I was reminded of one of my personal great moments in customer service when I ran across this article in the Daily Mail. Honestly, I think that the provision of expensive gift hampers for the holidays is one of those in which British merchants have it all over American, but then they had a long, long, long head start on us.

Anyway, I was often stuck for a present for my paternal grandmother, Granny Dodie, as she had a houseful of things and had need of another ornamental vase, plate or candle holder about as much as President Biden needed another tub of uniformly marked and unfolded ballots in the last presidential election. I was stationed in Greece in the early 1980s, and Granny Dodie was living with Great Aunt Nan, her sister-in-law. My shopping for presents for the family was either in the various shops in the Plaka, the old district in downtown Athens which offered folk art, curios, antiques, and bits of this or that … or out of mail order catalogues. Among the paper mail order catalogues that I had was one for Fortnum and Mason, the plush and uber-upscale department store in London, and the thought came to me that Granny Dodie would certainly get a thrill out of receiving one of their gift hampers, full of traditional English specialties … so, I picked out one from the catalog that I could readily afford, filled out the order form, included an international money order (this was well, well before the internet, Oh Best Beloved…), popped the whole thing into the mail, and checked off Granny Dodie and Great Aunt Nan from my list.

Some weeks later, I was called to the telephone – at work at EBS-Hellenikon. I didn’t have a home telephone; most of us didn’t then, as the waiting list for a telephone through the Greek national telecom system was something like a decade long. (My landlord, and his sister and brother-in-law shared a single phone for their separate apartments, respectively on the ground and third floors of the building I lived in. I had the second-floor apartment. The phone traveled between apartments in a plastic shopping bag on the end of a long length of rope, as my landlord and his sisters’ family had need of it.)

The caller for me at work was from the customer service department at Fortum and Mason. Who had done a beyond-the-normal-call-of-duty effort in tracking my physical whereabouts from my unit and APO address, and somehow finding the correct base telephone number for the duty section where I could be reached during the day. It seemed that one of the items in the hamper that I had ordered – a cured ham, if I recall correctly – couldn’t be imported to the US. Customer service had an equivalent item which could be included in the gift hamper. Would that be satisfactory, and did I approve the substitution?

I approved, of course – and he assured me that the hamper would be dispatched immediately. I was slightly boggled at how he had managed to sort out where I was, when I hadn’t put a telephone number on the order form, only my address.

And Granny Dodie and Great Aunt Nan loved the hamper – they were thrilled no end, sampling the various gourmet contents. It was a success beyond my imagining as a Christmas gift, for which I was very glad later. It was the very last gift I was able to send her, as she passed away six months later.

There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was over-age, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as a driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th Century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.

The war whose casualties Ravel memorialized in that way ended exactly a hundred years ago today; the eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour. It seems now to have been unimaginably distant at this point. The soldiers who fought in it for every nation and yet managed by pluck and luck to survive are all gone now … but like a long-healed wound, that war left horrific scars both physical and psychic. Woodlands and meadows the length of the Western Front across Belgium and France to this day are still marked by trenchworks, crumbling fortifications, the soil still poisoned by chemicals. All across Europe, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, what remained of Austria-Hungary – and the US, to a lesser extent – the smallest villages and the largest cities alike have memorials. Sometimes they are in odd corners, most often in a prominent place, with engraved tablets of names; the most notable were usually designed by the architectural great and good, standing on or near the battlefields themselves. The smallest memorials are sometimes the most moving – especially when the same handful of names appear. Everyone in this tiny village would have known this man or that, not just the immediate family and friends. This man, his neighbor, the boy who polished boots or delivered the mail; this and this, a hundred and a thousand times over. When those memorial monuments were first put up, the loss of the men – and sometimes of women – was a raw and savage grief. The observer picks up immediately on the sense of loss, the grief, the futile attempt to make a sense out of the cruelty visited on that community; they were here, they were of value, and now they are gone! The only thing we can do is to remember them.

