It wasn’t really cool enough for me to build a fire in the hearth, but i did. Maureen made an Italian sauce — she will correct my incorrect description later — and served it over polenta, aka grits, along with another salad perfection of hers.
We dined on our dinner trays while watching THE game with a nice red blend.
i watched a game that didn’t involve Vanderbilt or the Padres for the first time in a while with mixed emotions. A dear young lady, Laura Grabowski, is a graduate and huge, huge fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes. A close friend from home, Louis Thompson, who married the woman who was my “sweetheart” in the 1962 Castle Heights annual, was a star defensive tackle for Paul Bryant at Alabama.
Since the Bear took me under his arm and talked to me like a son back in ’64, and my Commodores are in the SEC, i favored the Tide. As i watched, the fandom thing sort of vanished. i just sat there and marveled at the incredible athletic ability of every player on both sides. It was an amazing performance, only dimmed by the dumb reference to “physicality,” which from Webster’s i interpret being physical and not real bright, by Kirk Herbstreit in his unrelenting over-analysis of play after play, a common…no, the new norm for sports play-by-play and analyst commentators, which, in my mind, is — pardon my French — bullshit.
Still, i enjoyed watching some rather spectacular football and wondered how many NFL teams, ‘Bama could beat.
Then, Sarah took Billie Holiday, her wonderful dog, to her bedroom and went to sleep. She had a long day. Maureen faded and went to bed. i left the embers in the hearth and sat down at this infernal machine with the last of my wine…AND a Three Musketeers candy bar.
My favorite Christmas present this year came from Maureen. She has heard my story many times and remembered. The story?
Growing up, the only grandfather figure i, Martha, and Joe knew was Wynn Prichard. He was my great uncle. i have written about him before.
“Papa” and Aunt Corrine lived in a farm house with a tin roof on their farm at the intersection of Hickory Ridge Road and Blair Lane in Lebanon, Tennessee. When i was very young and my sister Martha and then my brother Joe were younger, Papa would come to see us around mid-day every Wednesday. Papa owned a 1929 Model A Ford. i’m pretty sure it was the only car he ever owned. He took out the seats of the rumble seat in order to do two things: 1. To carry his two fox hounds to the fox hunts he attended for pretty much all of his life, and 2. To carry his produce to market on Wednesday to Lebanon’s “Farmer’s Market.”
After he had sold his wares at the market, which then was located somewhere at the top of East Main Street, Papa would drive home but stop en route and park his Model A on the side of the road in front of 127 Castle Heights Avenue.
i was waiting. And when he emerged from his car in his khaki work shirt and pants with a wool cardigan and a felt fedora, i would run a full speed and leap into his arms. Papa woulds shuffle me to his right arm, dig into his pocket with his left hand, and dig out a Three Musketeer’s candy bar. Unceremoniously, he would hand it to me. It did not last very long. It remains my favorite snack of all time.
Well, my child, er, my wife gave me a box of thirty-six Three Musketeer’s candy bars as a Christmas gift.
i just finished having one of the thirty-six.
And as i get ready to accomplish the old man routine putting the night to rest, i remember Papa and those glorious Wednesday’s when that old Model A would come to a halt in front of our home.
i have been wrestling with some weird problem with my relatively new Mac Air for several months and about thirty hours with Apple Care and an Apple store to resolve the issue.
This afternoon, Darla, a senior supervisor walked me through a process that seems to have worked.
So maybe, just maybe, i’m back in the real world again.
In doing the work and checking out old stuff, a photo popped up. i have cropped out the goofy guy. After all, we are working on thirty-seven years, and the woman in this photograph was like the Clover’s “One Mint Julep:” she was “the cause of it all.”
i am working on this being one of my signature photos here, Facebook, and other places. But for now, i wanted to post this because this day, July 30, 1983, was the real beginning:
My Thoughts About Where We Are and Where We Should Go
i have wrestled with my desire to remain out of this fray. i am not, not taking sides. i am sure the radicals on every side will not take my comments that way and either point to it as promoting their contentions or ridiculing it and me for being for the other side. But folks, as Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale declared in prophetic movie “Network” (although the media hasn’t yet reached the extent of the film plot) declared, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” It is my time to take my stand, even though i may be the only one standing in this position.
