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.
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!
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:
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.
Everyone is talking about today’s solar eclipse. It’ll draw its dark line diagonally across the US today, but the inky darkness will bleed out across most of the country– even those of us who aren’t in the line of total eclipse. It’s been the big story for days now, leading a news cycle that has contained other chatter that included stories about North Korea and Russia: a big old stew of news that brought to mind two posts from a couple of years ago; posts about Moon Pies, Cold War, Russians, and North Korean politics. Strange bedfellows, maybe . . . maybe not.
Seemed an appropriate time to bring out that original post (Moon Pies and Moon Landings), as well as it’s follow up on the saga of Choco Pies in N. Korea. Happy reading, bon appetit, and Godspeed on eclipse day!
Moon Pies and Moon Landings (Modern History and the German Grocery Store)
I began writing this post under the title “The Perks and Perils of Shopping Abroad.” However, I soon realized that the insights you are about to read are much broader than my mishaps in the grocery aisles.
The larger story starts in the years after the Second World War. (Or even after the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.) It gains steam in the Cold War and the Race for Space. However, the more immediate story starts in the aisles of my local German grocery store, Edeka. And like the larger story of political machinations, it’s fraught with perks and perils.
For example, it was recently brought to my attention that the lovely, fragrant German laundry detergent I’ve been using for about three months is actually fabric softener. Who knew? Well, in fact, I had suspected for a few weeks. My clothes were so fragrant and soft! But were they clean? Well . . . they weren’t not clean.
These things happen when you shop abroad.
But great things happen too. This morning, I was meandering the aisles of our grocery store, picking up jam, sorting through coffee, and pondering fish, when I stumbled upon the most amazing thing on an Eastern European/Russian shelf. Moon Pies! Well, okay, Choco-Pies–but they were Russian Moon Pies! Eureka! For all of you non-American (or non-Southern) folks out there, here’s a little lesson: Moon Pies are chocolate, graham, and marshmallow pies that are a Southern staple and made in Tennessee. Before the markets were flooded with snack cakes and convenience food, there was the Moon Pie. Apparently, they were produced beginning in the 1920’s and they were certainly big stuff in the sixties and seventies. (My mother loved to pack my lunch with Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies, but my heart, and my taste buds, yearned for Moon Pies.) They were iconic. And delicious.
And here I was, in Germany, staring down a Russian doppelganger! At first I laughed, and then I greedily stuffed a box into my shopping cart! I considered my good fortune as I walked the streets of town, heading home with my grocery bag and its treasure. But as I walked, I started thinking about more than my good fortune. I started thinking about the doppelganger-ness of the little chocolate pie: the shadowy counterpart, the ghostly (and ominous) double. The American Pie/the Russian Pie: forever locked in a shadowy dance.
For sure, I’ve watched too many episodes of “The Americans,” the Cold War spy drama, lately. But my odd brain was playing out this Spy v. Spy (Pie v. Pie) drama and finding it fascinating.
By the time I got home, I was mad to know more. I ripped out the Choco Pie box and scanned the label for clues–amongst the Cyrillic (Russian) script and German sticker stood out something I could decipher. Original since 1974. Ha! It wasn’t the original then–we got there first. Not only did we get to the moon first*, but we got to the moon pie first. I chuckled as I opened the box and saw that the pies were smaller than their American counterpart. Well, what did I expect.
But then I took a bite. Oh my. I took another bite. They were delicious. So fresh, so chocolaty. I felt conflicted in my patriotic soul. There had to be an explanation for this; no way the shadowy double could rival the Southern staple. Think, think! (Take another bite.) Think some more! Oh–of course–the problem is that too many of the American Moon Pies I’ve eaten have been plucked from dusty lower shelves of rundown convenience stores or seedy Stuckey’s truck stops. Who knows how long they had lingered there, gathering dust and grime? That’s it. That must be it.
I was raised in the 70’s with a taste for Moon Pies and Tang. In my mind, that era will always be about playing kick the can, catching fire flies, eating Moon Pies, and drinking Tang like the astronauts. I remember some of the Apollo missions; I coveted the GI Joe astronaut dolls (Barbie never had the astronaut get up, although her house and pink convertible weren’t too shabby); and I marveled when Skylab sustained people and research in space.
I didn’t cheer on the Cold War or Nuclear Proliferation– they scared the hell out of me– but I was a product of a culture and a time. I didn’t know whether I was an observer or participant, but I felt the adrenaline of the Race. The Race for Hearts and Minds, the Race for Space, for Superiority, for Survival. And then I tucked my head down into a Moon Pie or Mad Magazine and took refuge from the noise of it all.
Only to find today that, maybe– just maybe– my youthful Soviet doppelganger was doing the same thing in 1974.
Only she couldn’t call her treat a “Moon Pie”. . . because we got there first.
Just another lesson learned at my German grocery store.
*Sort of. We put a man on the moon first. But before that, the Soviet Sputnik program beat us into outer space and the Soviet Luna program reached the moon with unmanned crafts.
Update to “Moon Pies and Moon Landings” (first posted just a few days after the Moon Pie post)
This may come as a shock, but apparently my Moon Pie post was not as loopy as it sounded to many of you. Turns out Moon Pies (or Orion Choco-Pies, their Russian/Asian doppelganger) really are a propaganda piece in the machine of Cold War. The present tensions between North and South Korea, that is.
The opening lines of John Hall’s article read like this: *Chocs away! North Korea unleashes latest weapon against its rivals in the South – counterfeit Choco Pie cakes to rival delicacy available over the border *North Korea has a roaring black market in the popular Choco Pie snack Sweet treats change hands for £3.60 in Pyongyang, but only 17p in Seoul *So popular they are even used as alternative payment by some employers *But Kim Jong-Un is angry at the North’s love of a South Korean product He is now making his own Choco Pies in order to bring down their value
Well, Mr. Kim Jong-Un, the joke is on you. You are just putty in the hands of the universal Moon Pie awakening.
About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.
Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End. The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary. (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me. And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little. Seriously. I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think? Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me. I’m lots cooler than that. Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)
Moving on. . .
Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London. Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic. Good plan. But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill. One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views. The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.
It fit the bill well. The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky. The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).
We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.
The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning. I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London. So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.
First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse. But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.
The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present. (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge. So many.) There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh. A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows. And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens. The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others. Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall. This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper. (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)
If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark. Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty Charles Dickens. Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.
But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into. Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart. We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.
If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.
I am waking slowly to an overcast Saturday in Florida, a day that holds the promise of slow motion, relaxation. A day that belies the power of this date.
November the 19th has seen its share of action over the years and across the continents. Columbus discovered Puerto Rico. The Mayflower reached Cape Cod. The Battle of Stalingrad reached a turning point. Indira Ghandi and Calvin Klein were born. Franz Schubert and Mike Nichols died. Apollo 12 astronauts walked on the moon (the ultimate extreme-travel destination).
And my favorite moment from the time and space capsule of November 19th: U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863 as the Civil War raged on. He stood at the cusp of the one-time battlefield, he dedicated a national cemetery for soldiers, and he reflected on the task of rededicating ourselves to the democratic ideal of equality and resolving that this new nation “by the people, of the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln mused that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” but he was mistaken. His speech feels like part of the bedrock of our culture– inspiring on our good days, re-centering on our bad days, and acting as a touchstone when the stresses of maintaining our union and healing its fissures weigh heavy.
Who knows what November 19, 2016 will bring to your life and your corner of the world . . . but you could do worse than to start your day with the words of Abraham Lincoln:
The Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.