Wednesday, February 13, 2019

WAGBAI: EUSTON STATION


     Imagine yourself at Euston Station in September, 1944, at the beginning of school term. It feels safe now, much safer than it would have felt a couple of years ago. While the threat of buzz bombs is still real—but more sporadic and more widely scattered—the nightly carpet-bombing of the city is long past. The allied armies are still fighting the Nazis in Europe, but here at home things are relatively quiet. You’ll still see those barriers of protective sandbags in front of buildings, but the normal activities of life proceed. There are black London taxis and big red buses everywhere. There are endless streams of people on the city streets. And the trains still leave from the railway stations, taking children off to school.


            Our train is waiting at the platform...


... a massive, hissing hulk of steel that puts out bursts of steam and clanks ominously with metallic sounds. The station reeks of oil, and grease, and coal. Whistles shriek. Vast spaces extend all around you, making you feel yet more insignificant and tiny than you might already feel, your hand grasping urgently in your mother’s or your father’s. All around are porters’ carts and towering stacks of trunks, some of them ringed with black and white bands like your own. And all around there are, mostly, boys, some of them as small as you but others bigger, more confident, noisy, shouting out gleeful greetings to the friends they already made in previous years at school.
            You are on your way to boarding school for the first time. You are seven years old. You want to be brave but there is a big lump in your throat, because you know there are only minutes more before you have to leave your mummy and daddy and join the dozens of other boys, all strangers, who are already piling into the carriages; before the train leaves, before you have to say goodbye. You recognize deep down the feeling you always have when you know you need to cry, but you also know you’re not allowed to, not in any circumstance, not here, not now, with all these other boys around you. You know that crying would only invite ridicule and contempt, and you can’t start out that way. You know you have to be brave because all the other boys are brave and you don’t want to be marked out as a cry-baby from the very start.
            And yet… the time comes. You father offers you his hand to shake. That’s the man’s way of saying goodbye. Does your mother dare to hug you? Does she want to? Does she even want you to leave? These are agonizing questions that go through your mind—questions you don’t even dare to ask yourself. Your mother’s blue eyes, so familiar to you, refuse to fill with tears. If she is unhappy to send you off to school she will not show it. Must not. Stepping off the platform and into the carriage, you can’t even remember if she hugged you.
Not our station, but a similar scene
            Your parents are standing there, a blur, nothing more than pale faces in a crowd of other faces, with a forest of hands waving at you as the train jolts into action and begins to move slowly away with a great burst of noise, steel wheels clanking on steel rails, a hiss of accumulated steam. As the train gathers speed you realize just how alone you feel, the smallest of boys in this caterwauling crowd of other boys. Just how alone you’ll be feeling for what looms like an eternity ahead.
            Once past the end of the railway platform and out into the full grey, misty light of day, you know you’re gone for good. Raindrops streak in diagonal paths across the grimy window. No way to turn back. And hours to go, and hundreds of miles ahead.

Monday, February 11, 2019

WAGBAI: THE CHOICE


          I fear the time has come to leave behind those days that were, for a child at least, carefree and innocent, despite the war that continued to rage in Europe. My last memories of that war were Yanks in endless columns of Jeeps...


 

... and military trucks passing through our village, with sticks of chewing gum for eager children running alongside, packs of Lucky Strikes for smokers like my father, and silk stockings for our Bletchley girls. It was my first glimpse of the happy denizens of the country that was to become my home.
But those days of innocence came to an end when I was seven years old and my parents decided to send me off to boarding school. In one of our serious talks in his study at the Rectory, my father made at least the pretense of including me in the decision. I could choose, he said, to join the boys at the local school. But it was made clear to me in the subtlest of ways that the “local boys” were not the most desirable of classmates and that boarding school would offer an infinitely better education. If I wanted to make something of my life the “choice” was not in question. I chose to go where I knew my parents wanted me to go. Even for a seven year old, the signals were not hard to read. And “prep school” sounded somehow exciting, somehow manly, somehow… the right place for a young boy. (Prep school in England, unlike in the United States, is the elementary school that prepares you, not for college, but for entry into the “public school” system. For “public,” or course, read “private.” Prep schools take children from roughly seven or eight to twelve years of age. Public schools, from twelve to eighteen).
We went shopping in London. We shopped at the grand Gorringes department store...


