Monday, May 28, 2012

On Decoration Day

    Harry Briscoe, who makes fly rods and hunts for oil, in his warm and generous way sent thanks to me, of all people, for my service in WWII. I responded with the email below. Harry says that I should post it on this Decoration Day Sunday.
   And so, since I am nothing if not obedient, in or out of the Navy, here it is.

     Dear Harry, I bet you say those nice things to all the girls. 
     When I was close to being sent home, when the war was over in '45, I felt guilty that I had done little to help win the war. I had merely kept the stills cooking, making fresh water, for a Sea Bee outfit stymied on a tiny island in the Philippines. We were an outfit detached to rebuild wrecked rolling stock and commissioned for a longer war with fewer resources, but, in the end, the U.S. got ahead of the war, and so we were not needed after all-- not needed.
   I knew that when I got home this "education thing" (the GI Bill) was waiting. I was sure to reap greater benefits than I ever deserved. And such was the case. I have never ceased feeling that I owe the Nation a great debt. School teaching felt like an appropriate way to pay back the loan of my full life.
  You and my nephew-in-law send out similar gestures of thanks on this big spring holiday. Here in Boulder, the running of its popular foot-race shuts down access to the grave yards and the honored dead lying in them.  But I shall find a way through the blockades.
    I know some veterans who really deserve your kind thoughts; for instance, my 93 year old barber, Fred  Saiz.  But not I, Harry, not I. It may be fairly said of me that I followed orders, did mostly as I was told, and might well have been told to go another place and die-- as did my most excellent of  friends Ralph Metcalf in his first hour of combat on Luzon. I was, all the while, safe and sound down on little Calicoan cooking the salt out of sea water for my buddies to drink and wash their socks in.
   I was barely an 18 year old in a Naval Sea Bee outfit full of middle-aged construction men, the greatest of men, for whose association I am grateful beyond the power of telling. Had I not been given that war, I would never have been given those guys.
  And so, on Decoration Day, I wish I had been really useful and done something more than just privately memorable. Still, I am proud beyond the power of telling that I was part of it, ready to go, got there, and did my lowly job. I was among superb men.
   Back home, in the excitement of my undergraduate education, I felt I must somehow pay back for that education and the benefits accruing to it. I was obligated to the Nation I had served. I was obligated to its community and its welfare. I never got over it. That war was really something. There are things worse than war.
  Thanks for thinking of my good old ship-mates.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Very Flesh of Charles Laughton

             How to write “Laughton” ten times and write the
                      beautiful word Plangent the very first time

                     It occurs tom me, and sadly, that there is
                     an entire generation who know little about
             Charles Laughton, one of the greatest of stage and screen,

    In London, that year, Charles Laughton, having taken up the cause of a new, young, and not very good playwright, put his great influence and fame behind a production of this young man's new play. Laughton would even star in it. What an opportunity that was for us to see this great actor in person, live, on stage! We could hardly contain our excitement when we found ourselves at a matinee of the production in a West End theatre, the name of which I cannot now remember.
    Anyhow, the  play began and we were at once drawn into the magnetism of Laughton's personality, his peculiar body, and mesmerizing voice. The play itself was of little interest: it was all Laughton, bumbling around up there, snorting and huffing about in a depressing bachelor flat, the likes of which London is replete.
   Well, quite soon, at Laughton’s  every turn, there was a bit of applause and silly, nasal  male laughter. These tenders of adoration became more and more frequent, louder, and  disturbing, They turned into big clapping, roaring laughter, and remarks on how he loved the play and Laughton. The audience was terribly on edge and getting angry.
    Suddenly, Laughton stepped out of character and called for the curtain to be brought down. We in the audience sat in stunned silence-- until Laughton came out from behind the curtain to the apron of the stage to tell us that he really could not go on with this mischief in the audience and that the house management would have to see “this fellow” out of the theatre before he could go on-- and that he would be back when the offender was removed. So the curtain closed on him, the house lights came up, the ushers found the seriously drunken "fellow" and threw him out.
    When calm was restored in the theatre, Laughton again came front to tell us  how sorry he was for this embarrassment  to the production and the theatre  and that now he proposed to continue with the play if that suited us in the house. He became so very charming and humorous, He asked us what it is he ought to do. Should he go back and start again at the top of the act? Or should he recommence right where he had brought the curtain down before? He bantered with us, encouraging us to decide our pleasure. The finest sort of happiness swept through the crowd: we were all simply and over-whelmingly charmed. All that funny bantering with the great man. We decided that he should start again, back where he left off. That was fine with him; so he had the curtain taken out and proceeded to lecture us  quite "sternly" like a funny old uncle. He was, by God, going back into that set and climb up on that bed and pretend to go to sleep and if he heard one peep out of any of us, he would again stop the play and have us all thrown out into the street.
    He  then made a "big  production " of  getting his fat, lumpy body up on the bed, smiled, and waved a  cute little wave to us out in  the house and fell instantly to snoring.
    And so, we had shared this once in a lifetime, intimate moment with this great artist, a brief moment when we felt swamped in happiness. We went back to watching him at his work in this altogether forgettable play, but suffused with this gift that he had given us. Charles Laughton had recognized us, his audience, with  warmth and generosity. He had shown us himself -- and recognized in us his life's greatest treasure: an audience.
    A moral to this story? I believe that we all attend live performance with the shyly hidden desire to see something go wrong. One of the joys of the theatre is to see how actors can get out of trouble, perhaps as a model of the way we can, with an active imagination, get out of our own all too real troubles in life.

By the Way: My boss at the British Drama League took Betty aside and asked her how Americans made the good coffee of which she had heard. It was revealed that Miss MacKenzie just kept on adding a bit more ground coffee on top of that already used until the basket would hold no more. Miss MacKenzie was a survivor of the not so remote  bombing of London.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Navy Beans

                    A GOOD S0UP

    Betty got out a can of beans as part of a routine lunch today.
They were Navy beans, those little white ones, famous in the famous Navy bean soup in U.S. Senate dining room in Washington. For a split instant, the sight of those beans took me back to being there in the Capitol, risking a too short spoon in just that soup, in just that dining room, in an effort to do what we could against the war in Vietnam.
   In that instant, in spite of all our anti-war politics, I was in awe of the undoubted grandeur and the immense integrity of the Congress under that great dome.
    There were all those great men-- and single senate woman-- moving about the place.
   Perhaps it is because I am now almost double that age, that I feel that a visit there today to eat the senate’s bean soup would only fill me with contempt for how small and mean and dumb so many of those people have become.
    I am much better off lunching out of a can of beans with Betty here in Boulder where we know what to think. And think how splendid it was to meet Senator Fulbright going into the men's room that day.