Archive for March, 2010

Across the USA (Pt. 2)

March 26, 2010

The next few days consisted mostly of the five of us settling down for a long trip.  We chose seats according to our age.  Since I was the oldest so I got so sit where I wanted to, and so on.  My brother built a wall of pillows, comic books, and luggage between he and I while my younger sister utilized most of the far back seat to torment my youngest sister who was barely out of toddlership.

We wiggled, twiddled, nudged, squabbled, informed on each other, and generally were miserable until we left the western portion of New York and entered, in rapid succession, Pennsylvania (just the sliver up near Erie), and then onward into Ohio.  When we hit the lake, we turned south and drove towards Dayton.

I think the main reason we were unruly for the first few days was that we had lived in a mountainous region of Germany for three years and we wanted to see something different.  Ohio is pretty different – flat.  We buzzed down the highway looking at the fields, farms, other things we missed about America.

We stopped just west of Dayton at a campground with another lake at its center.  This one had electrical hookups so we were able to use our small table lamps instead of the hissing white gas lanterns.  White gas was hard to find.  Every service station pumped leaded gas and to find one with what was called “white” gas was rare.  Whenever we did, my dad would be sure to fill up our small one gallon can.

Note:  What we called white gas back then is now the familiar “unleaded” gas we all know and love.  Lantern gas, now, is another thing – and much more expensive since Coleman is the only one who produces it now mostly.  But, who cares because propane lanterns are now “in”.

This campground was built by the owners of a large dairy.  Their farm operation was just over a fence from the campground.  We didn’t realize just how close they were until the westerly winds came up that evening.  Woooooh!  Who knew cows could produce that much stink!  One of our neighbors told us that every evening this happened, but the wind would die out just a bit after sundown and it would get calm again.  We couldn’t wait.

We had dinner.  It was a quick meal.  Mostly it was quick because we would dash out of the bus, grab a few bites while holding our breath, and dash back to the bus.  Food wasn’t allowed in the bus, that’s why.  That edict was brought on by my sister leaving a half-eaten salami sandwich in the bus while we took a tour of Buffalo’s famed attraction – Niagara Falls.  When we got back, the heat had mummified the sandwich and filled the air inside with the pungent aroma of baked salami.  Every one of us kids denied ever having eaten that day so some passerby must have pried open a window and done it.

The winds died down.  As soon as they stopped wafting malodors at us, the mosquitoes decided that now was the time to come forth.  They zoomed towards us in waves from the lake area.  They’d hide in the willows and cattails until nobody was looking and then attack in swarms.  We broke out the repellent but that only seemed to irritate both them and us.  My skin took on a blotchy sheen highlighted by angry red bumps where the probes of the alien bugs had siphoned off a gallon or two.  Finally, dressed in the longest sleeved shirts and long pants we had, we tried to get some sleep.

Sheer exhaustion after fighting the bugs finally took its toll and we dropped off one by one.  Sometime during the night, a light wind and a small rain shower came along and banished the mosquitoes back to their swamp grass hangars where they would pump our blood into large containers for use when no campers were available.

Next morning we launched towards our eventual goal of Saint Louis.  My dad had a friend stationed at the base there he wanted to see so that’s where we were going.  Indianapolis came and went.  The day got hotter and hotter.  The windows were opened to allow the rushing wind to heat us up more.  We even slid back the top so we could take turns catching bugs in our teeth.  I won the prize with a nicely fielded June bug that smacked me in the forehead and actually left a welt.  If I hadn’t looked down into the bus right at the moment it hit me I’d have probably lost a tooth.

We didn’t make it all the way to St. Louis.  We ended up in a tiny little motel with rusty colored water and no ice.  There was a dilapidated country store and “eatery” out near the highway from our cabin that dispensed cold pop from a galvanized bucket filled with ice.  A fan blew over it to help the cooling process.  We just stood in front of the cool breeze taking our time making a selection.  It felt really good after all the heat we’d endured.

Supper consisted of what we kids called “hot plate stew”.  This was in striking contrast to my mom’s famous “Whatzit Stew”.  With the former we were involved in what went into it; with the latter we didn’t have a clue.  This particular stew had meat chunks, a can of little round potatoes, a can of tomato chunks, and a can of hominy.  Stir that all together with a soup base and ladle it into cereal bowls.  With a side of fresh buttered bread it couldn’t be beat.

By the time the other kids took their showers the water had cleared up to a light yellow hue.  I was next and braved the cool water long enough to hose down the road grime (and the remains of the June bug embedded in my head).  Earlier, I was called out to help my dad change the oil.  In our bus, it was relatively simple to change the oil.

There were eight little nuts on a circular plate at the bottom of the engine.  One simply turned them until they were all loose, removed them one at a time until one side of the plate began to leak oil.  The you quickly slapped a bowl down to catch the oil as you finished removing the nuts.  My dad was always careful about unleashing invective around us kids, but since it was just me he apparently decided that it helped the situation to curse as warm oil began coursing down his arm and into his shirt through the sleeve.

“Well, gee whiz and gosh almighty that really gets my goat!  Son, would you be kind enough to pass me that rag?”  (Not exactly his words.)

I passed him the rag and he did a little horizontal jig so he could wiggle out from under the back of the bus.  This, of course, allowed sand and dirt to be scooped up by the tail of his shirt and mix nicely with the accumulated oil.  By the time her got vertical, he had a huge slick of oil as wide as his shoulders running all the way down his back.