... on Buckingham Palace Road, near Victoria station, where they sold uniforms for almost every prep and public school. For all I know, they still do. That was the tradition, and it was part of the excitement. We bought what I’d need for my school uniform... 

(Something like this... I remember a lighter grey)

...a grey jacket and matching grey shorts; a black and white striped knit tie; knee-length socks with black and white trim at the top; a black cap with white ribbing; shirts and underwear, “vests”—undershirts—and underpants; and black lace-up shoes. We bought a big brown steamer “trunk” to pack things in, reinforced with wooden bands and protected by brass corners...


... and ringed with black and white stripes for railways porters to distinguish it from trunks destined for other schools at the train station, at the beginning of school term.
I was to go to Windlesham House School. Flora was to go to Upper Chine. Her uniform was cornflower blue...

(Here they are! Not in glorious color, I fear. My sister could have been in this picture--but I don't think she is...)
As I recall, Upper Chine was evacuated from the Isle of Wight to a location close to Aspley Guise for the duration of the war, which meant that she could start there as a “day girl.” Windlesham was also evacuated from the south coast, not far from Brighton, but to a location in Ambleside, a small town in what was then Cumberland, now Cumbria, in the far north of England. Which was a very long way from home.
And boyhood began to take a darker turn…


NIGHTMARE

It was one of those nightmares from which you wake with the sense of utter and indescribable relief that in "reality" what you imagined in your sleep to be unquestionably "real" was in fact "only a dream." I dreamt that Jake, our dog, was stolen.

It started with a walk at the beach, on the rocks, among the tidepools, with a confusing crowd of other walkers--men, women and children, none of whom we knew, in a "group" to which we have never belonged. Jake was having a great time, prancing around everywhere, making friends with strangers as he often does. But in a while we noticed that he wasn't there. We looked everywhere, but failed to find him.

By this time, the group had separated, everyone going their different ways. We walked home without Jake, supposing at first that he had gotten lost, but soon concluding that he had been stolen. Some had just walked off with him when we weren't looking.

Back at our house--which was not our cottage, but a sharp-edged modern structure with white walls and stairways with railings--we wondered what to do. Interesting, that Ellie (who would have been much more distraught) seemed much less concerned than I was myself. She went off to the kitchen to do some cooking.

I meanwhile, recalling that his tag had our Los Angeles telephone number, not our beach number, was anxious to check our home phone to see if anyone might have found Jake and left a message for us. But the telephone in this modern house was a strange, upright affair, like a big office phone with dozens of lines, and I had no idea how to use it. There was an instruction manual nearby, however, and I tried to follow the instructions--which involved entering the phone numbers on the paper sheet itself, rather than on the phone, and I was having difficulty reading and tapping out the numbers at the same time.

Frustrated, I decided to walk down to the police station to make a report and see if anyone had reported finding a dog. Once there, I entered a front office that was crowded with police officers and others, all dressed ridiculously in comic opera costumes. Managing, finally, to attract the attention of an officer, I was told rather rudely to go to Lost and Found. There would be, he told me, a long wait.

Indeed there was. Lost and Found was at the end of a corridor, with literally dozens of people standing patiently in a Kafka-esque line, with no apparent hope of ever reaching the end of it. By now, Ellie had joined me--though I had no idea how she could have known where I was--and we decided to go home.

On the way up the long hill we encountered someone with two dogs, and my heart leapt with the hope that one of them, a King Charles Spaniel, might be Jake. But no. This was not a Bleinheim (brown and white) like Jake, it was a Ruby (all brown). Another terrible disappointment!

No matter, we walked on up the hill. Back at the house, it now appeared we had invited a number of people to join us for dinner. Ellie went back to the kitchen while I found a bottle of red wine to open.

Dinner started with a bustle, with everyone filling their own plate and settling down at the table. My neighbor--whom I thought I knew but could not identify--returned with his plate, but seemed disinterested in a glass of wine. As did everyone else. Rather than waste it, I decided to re-cork it and set it aside for another time, and asked Ellie to find the cork. But neither one of us could find it. So the bottle remained uncorked...

Which is when I woke, in broad daylight (very late for me) and realized in a flash that Jake had not been stolen at all but was still sleeping happily in his crate. I was never happier to put on his leash and take him out for his morning pee and poop walk.

