doris, the maid, but also Father Fitzgerald and the milkman, the postman, the neighbors and any passing stranger who’d listen.
“We’re going away to boarding school,” I told them. “Won’t it be fun?”

When the last day came, we drove off after lunch with Mother in the new family car, a little black Flying Standard 8 that still smelt of leather inside. Dad was at work, as usual. He’d said goodbye after breakfast, not stooping to kiss us, but shaking hands gravely before riding away to the bank on his bicycle, neither waving nor looking back.

With our luggage in the cramped trunk, we drove through Kent, past miles of sunny apple orchards and hop fields. It was market day in Maidstone, the county town, where the pungent odor of horse and cow manure wafted through the car’s open windows, mingled with the smell of gasoline. We dawdled in line with trucks carrying squealing pigs in ash-wood baskets piled four or five high, and pony traps and horse-carts loaded with flimsy crates of day-old chicks and goslings. In this bucolic setting there was nothing to show, yet, that Britain was already ten days into another world war.

Outside Maidstone the roads were clear, and we parked for tea in Westerham. Mother -- presiding over the bone china cups and dainty cucumber and cress sandwiches – tried to cheer us up and delay the pain of parting.

“Winston Churchill lives near here, boys!” she said brightly.

But we didn’t know who Churchill was. There wasn’t much reason why we should. He’d been in limbo for ten years. He wasn’t even in the cabinet, and wouldn’t become Prime Minister for another nine months. Whoever he was, we didn’t care about him. Our thoughts were elsewhere.

At around five that afternoon, seventy or eighty miles from home, we drove through the gates of the school, and stopped outside the front door of a big, red brick house. A short, paunchy, smiling man stood at the top of the steps, and trotted down to meet us, holding out a chubby hand.
“Why, it’s Mrs. Birch!” the man said. “Brodie Walker, remember?”

“I do indeed.” Mother and Walker shook hands. They’d met a few months before, when she and Aunt Janet had come to look over the school.

“And these, as anyone can see, are your two lads.” Mr. Walker said, with a self-satisfied smirk.
Mother turned to us. “Boys, this is the headmaster, Mr. Walker. Mr. Walker, this is David, and here is John.”

Beaming, Mr. Walker patted us on the head, touseling our hair. “Capital!” he said. “Come along in, and I’ll get the porter to bring in their things.”

There weren’t many things for the porter to bring in, only a suitcase each, our tuck-boxes – the little wooden chests in which we kept our private possessions -- and our new gas masks in brown cardboard boxes. The rest of the luggage, cabin trunks that wouldn’t have fitted into the car, had been sent ahead by train.

At this first encounter with Mr. Walker, David was almost frozen with apprehension. With his eyes cast down, he shuffled up the school steps while I, less aware of the wrench that parting with Mother would soon bring, raced happily behind the headmaster two steps at a time.

In front of the empty fireplace in the big drawing room, with an aspidistra in each window, and big overstuffed chairs draped with lace anti-macassars, we met Mrs. Walker, a jolly, tubby woman.
Mother exchanged social nothings with the Walkers for a few minutes, but soon it was time for her to leave. She was reluctant to make the long drive home in the darkness of the newly-imposed wartime blackout, on roads no longer lit by street lights, in a car whose headlamps were now masked to permit only the narrowest slits of light. Instead she planned to stay the night with Aunt Janet, who lived not far from the school.

Standing in the dusk by the car, my brother and I gave Mother a final hug. Suddenly it dawned on me that I wouldn’t see or speak to her again until Christmas, and I found it hard to unlock my arms and let her go.

“I want you to be very brave,” she said. “Daddy and I will write every week, and Mr. Walker says he’ll see to it that you do, too.”

She seemed so cheerful as she drove out through the gate, honking her horn in final farewell. Didn’t she have that same hot feeling around her eyes, that little involuntary quiver of the lips? Or was she just bravely hiding her feelings?

David and I were alone together. I took his hand as we walked up the steps and back into the school.
Back in the house, we followed Mr. Walker into the common room to meet the school’s dozen or so other boarders, a number of whom were the sons of Colonial Office officials, police officers and district commissioners serving in far away, exotic-sounding British territories in Africa and Asia. Everyone was friendly enough, but there was more than one scared, red-eyed boy doing his best to come to terms with the strangeness of the first few hours at boarding school.