My mom chose that moment to arrive on the scene to ask what all the hubbub was.  He must have tried three or four times to describe what had happened but kept running to a speech block that wouldn’t let him swear in front of her.  Finally he just turned around.  My mom silently took it all in and began swabbing at the dark stain.  Sometimes she can be pretty cool.

The oil stopped dripping into the pan and I was elected to drag out the pan and fish for the nuts, washers, filter, and plate that had dropped into it.  My dad had oil changes down to a science.  First you got it out of the vehicle, and then you fished for the hardware.  Next you cleaned the little oil filter basket and added two new paper gaskets – one above the filter and the other below it, next to the plate.  Carefully, you slid the plate with the filter on it up onto the six embedded bolts.  Once there, you finger tightened the nuts and then used a wrench to tighten them in order.  Now came the good part.

My dad punched holes into the cans of new oil and applied a homemade funnel to the oil filler at the top of the engine.  Since there were absolutely NO Volkswagen dealerships, parts shops, or garages in the U.S. at the time we had to make do with a manually generated funnel.  This one started out life as a small juice can.  My dad flared the top and soldered pieces of another can to expand the dimensions enough to allow pouring oil from a can into it.  The long body of the funnel was actually electrical conduit (the snaky kind that you could bend) and you poked that into the filler hole.

It worked surprisingly well and as soon as we put exactly three and one-half cans of oil into the engine he took the remainder and put it into a jar for next time.  He had a quart jar so that every fourth oil change he wouldn’t need to save any.  Then, pulling the funnel out of the engine he stuck the end of it into one of the used cans of oil.  I held it while he carefully poured the used oil back into the cans.  We left the cans next to the motel garbage cans.  Since the EPA hadn’t been invented yet that was the easiest thing to do.  The motel owners would probably throw it on the dirt road to hold down the dust.

Another note:  Until I sold the bus (which I had purchased from my dad) the oil funnel performed hundreds of oil changes.  The odometer had just over three-hundred thousand miles on it when I sold the bus – for three-hundred dollars less than what my dad paid for it.

I took my shower, slurped up the stew and hit the sack.  It had been a really long day.

T.O.M.

Across the USA, Pt 1

March 19, 2010

Following our touchdown, it seemed as if we would taxi forever until we turned sharply and the engines went silent.  We’d been hearing them for almost eighteen hours and when they stopped we were still speaking loudly to each other.

Now, on a flight today, everyone would be up scrabbling in the overhead bins, banging butts with the person across the aisle, and generally making things difficult for deplaning.  This was a military flight and ‘you vill remain sitzen until ve giff you die order to shtand!’  We got off the plane by rows.

I craned my head all around but didn’t even catch a glimpse of Elaine.  I wasn’t even sure where she sat when not quoting poetry to me.  I heaved my string bag down the aisle and finally exited the sardine can onto a long set of stairs and trudged into the terminal.  We were told to stay together so we could be counted (?) as we left the plane.  When I heard that I wondered to myself who would be nuts enough to want to stay on the plane.  I sure wouldn’t.

We reported to the proper desk for Customs after waiting at a long table for our checked luggage, had our belongings examined, and passports stamped (yes, they used to do that back then – now all they do is stick it into a barcode reader).  Once all of us were stamped, we were allowed to go into the terminal proper.  Every one of us headed for the restroom of their persuasion.

I never saw Elaine again.  I berated myself for not even finding out where she was headed or getting an address.  Poop!  I was already remembering her soft voice quoting Ms. Browning.  We stood in line for a taxi to the base transient quarters and finally checked in.  My dad called the transport terminal and checked to see if his car had made the ship over – it had and we could pick it up either today or tomorrow.  He opted for tomorrow as we were all pretty tired.

My brother and I headed directly to the snack bar and ordered a double cheeseburger with loads of fries.  In all fairness to the German cooks, they made a passable burger, but nothing beats having one flipped on a good old American grill.  As far as French fries go, nothing equals deep fat fried ones.  The Germans just didn’t know how to make good fries.  They were both soggy and soaked with grease, or burned into a crisp suitable for use as a nail.  The Coke we drank was out of this world.  All we got over there at the snack bar was reconstituted syrup and soda water.  The mixture was never right – here, it was just right.  We both had two each.

The bed was lumpy, pushed up against a very hot wall that held heating pipes for the hot water, and smelled of smoke.  I crashed about eight and slept like the dead until I was shaken awake at seven thirty.  Time to go and pick up the bus.

The same time I bought my Volkswagen convertible, my dad bought a VW Microbus Deluxe.  It was as square as a cheese box, and a headwind would keep you in third gear at forty-five miles per hour, but it got almost exactly the same mileage that my bug got.  It had three complete bench seats; the two back ones had a little jump seat sort of thingy that folded down so you could get into the very back seat.  The side doors open like a clamshell – one folded forward and the other backwards.  There was a huge cargo area in what we called the ‘way back’.  In this area we packed all our suitcases and traveling stuff.  It also had a slide back roof opening, which was really cool (especially in winter).

Anyway, we headed over to the shipping terminal to pick up this wonderful vehicle.  It was none the worse for wear even though the battery was dead.  When we attached the jumper cables to the battery, the radio began blaring.  My dad figured that deckhands had used the bus for card games because he found three cards pushed down into the seat.

After folding our maps so that our immediate route was visible, we loaded up and drove out of the terminal and into New Jersey traffic.  Our first goal was to run north up into New York City.  We wouldn’t stop though because our eventual goal was upstate New York where my mom was to visit with her bridesmaid.  They had been corresponding for the whole time and she was looking forward to seeing all of us.