* * *
On September 17, 1796, George Washington presented his farewell address as the first president of the United States of America. In that address, he warned, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
During the following term, Washington’s successor, John Adams pointed out “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.”
* * *
On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
His plan for reconstruction reached out to the former Confederate states to provide a peaceful transition to becoming one nation again. The plan was not well received by Congress but likely would have become reality had not the assassination occurred.
The Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, became president. Although Johnson, a Tennessean did not agree with the plan in that he thought it was too lenient, nevertheless attempted to carry out Lincoln’s plan. However, the cabinet and congress wanted revenge, to teach the South a lesson. This resulted in the failed impeachment attempt of Johnson and much harsher treatment of the South.
* * *
Washington and Adams’ fears have reached fruition. The constitution has been polluted by party interests becoming more important than our nation and our citizens. It has now reached trench warfare mentality resulting in protests and violence. I have had dear, intelligent friends on both sides of this line of liberal and conservative war insist their right to protest was part of the second amendment only to attack the other side for protesting. Violence on both sides and in our law enforcements response is unacceptable It is time for our politicians to join together and work to create the best laws and policies to make our country better, not act like little brats incapable of logical thought.
* * *
I recognize my thoughts on this will be attacked, but I believe had Lincoln remained president, Reconstruction would have been much more successful and the great divide between blacks and whites (I still despise those two terms for describing human beings) eventually would be much closer to true equality in the South. But Lincoln was dead, and blacks in the South were abused and considered second class citizens in reaction to the vindictive revenge unleashed on the Southern whites. Even today, there are people who spout hatred of the other race.
Perhaps I am naïve and acknowledge hate of human beings of different race, ethnicity, religion, and political beliefs have been ably demonstrated throughout history and are certainly rampant in our country today, both directly and indirectly.
Execution of Lincoln’s plan might have diminished that hatred to only a few. Unfortunately, we will never know.
We have the opportunity with the terrible assault on our constitution on Wednesday, January 6, 2021 having just occurred, to once again reach out, as Lincoln did, to work together to make our country stronger and much, much better.
However, the pointing fingers began as the assault was underway. The capitol police are under attack because many Monday morning quarterbacks believe law enforcement could have done better, and they are searching for the guilty. Anger on both sides is boiling over. Media and politicians are comparing the response to responses to the other side’s earlier protests and violence. One good friend has decried that the enemy of this country are all of the white males, of which he and i are in company. I think it was these white males with many faults created by the beliefs of their time that created this Constitution with the idea of independence, quality and the inalienable rights for all of its citizens. Their idea was limited by not including all who were not white, male, or property owners.
But the ideas of freedom and equality grew and more and more white males have attempted to have those inalienable rights extended to all with significant success even though we still have a long, long way to go. As those rights were extended, women, blacks, native Americans, and many others have been allowed to participate as they should have been all along, and they have joined the effort to attain true equality for all.
The recent digging of trenches by both sides has been deeper and created a deep and dark divide among our citizens. I am not aware of anyone sitting down with the other side to attempt to find the root causes of the divide, the fear, the hatred. No one seems able to do that because they are too occupied with pointing their fingers, throwing their rocks over the wall, making unsubstantial claims (we used to call lies) and calling their allies to join the fight with them.
* * *
One more thought: Parts of one side of this divide decided to show disrespect for our flag. The other side adopted our flag as a symbol as if they owned it, as if it did not belong to all of our citizens. Then this group so offended by the disrespect others had shown began to desecrate our flag by modifying Old Glory to make their political statements.
The flag is the representation of our Constitution. It is not the property of one party. The Constitution grants the right of free speech. As Dave Carey once explained, we in the military were sworn to defend the constitution and therefore we defended the rights of our citizens to have free speech.
Our politicians and their followers have twisted that to somehow inexplicably to believe they have the right to say or do anything they want, including disrespect and desecration of our flag, the symbol representing our Constitution, not a president, not a party, not a movement, but our system designed to achieve equality and protect our inalienable rights but suspend that belief for the other side.
* * *
I was hoping this terrible insurrection would lead to our politicians to reach across the aisle to make things better, but their need for power, money, and reelection will not allow them to wander far from their party’s winner-take-all attempts. The media, looking for viewers and listeners to make more money and gain more power, are fueling the fire rather than reporting the facts.