The moral? Perhaps it's the good old Buddhist teaching that all things are impermanent. No way to put the cork back in the bottle. Avoid attachment. "This is not mine." Nothing, nothing is "mine," no matter how much I may attach to it. Everything, literally everything--even Jake!--can be taken from you in an instant. Not an easy lesson, but no less true for being unpalatable.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

WAGBAI: ABERPORTH


ABERPORTH

            Speaking of family… I’ll fly ahead here to the end of the war, though I’ll need to return shortly to the last of the war years.
            We were in Aberporth on August 14, 1945, V-J Day, for Victory in Japan, marking the end of all hostilities in the Second World War and a cause for great national celebration in Great Britain and elsewhere throughout the world. V-E Day, Victory in Europe, had come three months earlier, on May 8, before the summer holidays, so I was still at school. We celebrated there with fireworks and a bonfire, like Guy Fawkes Day. But V-J Day was in August and we were on holiday. As in previous war years, we were spending the holidays that year in Aberporth where my grandparents lived. It was a long trek by car from Bedfordshire to the west coast of Wales, and “petrol”—gas, as we know it over here in the States—was always a big concern. Like everything else in those days it was rationed, but I suppose my parents were able to save up enough coupons to make the journey possible. There were no motorways, of course, and many of the regular roads were narrow, twisty and slow-going. This was particularly true of the last few miles on the drive to Aperporth, on the road between Carmarthen and Newcastle Emlyn. In Carmarthen we would drive by the old oak tree...


... propped up by steel and concrete for fear that it would fall—legend has it that the town will be flooded when the old oak falls; then long miles along the shady road that followed the sparkling river Teifi (the “f” is pronounced as a “v”, in Welsh)...


... where fishermen still navigate the roiling waters in their coracles—ancient, round boats fashioned out of basketry and tar...



... casting out their nets to catch the salmon for which the river is well known. We have relatives, the Georges, in Newcastle Emlyn, but we don’t stop there; we climb all-too-slowly for us children out of that small town, up a long, steep hill, and start the seemingly endless descent into Aberporth. Such excitement! First one to catch a glimpse of the sea was rewarded with a silver sixpenny piece.
            We didn’t stay with our grandparents. Their little house, Penparc Cottage...


... down by the village’s first bay, would have been too small for all of us. We stayed further up the street at Miss Griffith’s lodging house, Bryn Mawr, in a cavernous room that Flora and I had to share, sleeping in big wooden beds that were covered with puffy white duvets. We loved Miss Griffith even though she was “chapel”—that is, like most of her Welsh compatriots, she attended the protestant chapel on Sundays, rather than our church. She was a sweet Welsh-speaking lady, devoted to our family. A spinster, likely in her fifties—she seemed ancient to us—she was famous for her Welsh cawl, a leek-based stew, and her rice pudding, a sweet and creamy treat topped with a brown crust from the oven. It was from Miss Griffith that we learned our few words of Welsh: “nos da” for ”goodnight” and “bore da” for “good morning”, “bara menyn” and “bara a chaws” for “bread and butter” and “bread and cheese.”
            Once unpacked and settled into Miss Griffith’s it was off for the walk down past Dan the Felin’s field, with the friendly dappled horse we named Airdale, and on down to Penparc Cottage, armed with our shovels and pails and the shrimping nets my father had made for us to catch the prawns that dart elusively amongst the rocks and the slowly shifting strands of seaweed at low tide. The smell of the seaside was delicious and distinctive, calling us to irresistibly to the beach with its familiar salty tang…
But first there was the obligatory stop at Penparc Cottage, a low, long, white-washed building with a grey slate roof and, in front, a neat green lawn and a path that led to the front door. It was always dark inside, perhaps because the windows were so few, to keep the winter’s cold at bay, and perhaps because the furniture was all of hard, dark wood—the Welsh dresser and its neighboring bench on the front porch, the large armoire where my grandmother kept her secret stash of treasured family heirlooms. A tiny woman of boundless energy, she was an Air Raid Warden in the heavily bombed city of Swansea during the war. She could vividly describe the deafening sounds of the explosions and the heat of the burning buildings, and used to boast of the occasion when she gathered up an armful of unexploded incendiary bombs after a German air attack and tried to pass them on to one of her male coworkers so that her arms would be free to pick up more. According to her story, (and to her great indignation!) the man very sensibly declined. One of the Nazi incendiary bombs, long since disarmed, was among the objects in the drawer of her armoire. She would pass it to me, lovingly, so that I could feel its weight.
            “Grane,” as the entire family called her, was the live wire. My grandfather, “Grimp”...


