Roald Dahl: Writer, Winker, Soldier, Spy

On this day in 1916, the great Roald Dahl was born in Wales. You may know him from his children’s stories. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably the most famous, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. His stories are humorous, dark, and scathingly true in their assessment of human nature- in all its kindness and cruelty. Dahl was mischievous, naughty even, and we loved him for it.

But you may not know that this mischievous, naughty man–with a strong sense of who the good guys really are and the ability to cut through the baloney that haughty adults so often peddle– was also a soldier and spy. He flew missions over Africa and Greece with the RAF in WWII. His flying career was cut short, owing to lingering problems from a crash landing in Libya . . . or maybe someone simply realized that his tall and erudite man, with plenty of heart and a strong sense of purpose, had just the right mix of twinkle and trouble to make an effective wartime spy. But a spy of a certain sort.

In 1942, Dahl was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington, DC. He was to apply his charms and intellect to the most important mission at the time– making the pitch for US involvement in the war in Europe.

After the US became involved in the war, Dahl continued his work. He had the strenuous job of wining, dining, and charming both politicians and socialites (whose connections and financial influence often pressured the establishment). Legend has it that Dahl seduced many socialites in service to his country. Don’t take my word for it; read the book The Irregulars: Road Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.

I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else.

It seems that Dahl was a scoundrel, but a scoundrel with courage, purpose, and a wicked (but never malevolent) sense of mischief. He was one of the good guys, but refused to take himself too seriously. He fought hard, wasn’t opposed to getting his hands dirty, and still believed that kindness was the greatest quality of all. What’s not to love about that?

And so I leave you with a little morsel for your delight- one of Dahl’s last poems, but one that proves he still had a twinkle in his eye and a ribald sense of humor. Enjoy!

A Hand in the Bird
1989

I am a maiden who is forty,
And a maiden I shall stay.
There are some who call me haughty,
But I care not what they say.
I was running the tombola
At our church bazaar today,
And doing it with gusto
In my usual jolly way
When suddenly, I knew not why,
There came a funny feeling
Of something crawling up my thigh!
I nearly hit the ceiling!
A mouse! I thought. How foul! How mean!
How exquisitely tickly!
Quite soon I know I'm going to scream.
I've got to catch it quickly.
I made a grab. I caught the mouse,
Now right inside my knickers.
A mouse my foot! It was a HAND!
Great Scott! It was the vicar's!

Hospital workers check in to city hotel offering free meals and accommodation — The Edinburgh Reporter

Reposting from The Edinburgh Reporter.  Why am I sharing this article?  Because it’s a feel good story in a troubling week.  Also, because Ten Hill Place is a great hotel that deserves to be lauded on many levels.  It’s very comfortable, has a great restaurant and helpful staff, a good location, and is reasonably priced.  It’s not the most posh hotel in Edinburgh, but it’s luxurious enough.  Better yet, it has character and heart.

My daughter has stayed at Ten Hill Place, and I had tentatively booked a room for a spring trip this year.  Obviously, spring trips have been derailed around the globe, but how great to see this independent hotel stepping up to put itself to use for the good of the community!  In truth, it does that every day.  The hotel is owned by The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and its profits go back into training medical staff worldwide. When this Coronavirus rollercoaster is over, I’ll be happy to book a stay at Ten Hill Place Hotel, Surgeons Quarter- they’ve made a fan out of me.

 

FRONTLINE workers leading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Edinburgh are booking in to the city’s largest independent hotel in their numbers after it committed to offering free rooms and meals. Since opening its doors on Friday evening to help clinical and medical staff at the capital’s hospitals, more than 232 room nights have…

via Hospital workers check in to city hotel offering free meals and accommodation — The Edinburgh Reporter

The Return of Light: Candlemas

Once again, the season has brought us round to Candlemas– an ancient tradition still observed in a handful of places.  One of those places is Ripon, North Yorkshire, England, which I called home for a brief but beautiful few years.  I’m re-posting this short post from 2017, so  I might share the tradition with you and wish you a thousand candles to light your way and warm your heart through this winter week.

Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, N. Yorkshire

Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter
Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter

The winter-blooming snowdrops may be pushing up from the cold ground in England about now, and we are at the halfway point between the shortest day of the year and the March equinox.  Light is returning to the world, and slowly but surely we turn toward spring.

And the religious calendar turns also.  There are few places in the world where Candlemas is still celebrated on February 2nd– Americans are far likelier to think of today as Groundhog Day (same principle, though)– but the Ripon Cathedral is one of those glorious places where the holiday is remembered.  The cathedral is lit with thousands of candles, and candles only,  and a  processional service takes place in the evening.

Our first visit to a Candlemas service took place in 2005 or 2006.  Our children were very young, and we took them in their pajamas (it was a cold mid-winter’s night, they were young, we saw no need to stand on ceremony).  Our friend, a canon at the cathedral, had called us at the last minute and said, “You really ought to see this, it’s beautiful and will be a new experience for you.”  We’d imagined that we’d just pop our heads in, satisfy a curiosity, and leave quickly to get the children into bed.

But, like Homer’s lotus eaters, we stepped into the space and it was such a fantastic and pleasurable experience that we forgot to leave!  We stayed for the procession, we moved dreamily through the ancient, light-filled space and, although I’d like to tell you just how it felt and how it lifted our spirits, my words fall short.  To be in that ancient space, with the thousands of candles at once warming, lighting, and flickering along the walls  (seeming, in their dancing flames, to sing and process along with the parishioners), to process through that space with a sea of people (young and old, high and low, well-dressed and pajama-ed)– this was so moving and uplifting.