We picked up US highway 9 in northern New Jersey and followed it completely all the way up towards Albany; switching to 9W when it split at the river.  The high point of the trip was going right past West Point.  That was a very impressive school.  We didn’t have time for sightseeing though and moved onward.

Fuel stops were interesting.  There was no self-serve stations back then.  Every time you hit the little black cord and the bell dinged, attendants would rush out to help you.  Their first question was usually ‘what the hell is that’?

We’d have to explain that it was a German car called a Volkswagen and that the engine was in the rear.  This should have been self-evident because the front seat was built completely over (and a little forward) of the front wheels.  This meant that your toes were approximately six inches from the front of the vehicle.

My dad loved to take someone for a ride and whip into a parking spot perpendicular to a brick wall.  He’d get it up to around twenty or twenty-five, turn sharply towards the wall, and snuggle into it – stopping with bare inches to spare between the front bumper and the wall.  Scared hell out of the guest.

The gas cover was inset on the right side and, when you opened it, a huge cap could be unscrewed to allow the nozzle to enter it.  One littler quirk that remained with this bus for the whole 450,000 miles we drove it was that when the gas burbled to the filler hole you had to rock the bus a little to “burp” it and you could get another half gallon in.

The bus, along with my convertible, had no gas gauge at all.  Under the driver seat was a little know that, when pulled out allowed another five liters of gas to be available for use.  So, one just drove until the engine missed a little, pulled the knob, and waited for the engine to begin chugging again.  Then you looked for a gas station.

The really hard part was remembering to push the little knob back in. If you didn’t, you ran the risk of running completely out of gas.  My dad solved this by putting a gallon can of gas in the ‘way back’ for use “just in case”.

Anyway, we arrived in West Hurley after driving most of the day.  Janice and her husband greeted us with a huge meal which we all noisily consumed complete with table talk catching everyone up with heir exploits over the years.  They had no kids so we got a bit bored and wandered outside and down to the lake to feed the ducks.  As I look back on it, I find that West Hurley is very close to a little town called Woodstock.  I seem to remember that town being in the news a while back.

Their house was huge so my brother and I had a room to ourselves.  The bed was so soft you sank completely down into it.  I was asleep in minutes.

We had originally planned to stay for a couple of days, but Janice and Ed had to leave for a funeral the day after we got there.  Just one of those unplanned things that happens.  We packed up again and headed west with a destination somewhere out in western New York.  We were planning on camping most of the way across the US.

Toward evening, we pulled into a nice campground at the end of a river.  We putted around the little lane a couple of times looking for a nice spot to pitch out tents.  In one little copse of trees we found a fire grate and some left-over firewood.  This is where we unloaded and set up camp.  I was elected to help keep the rest of the kids out from underfoot.  Essentially, this meant I was supposed to keep the kids occupied while my parents made camp.  Seemed like a good division of labor to me.

I rounded up my brother before he was able to disappear and had him keep an eye on my youngest sister while all of us walked back to the ‘Tradin’ Post to see what they offered.  Their soda machine, which was one of those old flat-topped machines with the channels you had to navigate the neck of the bottle through so that you could lift the bottle up through the pay-flapper, swallowed my first quarter.  When I complained to the guy behind the desk he just laughed and told me to feed it another quarter.  Surprise!  Soda’s cost fifty cents!  Each!  We all shared one bottle of soda.

The whole time we were in the store the guy behind the counter kept his eye on us.  At these prices, I’m sure he expected us to grab stuff and run out.  Even a box of cookies ran almost a dollar.  Good thing we had enough groceries to last us a couple of days.  We quickly lost interest in the rest of the stuff the store had to offer.

On our way back, we explored a little.  Down by the river was a small dock with several row boats locked to it with a chain.  We sat a while and hung our feet over the edge watching the gnats get hit upon by the fish.  In roughtly one minute, we saw huge fish jump cleanly out of the water and snap up bugs as large as a dragonfly.  On our side of the river there must have been five or six guys fishing.  You’d think that with all those fish jumping they’d be having good luck, but not a one of them caught a fish the whole time we sat there.

“I bet I could catch one,” my brother said.

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing,” I answered.  “Let’s go get our stuff.”

We hustled the other two back to camp and dug our fishing gear out of the back of the bus.  We didn’t have much.  All I had was a nice split bamboo rod that joined in the middle and a middle-sized box of flies.  My brother only had one of those little kids rods with the plastic reels on it and two lures: a red one and a green one.

Back to the dock the two of us went and settled down to do some fishing.  I tied on a green fly that had white wings and lofted it out into the current.  Two casts later, I felt a huge tug on my line and landed a nice trout.  I slipped it onto my stringer and lowered it back to the water.  In a half hour I had a string of five fish.  My brother contributed one also for a total of six.  We decided that was enough for one apiece tonight and packed up the gear.

As I lifted the stringer out of the water a voice behind me said “Hey!  That’s a nice lot of fish.  I suppose you have a license, eh?”

Oops.  I figured my brother was pretty safe since he was only eleven, but I appeared to be fair game.  I figured ‘what the hell’ and answered him in German.  His eyebrows rose a bit; he stood up straight, and replied – in German.  Now I knew I was in trouble.  He repeated his request and held out his hand.  All I could do was produce the last license I’d owned; one from Germany.  He glanced at it, did a double-take, and read it again.  He started to laugh and asked me, in English, how long I’d been in the States.