.... was a stately, distinguished, sober man with a crown of silver hair and a serious mien that he compensated with a wry and wicked sense of humor. The scion of a local Cardiganshire farming family, he was ordained a minister in the church of Wales and, after a long stint at St. Gabriel’s Church in Swansea was installed as Chancellor of Brecon Cathedral. I think it’s true that he met and married my grandmother in the earliest years of his ministry, as a curate in the East End of London—at that time a working-class, Cockney area around Brick Lane that has since been largely rebuilt, following the devastation of the bombs, and thoroughly gentrified. It was also a notably Jewish part of London, and it was always a source of amusement to me that Grane, the epitome of the Anglican clergyman’s wife, was born an Isaacson—though she always insisted that her family was “the non-Jewish Isaacsons.”  This, despite the family heirloom of a table inlaid with Hebrew letters and various other evidence that would point to a different conclusion. No matter, she was most certainly devoted to her Grimp, whom I remember mostly at breakfast time, when he would sit quietly at his place at the antique drop-leaf table and bow his head to say grace before buttering a piece of toast and slicing the top off a single boiled egg. Quiet though he might be, Grimp was no pushover. He spoke the truth forthrightly, when truth was needed. He was also a hardy soul. Even into his late years, he would don an old-fashioned swim suit early every morning and plunge into the cold waters of the Cardigan Bay that lay just a hundred yards or so from their kitchen window, swimming back and forth with strong strokes across the bay.

            It was Aberporth, then, where we spent V-J Day. There was a big parade down the main street and my father felt it our civic duty to play our part. For the family, that year, he had put all his skills to work to make a seaworthy canoe, and we had towed it down from Aspley Guise to Wales on a two-wheel flatbed hitched up behind the car. So we decorated up this canoe with loads of seaweed, and Union Jacks, and a colorful assemblage of other flags and banners, converting it into the parade float that was our contribution to the festivities. Flora and I were dressed in sailor suits and waved at the crowds from the canoe with our mother, beautiful as always in a bright swimsuit, while my father sat at the wheel of our car and towed us slowly along with the rest of the parade. While “winning the war” meant little to us children, we were swept along in the glow of elation that the grow-ups all around us felt, released from the abominable burden of the conflict that had so sorely affected the lives of every one of them. It was a moment of shared ecstasy that no one who lived through it could forget.

Aberporth. This watercolor by Neil Widgery hangs in our Laguna Beach cottage.