And we, myself included, are going along with this insanity, finding fault, spewing invectives against those we perceive to be a danger to our beliefs. There needs to be accountability. There needs to be justice. There needs to be inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
And we need to reach out and work together to ensure our constitution, the greatest idea for governing a country ever written, remains intact and operates the way it should.
God bless America. Right now, we need his blessing and help in finding our way out of this morass.
i remain shaken from the assault on our constitution yesterday. i am very proud of Sarah for her response to this event and the reactions to it. i am ashamed of the media and the politicians who attempted to compare yesterday to earlier events and promote their agenda rather than factually reporting what was happening. Then, in the middle of the night, the first few lines of the below poem flew into my head. i don’t know from whence they came. It may be the first in a series as other words flew right behind the initial ones. It may be the beginning of a much longer poem. i don’t know right now. It is not associated with yesterday’s tragic occurrence in our capital, but i suspect that event fostered those first words flying in the middle of the night to my head. It is, for me, an escape for a while.
then back when
once, back when, a man and a woman walked; then back when, they got a horse, a mule, a camel, or an ass and rode slowly; then back when, they tied sticks to the animals and carried things with them; then back when, they made a wagon with wheels to be pulled by the animals and they went further and faster with more; then back when, they got bicycles and pedaled; then back when, they got on a train and rode further and faster; then back when, they got a self-powered vehicle and cranked it to ride without an animal or pedaling; then back when, they put on big wheels and paved roads and went faster and farther; then back when, they got a vehicle with an enclosed cab and a starter switch and rode in style; then back when, they added an automatic transmission and air conditioning and rode in more comfort; then back when, they added radio and listened to people talk and play music while they rode; then back when, they installed a global positioning system and knew how to get where they were going and quit going down untraveled roads; then back when, they added telephones and talked to other folks far away; now they are looking to get a self-driving car and i wonder when they won’t be able to walk or find their way without their gadgets.
After i posted my curmudgeon rant last night, i got to thinking. That is not always a good thing.
Of course, that post centered on baseball, leading to recalling my three quarters of a century love affair with the game, leading to thinking about my past, admitting again, i am one lucky man, leading to me to quit…er, bitching.
Considering what we experienced this year and what fallout from this year we will deal with in 2021, i decided i would focus on the good things this lucky man has experienced.
There was this place i was born and will always be connected. It was and remains home — i will go back there and rest beside my parents when this crazy life takes the final turn. Back when it was mine and i was its youngster, it was a town in the Faulkner sense of the word, not a village, not a hamlet, not a city, but a town. Round about five thousand souls spread out on farmland with the aptly re-named Town Creek (It was “Sinking Creek” in the beginning) running under the square they built, convenient but flood prone. No matter. That square was the center of the universe for Lebanon, Tennessee. Restaurants, three hardware stores, clothing stores, two drug stores (back before folks thought that “drug store” meant something else), banks, cab station, cobblers, and a couple of pool halls, all dominated by a gothic-like courthouse. On the first block off the square of the two roads, one east-west, the other north-south were more shops and restaurants and two movie theaters.
Farmers came in and sat on the worn concrete steps of the courthouse, chewing tobacco, whittling cedar wood, and solving the world’s problems although their world was significantly smaller than today’s world.
Cars were left in parking spaces unlocked. Even homes didn’t have locked doors until the inhabitants went to bed. Children walked to school unless they lived too far away, and then they took the school bus and the school patrol was comprised of eighth graders until they created a junior high across town and the sixth graders became the school patrol, a responsibility and an honor rewarded with a tour of the state penitentiary and a baseball game at Sulphur Dell in Nashville.
Shorts, no shirt, no shoes were de rigueur from mid-May until September. Bee stings, mosquito bites, poison oak or ivy were part of the learning process.
And the sandlot, empty fields, backyard baseball kept on. Until the first Little League came to town (1954? Where’s George Harding when i need him?), we played pickup ball. We got some rudimentary instructions from our fathers. Mine showed me how to throw a curve and a knuckle ball. We listened to Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese, hawking Falstaff beer, while we watched the “Game (that’s one game) of the Week” on Saturdays, and occasionally, our dads would take us to the above mentioned Sulphur Dell to watch the Double A, Southern Association, Nashville Vols.
We still played pickup ball with various rules for yard size and whose yard was chosen for the field.