“Just a week.  We’re on our way out to California.  You’re not going to fine us are you?”

“Well, no.  I should, but I think I’d just better talk to your dad.  Let’s go to your campsite.”

Off we went to our site.  He held the fish though and I thought I’d never see them again.  But, I was wrong.  He hailed the camp and when my dad came out of the tent he introduced himself.  He was the owner of the campground and an air force retiree.  His last duty station was in Germany only about 40 miles away from Stadt.  The two of them got along famously.  He wasn’t a game warden at all.

By the time dinner rolled around, we had the fish cleaned, grilled, and laid out on a plate.  The owner, Bob, had gone up to his house and brought back his wife.  She was German and very shy.  Once she found out my mom and dad spoke German they had a grand time.  Between the four of them they killed an entire bottle of wine and had started on a second.  They didn’t appear to notice the mosquitoes.

Us kids drifted into our tents and tried to hide from the buzzing insects.  There was no place to hide.  It was suffocating down inside our sleeping bags, but you couldn’t have any skin exposed or they would drill right down into an artery.  Even I, a veteran of the Alaskan mosquitoes the size of Condors, couldn’t keep them away.  Around midnight, and the end of a bottle of repellent, I drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

T.O.M.

Back to the USSA

March 12, 2010

(My ap0logies to the Beatles, but since they’ve not been invented yet I guess it’s OK.)

We arrived back in the good old USA from Germany in the late fall of 1958.  We touched down at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey after a harrowing eighteen hour flight in a military passenger plane.  It started out as a C118 and was subsequently modified into a machine of torture by the air force.  If you were less than 4 feet in height you were probably comfortable in the seats, but anything over that caused your knees to hit the seat in front of you.  Fortunately, the seats did not recline or legs would have been amputated.

We were not allowed to get up and “move about the cabin” unless under an armed guard (well, it seemed that way to us kids).  Comic books flew through the air as we finished them and traded for yet another one.  This was naturally followed by spitballs, wads of paper, pillows and very small children.  This activity was stopped by the older of the three cabin attendants – a buck sergeant who wore a moustache and spoke in a low, menacing voice.  He would growl and we’d knock it off until his back was turned.

The two younger attendants, both males also, began twitching around the ninth hour and would disappear from sight for a while until the sergeant dug them up and pushed them back to duty.  By the time the flight was over they were glassy-eyed and unresponsive.

The last three rows of seats were arranged in a semicircle with a low table that could be clicked into latches on the floor.  We older kids were allowed to sit together back there instead of being trapped in our normal seats.  Fortunately, my mom had exposed me to science fiction about a month before we left Germany and I managed to purchase three great books.  Two by Asimov and one by Heinlein.  I dropped into a rear seat right next to a bulkhead and nosed into the first book.  Three hours passed until I sniffed the delicate order of peaches.

I pulled my nose out of “Pebble in the Sky” and glanced over to see where it was coming from.  A very pretty dark-haired girl was craning her neck trying to see what I was reading.  When she saw it was by Asimov she brightened up and asked if I was into ‘SF’ also.  Also?  Could it be possible that this lovely girl had been infected with the bug?

I showed her the cover of the book I was reading, and lifted the other two from the bag at my feet.  She reached for the Heinlein book as she told me she hadn’t read this one.  I handed her “Have Spacesuit – Will Travel”.  She thanked me and we were back to other worlds again.  In about an hour, she grew drowsy, closed the book and laid her head on my shoulder.  This surprised me until I realized that she was really asleep.  I closed my book and leaned towards her.  We drifted off; her head on my shoulder and my head on her head.

The plane hit an air pocket and jounced pretty hard.  She woke up and immediately sat up.  A flush grew from her neck upwards into her hair line.  She apologized with downcast eyes and explained that she was pretty tired.  I told her that it was quite all right and she could put her head back where it was; she declined, but didn’t move from the seat though.  She again raised the book and started reading again.

I tried very hard to concentrate on my book, but it seemed like every minute I’d glance out of the corner of my eye to see if she was nodding off.  Sure enough, within fifteen minutes her chin fell.  I very carefully eased my arm over the back of the seat and gently pulled her downward to my shoulder again.  This time she didn’t even crack an eye.

For a very long hour I was happily breathing in the peach scent from her hair.  It had been a long time since Virginia had left for Italy (and subsequently broke my heart) so any contact with the fair sex was welcome indeed.  I nodded off briefly but woke up from time to time to make sure she was comfortable. I woke from one resting period and turned to see her looking steadily at me with her light blue eyes.

“You have a soft shoulder you know.  I don’t even know your name.”

“Sorry, it’s Tom.  And yours is…”

“Elaine.”

Elaine!  In my mental list of the top ten names for a girl, Elaine was right up there near the top.  I only knew of one Elaine right off: Elaine the Lady of Shalott.  At one point in time about a year ago I got into Tennyson’s poems because Virginia thought they were great and the name Elaine just took hold of me for some reason.  When I asked her if she was the Lady of Shallot, she knew exactly what I meant.

“I have never met any boy who has read Tennyson before.  How did you ever start reading his poems?”

“I got interested in some of the old authors and playwrights, Shakespeare and the like, and pulled a small book of his poems off the shelf at the library.  They intrigued me and I started reading them,” I explained, carefully avoiding that I was actually reading them to a girl who liked to lie across my lap when I read because she liked the vibration of my voice.  “Do you read Tennyson?”