The political and psychic scars from the First World War, I think, have proved to be the deepest, and the longest-lasting. We are still dealing politically with the fall-out and the razor-edged shards of broken empires. The Austro-Hungarian empire splintered into component nations; Russia replaced the Romanovs and old ruling nobility with an even more vicious ruling class, the Ottoman Empire both splintered geographically, replacing the old inefficient Sultanate with an equally inefficient and/or vicious assortment of local ruling talent. Germany, wracked in defeat, replaced their supreme ruler serially with inefficient democracy and then crowned that debacle with Hitler, suffering another round of defeat and division. France – gutted of a generation of able, healthy and patriotic young men, required for the continuance of a stable society, those friends whom Ravel honored and mourned in his composition. Great Britain and her far-flung Empire, also gutted of men and the supreme societal self-confidence required to maintain that Empire, fell apart on a slower timetable. Documented in small and large ways in western literature and in even popular contemporary genre novels, the war marked a turning, a vast gulf, a shattering of the old, 19th Century optimism, and the certainty that things were bound – with the aid of science and industry – to only get better and better for that part of the world which thought of itself as ‘civilized.’ To the characters created for a mass audience by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and any number of others – there seems in retrospect to be a “before” and an “after” to the war, which slashed a sharp dividing line across the cultural landscape; skirts were shorter, morals looser, music louder and more discordant, politics more rancorous, manners coarsened and buildings uglier. The shock and the loss of certainty in so much which had once been thought solid, stable, eternal … the reverberations when the guns finally fell silent on that day are still rippling across our consciousness, even when we don’t quite know why.

13. October 2021 · Comments Off on All That Remains · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

So, I was watching Youtube videos, mostly to amuse Wee Jamie, the Grandson Unit, as he sits propped up in my lap – we are attempting to keep him awake and amused during the day so that he will sleep for a good portion of the night. I found this video, about antique historic home renovation, wherein the couple who purchased a historic Victorian went through the room where all the unwanted detritus from the previous owners were stashed in tatty boxes, ancient suitcases.

The couple went through the room full of junk left over from the owners of the next of kin and rejects from the estate sale, looking for treasure, or at least, interesting relics of modest value … and one of the assortments they found was stuff consigned to a trash bag – a disintegrating photo album stuffed with seventy-year old pictures and documents to do with a first brief engagement of the wife of the previous owner to a naval aviator. The engagement took place during WWII and ended when the fiancé was lost at sea during a naval aviation action. There were the photographs, letters, certain documents, attesting to the existence of the doomed romance: a portion of two lives – possibly all that was left of one, all wrapped up in a single bag.

It all reminded me of several members of my own family – that all of their lives were summed up in a handful of pictures, documents and bits of this or that, and fading memories, as the people who knew them the best passed away themselves. There was a small, cheap suitcase which held the bits and pieces of my Uncle Jimmy’s nineteen years; the olive-green wool serge blouse and trousers of his US Army Air Corps uniform, a scrapbook he kept, full of newspaper and magazine cuttings, which were equal thirds divided between the war, news about aviation and various big bands, a small black pocket diary for 1941, which mostly documented the movies and big bands that he went to see, and the friends that he hung out with. For December 7, the entry was “War” with three exclamation points. There were a few other items in the suitcase which I don’t remember. My brother Alex has the diary, possibly the scrapbook, too. The rest likely burned in the 2003 fire which took down my parents’ retirement home, along with just about all the other relics and things which Mom and Dad inherited from their respective parents.

Of Great-Aunt Nan, I have an autograph book, full of messages from her friends, pictures of her in her WAAC uniform, a tiny “Ruptured Duck” service pin and a couple of other things. Nan lived a peripatetic life in small rented apartments. She traveled the world; some of her souvenirs also gravitated to me; some silver bracelets, a couple of tiny dolls which serve as Christmas ornaments. Of her older half-brother, Will, who perished on the Somme in 1916, there is even less remaining – copy of a single picture of Nan and Will. Nan herself was the last person living who remembered Will at first hand. Mom will be the last one, save for some childhood friends of the same vintage who remember her brother.

In the end, that’s all that most of us ordinary people leave – memories in the minds of those who knew us, a few faded pictures and entries in various public and private records.

