Sunday, July 29, 2012

Berowne's 128

(For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "C" is for "Cordelia")
I wonder if I might submit a minority report on this week’s prompt.
The impact on human life of a pet is known by just about everyone; nothing is more comforting than having a dog greet you at the door.
But I wanted to say a few words about the pet that played an important part in my life: Cordelia.
As a dog, Cordelia had a few shortcomings. She never met me at the door. She never brought me the morning edition of the New York Times. She never had much interest in gnawing endlessly on a bone.
To be quite truthful, by just the minimum standards of dog-lovers, she wasn’t much of a dog.
That’s because she was a cat. (Remarkable how my post, by sheer chance, fit right into ABC Wednesday's topic this week.)
As we enter that stage of life known as “growing older” – which I guess begins at about age 28 :-) - many of us who live alone seek companionship. And a cat is universally acknowledged to be, for many, a possibly soul-satisfying companion.
Understand, I love dogs.
When I was younger, back during the French and Indian War, I enjoyed nothing more than running with my dog, tossing the frisbie to watch the spectacular catches, doing, in short, dog-and-owner stuff.
But now, as my friend Will Shakespeare puts it:
“My way of life is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf, and that which accompanies old age.”
I have joined that vast demographic known as “sedentary,” which is French for someone who sits a lot and doesn’t do much running and who tosses no frisbies.
And that’s where the cat comes, or came, in.
Cordelia was perfect for her role. Look at her. For one thing, she was beautiful.
And once I got used to the basic idea that my new pet was a cat not a dog, she made a fine companion and we got along beautifully.
I just had to accept that she would not be barking with enthusiasm, wagging her tail and leaping about when I returned home. Instead, she was, like, You’re back? That’s good. Forgive me if I curl up here again; I was having a nap.
Folks who do not understand felines say they don’t really feel the emotion of affection for their owners that dogs do. They say cats are independent and don’t really have such needs.
Ah, they could not be more mistaken. How strong was that need? Well, Cordelia needed to be with me: she did not falter, she had to come sit on my lap every time I read the paper or worked at my ‘pewter.
Let me tell you of the problem I had with her. I kept the bedroom door closed at night; she had the run of the living-room. I figured that way we’d both get a good night’s sleep. As the sun began to come up, and it came up at five am or so at times, she would come to my door with a message:
The child of morning, rosy-fingered dawn, has appeared! Up, up, time to start the day!
And she would loudly, and irritatingly, scratch the bedroom door to accompany the message. And I’d say, Keep your distance. Let me sleep!
Then I read of a device – ah, technology – that you could hang on the door, a device that made a loud, excruciating sound, a sound that could only be heard by feline ears; I, asleep in my trundle bed, would hear nothing.
It worked. From then on, she didn't touch the bedroom door, avoided it like the plague, and I slept uninterruptedly.
But the inventor of that noise-maker device didn’t know about Cordelia; she was not just a beauty, she was smart.
After a month or so she said to herself: Okay, let’s see, I hate that sound. But, thinking it over, it’s just a sound. There’s no danger involved. I’ll just ignore it and scratch away at that dam' door as much as before.
The end result? I gave up.
I kept the door open at night and she came to sleep on my bed. After all, spending the night with a beautiful and intelligent female is something I was usually in favor of, as a matter of principle.
(Submitted also to Sunday Scribblings)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Berowne's 127

(For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "B" is for "Bizarre")

When I saw that number eight in the prompt, I thought great, it’s going to allow me to recount another of my heroic adventures during World War II.
Which turned out to be more adventurous than heroic. Among other things, I loaded a tanker.
Might not sound like much, but it was an adventure, believe me.

Tankers, in those days, were often loaded with airplane fuel. Not jet fuel, because we didn’t have jets; the fuel was gasoline, juiced up into a special aviation-octane type of gas. It was one of the most volatile and hazardous substances then in existence.
Here’s the story.
Because there was a war on, people who would otherwise be college kids working as grocery clerks – like me - were cut from their monotonous, humdrum existences and thrust into the war’s maelstrom.
Ship’s personnel were desperately needed so they made me a ship’s officer. I didn’t tell anyone that my training had been mostly how to stock grocery shelves.
So I found myself in the middle of a war sailing about in a tanker.
Somewhere in a place occupied by guys with stars on their shoulders, a decision was made. A large tanker, similar to the one in the above picture, needed to be loaded, and there would have to be a tanker officer in charge.
You see where this is going?