Tuesday, February 5, 2019

WAGBAI: FAMILY


FAMILY

            No matter how many billetees and evacuees we took in, the Rectory always seemed to have room for more. There seemed to be a constant stream of family visiting—uncles and aunts and cousins of all kinds. How my mother housed and fed them all, I can’t imagine. But she did.
            (You can skip this part, if you wish. I see no reason for anyone else to be interested in my relatives, but they’re very much a part of my own Aspley Guise story…)
            So, relatives. In England, we called them “relations”—a word that has a number of different connotations in America today! There were…
            My mother’s sister Nina, her husband Dick, and their three children. The odd thing about this family, for us, was that they all switched names. Uncle Dick was at one time Cecil. Susan, the oldest daughter, was Priscilla; David was Jim, and Nick was… I’ve actually forgotten who Nick was but he definitely had a second name. As did Auntie Nina, whose second name also escapes me. Perhaps they will pop back into my mind before I’m done with this.
The main thing I recall about Auntie Nina and Uncle Dick was how much they relished their “gin and it.” in the evening—it. being short for Italian (Vermouth that is), so therefore what today we’d call a martini. Uncle Dick was the designated martini maker. He made them meticulously every evening, patiently measuring out appropriate amounts of each liquid into a cocktail shaker and shaking it with the fastidious attention of a watchmaker. By profession he was an anesthesiologist, so that kind of perfectionism seems fitting. Auntie Nina was the gay one of the family—gay in the old sense of another word whose meaning has much changed. A couple of decades earlier she would have surely been a flapper. And perhaps was. Their children were always neatly dressed and taught to be unfailingly polite.
The oldest of my mother’s siblings, the Williams family, was Uncle Stephen. Like Uncle Dick, he was a medical man, tall and, to us children, seemingly aloof in the uniform he wore as an officer in the Royal Air Force. Uncle Stephen was married to my Auntie Cliff who, word had it, was a former performer on the London stage, and was theatrical enough in her demeanor to live up to that reputation. I remember her, whether accurately or not, as being cheerfully chubby, a merry presence who enlivened every Rectory party. Their son Hugh was the oldest of the grandchildren, our cousins, and was most often away at boarding school. Year later, married and the father of four children and, I believe, an air force officer himself, he was to die tragically in a car accident in the Far East where he had been posted. His brother, Sam, was probably ten years younger, and would therefore have been born some time after the war, and after we had moved on from Aspley Guise. Curiously, he too ended up in California and we remain in touch.
            Aside from my Auntie Gay, the Bletchley girl, the only other relatives on my mother’s side were Uncle Vincent and Auntie Jo. They lived in distant Wales so we did not know them well, either during the war or after. Like my father, Uncle Vincent was an Anglican minister (Church of Wales, I suspect, rather than Church of England, but the same umbrella) and, like my mother, my Auntie Jo was a Vicar’s wife. If I’m not mistaken, they came to visit once or twice in Aspley Guise, with their two sons, but the whole family moved to Australia not long after the war—a shame, because Flora and I were fond of our cousins on that side. The older boy was John, who later joined the Australian Air Force and was nicknamed “Power Dive Howell” after a daring exploit as a pilot. He later flew for Qantas. I’m sad to say that I have forgotten his sweet brother’s name, though I do know that he also went into the ministry.
            My father had two brothers and one sister. His older brother, my Uncle Donald—a man who terrified us with his stern look and his bristly ginger mustache—was an army officer among those thousands stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. He was, happily, also among those rescued. We saw little of him in the war years, but his wife, Auntie Annie, stayed with us often with her two sons, Richard and Nigel. She, too, struck us as a rather severe lady. What I recall of her, aside from a clearly remembered face, was her voice, calling constantly after her two sons: “Deetch! Nigey! Deetch! Nigey!” It was as though they had always done something wrong.
            I don’t think I ever met my Uncle Neil or his wife, Barbara, until I was somewhat older. Neil was the black sheep of the family. My father described him always as the most handsome—and the most attractive to the ladies—with his blond head of hair and the permanent tan acquired from years of living in Rhodesia. It was mentioned only under the breath in our family that he was divorced; Barbara was his second wife, but they came only rarely back to his native England, and that only after the war, when travel was less dangerous.
            And finally there was my father’s sister, my Auntie Nancy. Again, I see her face quite clearly in my mind’s eye, along with the faces of her husband, Alan, and their flock of children. These were the relatives we knew best, because they lived in Cambridge, only a drive away from Bedford. Uncle Alan Goodman—aptly named, was an ordained minister like my father, but—again if I remember correctly—he was not also a parish priest. Instead, he was a don at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where my father and he had met in their undergraduate days; and where I myself was to graduate many years later. Alan was a professor of the ancient Biblical languages of Syriac and Aramaic, so I find it hard to believe that he had burdensome teaching responsibilities. He was, though, the sweetest and gentlest of men, who was afflicted at the end of his life by Alzheimer’s.
            Auntie Nancy was an artist. Perhaps I should say she had been an artist, and a very talented one, before marrying and becoming mother to a huge family of unruly children. Let’s see, there was Hazel, the oldest, then Donald, Susan, Joan and John. In another family tragedy Tony, the oldest after Hazel, was killed by a bus outside their home on Trumpington Street in Cambridge. I can hardly imagine the suffering that my good Auntie Nancy had to endure.
            Of all the children, we knew Hazel and Donald the best, since they were of an age with us. Hazel, as sweet and gentle as her parents, inherited her mother’s talent as an artist. As for Donald, inspired perhaps in part by his father’s biblical affiliations, he married a Jewish girl, converted, and went off to the Holy Land to become an Israeli citizen. He played a key part in my life because it was from Donald, strangely, that I learned for the first time to take an interest in my penis…