When Mrs. Walker, who acted as the school’s matron, announced that she was taking us to see the dormitory, I expected this to be somewhere in the yet-to-be-seen upper floor of the headmaster’s house, but was surprised when, instead of leading us upstairs, she took us to the cellar where, lit by bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, three rows of four or five two-tier bunks stretched into the darkness. Mrs. Walker explained that, at least for the first few months of the war, we’d sleep in this hastily prepared place until her husband and his staff had a better idea of whether there would be bombing raids on the city.

There was something unfamiliar and stark about the freshly whitewashed walls of the slightly damp and moldy-smelling underground room, with its bunks built from unfinished pine, each with a mesh of chicken wire to support a straw mattress. But a brave attempt had been made to give this dark, windowless place a homier look. An inexpensive Persian-style carpet had been laid on the brick floor, and unframed posters of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been stuck on the walls. Later that evening Mrs. Walker gave us each a navy blue corduroy bag about the size of a pillow, on which our initials had been embroidered, in which to carry our pajamas, slippers, dressing gowns and a few treasured possessions such as a small teddy bear, downstairs each day.

That night, after the lights were out and someone lit a candle as a night-light in a corner of the room, I lay in my bunk painfully aware that something was missing. Every night of my life until then there had always been a bedtime ritual at home. My mother would come into the bedroom, open the window and turn out the light. Then she would draw deeply on her cigarette in its tortoise-shell holder to cause enough of a glow to light up my face for her to kiss me good night. This had never struck me as an odd procedure. I had always taken it for granted, and now I craved it. But for the first time there was no cigarette, no glow, no kiss, no Mother.

Lying there, in the lower bunk with David restless in the tier above me, I wondered whether the bombers would come that night. I knew that the city of Guildford, and The Grange, were far closer to London than we had been at home. For years my grandmother and aunts had told fireside tales of how the Kaiser’s zeppelins had droned low over their house during what they called The Great War, and how the German aviators had leaned out of their gondolas and dropped their bombs by hand, smashing Grandmother’s greenhouse. But it had been a long, tiring day, and very soon I was fast asleep.
Over the next few weeks, David and I grew used to this new life away from home. Mr. Walker, the headmaster, turned out to be a warm, paternal man who, having no children of his own, treated the dozen or so boarders at the school as his own family. No bombs fell on that first night nor, oddly, on any night during our next two years at The Grange, and after a few weeks we slept upstairs in airy, well-lit dormitories.

However, all the reality of war came to us during our vacations back in rural Kent. The Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF often thwarted the Germans, like their fathers twenty years earlier in World War I, in their attempts to reach London, this time. They turned tail and fled home, dropping their bombs on the farms and villages that lay in their path to London along the estuary of the river Thames. The Battle of Britain was fought literally over our heads at home in July and August, 1940, when almost every day for those two months, the sky was filled with dense formations of German bombers and their fighter escorts. In one raid alone, on August 24, 1940, thirty-eight German planes were lost, and twenty-two British fighters, some of them spinning in flames into the fields and woods around us.

But there were other signs in Guildford that a war was going on. Rationing of food became so difficult that, by the time David and I moved to a bigger boarding school in 1941, every person was allowed only one ounce of cheese, four ounces of butter, one packet of dehydrated egg, and three pints of milk each week. At nighttime, volunteer air-raid wardens patrolled the streets to detect any chink of light left showing through the thick black curtains that veiled every window in the country. Signposts on roads and highways were soon taken down to confuse the enemy in the likely event of a Nazi invasion
And then there was the threat of poison gas. One morning early in October, Mr. Walker led us in a chattering, gray-uniformed crocodile along streets strewn with yellow and rust horse chestnut leaves to a public park near the center of Guildford. He’d explained at breakfast, his voice deliberately calm, that the reason for this outing was to test our gas masks in a public air raid shelter. In the concrete blockhouse under the trees in the park, a uniformed civil defense volunteer, who introduced himself as Mr. Ferritt, showed us, with the same matter-of-fact tone that Mr. Walker had used earlier that morning, how to put on and adjust our gas-masks. These were primitive black rubber affairs, each with an oval window made of some clear material. The ‘chin’ of the mask was fitted with a shiny black, perforated metal cylinder filled with some sort of filter that, he assured us, could cope with any known poison gas.