The tanker in question was in Aruba. Today Aruba is a treasure, a beautiful vacation spot; in wartime it was a gigantic gas station, ships from all over were loading and unloading the stuff.
Since I was on someone’s list as a tanker officer, they decided to put me in charge of the loading.
Now, mind you, the regular job of calmly standing watch on a tanker at sea wasn’t all that difficult; you handled it pretty much as any other ship – staying on course, keeping lookout, trying not to screw up the navigation, etc. I could actually do that.
But loading a tanker? With aviation-octane gas? I was as qualified for that as I was for space travel – especially since there wasn’t any then. I not only didn’t know much about it, I had never actually seen a tanker loaded, from close up. I got a number of bizarre orders during that conflict, but this one beat all.
At first, all I knew was that I should report to such and such a tanker in Aruba. I showed up, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, and my world started falling apart.
One fact of maritime life is that the officers of any ship who’ve been at sea for a month or two will do almost anything to get ashore. If a totally-unqualified 21-year-old shows up to take over, wish him well and take off fast.
Which is what the officers of that ship did.
By the way, the gas came up from the dock in a huge pipe and once started, thousands of gallons of it kept rushing in. Scary.
My crew for this loading operation was made up of an ordinary seaman, a kid of about seventeen, and one guy who actually knew about tanker-loading.
Aboard ship, people were then often named for their jobs. A radio operator might be known as “Sparks,” a signalman as “Flags,” etc. Well, this old guy was in charge of something important on a tanker, the pumps, so he was known, inevitably, as “Pumps.”
Trouble was, Pumps was elderly; he seemed to be in his early nineties, which meant that he sat in one place and never moved. And since he was born in Germany he spoke English with an almost incomprehensible accent.
Trying to help me, he talked quite a bit about “walfs.” Since I didn't know what those were it wasn't much help. It took me a while to understand he was discussing “valves” - valves were walfs - the things you turn to direct the gas flow.
I must tell you that you don’t just pump the gas into the ship; that would be too easy. I had eight tanks to deal with, four forward and four aft. I knew that I had to load the stuff into a forward tank, then shift the stream to a tank toward the stern, feverishly turning walfs on and off all the while.
I worked out signals with the young fellow; he handled the after tanks.
At first things seemed to be going well; I thought everything was hunky-dory. Well, it was hunky, for a while, but we never got to dory. Because suddenly, to my undiluted horror, I saw a mountainous jet of the stuff shoot high into the air. I had sent this constant stream of thousands of gallons of gasoline into a tank that was already nearly full. The highly volatile, even explosive, liquid was pouring all over the deck.
I nearly collapsed. I realized I was endangering the whole port of Aruba, with the other tankers in it; it could possibly turn out to be one of the biggest conflagrations of the war. Realizing this, I sat down pretty much like Pumps, unable to move.
Previously, I hadn’t been able get help from anyone ashore; suddenly the ship was filled with twenty or so guys who appeared out of nowhere and who were pumping foam and turning walfs all over the place. Two fire-boats quickly showed up and joined in with more foam.
Well, I didn’t blow the place up. Later, they had some sort of court martial; I was relieved to learn that I wasn’t blamed. The guys who sent a grocery clerk to load a tanker, however, had a bit to answer for.
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Berowne's 126