This morning, I’m starting my day off in sunny Florida.  It is no bleak mid-winter day outside.  The light never really left us this winter–certainly not by northern or European measures.  But the need for a turning and a renewal is as strong as ever.

Tonight, I will put on my cozy pajamas, I will light some candles at home, and I will drift off to Ripon Cathedral, lotus-eater like.  I will process through the nave and side aisle, pause by niches, hold my young children tight, marvel at the warmth and the glow and the sea of my fellow revelers.  I’ll be there.  Not even the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean could keep me away.

 

 

Chapel in the Woods- (nearly) Wordless Wednesday

The tiny chapel in the woods behind our house in Germany:  I find myself missing it today in the metropolitan hum of suburban DC with the tiniest of snow flurries falling. What I wouldn’t give for a German Christmas Market, a dusting of snow, and a tiny chapel behind my stone house.

Wishing you each a season that is merry and bright!

tinychapel Ramstein

Battle of Britain Day, 2019

Today, September 15, is Battle of Britain Day, marking the date in 1940 when the German Luftwaffe launched an enormous attack on London and South East England, but the Royal Air Force pushed back victorious and turned the tides in the larger “Battle of Britain”- a nearly 4 month long campaign.

I know this, not because I am a WWII fanatic.  I know this because it streamed across my computer this morning.  The universe handed me this nugget not so much as a random byte of information, it seems to me, but as a beautiful gesture of syncronicity, an acknowledgment of battles we face.

My parents grew up during WWII.  They took form, in character and outlook, from the struggles and victories of that era.  If their lives have a soundtrack, it is generously sprinkled with Big Band music,  Ella Fitzgerald, and the tappity-tap-tap of my mother tap dancing her way through a recording of “The Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy from Company B.”  It may not be my generation’s music, but I do find that my heart swells when I hear it because it so pulses through the veins of my parents in their youthful moments.

It will come as no surprise that my dad has always been a student of WWII era aircraft.  He indulged that love of Spitfires and Corsairs, poured over books about them and history magazines that featured WWII battles, and built model airplanes with my brother when we were young.

I observed this and, although I never shared the obsession or built the model airplanes, I loved his love of the history and of the forms of flight and defenders of freedom that these metal birds represented.  Because I love my dad.

There was one way in which my dad and I shared his love of WWII history and aircraft, and I suspect he doesn’t know this.  In fact, I never thought about it until this week– it’s one of those memories of childhood that doesn’t get fully processed until some time later in life. It’s like a shiny pebble you pick up and put in your treasure box as a child, just because it delights you.  Years later, you open the box to have a nostalgic look at those simple prizes of childhood, only to realize that you have pocketed a gold nugget.

This is one of those nuggets:

The church system was older than this, but this gives you an idea of what it looked like.

In the 1970’s, my dad would often man the P.A. (public address) system at our church on Sunday mornings.  The control board was a large metal tower of dials and toggle switches that had to be monitored for volume and switched at the right moment, to turn on and off microphones that were placed around the sanctuary. Was someone reading a lesson from the lecturn? Was the minister stepping up to the pulpit to deliver a long and learned sermon?  Wherever the action was, there the microphone should be turned on.  Wherever the action wasn’t, it should be shut off to avoid buzz and background noise.

The fellow in the pulpit may have the figurative spotlight for a speech, but if the PA system wasn’t properly aligned, the whole morning fizzled.

Manning the PA system was important, but it wasn’t exciting.  You sat in a small room behind the sanctuary, armed with a church bulletin and notes on where each “act” of the service would take place.  You stared at a large metal tower set into a recess of the wall, and you navigated the service while you listened in on the giant aviator-style headphones that were provided. 

Yes indeed, you navigated the service in your aviator headphones.  So it seemed to me.  You see, my dad would occasionally let me join him when he manned the PA system.  From his perspective, it was probably just a chance to spend a little more time with his children.  Or maybe he knew my fascination with aviator headphones.  Either way, on the rare occassion, I was his co-pilot in this cockpit.

When I was lucky enough to join my dad, it was a big deal to me. I liked the headphones, and I marveled at the dials and switches, while sitting on a metal chair with my feet dangling above the ground.  If I fidgeted and squirmed, it was only between moments of staring, enrapt, at the towering cockpit and keeping an eye on my dad’s deft piloting of the apparatus.

I wasn’t old enough to see it then– I loved the experience, but wasn’t self-aware enough to know why.  Today, it is crystal clear to me.  In these moments, I was flying a Spitfire over the skies of London.  I was piloting a Corsair over the English Channel.  I was a green co-pilot to my dad’s flying ace, and I loved every moment.  Sure, we got off easy: when Dr. Joe Mullin stepped to the pulpit for a long sermon, we’d flip on his mic, then leave our post and scramble down to the kitchen for donuts.  But we’d always be back in place before Joe finished, and we’d fly that service back into a safe and smooth landing before shutting down the cockpit and hanging up our headphones for the day.

We were a great aviatorial team, my dad and me.  The best.

So today we honor those brave souls who fought The Battle of Britain, and my dad is still the best pilot any co-pilot could have.  He’s fighting his own battle with cancer now.  It’s very difficult and grueling.  Some days, it’s just a wing and a prayer.  But no matter that– today is a day to lift up the brave, and, although my dad was just a school boy at the time, he’s my favorite WWII hero.

I love you, Dad!