We huddled on wooden benches arranged in a square in the dimly-lit concrete chamber, wearing our gas-masks while, in the middle, Mr. Ferritt donned his own mask, struck a match and lit a canister of tear gas. A quickly growing plume of white smoke curled out of the canister.

“By now, boys” he said a minute or two later, his voice raised, yet not too distinct through the rubber mask, “this room is full of tear gas. But there’s no need to be afraid. It’ll make your eyes run a bit, and you may be a little uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely safe and won’t do you any harm. You can’t tell it’s here in the room because I’m sure all of your masks are working properly.

“Now,” Mr. Ferritt went on, “Trust me. I want you to do something. Poke two fingers between your mask and your cheek to let in some of the tear gas to prove that the masks are working properly.”
He moved around the seated square of boys to see whether everyone was following his instructions. I found the strange smell of the gas, its irritation in the back of my throat and the burning in my eyes unpleasant but tolerable. But soon there were muffled cries of fear around the room, and more than a few boys had become unnerved by the experiment. Perhaps the formulation was too strong but, whatever the reason, a number had started crying hysterically. Others were dashing around the poorly lit room, tripping over the benches and bumping into each other in a frantic search for the door.

Mr. Ferritt seemed completely paralyzed by the scene, and was unable to cope with the situation. But Mr. Walker, who had been present as an observer, wearing his own gas mask, immediately jumped up and threw open the doors at each end of the gas-filled room, shooing his charges out into the fresh air.
We gathered under a tree and watched and listened while Mr. Walker confronted Mr. Ferritt, grasping him by both shoulders, and shouting into his face. On that one occasion, he used words most of us had never heard before, and we never heard him use them again.