On the Sabbath, we went to Church for Sunday School, and the church service at 11:00 dressed to the nines with fresh haircuts combed just right and then dressed a little more casually (but not much) for the Methodist Youth Fellowship, the men’s choir supper, and the evening service with short sermons and lots of gospel songs.
Beginning in the early ’50’s, we began to watch one channel, WSM, which chose which network show to watch of the three, NBC, CBS, or ABC, which went off the air at midnight and came back on at three p.m. the next afternoon (with the Kate Smith hour). Red Skeleton, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, The Ted Mack Amateur Hour, Fred Waring, and Ed Sullivan were staples. Saturday mornings, television came on early with the kids no longer playing in the lot next door but scrunched around the television watching “Andy Devine’s Gang” with Froggy the Gremlin who had a magic twanger set off by “Nice” Midnight the Cat, and of course, Buster Brown and his dog Tige both of whom lived in a shoe. Gunga Ram captivated in his serial. There was the “Sealtest Big Top” and “Red Ryder” and there was Devine again as Jingles on “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok with Guy Madison as Wild Bill. And there were others before that baseball game.
And we went to school and played during recess on equipment that would get the school administration in jail today for endangerment. We had fights and we played every kind of game and sport known to kids.
And we mustered outside for roll call during fire drills and we hid under our desks to save us from the Red Menace dropping the H-Bomb and we got the first polio shots and we put baseball cards in our one-gear bicycle spokes and put our gear for sports and other pursuits in the handlebar basket.
Then we grew up to realize some of us were male and some female. i fell in love from a dream. Then i “went” with many wonderful girls, taking them to movies, the fair, and if it cost more than ten dollars, i couldn’t afford it. That little town had so many wonderful young women, i remain amazed.
And i am going to stop now thinking about all of that stream of wonderful things in my past i was intending to include.
You see, we learned right before i grilled a great steak for supper that one of Maureen’s closest cousins with a wonderful family passed away last night after dealing with brain cancer for about half a terrible year. i was probably closer to Greg Cook than anyone else on Maureen’s side. His daughter, Cookie, took Sarah under her wing. It is a shock, a bit of life’s reality that will always be tough to deal with.
i lit the fire in the hearth before supper and we watched “The Princess Bride” for our end of the year entertainment…and to escape the sadness of a good man passing.
So this godawful year is ending.
After i started the fire in the grill and toasted Greg out in the coolness of the Southwest corner winter air, i tuned my fittingly obsolescent iPod to Albert Bell and hooked up to the bluetooth speaker. As the grill heated up and the steak lay near and the bears, Ursa Major and Minor crawled across the heavens to the northeast, and Pegasus flew across the southern sky, and i could dwell in the house of the constellations and the beauty of the Greeks for a long, long time.
But the steak needed tending. Albert was wailing as only he can about being “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Let’s Have a Natural Ball.” i saluted Greg one more time and then, then this damn near seventy-seven year old man began to move with the music. i was moving across the small patio outside the kitchen thinking absurdly how my moves weren’t much different than when i was a pretty decent dancer. Maureen and i were good dancing together. She was more graceful, refined, and seemed to flow. i moved to the rhythm and loved it. As with all things, we fit.
And Albert wailed and his guitar played the blues. The old man danced away the blues in the chill of the night and promised to just keep on trying to do the right thing for all that’s remaining of this remarkable event we call life.
i am at peace. i only hope those i love, which are one heck of a whole bunch of people, have a healthy, bountiful, and happy 2021. As i have said to many, it’s about time, and we are due for a change for the good.
This part of is spur of the moment, i have retreated to my office as Maureen finishes up on another meal to delight. Healthy too. i love them but confess i miss more meat and bread. She takes care of me. Now, i will never get tired of her salads. Why?
Well, my father was a meat and potatoes guy. For almost ninety-nine years, breakfast was bacon or sausage and eggs with toast including a slathering of butter and a one-third jar of jelly, grits occasionally, a glass of orange juice, and a couple of cups of black coffee. Lunch was a bologna sandwich with cheese slices and a slathering of mayonnaise with chips and a coke. Supper was something fried or grilled or a special from his wife with beans and a tomato with coffee or iced tea depending on the season. i shall not go into desserts except to say a coconut cream pie from Sunset Restaurant was close to his favorite.
i think you get the picture. Well, one of the greatest things about Mother and Daddy coming out to the Southwest corner for most of January and February is my mother would cook dinner. Maureen loved coming home to my mother’s meals after a long day of work, but they both agreed Maureen would make the salad.