I read the linked story in the Daily Mail, and realized that my daughter and I must have passed within a mile or so of the abandoned water-park many times, during the time that I was stationed at Hill AFB and made the journey up and down I-15 between the home that we had in South Ogden and my parents retirement place in Valley Center. The desert around Yermo, Barstow, Ludlow, Baker and Needles was familiar stomping ground for Dad, who confessed sometimes that in another life, he would have been a desert rat – for he loved the Mojave Desert. Loved the wide blue sky, at home in the dun-colored sweep of desert which actually hid so much life; Dad would have been happy in a small shack somewhere out beyond Needles, with a burro and a dog for company, watching over the desert life that he adored – the kangaroo rats, the little desert kit foxes, the tiny birds which nested in hollows in the cactus, the desert which bloomed into amazing sweeps of color once a year after sudden flurries of rain.

We never would have stopped at the waterpark – deserted now – in it’s prime, as we weren’t really the sort of people who did tourist attractions. Mom and Dad preferred camping trips, day excursions to places that were free or nearly so, long hikes in the wilderness – that kind of thing. But it looks as if it would have been a fantastic place for families, back when it was open, even though a long, long drive out into the desert.

One of Dad’s regular stops in his desert excursions had first been established when his parents, Grandpa Al and Granny Dodie used to drive up to Las Vegas for a spot of gambling. This must have been post-World War II, when gasoline rationing ended. Dad would have been a teenager then; Grandpa Al and Granny Dodie were rather fond of such excursions, which they carried on to a lesser degree when we were kids. Dad fondly remembered stops for a meal at a tiny, two-outlet hamburger chain called “The Bun Boy”, at the approximate halfway point between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, either the outlet on the outskirts of Barstow, or the one in a tiny hiccup in the road called Baker. For a number of years, Baker boasted of the tallest thermometer in the world, constructed by a local entrepreneur. The local radio station, which was all that we could get on the car radio carried commercials for the Bun Boy, or the rival establishment across the road, The Mad Greek, which featured gyros and fries. When my daughter and I drove from Utah for the holidays, or back again after New Years’ we would time the start of our drive to catch a meal – mid-morning breakfast at the Bun Boy, no matter if we had started the drive before dawn at Mom and Dad’s place, or after spending the night at Mesquite on the Utah-Nevada border.

It was a comfortable diner-type restaurant, not terribly distinguished in architecture or décor – but the food was always good, and the burgers were fabulous. Sometimes we ate at the counter, which was always fun, especially if there were truck drivers also getting a quick meal and refills of coffee. We got the low-down from them on where the highway patrols and the local police keep a strict weather-eye on speeders on the highway.

It looks like both locations for the Bun Boy are closed – and Baker itself is a ghost town — all but deserted save for a gas station; the Mad Greek is apparently closed as well. Are the lights still on for the giant thermometer? California used to be such a lively, interesting, fun place, but now I think with sorrow and regret of crumbling ruins and deserted towns, the hot dry wind whipping through places like Baker and the desert water park.

Sometimes, long after first reading a book or watching a movie and enjoying it very much, I have come back to re-reading or watching, and then wondering what I had ever seen in that in the first place. So it was with the original M*A*S*H book and especially with the movie. I originally read the book in college and thought, “Eww, funny but gross and obscene, with their awful practical jokes and nonexistent sexual morals.” Then I re-read after having been in the military myself for a couple of years, and thought, “Yep, my people!”

The movie went through pretty much the same evolution with me, all but one element – and that was when I began honestly wondering why the ostensible heroes had such a hate on for Major Burns and the nurse Major Houlihan. Why did those two deserve such awful, disrespectful treatment? In the movie they seemed competent and agreeable enough initially. In the book it was clear that Major Burns was an incompetent surgeon with delusions of adequacy, and that Major Houlihan was Regular Army; that being the sole reason for the animus. But upon second viewing of the movie, it seemed like Duke Forrest, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre were just bullying assholes selecting a random target for abuse for the amusement of the audience.

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