                                                                       END

Friday, May 27, 2011

A MAN APART


We called him Joe behind his back, but to his face he was Sir, or Mr. Jones. In my whole life I never met a colder, more detached man. Even now, seventy years later, I get a little catch in my chest at the very thought of him.
         His name (well, I've changed it to be honest) was Frank Jones, a burly, broody, balding and remote Welshman with a Roman a centurion’s nose and a head like polished pine. He was my boarding school's deputy head, and my housemaster, and had been in charge of Crowden House as long as anyone could recall.
Joe’s very appearance instilled dread in us, striding purposefully into his Latin class in his black gown; berating us in his captain’s uniform on the drill square, or bearing down on us angrily, his whistle shrilling on the Rugby field. Boys from other houses thanked God they weren’t at Crowden, for Jones, in his late forties, was a bachelor, and ran the place like a fiefdom. His fellow housemasters had wives and children of their own, and this made life in those houses a little more like home.
Crowden, a three story, early 19th century building with two beamed gables and lattice windows, loomed across the street from the headmaster's warm red brick Queen Anne house, the school's handsome assembly hall, and the classroom block. Years on, I see Crowden House as though I’m peering into the hinged, open front of a doll house. There are its three floors covered with mud brown linoleum, and its walls in two-tone green matte paint. Down in the gloomy hallway to the right of the front door is Mr. Jones' study. That’s the prefects' room to the left of it and, over on the right, running the depth of the house, the spartan, echoing day room, where the rest of us made friends and feuded with our foes for seven everlasting years. Behind all this lie the bare-boarded bathrooms and sports changing rooms, with their overflowing boot lockers, and black iron hooks on the walls, festooned with sweaty Rugby gear. Up on the two upper floors, above lino-covered staircases, are the five dormitories, each housing about a dozen boys who sleep in open-fronted cubicles. There are no pictures on the walls, and there’s no heating. The windows – like all windows in Britain in wartime – are draped with blackout curtains, though the windows, whatever the time of year, are always wide open at bedtime.
Life was much rougher at Crowden. Beatings were a routine, conducted either by Jones himself, or by his house captain. Punishments, usually for laughably venial sins, such as having untidy hair, or being late for chapel or a class, were meted out in increments of thirty minutes, and called detention. Anyone awarded more than ninety minutes detention in a single week would be given four strokes of the cane, while six strokes were reserved for mortal sins, such as lying or cheating.
Later in World War II, in the early 40s, when there were labor shortages at the school, we had an option of manual labor instead of detention or taking a beating. This would consist of heaving coal for the boilers, sawing logs, or working in the school’s vegetable gardens. At about the same time, a national scarcity of food forced the school to plow one or two of its sports fields to grow crops of sugar beet. After this we spent rainy fall afternoons, armed with machetes, topping and tailing beets like overgrown turnips, piled on rough trestle tables,.  
Mr. Jones had rules of his own. Not until we were sixteen were we allowed to wear brown (as opposed to black) shoes, or to put our hands in our trousers pockets. Nor could we walk across the parade ground, enter the house by its front door, or ride a bicycle without permission. These were the privileges of boys in their last years at the school, and once you first exercised these dubious privileges you knew the end was in sight.
Very rarely Mr. Jones, failing to identify a culprit, penalized the entire house for some misdemeanor. One winter weekend, someone cracked a mirror in one of the bathrooms and, an hour or two after its discovery, prefects rounded up everyone to a hastily summoned assembly in the day room. The duty prefect counted heads and, when he was sure that everyone was present, turned to Joe.
Jones, his face dark with anger, invited the person responsible for the broken pane to reveal himself, and for a minute or more glowered at the silent gathering. But no one stepped forward to admit the blame, and Jones and his prefects went into a huddle outside the room. When they returned, he announced that, since no one had accepted responsibility, the whole house must pay the penalty.
          That afternoon about sixty boys set off on a walk to and from the village of Hawkhurst, five miles away. Over the next hours the column of twelve to seventeen-year-old walkers, mostly in twos and threes, stretched out over the hilly course, the younger boys falling back slowly while the older ones, pulled ahead. Throughout the afternoon Jones and his prefects glided to and fro on bicycles to make sure that no one took a short cut. It was dusk and raining when the last stragglers returned to the house, and the true villain never revealed himself.
There was an incongruous and rarely seen side to Joe Jones; a trait entirely at odds with his stern everyday character. From time to time he would try his earnest best to entertain us. This alter ego sprang from a secret passion. Often, late at night, passing his study door on the way to bed we would hear high-pitched chorus of “Three little maids from school are we,” or perhaps more appropriately “Behold the Lord High Executioner.” Joe was alone in there, lost in a haze of pipe smoke, listening to his favorite music.
And once or twice a year he would invite a chosen handful of boys into his study for a recital, always of the same collection of operettas: The Mikado, The Yeoman of the Guard, and HMS Pinafore. The conversation during these gatherings was hesitant, respectful and one-sided, as we sat grouped around Joe’s ancient, wind-up phonograph. The music seemed to me tinkly and frivolous, and I confess that, ever since, I’ve had an almost phobic loathing of anything by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Evans took his passion one extraordinary step further. At the end of every summer term, the boys and masters would put on a revue, consisting of sketches and solo acts that often made fun of the life and routines of the school. And every few years, maybe once or twice in any boy’s time there, Joe and some other master, dressed as London bobbies and wielding truncheons, would sing another Gilbert and Sullivan piece, the comic duet “We’re the bold gendarmes.” Their faces were appropriately earnest, and their footwork nimble in their hob-nail boots.
At the end of this act, in response to a roar of amazement and admiration from the audience in the packed assembly hall, there was a look on Joe's face that all at once bespoke a spectrum of emotions: the unexpected thrill of total acceptance and appreciation, an almost infantile excitement, astonishment at his warm reception, and perhaps the realization that just for this moment he was something he could normally never be – one of us.
Only then, in my last few days at the school, after seven years that were in some ways more a sentence than a sojourn, did I ever ask myself what might be the tragic truth about this man. Even at the end, as one of his prefects, I’d never knew him at all. Was Joe Jones, with all his solemn, sullen power, a lonely, friendless man, a man apart? His only home, as far as I could see, was that dark smoky room on the ground floor of Crowden House, with its empty coal-burning grate, its framed, faded photographs of long-ago cricket and rugger teams, its cases of fusty leather-bound books, and his phonograph and records. His bedroom lay behind a locked door among the upper dormitories, and every evening, very late at night, we’d hear him labor up the stairs, fumble with his keys and close and lock the door behind him. He seemed always to dine at night across the street with the headmaster and his family and other colleagues. No friends or relatives of either gender were ever seen to call on him, and we never heard of people and places seen on the long summer recesses. What kind of life was that?
He died in the 1970s. A former head boy wrote to tell me about a memorial service in London.  I didn’t go.


                      oo0oo


     




Monday, April 18, 2011

NOT FOR SISSIES

I was eighty yesterday, an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth.