One evening when we sat down the supper table, and began to eat, Daddy said, “Maureen, you know, i think i could be a vegetarian if i could eat your salads every meal.”
Yeh, her salads are that good. And i don’t think i’ve had a store bought dressing at any meal she has prepared.
So i’m sitting here in my home office bordering the “family room,” which used to be called a den, except you can’t call them that any longer because some yahoo protested that dens were the property of bears, bobcats, cougars, wolves, tigers, and pregnant lionesses, so we went with “family room” to be politically correct — gotta tell you i sure liked spending time in the den, and i really don’t think it would upset those wild animals, even the pregnant lioness.
But tonight, i’m here in the office and Maureen is in the kitchen listening to the news on that screen that used to be a television while fixin’ (man, i love that verb) supper, which she calls dinner (gotta understand she IS from the Southwest corner) and listening to the news.
i can hear it. Can’t make the words out. Not sure which network it is. So this is not some rabid left or right complaint about news media. It’s not about content. i’m just wondering who the hell picked these people to read the news. They are grating. Their voices hurt, hurt my ears. They talk so fast that even if i could understand the words, it would be pretty damn close to gibberish except for all of the captions on the screen. Which i’m not watching and glad of it. If i were, i would be forced to watch some guy or gal (is this still okay for the politically correct police?) waving their hands to support all those words i can’t understand like they were being attacked by a swarm of bees.
Where the hell is John Cameron Swayze, Walter Cronkite, et al?
So 2021, i ain’t watching any of the news programs except maybe local weather because they have these weather experts who never get it quite right. Why? i don’t know. He’s on second.
But now that i’ve rankled a bunch of folks, i confess i am in a quandary. i am in danger of being hoisted on my own petard (thank you, Willie, Shakespeare not Mays.
You see, i have been a Padre fan for years. In the beginning, there was no real thought about much of anything except i loved baseball. i played it along with football and basketball from my first recorded memory until…well until, i quit football of any substance in the fraternity league at Vanderbilt my sophomore year (and it remains the roughest sort of football i ever played). i left basketball games after a pickup game in a Navy gym when i was in my early thirties. But baseball remained a dream i could pursue. And did all the way to 46 (Bill Hammond, i owe you for convincing me to join your ADABA team). And Jim Hileman and i, watching Orel Hershiser set the straight scoreless inning record but losing to Andy Hawkins and the Padres in Jack Murphy Stadium, 1-0 in sixteen innings, discovering we both were near fanatic fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates from the 1950’s on, talked ourselves into becoming Padre season ticket holders for about twenty years. And i went bananas when they won and into the pits when they lost, and i took Maureen and she became a fan, a knowledgeable baseball lady, and we watched them every night during the season, but at home on television now with only rare trips down to the bay.
And being an old sports writer/codger, i have railed about how ridiculous the sport has become beginning with the Yankees of long ago lore and then the Yankees of today, the Red Sox, the Dodgers, the Cubs: owners making an absurd amount of money, paying players insane salaries on stupid deals with long term contracts, driven by agents and the players’ union, and taking away from the season with extending it to 162 games, and a bizarre playoff system extending to November, but mostly i railed against the evil empire dynasties, buying pennants from temp help and trades with poorer market teams giving away star players to dump salary and making it more about money than the sport.
Now it may be my turn. The Padres have gone evil empire. They are rated by some as the best team in the MLB for the upcoming season ,and the statistically boring prognosticators may be right.
But i’m a dinosaur. i like a 154 game season, followed by the World Series. Period. Expansion has made it good sense to have a short play off for the league championship, but please, no wild cards (this ain’t canasta), no designated hitter (baseball players should play baseball, and a big reason it’s there is the players want old hitters to make more money by not playing the tough part of the game, aka defense; of course, the fans who wish to be entertained rather than watch a pure SPORTS contest have bought in big time). Nor do i like paying for tickets approaching the worth of the national debt, paying twelve dollars for a beer or five dollars for a hot dog and peanuts, each. And then, the price for a playoff or series game can break a millionaire (where, oh where do those attendees get that kind of money?). And i don’t like the shift, nor the new hitting approach created by statistics, which i also don’t like because it has changed the game from what i knew.