“I love the old English Victorian poets.  Tennyson, Browning – both Browning’s – and especially Wordsworth.”

“Both Browning’s?  I only know of one – Robert.”

“Shame on you.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote sonnets also.”

Ah, man.  I had forgotten about her.  Nice going you smooth-talking fathead.  I apologized, and she smiled.  A nice perfect white teeth smile that set my pulse thumping.  Down boy.  This is just a very pleasurable interlude that will be shattered the moment we touch down.  I’ll never see her again.

“You said Shakespeare also.  Have you read much of his works?”  She asked.

“My first play was Romeo and Juliet.  I loved it.  Especially Romeo’s speech to Juliet at the window…”

I started to recite Act 2, Scene 2: “But soft!  What light through yonder window breaks?  It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!  …”

As I continued she began to smile again and moved closer to me as I recited Romeo’s speech.  When I got to “That I might touch that cheek”, Elaine spoke Juliet’s response: “Aye me!”

I was completely enraptured at those two words.  I flustered through three more lines and ground to a halt.  Her eyes were shining – actually shining at me.

“You have a wonderful speaking voice Tom.  Have you been on the stage?”

“No, not at all.  We didn’t have much of a drama department in school.  I had this very, um, intense relationship with a girl and we would read to each other for hours at a time.  Shakespeare was our favorite.”

“She was a very lucky girl.  I never did find anyone to read poetry to me.  I’m a sucker for poetry of any kind.  I could listen all day to good poetry.”

Just as I opened my mouth to continue, Elaine spoke softly, almost to herself:  “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…”

It was one of the poets I should have remembered before, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet number 43.  I closed my mouth and listened raptly as she recited the whole poem.  I thought to myself that I could easily fall in love with this girl.  She was so very easy to talk to and she loved poetry!

We continued talking about various poets until my brother came back and jolted me into reality.  He told me that I had to come back to my seat for a family conference and fill out or customs forms.  I tore myself away from Elaine and, with a lingering hand to hand touch, turned and walked away.  My brother, the little shit, smirked at me as we went back up the aisle.

“I really HATED to BOTHER you but Dad said to go get you.”

“Yeah, I can see you’re consumed with grief.”

One last look behind me at Elaine, a smile, a wave, and I sat down in my seat.  We all got handed customs forms which we needed to list everything we were bringing into the US.  All I checked was the box marked ‘nothing to declare’, signed it and handed it back to my dad.  We began our family meeting with details on who was going to do what when we landed.  My dad had just gotten the word from one of the wild-eyed attendants that we were almost forty-five minutes early into New Jersey.  This meant I didn’t have enough time to go back and visit with Elaine.

I fussed about fitting my books into the string bag that held everything else I needed on the flight.  It looked like a small fishing net that had managed to scoop up several treasure chests what with all the corners sticking out.  I knew it was going to be a bear getting it down the aisle, but it’s all I had.

By the time I’d polished off a couple more chapters, the light popped on telling us to fasten our seat belts and stop smoking.  I hadn’t been smoking but it felt like I’d gone through a couple packs of cigarettes.  Thank goodness they wouldn’t let my dad smoke his horrible stogies or his pipe.  It was going to be bad enough when we actually started out in the bus.

We swerved around as we approached the coast, dropped lower and lower over water until it looked like we were going to land on it.  We held out altitude for a little longer, cruising above an endless sandy pine forest and then suddenly, the edge of the airfield appeared and we touched down.  It had taken us seventeen hours and forty-five minutes to cross what took us nine days in a ship.  Personally, I preferred the ship.

Comment:  For those unbelievers among you, I really did memorize quite a bit of Shakespeare, Tennyson, and even Browning.  It is amazing what a young teenager will do for a girl.  Virginia liked to hear my voice, and I like to read to her, so there you go.  We once went a whole day speaking in pseudo-iambic pentameter and I didn’t feel like I had a screw loose even once.  Such is love.

T.O.M.

In Merrie Olde England (Pt. 4)

March 8, 2010

I decided to sleep in the next morning.  This wasn’t a conscious thought, but more like one made when one opens one eye and catches the spidery trails of rain down the window.  Just what I needed; more rain.  I had several places I wanted to go today, but most of them were outdoors.

My dad had long gone to the conference so I took almost an hour to just drowse and then popped in for a nice cold shower and got dressed.  When I phoned down to the desk about the water I was informed that the boiler had “packed it in” and was currently being repaired.  Oddly enough, the water coming out of the cold tap was warmer than the water coming out of the hot tap.  Go figure.

When I finally got to the dining room I found that I was caught between breakfast and lunch servings.  I went in search of something to read while waiting and found a discarded Times newspaper.  I’d always heard that the crossword puzzle in this paper was one of the hardest ones in all newspaperdom.  When I turned to it, I could see why.  It was enormous and whoever had fiddled with it only filled in a few spots.  After messing with it for ten minutes I could see why.  It was a hugely confusing mess of clues that didn’t even make sense in some cases.  I gave up also.

Lunch was a very nice chicken dish server over rice.  Luncheon (as it was called) was served from the buffets lining the side of the room.  Pretty much all you could eat.  I had two helpings.  I already knew that the coffee was dreadful so I kept to tea; which was just passable.  I’d never get used to straining the leaves out with my teeth.

After lunch I wandered around the hotel public areas and found a nice box of toffee for my brother and a silk hankie for my sister.  My brother, for some reason, liked toffee.  I’m not sure why though because I thought that’s what they melted to make the coffee.