You wouldn’t look twice at me in the street, and if you asked a passer-by for directions, you probably wouldn’t choose me. No, you’d pick someone who looked more approachable and genial or more user-friendly, as they say these days.

It’s not that I look menacing or anything. It’s just that, with my face in repose, advancing age has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, to be honest, you might take me for a curmudgeon. My mouth turns down and, with the lines on my face, you might reasonably suppose me to be bad-tempered and humorless, even sour.

Of course, the exact opposite is true, I’m nice to small children, I brake for squirrels, and feel guilty when I have to kill even a moth or an ant. I certainly couldn’t harm a mouse or a muskrat, so you might well say I’m a have-a-heart kind of person. And when it comes to humor I can be almost funny on occasions. Well, at least amusing.

They say that growing old is not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me sad and wistful. I know you only have my word for it but once, as a soldier, a bridegroom, a soccer dad, and even on the first rungs up the corporate ladder (something by which we foolishly tend to measure success and failure) I was – I blush to say this – pretty good looking. What happened to that dashing young captain who sits in a silver photo-frame on my wife’s writing desk?

Time happened, that’s what. Ok, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of friends who are older than I still have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I?

My wife, normally a paragon of kindness, jokes about my glum appearance. She laughs aloud at the pictures in my passport and driver’s license.
“Why didn’t you smile?” she asks.
“I was smiling,” I tell her.

I really was. Inside me, I could feel that cheery upturned mouth and the warm twinkle in the eye but, somehow, when the pictures came out, all that was missing was a prison uniform, or a string of numbers hanging on a board around my neck.
My mother-in-law, a lovely old lady with a Giaconda smile and handsome dark eyes, was a fountain of wise saws and sayings. One of these was that the living’s on the inside. By that she meant that many plain pug-ugly or unprepossessing people, and things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to homely people, but the message was clear: never take anything at face value; instead, search for the beauty within.
She was right, wasn’t she? All the same, we still go on making judgments based on external appearances. More than in most countries, we Americans put an impossibly high premium on good looks. Not so elsewhere. In my native Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, many relatively plain men and women have made it right to the top on stage and screen. They wouldn’t even have landed a walk-on part on Broadway, or in Hollywood.

Don’t laugh, but behind my fossil-like fa├žade I still believe that, physically and mentally, I’m that young man in the silver picture frame. My wife and I published a novel a few years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. Mark Gregson, the hero (they call heroes protagonists these days), is a young ex-Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the jungle; racing up three hundred steps in pursuit of thugs; saving his lovely girlfriend from drowning and, in the nick of time, disarming a booby trap under the hood of his hired car. The flesh may well be a little weaker, but the spirit’s still willing and, yes, the living really is on the inside.

King Duncan in Macbeth knew just what he was on about when he said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
So if you’re in your thirties, or even much older than that, kindly remember this when you pass some old geezer in the street.

Smile at him, he might be me.