But i gotta admit, in spite of dislike, i’m getting pretty excited. i love to watch the best baseball. i am a Padre fan. i would like to see them win a World Series even though i argued the Cubs and the Red Sox lost their mojo, their karma, when they won the World Series.
And i remember, as i have noted here before, Bill Veeck, the Barnum and Bailey marketeer of baseball was right when he said, “Show me a team who caters to baseball purists, and i will show you a team that will go bankrupt in May.”
So i am excited and i’m sad together. And it’s a little crazy. Greg Garcia was the last San Diego native on the team. He is off the 40-player roster. i would like at least some small contact with the real world for the Friars.
i won’t draw any lines in the sand and turn them off and not because Maureen would shoot me, but as i said, i love watching baseball, and watching the best baseball possible is a thrill.
As a bona fide curmudgeon, i just wanted to rain on my own parade into what i hope is one hell of a lot better 2021 than this past 366 days of ridiculousness.
i hope you have a good one, the Padres beat the Braves in the National League Championship Series, and then the Friars take the World Series over the Red Sox or the Yankees in a four-game sweep.
It was finished yesterday. Sarah did about ninety-eight percent of the work. i put in maybe, just maybe fifty pieces. Maureen found one or two…i think.
It’s tradition. It’s connection. When we started going to Signal Mountain for Christmas in 1992, my sister would put out a difficult puzzle with a Christmas theme on a small table in the wonderful family room, pictures of which i have posted here. My father and i mostly would work on it; Martha would help but was mostly occupied, along with Maureen, with Christmas cooking, a marvelous treat of goodies for a week, especially the chocolate chip cookies she placed in the Santa Claus cookie jar on the kitchen counter. The aromas wafted through the house. i was known to stay up into the wee morning hours to work on the thing while ingesting a couple of dozen of those cookies. Maureen would attempt to hide one piece so she could put in the last one.
As the years rolled past, Sarah became more involved and is now considered the expert. She even bought several for Thanksgiving and completed one by herself.
Now these puzzles aren’t easy ones. Most are 1,000 pieces and a couple, i believe, were 1500.
Since we didn’t make that Christmas trip this year, Martha included a puzzle in her gift package. We cleared the breakfast table and shifted our morning meals, along with the big Christmas Day dinner to the dining room. i had to add the leaf to Aunt Ida’s round oak table for the puzzle to have enough room.
Sarah finished it yesterday.
i worked on my few pieces (i found most of the white and green star ornaments on the tree and contributed a lot in piecing together Santa’s face and then mumbled a lot trying to put the other pieces together with absolutely no clue. As i did, i felt Daddy bending over the table on the mountain, griping about having just seen the piece that would fit in a certain place but unable to find it again (i actually said that once yesterday and realized its origin).
Now i am not usually into trivial pursuits. i’ve got a lot of things to get done in the years i have left, and daily tasks seem to have grown in numbers and time (this, of course, excludes golf from the discussion).
But folks this is tradition, a lovely one. And it crosses family generations. And it’s connection, connection to wonderful things. Below is a photo of this year’s finished product and a shot from farther away to give you a perspective on its size.
i hope all of you had a wonderful Christmas and have a healthy 2021. As i have said in one form or another in emails and messages in the last few days. We’re overdue for a good year.
Robert Penn Warren Selected Poems: 1923-1966 “Garland for You”
Canto V: “A Real Question Calling for Solution”
There is only one way, then, to make things hang together, Which is to accept the logic of dream and avoid Night air, politics, French sauces, autumn weather, And the thought that, on your awaking, identity may be destroyed.
In early November 1979, i took a two-week trip from San Diego to Tasmania (included was a five-day holdover at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines). i was not a happy camper. i was going to report to a staff, Commander, Amphibious Squadron Five, not a ship, which i could drive. i was leaving behind a seven-year old daughter and a former wife who was recovering from breast cancer. i would be gone over Christmas and the New Year. And i didn’t have a high regard for an amphibious squadron staff job.
The trip and ensuing two months are a story to itself for later. But then there was:
Hong Kong. Christmas Eve. 1979.
Commander, Amphibious Squadron Five, his staff, and his flagship, the USS Tripoli (LPH 10) had drawn Hong Kong as their liberty port over Christmas and had pulled into Fleet Landing on the Hong Kong side right next to the great Fleet exchange.