(For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "A" is for "addio")
The above prompt is perfect – it reminds me of the girl I met in Rome in World War II named Miss Mountain of Flowers.
I told the first part of the story last week; now let me tell the rest.
I had studied Italian on the ship on the way over so she and I were able to sit together on a park bench and have a fairly successful conversation.
When I learned her story, I realized that she was as intelligent as she was attractive, someone whom we back home would have called a girl-next-door type, who was desperately doing what was necessary to save her family because of the huge problems the war had brought.
For the past several years there had been no work for her father, little food for her brother and sister, and they had stood to lose their apartment. She had stepped up, becoming the family’s sole breadwinner.
She startled me a bit by inviting me to come home with her and meet her folks.
It was very interesting, though strange, to visit her place. I felt like the Gentleman Caller of “The Glass Menagerie” as I said hello to everyone. I was pleased to see they were friendly.
No one there would smoke even one cigarette of the carton of Lucky Strikes I contributed to the family’s economy. American cigarettes were coin of the realm, like cash. One pack could provide food and other necessities of life. Even one American cigarette could get some fruit or vegetables at a street market.
Suddenly her younger sister came home; she stood in the doorway and cried “Salve!” (“Hail!”) - pretty much like a younger sister in our country might come home and say “Hi!”
The kid sister’s arrival made quite an impression on me. In Rome, as you know, history is everywhere; the city has been around for millennia. I suddenly thought that two thousand or so years ago, Roman girls were coming home, perhaps in this very spot, and saying “Salve!” to their families, using that exact same word and probably with the same pronunciation.
However, to get back to my story.
Miss Mountain of Flowers and I retired, with as much decorum as the situation permitted, to her room. I was surprised by what I saw.

There was a new bicycle there, rather like the one in the above picture, but it was a much better version – shinier, more impressive, a spanking bright red and silver beauty.
I was fascinated.
Someone thought enough of this girl to give her a great new bike in wartime. But how did they get such a thing?
I would have thought that in the six years of war no country in Europe would have been able to turn out such a bicycle.
She told me the story.
She had been given the bike when she was fourteen, just before the war came to change everything. Because of the turmoil in the streets of Rome at the time, she had never dared take it downstairs and ride it; she was sure that someone would take it from her.
It belonged in the sun, but she kept it in the shade in her room all those years. She polished it regularly, waiting for the day when the war would end and the future would be limitless and peace would return to the streets of the city. She was not a child any more – she was a young woman of twenty-one years – but her great ambition was to be able to take it downstairs and try it out.
The war was horrible, so many thousands – millions – of lives lost, so much tragedy. This was, in contrast, a very unimportant story. But I couldn’t help feeling that this too, in its small way, was a poignant tale:
A girl who kept a beloved new bicycle in her room for seven years, waiting for the day when peace would come so she’d be able to ride it for the first time.
We got to know each other well, in a few days. We became friends.
The Great War had ended, but communications must have been tangled because the Japanese somehow never got the memo. The battle raged on in the Pacific, so I had to say addio and leave.
She gave me a picture of herself taken before the war, back when she was enjoying a day on the beach at Rimini. She wrote on the photo:
“A te il ricordo. A me la gioia di essere ricordata.”
“To you the memory. To me the joy of being remembered.”

I still feel, after all these years, the strength of il recordo.
(Submitted also to Sunday Scribblings)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Berowne's 125

(Also for Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday: "Z" is for "Zesty")
The scene above reminded me of how tough farm work can be.
Fortunately things came to a halt from time to time when the farm hands could get a little R&R, rest and relaxation, before heading back to their chores.
Suddenly I remembered some tough work I was involved in a few seasons ago, a little job known as World War II.
That’s when I got to know about the marvelous system known in the military as R&R.
Though I had spent most of my three and a half years’ service in the South Pacific, I found myself in Italy as the European war wound down to an end.
In Rome I was given three days of R&R.
Why do I use the word “marvelous” to describe such a thing? Well, look at it this way.

If you visit Rome today, imagine a stay in the Hotel Excelsior, one of the great hotels of the world. I have to warn you it’s expensive; the price per room runs from “small fortune” to “forget about it.”
But what can one expect?
Since 1906 princes and maharajahs, presidents, dictators and celebrities have enjoyed this world-famous seven-layer-cake of a hotel, with its oriental rugs and crystal chandeliers and whatall, located right smack on the prestigious Via Veneto. You can easily walk to the Spanish Steps and the Villa Borghese gardens.
In other words, Motel Six it ain’t. :-)
So I got three days of R&R at the Excelsior Hotel. I knew it must be an important hangout because I was told Goering had stayed there a year or two before. I have always lived with a basic principle: if it was good enough for Goering it should be good enough for me.
As for the price, get this. They charged me one dollar for my room – and that included three zesty Italian meals a day. Zesty meals in a zesty city. You wonder why I have such fond memories of the deal known as R&R?