It remained dismal and grey outside with occasional bursts of rain.  I went back to the room and grabbed my umbrella and headed out the main door.  I was determined to find something that interested me.

There weren’t a lot of shops in this district so I took a look at my tube map and the name Elephant and Castle jumped right out at me.  I had no idea what that meant, but I was intrigued by the name.  What could those two unlikely names have in common?  It proved the be a bit difficult to get to also.  It was on the south side of the Thames and reachable on the Bakerloo line.  Several wrong turns ensued as I tried to orient myself enough to catch the right train.  When I finally emerged from the train, I was confronted by a huge sign with arrows pointing all over the place.  I must have really looked like a tourist standing if front of it because a very nice guy stopped and asked where I was going.  I told him I had heard of a shopping area, but didn’t know which way to go.  He indicated one arrow and told me to follow the orange lines up but don’t go all the way out; just take the lower entrance to the shopping area.

I did as instructed and found that he was right on the money.  I entered a huge hall that was lined with shops of all types.  A lot of them were devoted to clothing and that didn’t interest me.  I walked up one side and down the other until I came across a model shop.  British and German trains were running in the front window and that grabbed my attention.  I went in.

It wasn’t a large shop, but I spent almost an hour messing about, looking at all the stock they had.  I’d started an HO model railroad at home and knew of several great model shops down in Stadt, but this one definitely had more stock.  Unfortunately, it was fairly high priced for some reason.  I finally decided that I could get most of their stock back home cheaper than buying it here and left.

On one of the corners a vendor was selling huge pretzels.  The smell got to me and my stomach rumbled.  The guy loaded it up with a really pungent mustard and sprinkled huge grains of salt on it.  I had to sit down on a bench to eat it.  Now, I normally welcome hot mustard (or anything else) but this was simply too hot for me.  I had to scrape some of it off before my mouth exploded.

Another hour passed as I wandered up one side of the short road and back down the other.  At each end, like some huge concrete dumbbell, were two multi-ring traffic circles.  It apparently was a game where drivers on the edges tried to get through each inner lane, traverse the length of the “rod” and then whip through oncoming traffic at the other end to go on their way.  All done in a clockwise whirl.

There were a couple of pedestrian crosswalks but I noticed that very few natives were prepared to risk them.  Almost unnoticed were the small little buildings that looked like kiosks; they held stairs that went down under the circles and came up on the other side.  That seemed much saner to me.

I ended up right back at the original tube entrance I had started on and went back down to catch a train for the hotel.  Without actually checking I jumped aboard an arriving train.  When I took off I noticed that it was flying through quite a few stations without stopping.  I had boarded an express and it was headed the wrong direction.  I had no idea what the next stop was.

I watched some of the stations fly past:  Stockwell, Clapham Common, Clapham South, Tooting Broadway (really!), Morden Road, and, finally, Morden.  Apparently, this was the end of the line because the doors opened and didn’t close.  I got out and navigated back to the northbound side of the tracks to wait for a train.

By the time I got back to Stockwell station it was late, and changing to the Victoria line was a huge hassle due to the crush of people.  I recognized Oxford Circus and leapt off the train just as the doors closed.  Now I knew just where I was.  I practically ran over to the Central line and went west two exits to my stop.  I was worn out by the time the doorman opened the doors to the hotel.  Tom greeted me and asked if I’d had a good time.

“Yeah, but I’m really beat from all the train rides.  I got stuck on an express and ended up down in Morden and had to find my way back up.”

“Morden!?  That’s a long way from here, Mate.”

“Do tell.  You on duty now?”

“Aye.  I won’t get off until around midnight today.  I take a break in half an hour though.  Want to grab a bite in the kitchen?”

“Sure.  Sounds good to me.  Give me a ring when you’re ready.”

“Right-o”, he said, and off he went.

I went upstairs to the room, grabbed a quick shower (hot water this time) and changed clothes.  The phone started ringing just as I stepped out of the bathroom.  It was Tom.  On my way out of the room I scribbled a note for my dad that I was having dinner with Tom.  I went back downstairs and met him at the rear of the reception area.  He pushed a door open and motioned for me to lead on.

I passed a couple of locker rooms, a very smoky meeting room, a couple of flapping doors that led into the kitchen and, finally, into a narrow room that had tables lined down one side.  This, Tom proclaimed, is where the help ate their meals.  He told me that they only got what the kitchen fixed for the staff and he’d just get two of them.

When he got back, he was holding a huge tray loaded down with quite an array of food on at least five plates.  I could identify the roast beef slices, carrots, and ham, but a greenish mass eluded me.  Tom told me it was steamed Brussels sprouts.  Suppressing my gag reflex, I felt I had to tell him that those little green things and my throat just didn’t get along.  He scooped all of them onto his plate and dug in.  I couldn’t watch.

The beef was wonderful and came with boiled potatoes and a rich gravy.  Steamed carrots on the side finished the meal.  It was better than any meal I’d had here in London so far.  Afterward, Tom said he had to go and showed me the way out.  I went back up to the room and found my dad on the telephone.

When he hung up he told me that we’d managed to catch one of the early flights back home.  Now, early to him meant around six but early to me meant somewhere around eleven or so.  We were going by his clock so he set the alarm for five.  Yikes!

We went down into the pub and sipped a couple of beers.  He had a very dark brew and I favored something a little lighter.  After two each, we saw it was getting late so we just went back up to the room and hit the sack.  Five AM.  Yuk!