Staff officers Mike Peck, the Tactical Air Control officer; Pete Toennies, the UDT advisor; OW Wright, the admin officer, and me, the staff’s current operations officer, had become good friends and running mates since i joined them in Hobart, Tasmania in November, and we had proved we were good liberty hounds. We were ready for Christmas in Hong Kong.
Mike and i had been in this wonderful city several times before. Mentioning the name of Johnny Lee, the tailor, got us a room in the Holiday Inn on the Kowloon side, a much improved version of the chain than those in the states. In Hong Kong, it was considered a luxury hotel. Mentioning Johnny Lee gave us the large room with two queen beds for $65 US dollars a night.
There are a number of sea stories related to this liberty, but i will stick to one aspect of our port stay.
The British Navy contingent in Hong Kong had hosted a reception for the squadron the day after we arrived. Mike and i hooked up with lieutenant junior grade in the British Navy, and we had a great time swapping stories. Unfortunately, i don’t remember his name, but i do recall he was a helicopter pilot who had been retrained to drive their surface effect boats in Hong Kong with the mission of interdicting any attempts at illegal immigration. This had been a big problem for the Brits after the evacuation of Vietnam as many of those displaced were trying to get into Hong Kong.
The three of us hit it off. To show our appreciation of the new friendship, we took the Brit to Gaddi’s, one of the finest high end dining establishments in the world, housed in the famed Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. It was a good evening. So Mike, the Brit, and i ran around for several days. The younger helicopter/surface effect boat driver invited us to Christmas Eve mess at the British Navy’s wardroom.
Now the officer’s mess in their wardroom was no ordinary place. The wardroom and the accompanying galley were not on a ship. They were on the penultimate floor of the British Navy’s Hong Kong headquarters, a thirteen story building on the waterfront. The Brits called it the HMS Tamar, as if it were a ship. The wardroom was actually two stories high and the bayside was a huge glass window looking out on Hong Kong. The city and its lights were a beautiful sight on Christmas Eve from that vantage point.
The HMS Tamar’s wardroom consisted of about one hundred officers, about a third of which were women, something US Navy officers weren’t accustomed to at the time. With shrimp cocktail appetizers and drinks, we chatted with all of the male and female officers before sitting down for the evening mess. It was a traditional British Christmas feast that seemed to have no end. Roasted goose and roasted gammon (smoked ham) were the traditional meats but the British Navy added roast beef. Then there was roasted chestnuts with Brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes, pigs in a blanket, parsnips, and swede (rutabaga), ginger bread stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, and concluding with, of course, English Christmas Bread Pudding.
All of this of course, was accompanied by continuous libations of wine, whiskey, and of course, gin. It was all very, very lovely.
After dinner, we continued our discussions with just about everyone in a Royal Navy uniform. We were like celebrities. My glass was much like the professor in “The Bishop’s Wife” when Cary Grant, the angel kept magically filling the writing professor’s glass.
Just before midnight, i was looking at Mike and Pete, thinking it was about time to say our thanks and give our hosts Christmas wishes, catch the elevator, and walk back to the ship, berthed between the HMS Tamar and the U.S.Fleet Exchange. But the group of about six junior officers insisted we attend midnight mass with them. If anything, this contingent about half men and women officers, had consumed a lot more beverage than any of us. Regardless, we agreed. Then they exited the main wardroom and started walking up the stairs. i was surprised there was another floor and asked where we were going.
“To the chapel,” they informed me.
i would like to say we filed in quietly with decorum. i think Mike and i mustered the strength to approach some semblance of decorum. But it was a pretty raucous bunch who found seats in two rows toward the back of the small chapel that held about 150 people, if that. Our group was laughing and continuing to have fun until just before the service. Then, one of the female officers behind us, tapped me on the shoulder.
She pleaded with whispers for us to help them out. One of the male junior officers had hidden a fifth of gin and brought it into the chapel. He was also blown out of his mind and close to passing out. The young female officer asked me to take the gin and hide it through the service. She explained if the senior officers caught him our any of the English in our group with the booze, they could be booted out of the service, not the mass, the British Naval service.
We, somewhat dubious, complied with her pleas. She passed the bottle to me under our seat. With Mike approval, i slid it up under my sports coat and cradled it with my left arm as inconspicuously as i possibly could.
