Sunday Natterings: strange foreign entanglements

George Washington warned us against foreign entanglements. Yet I have to say, sometimes they can be funny, scary, strange, crazy, or beautiful. Watching the Olympics, I thought of a few entanglements out of my past.

  • While hitchhiking from London to Harwich to catch the ferry to Holland, I was relieved when a man driving a spotless Jaguar sedan gave me a ride. I told him where I was headed and said I was worried about missing the boat. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m their chef. They won’t leave without me.”
  • The moment I stepped inside a French street urinal to use the facilities, a group of women walked into it chattering away as though I were invisible. Or maybe I was just another ugly American. I think they were trying to use the fully visible urinal on the other side, but “sacre bleu!” it seemed impolite to see how they were accomplishing that. I thought of humming a memorable song from “Casablaca” and saying, “We’ll always have Paris.”
  • Another American and I stopped in a London pub, found seats at the bar and ordered whatever was on tap. Presently, a working man came up and kept saying in a Cockney accent I couldn’t decypher, something like “Lor’ luv a duck! A John’s walle’ is cushy ‘o nick ou’ ov a back pocke’.” I had no clue. After the bartender translated that I was being warned that a man’s wallet is easy to steal if he keeps it in his back pocket, I bought the man a pint, we toasted goodness knows what, and I put my wallet in another pocket.
  • Our restoration project alongside a northern canal in the Netherlands

    After a crash course in Dutch, my volunteer group in the Netherlands followed the sailboat races selling lottery tickets to raise money for our project. I saw a couple of college girls and asked if they’d buy a lottery ticket. “Spreekt u Engels?” they asked hopefully. “Sure,” I said. Turned out they were tourists from Florida and were stunned to find out I was also from Florida. Small world. They didn’t buy a ticket. Later, our group worked at the ship yard to help restore a ship to be re-used as a school. Always wearing old clothes, I was amazed by the number of times tourists came up to me at railway stations, bus stops, and random street corners and said, “Spreekt u Engels?” because they wanted directions to some place or other. I’m sure looking like a local kept me out of more trouble than I’ll ever know.

  • While flying over Vietnam in 1969 between the aircraft carrier and Da Nang with nine other men in a small, unarmed Navy plane I was, like everyone else, curious about the view. As we approached the airport, the pilot said, “Gentlemen, there’s been a bit of mortar activity from those hills lately, so I’d advise backing away from the windows.” An ancient chief petty officer said, “If they shoot us down, the last thing I’m worrying about is a shower of broken glass.”
  • Not our hotel.

    After a long day of group sightseeing in Rome, Bob and I decided we weren’t ready to call it quits, so we walked around after dark, enjoying the sights and glasses of wine at various places along the way. When we got lost, Bob suggested we ask a couple of seductive women leaning against a lamp post (how trite!) if they could give us directions to our hotel. “Bad idea,” I said, but it was too late. They grabbed us as though we were old friends (with benefits) and offered to take us to their hotel for the night. After a lot of swearing, they finally agreed to lead us back to our pensione. When we were asked what happened to us, it was hard to live down Bob’s explanation to the group that we got so turned around we needed a couple of hookers to help us find our way in the dark.

  • When a snitty sales lady in a London shop told me “You Americans talk funny,” I said in the thickest Southern accent I could manage, “Bless your heart, Shug, y’all talk funny around here, too.” She didn’t think that was funny. Later, in one of those Berlin restaurants with long communal tables, a clueless American at our table from North Carolina with an accent so thick I had a hard time understanding him blurted out, “Ain’t it a kick, a few years back, all these people here would have been Nazis.” You could have heard a pin drop. I said, “Ich kenne diesen Mann nicht,” and got the hell out of there.
  • While riding a small steam locomotive train across East Germany to Berlin long before the wall came down, we were annoyed when guards boarded at almost every stop and demanded more “visa money.” I gave them what they wanted. When an angry American shouted at them in profanity filled English, informing them that they were a bunch of thieves, they hauled him off the train. When the guards looked at me, I said, “Ich kenne diesen bösen Mann [bad man] nicht,” and they actually smiled before they got the hell out of there.
  • Hong Kong was my favorite liberty port. Fortunately, a family friend who was a missionary and fluent in Cantonese gave me a tour of off-the-beaten-track sites. Every time kids passed on the street, they scowled at me and shouted, “Gweilo, gweilo.” “They’re calling you a foreign devil,” she said. I guess my Navy uniform gave me away.
  • During a memorable horseback ride in the Alberta mountains, we rode up toward the summit on a sunny day and were surprised to find falling snow. Better yet, we were within a snowbow, the first and last one I’ve ever seen. My horse’s name as “Flame,” and that seemed appropriate.
  • Not my ship, but I remember these docks.

    While walking back to the ship during liberty call in Yokosuka, Japan, I got caught in a late night rain storm. Much to my surprise, a bar girl stepped out of nowhere with a red umbrella that matched her sexy red dress and offered to escort me to the pier. When I said I was broke, she said, “No matter, slow night anyway.” She grabbed my arm and stayed so close she provoked catcalls from the flight deck when we reached the ship. She gave me a kiss and said, “Tell your friends we hot lovers.” I think that was a defining moment, but I’m not sure what it defined. It would have made an iconic photograph…the rain, the street lights, the sailor, the girl…

  • Most people who have been there, don’t believe me when I say that a bunch of us went swimming in the oily, heavily polluted Amsterdam harbor. That might have been the same day we enjoyed free samples at the Heineken Brewery. The local hosts on our motor barge who told us not to do it, jumped in, too, when they saw us pretending to drink the water. “If you end up in the hospital, Hank and Truus, we don’t know you anymore.”
  • Wikipedia Photo

    When my wife and I were driving our rental car in Waterton Park, Alberta, we stopped along the shoulder of the road where bighorn sheep were panhandling for food. One of them stuck his head in the driver’s side window and got his horns caught. It took both of us to twist his head enough to set him free.