oo0oo

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

TEK


When King Farouk -- the unpopular playboy king of Egypt -- was deposed in a coup led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in the summer of 1952, Britain lost its only supporter in Egypt who tolerated the presence of British Army and RAF bases along the Suez Canal. From then on, after signing a treaty with Nasser, Britain reluctantly began a gradual withdrawal of its troops until, in 1955, the last unit had left Egyptian soil for ever.
Serving in Egypt during the winding-down and evacuation of the bases was unrewarding and demoralizing. A year after the coup, when I was twenty-two and a lieutenant in the South Staffordshire Regiment, we were sent from Germany to Egypt to relieve another battalion that had just finished a three-year stint in the Suez Canal Zone.
After the comparative comfort of a former Waffen SS barracks in green, wooded Westphalia, we in the Staffords took a dim view of being sent to live under canvas in the Egyptian desert. Besides, we realized that it wouldn’t be very long before we’d get marching orders for our own unceremonious withdrawal from Egypt, and spend the rest of the overseas tour in some other troubled part of Britain’s shrinking empire. Maybe in action against the Mau Mau in Kenya, or Chinese insurgents in Malaya.
       Within weeks of receiving the order, the whole battalion -- about seven hundred strong -- traveled from Germany by train and ferry to its regimental depot at Lichfield, in the center of England. First, the unit was sent home on leave, since none of us would see our families for a few years. Then we spent a week or two at the depot, our arms sore from a battery of inoculations, while we were fitted with tropical uniforms and equipment, did training exercises and sat through lurid movies about malaria and venereal diseases.
       Nowadays you can fly to Egypt in a few hours, but this leg of our journey by sea took fourteen days in an aging troopship. We steamed south from Liverpool, across the Bay of Biscay, through the Straits of Gibraltar and down the length of the Mediterranean to Port Said.  Here the day temperatures were around one hundred-fifteen degrees, and for a day or two we acclimatized in a tented transit camp behind high barbed-wire fences seemingly right in the center of nearby Port Fuad. This pause was an absolute necessity for most of our troops, young draftees aged eighteen or nineteen, who had until then regarded three consecutive seventy-five degree summer days in England as a heat wave.
       Our final destination was to be Tel-el-Kebir, deep in the desert some seventy miles east of Cairo. This last lap was a nightmare journey by train, in almost unbearably hot, antique passenger cars whose windows had for some unexplained reason been boarded-up. But the need for the boards soon became clear once the journey began. As the train crawled, stopping and starting through towns and villages, hostile Egyptians threw rocks at the wagons as we went by. Our armed sentries, stationed on platforms at the end of each car, had been ordered not to retaliate.
       In the comparative cool of that evening we arrived at Tel-el-Kebir which, ironically, had been the scene of a British victory a century earlier against The Mad Mullah, a brutal, devious Islamic extremist leader who, in several ways, seems to have been a pre-incarnation of the late Saddam Hussain. The village of Tel-el-Kebir itself had long since become no more than a cluster of rocks in the sand, but nearby was the huge army camp that we soon learned to call Tek.
       Tek was a vast storage depot for tanks, trucks, arms, ammunition, radio, telephone and other equipment. It lay like a canvas city in the desert, with a population of several thousand people from the administrative and logistical arms of the service. Around it were two seventeen-mile circles of dense barbed wire, between which lay a minefield of anti-personnel mines.  Seventeen powerful World War II anti-aircraft searchlights, each in a nest of sandbags atop a twenty foot high tower, faced outwards over the sand, manned at night by Askari Scouts from Kenya.
       One of our jobs, alternating with another infantry regiment, in addition to providing a stand-by force within easy reach of the whole Middle East, was to provide mobile and foot patrols to guard the perimeter of what must have been one of the biggest strategic military storage depots in the region, and worth millions and millions of dollars. Much of the equipment in Tek would have been valuable for the Egyptian forces, especially at this early stage in Egypt’s revolution, before Nasser had completed a later deal for arms purchases with the Czechs, who acted as a cover for Russia.
       This was a grindingly tedious and, too often, a tragic assignment. On some nights we patrolled the perimeter in jeeps with their lights switched off, and with automatic weapons mounted on their hoods.  On other nights, we lay in small, armed groups by the wire, accompanied by killer-dogs trained to tear out the throat of any intruder. Their RAF handlers assured us that the dogs would never turn on us, and they never did. But on more than one occasion I had the gut-wrenching experience of seeing what they could do to those they were trained to attack.
       The awful truth about those patrols was that the men who risked and often lost their lives to break through the perimeter weren’t well-fed soldiers, but needy fellaheen, peasants. Their bodies were pitifully thin and their clothes ragged. Surely they knew about the minefield, the searchlights, the constant patrols, and those dogs?  Nearly sixty years later I’m convinced that, driven by poverty, they were only there to steal and sell whatever they’d stolen. And where does that conclusion leave me and my comrades morally?  Only occasionally did we shoot it out with people who seemed to be trained and well-armed, and the likelihood is that still these were simply better organized gangs of villagers.
       Eighteen months in Tek were an eternity. Apart from one weekend in Cairo, our only escapes were brief liaison visits to a British fighter squadron in Jordan, and another RAF station at Habbaniyah, in Iraq. But for the non-commissioned men there was no release at all.
       Our next stop wasn’t Kenya or Malaya, but much closer. On the Island of Cyprus, a group of Greek partisans, who had harassed and terrified the Germans and Italians in occupied Greece during World War II, were training Cypriot terrorists to drive the British out of Cyprus, and to unite it with Greece. I didn’t know at that time that I was about to spend four years in Cyprus, two as a soldier and two as a police officer. But, then, that’s another story.