Of course, in 1945 the place wasn’t as dazzling as it is today. I wanted to take a bath – it had been a long time since I had had a real bath – but there was no soap in the room. I phoned the switchboard operator.
“Signora,” I said, bravely trying out my rudimentary Italian, “niente sapone qui.” I hoped this meant there wasn’t any soap here in the room.
She did not differ. “No,” she replied wearily. “Niente sapone.”
I seemed to detect a tone of voice implying, there’s been a war for six years, you dope; naturally there’s no soap. Bring your own soap.
Anyway, that evening I went for a stroll on the Via Veneto. I don’t smoke but I was entitled to cigarettes from the ship’s stores and I had been told they would come in handy, so I brought a carton of Lucky Strikes with me.
(I was later told, tongue in cheek, that you could then have been elected mayor of a sizable Italian village for a carton of American cigarettes.)
Suddenly out of nowhere a pretty girl was at my side, strolling along with me. She had either been drawn by my rugged masculine good looks – or by the carton of cigs. (Probably the latter.)
With her poor English and my poorer Italian, we had an enjoyable conversation. She even broke out into song, delivering a charming version of an American hit song of that era.
She sang: “You’ll nevair know joos’ a how mooch I mees you. You’ll nevair know joos’ a how mooch I care.”
She told me her name, Santa Montefiori. I thought it was beautiful; it seemed to mean “Holy Mountain of Flowers.”
I realized I was falling in love with Rome.
If you’d like to know about my subsequent adventures with Miss Mountain of Flowers, I’ll try to cover that in a future post.
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Berowne’s 124

For Three-Word Wednesday and ABC Wednesday
It was a few years ago that I published my Ophelia post; I’m glad to have this chance to run it again.
In the play “Hamlet,” Ophelia sings:
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime…
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.”

Now, why would Ophelia sing such a song? It wasn’t Valentine season – what she sang made no sense.
Beautiful Ophelia is portrayed in the early scenes as a demure and dutiful daughter, but she suffers one traumatic event after another. Prince Hamlet, the man she loves, brutally rejects her, and she later learns that her beloved father has been killed by that very man. It is all too much for her – she goes insane. The loss of her sanity perhaps serves as a buffer against her life’s misfortunes.
The sequence of Ophelia’s madness is one of the most powerfully dramatic scenes Shakespeare ever wrote.

Demure Ophelia, now totally disheveled, comes before the King and Queen, who are horrified at what they see. She’s babbling, speaking nonsense:
“They say the owl was a baker’s daughter.”
Interesting point. Shakespeare projects a sense of unity here because in his plays when jesters, fools, clowns, and as far as that goes genuinely crazy people, come up with bizarre, nonsensical speech, there are often good reasons for what they’re saying.
For example, Ophelia, making her transition from sanity to madness, is probably remembering a legend she had been taught as a girl about the importance of generosity.
It seems that, years earlier, when Jesus Christ was visiting Britain – which, by the way, is a bit of a stretch because you can be pretty sure he never did – he was wandering about, as he was wont to do, and he got hungry. Short on cash, he stopped by a bakery and asked the daughter of the baker if he could have just a crust of bread.
The daughter reasoned that she and her dad were operating a business, not a charity for vagrants, so she turned him down.
Well, because of her stinginess (and also perhaps because the person in question was, after all, the Messiah), she was turned into an owl. A lesson for everyone. Who would want to be turned into an owl? (As the owl itself might say: Who?)
In addition Ophelia, in her lunacy, sings some, for her, indecent ditties:
“Then up he rose and donn’d his clothes
And op’d the chamber door.
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more."

Later, Ophelia dies by drowning. When the body is made ready for burial, her loving brother says:
“Lay her in the earth
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring!”

(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)
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