Anyone who can bang out of bed even before the alarm goes off ought to be staked out on an anthill and covered with honey.  I drowsed in and out of consciousness as he hit the bathroom and, once he was done, I struggled out of bed and did my morning routine.  After packing the last items in our suitcases, we dragged them over to the door and went out to the lift (I’d learned that from Tom, but he had no answer as to why it hadn’t been named a ‘drop’ instead.  I mean, it went both ways didn’t it?)

Under grey, lead colored skies, we traveled the reverse route back to the aerodrome where we had originally landed.  Helpful people with umbrellas at the ready held them over us as we emerged from the taxi and went into the operations building.  Several of the travelers we came over with were sitting around waiting to be called to the desk to give out survivor information to the clerk in charge of all that.  Our turn came, we informed, and sat back down on the long benches to wait.

Our flight was called and we lined up according to our travel priorities.  We were somewhere in the middle.  We boarded what looked like the same C-47 we arrived on and sat in almost the same seats.  One engine started, which blew acrid smoke into the open door with its prop wash.  Still, we waited on the tarmac.  Finally, some sort of bigwig came aboard, crammed himself into the very front seat and the crew chief slammed the door and locked it.  The remaining engine started and we waddled out to the runway.

The flight home was pretty much the same as the one coming over, but this time we were bumped around leaving and, until we peeked out of the clouds just over the Channel, we couldn’t see a thing out the window.  Once over water, the clouds cleared, the ride smoothed down, and everyone let go of the armrests.

We flew along in silence.  By that, I mean we didn’t talk among ourselves, not that the engines had stopped or anything like that.  We made a brief stop in Paris to let the bigwig off and continued into Germany.  Since Stadt was the closest to Paris we were next to leave the plane.  All in all, it had been a pretty nice flight.  Much better than the carnival ride on the way over.

Tired, but happy that our trip was over, we met my mom at base operations and headed home.  I thought of Gin several times in the ensuing weeks.  I wondered just how she felt about marrying someone she hadn’t even met yet.  The whole idea, to me, was strange indeed.  But, as Tom had said, ‘its part of their culture, Mate’.

We had Brussels sprouts the very first evening meal after our return.  Will no one rid me of this foul vegetable?

T.O.M.

In Merrie Olde England (Pt.3)

March 1, 2010

A very tall guy answered the door when Tom pushed the bell.  He greeted Tom, glanced at me, and looked over the two girls as they passed by.  We were ushered into a small but cozy living room where perhaps five couples were sitting on various pieces of furniture.  The noise level was deafening as they all were talking at the same time.  My eyes smarted from the cigarette smoke.  It seemed as if every one of them had a lit smoke of some kind.

Our host, Reginald (call me ‘Reggie’) pointed to me and indicated that my name was Tom also.  It was agreed that for tonight I’d me known as ‘Yank’.  How they knew that without me saying more than five words I’ll never know.  Maybe it was the way I dressed or something.

The group turned out to be quite cosmopolitan.  Among them were me, a yank, two from Wales (wherever that was), four from way up north in Liverpool, a very tiny, dark, Indian girl who sat in a corner, and one guy with a Dutch-sounding name that I didn’t quite catch.  Everyone called him Vannie.  A glass was shoved into my hand and I was waved over to the table upon which sat a huge collection of booze, mixer, ice, and munchies.

I opted for just a glass of some dark type of soda.  It turned out to be grape of all things.  With a small dish of stuff to nibble on, I found a place to sit between the Indian girl and a large guy from Liverpool.  He gave his name again, Alf, and turned back to the girl he was chatting with.  I leaned over and tried to talk to the Indian girl.  She never once looked at me, but said her name was Gin.  I had her repeat it but it definitely was ‘Gin’.  I assumed it was the short version of her actual name.

She told me she was from a place called Sirideo Beach on the west coast of India.  Her parents ran an automobile dealership there and sent her here to London to school.  I was very surprised to find she was two years older than me; almost nineteen.  Never assume, I repeated in my mind; never assume.  I told her I lived in Germany and was just here for a vacation while my dad went to a conference.

As we talked, she gradually lost some of her shyness.  Once, when she looked directly at me, I saw she had almost black eyes.  They were beautiful and captivating.  Before I made an ass of myself, I thought, I’d better check on the whereabouts of Connie – ostensibly my date.  When I spotted her, she was crowded into the corner of a couch with a guy sitting entirely too close to her.  She appeared nervous and kept tugging down the hem of her skirt, which was short to begin with.  The way he had her sitting, it rode up on her thighs; a lot.  Gin followed my gaze and stood to excuse herself.  As she walked by, I actually caught the smell of jasmine.  Which, as it turned out, was my favorite cup of tea.  I hoped fervently that I hadn’t made her mad.

I mingled with the rest of the gang.  I had a very hard time decoding accents, but, over time, I seemed to at least get the gist of what they were saying.  My evening consisted of a lot of ‘uh huh’s and ‘yes-no’ answers.  They probably thought I was an idiot.

The birthday girl, Gwen, stood to our toasts and giggled.  She had been steadily sipping on a special bottle of wine on the table and had killed almost all of it.  She was pretty tiddly by the time it came to open presents.  She had a small pile of them around her feet as she sat back down on the couch.  After opening the second gift I knew that they were supposed to be gag gifts.  The first one was a nightgown about six inches long.  Just enough material to cover her shoulders.  The second one, which never got out of the box, appeared to be very embarrassing because she turned scarlet and hastily put the lid back on.