The service went on, but i was too nervous to pay much attention. Getting up and down for the liturgies and hymns was a frightening proposition. With great difficulty, i successfully maneuvered through the stand/sit requirement each time. At the conclusion, i breathed a huge sigh of relief. Mike and i had worked out a strategy, whispering during the service. We would file to the left to the center aisle and then move as rapidly as possible without causing attention with Mike leading interference for me. i would continue to cradle the booze with my left arm, hopefully looking as if nothing were amiss.
i had just cleared the aisle and was headed for the exit when the plan ran afoul of what Kevin Kline’s character in “Silverado” would have called “bad luck.”
Unbeknownst to us, the commodore, Captain Jim McIntyre, also known as the “Silver Fox,” was attending the mass, sitting on the front row with the British commander and a couple of Hong Kong notables. He spotted me and my interference walking quickly toward the door. He walked more quickly, caught up with me, grabbed my left shoulder, and spun me around.
“Sure am surprised to see you three here,” the commodore laughed.
i wasn’t thinking much about the commodore yet. When he spun me around, my grasp on the bottle of gin slipped. i lurched over catching the bottom with my right hand and moving it back up into its hiding place as covertly as i could.
Reaching out with my right hand, i shook his and said, “Commodore, you don’t know the half of it,” concluding, “It’s good to see you here as well. Merry Christmas.
With that, i turned before the conversation could continue, caught up with Mike and rendezvoused with our new British friends. They were ecstatically happy with their new heroes as we returned the bottle of gin. The female officer’s whose plea we had answered kissed me on the cheek, gave me a hug, and thanked the three of us for saving their hides.
They never knew our all of our hides could have been in deep, deep trouble if i hadn’t caught that bottle on the way down.
Christmas was nice but it was anti-climatic.
But there was more fun to come.
The ship headed back to Subic Bay, Olongapo, Fiddler’s Green with the wildest liberty port on the face of the earth. But en route, Iran had another idea. They raided the American Embassy and took the hostages. Jimmy Carter, his intelligence experts, and the military high command were confronted with some decisions. The immediate decision was to detour the Amphibious Squadron to Singapore. The five ships rerouted across the South China Sea past Borneo to the southeast and into the entrance to the Mallaca Strait. The ships anchored out, a mile ride liberty launch to the fleet landing.
Mike and i rented a room in Raffle’s Hotel, the old one which Joseph Conrad favored with the open bar and palm like fans on the ceiling with a rattan accent throughout. We sat in the comfortable couches and ordered Singapore Slings to discover the originals, created there, tasted very much like Pepto Bismol, quickly switching to gin and tonics, probably Conrad’s preference.
Pete came and OW Wright came to visit and we discovered a British pub around the corner where world champion dart players frequented. We spent a lot of hours there, and one evening, i hit a bullseye to beat some of the best dart players in the world, never telling them i was aiming for a double twenty.
Pete invited Mike and i to join his SEAL buddies on a night out. We went to “Hungry Street,” an alley where the locals from several Asian ethnicities would roll in their wares and set up kiosks and rickety table and chairs. They offered seafood from their tanks and cook it, along with rice, of course, Asian bread, and things we decided not to ask about, in woks over fires in the back of their kiosks. Six or so of us would order from each of the kiosks, sit at one of the round rickety tables, have a beer or two, while they cooked our fare, and eat, and eat and eat. Lord, one of the best meals i can remember.
On the other end, someone discovered Navy and Marine officers were granted entry into the Petroleum Club. It sat on the highest floor of a high rise in downtown Singapore. They served superb meals with the grass fed steaks from Australia. However, the bartender’s creation of “Le Bom Bom” was the attraction. It was one hell of a delicious drink that would knock your socks off. And what a view.
We wandered the city, watched cricket matches, and solved pretty much every problem in the world while bringing in the New Year at, where else?, the Petroleum Club and Le Bom Bom’s.
About three days later, Jimmy Carter wisely figured out our squadron was not well equipped or well trained enough to attempt a hostage snatch. We were sent back to Subic, the Chuck Wagon, the Quarterdeck above the Subic Officer’s Cluh, Grande Island, Cubi Point’s Officer’s Cub with the Dempsey dumpster in the stag bar, and of course, Fiddler’s Green across “shit river.”
Oh lord, if you are a man and single, that was about as good as it could get…
…if you couldn’t get home for Christmas.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year: after this one we need a good bit of happiness.