  • Wearing bright yellow wooden Dutch shoes on the Champs-Élysées attracts more attention than one might expect. The fact that the group had wine for lunch and dared me to do it might have been at fault because people who know me could testify that normally I would never do such a thing.
  • Back when people still took passenger ships from New York to England, I saw the Statue of Liberty from the ship as we left port. It’s a sight I’ll never forget and more memorable than everything else from Hong Kong to Paris to infinity and beyond.


Throwback Thursday – Four National Geographics

1961NGMThis morning, I reached into one of the many boxes of old National Geographic Magazine’s storied in the garage and scooped out four issues at random, two from 1961 and one each from 1962 and 1964.

These will probably be thrown out as part of my getting rid of old stuff project. Looking online for the December 1961 issue, I see it for sale on Amazon at $4.00 and on eBay at $34.99. What a price range!

I doubt that neither copy will sell. I’ve never had much luck selling old magazines. Time was, they were seemingly more valuable if you cut them apart and sold the pages with the advertisements.

Funny how a Great Northern Railway ad would sell quickly on eBay but if the same ad (along with other vintage examples) were offered as part of a complete issue, it was a harder sell.

The only copies I’m saving are those that are especially historic—some early space exploration issues, a John F. Kennedy tribute issue, and the issues that came out during the birth months and years of people in the family. I’m also saving some ads, mostly those having to do with train travel. Or, a few that are simply “strange” by today’s standards.

1961JunengmThe December 1961 issue includes articles about “Life in Walled-Off West Berlin,” “Canada, My Country,” and “Australia’s Amazing Bowerbirds.” The West Berlin article includes a map of the city, now from almost another time and another place ever since the Berlin Wall came down. But as Russia rushed to annex Crimea, I’m reminded of those cold war days. When I saw Berlin, there was a wall there. That shows how long it’s been since I was there.

A Look at London

You can tell at a glance that the June 1961 issue includes an article about London. When I originally read the article about the city’s “Storied Square Mile,” I didn’t know I would see it six years later. The article includes a fold out map along with photographs of people, places, pomp and pageantry.

When this issue came in the mail, you could also read about the FBI, Thailand, rose aphids and whaling.

There’s also a cute ad of a boy leaving his house with a red wagon filled with all his stuff for Bank of America Travelers Cheques. I used to carry these years ago, but in time I got fed up with explaining to stores and hotels with clerks who said “we don’t take checks” that these aren’t the same as the potentially bad checks torn out of a check book. You’d think people in resort towns would know that.

They probably still don’t know it.

The Holy Land and New Guinea

telestarThe December 1961 issue contains multiple articles about the Middle East. My father, who did some media consulting in the area in the mid-1950s probably liked the memories stirred up by this issue. If I had ever been there, I might be tempted to save this issue, though for what purpose, I’m not sure. I’m sure I still have this copy because my father saved it as part of his collection.

I haven’t been to New Guinea (or even the Canyon Lands of Utah), so the May 1962 issue isn’t tempting. It does have a space-aficionado article called “Telephone a Star: the Story of Communications Satellites.”

The article includes a picture of Telestar that would be launched that June. Teletar 2 would be launched the following year. At the time, this was BIG NEWS. Now, there are over a thousand operational satellites in orbit. The news media hardly even mention the launches any more.

They were still in orbit, though nonfunctional, as of last year. Big news at the time, telestarsongthere was even a hit song about it that reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 list. It was a catchy song then, but I doubt it would get much play today–unless you’re walking (or flying) down memory lane.

Memory Lane or Ancient History?

If you were there, going through a stack of National Geographic Magazines that came out during your lifetime is a trip down memory lane. I remember the events, the products and the global issues. Otherwise, this is all “ancient” history. Most of the stuff that ended up in these magazines probably isn’t on the RADAR in a high school history class. Perhaps the Berlin Wall will flit by in a footnote to the paragraph about Cold War–assuming the Cold War is even in the course. In a college’s “Recent U.S.” history course, perhaps the Cold War itself will make it into the course for a one-hour lecture. When Russia marched into the Crimea, a lot of people who didn’t know what the Cold War was started doing a lot of Google searches about it.

1964DecNGMI saved these magazines, along with copies of noteworthy issues of Life, Look, Newsweek and the Saturday Evening Post because I though they would be important as keepsakes, as windows on the world as it was, and possibly (like old books) as antiques that might be worth money some day. The memories are wonderful, but I can no longer afford the space all these boxes take up. Plus, they’re heavy to move around.

Perhaps they’ll have monetary value in another hundred years–like original photographs of the Civil War have now–but not being a rich person with a Downton Abbey sized house, I don’t have the space for that kind of collecting. And, I doubt my daughter wants to see a U-Haul truck arrive with a garage full of dusty old magazines arrive. She’s been to the Middle East, but I think she’ll always prefer her own pictures to those in the January 1964 issue of National Geographic.

Plus, I’m one of many millions of people who seem to have saved these magazines with the idea in mind that one day they would be rare.