Tom leaned over and said “that was mine.  I got her a peek-a-boo bra.  The kind where the nipples stick out through little holes.  Not that she really needs it though.”

He was right.  Gwen wasn’t very well endowed chest-wise.  She was pleasant to look at though and that wouldn’t have matter to me at all.  But, according to Tom, she was going out with Reginald.  Maybe she’d wear it for him.

People drifted in, had a few drinks, and then drifted back out.  Time passed quickly and the original group thinned somewhat as members left – mostly two by two.  Gin came over and sat next to me on the love seat.  When she touched my arm I jumped.  Her hands were like ice.  When I asked her where she had been, she pointed down the hall.

“There’s a small room at the end of the hall where Reginald doesn’t allow smoking.  I had the window open.”

“Oh, really?  I could definitely use some fresh air,” I remarked starting to rise.  “This smoky room is getting to me.”

“I will go with you,” she said, rising also and putting her arm across my back to steady me because I wobbled a little.  “Mind the rug, Tom.”

I loved the way she said my name.  She would say the ‘o’ long instead of short, drawing it out to an ‘oo’ sound; making it sound like ‘tome’.  Have I mentioned she was very pretty?

We went down the hall and into the smoke-free room, closing the door after us.  It was dark, but she turned on a small light next to a desk.  I went to the window, opened it a little, and took several deep breaths.  I could feel my head clearing.  As I looked out the window I could see down two rather large roads.  Bright headlights were in a continuous river but they looked odd until I realized that they were on the ‘wrong’ side for me.  I chuckled.

Gin came over and looked at me.  I explained what had made me laugh.  She looked at me quizzically and asked me why that was different?  I started to explain and then remembered that they drove on the left in India also.  No wonder she didn’t see the humor of it.  I was the different one here.  She told me that she would be terrified to drive on the right side like we did.  This echoed my first impression when I left the London airport.

She stood closer yet, put her hand on my shoulder, and leaned out the window to point.

“Down that way is a very nice park.  Down where no light show.  And over here where all the bright lights are…” she pointed, “… is Linford Christie Stadium.  Do you follow football?”

I did the mental translation from English ‘football’ to what we Yanks call ‘soccer’ and told her no I didn’t.  I added that the Germans called it ‘Foosball’.  She giggled at that.  She could put so much into a single noise like giggling.  It suited her.

I noted that she hadn’t dropped her hand from my shoulder and took a chance.  I slipped my arm around her very lightly on the pretense of working the window winder lever.  She didn’t pull away from me at least.  I left my arm there and tightened it just a little.  We stood that way for a moment and then she turned away to sit back down.  I thought that I’d blown it until she patted the cushion next to her on the love seat.  She reached out with both hands and I covered them with my own, warming them.  Her fingers were still like ice.  I rubbed them briskly and for some wild reason I bent down and kissed the back of her hand.

I heard an intake of breath and thought that now she would get up and walk out of the room.  But, she didn’t.  She instead looked directly at me and in an unblinking gaze moved her face close to mine and kissed me right on the lips.  I was stunned.  I swallowed a couple of times, lowered her hands to her lap, and returned her kiss.

An indistinct sound, footsteps down the hall, and a knock on the door interrupted us.  It was Tom, come looking for me.  Before I could give Gin any indication that I’d prefer her company, she stood up and smiled at me again.

“We must get back to the party.  I would find it most enjoyable to stay here, but I am not free from obligations.”

‘Oh, no,’ I thought to myself.  ‘She’s married?”

“I am soon to graduate and go back to India to be my father’s bookkeeper.  He has arranged for me to marry one of his managers.”

‘Nuts,’ I mused internally.  “Oh I am sorry to hear that Gin.  Could you just stay a little longer?”

“I, too, would like to remain, but I must go.”

Meanwhile, Tom had tapped again a bit stronger and added that he knew I was in here.  She slowly removed her hands from between mine and turned to the door.  I followed dejectedly.

When I opened the door, Tom stepped back to let her by.  Then he told me that we’d better be going back to the hotel as the trains only run every hour after midnight.  I glanced at my watch and found that it was nearing eleven thirty.  We did need to get moving.  I made the rounds of everyone who was left and wished Gwen a happy birthday.  I didn’t even see Gin before Tom handed me my jacket and almost pushed me out the door.

“Hey, wait a minute, Tom.  What’s the big hurry?”

“Gin’s an untouchable, man.  That’s what’s wrong.”

“What?!  Untouchable?  What do you mean?”

“Her dad has spies all over the place.  Everywhere she goes is reported back to him.  He takes her marriage contract very seriously.  None of us guys can even get her alone and you manage to do it in one night.”

“Yeah, but, untouchable?  That’s nuts.”

“Part of the culture, man.”

“But we only kissed a couple of times.”

His eyes got wide and he stopped suddenly.

“Oh, cor!  Don’t tell anyone that.  Nobody at all.  Right?”

“Well, okay.  If you say so.”

“I say so.”

We resumed walking towards the tube station.  Down the steps we went and waited on the platform for the train.  Right at midnight it appeared and we boarded for our trip back to the hotel.  Twenty minutes later, we arrived.  I said my goodbyes to Tom and went on upstairs in the creaky old elevator.  He headed home because he was on duty again tomorrow, or today, at noon.

A great party and an introduction to yet another culture; for me, strange, but to her it made perfect sense.  I thought that maybe some research into arranged marriages might help me figure it out as I drifted off to sleep.

T.O.M.