BITS and PIECES # 34

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August 18, 2013 by palamow

Hello again from Luquillo,
Here’s a story that’s been percolating in my memory banks for years — and I’ve finally retrieved it and dusted it off — I hope you find it interesting…

BITS and PIECES # 34

SWORD-MARTINI

It was shortly after midnight — I had just taken my seat on the Pan American Airways military charter flight that would take me home to Hawaii from Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport. As I buckled my seat belt, a tall, red-haired gentleman, wearing summer-weight khakis, complete with short pants, knee length brown stockings and a many-pocketed bush jacket, stopped in the aisle and opened the overhead luggage compartment. When he had tossed in his canvas kit-bag, he closed the compartment, wheezed heavily and dropped onto the adjoining seat. I noticed that he wore major’s ‘pips’ on the epauleted shoulders of his jacket and carried a short, silver-tipped baton under his left arm, which he carefully stowed in the seat pocket facing his seat. When he had sufficiently recovered from his exertions, he turned to me, held out a freckled, sunburnt hand and barked “How d’you do? I’m Sword-Martini, Her Majesty’s Grenadier Guards — seconded to Military Intelligence at our Tokyo Embassy — I’m scheduled (he pronounced it ‘shed-jelled) to attend a conference in Hawaii (‘High-wye- uh in his clipped ‘stiff-upper-lip’ articulation)…

I shook his proffered hand, asked how he did, and then replied; “My name’s Mowbray, on my way home from a planning session at JASDF”, using the acronym for the Japan Air Self Defense Force. As I mentally processed his name (Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera came to mind), I took a closer look at him. His appearance was a caricature of the classic British military officer — a splendid mustache, waxed and twirled into upswept points, jutted from his upper lip — widespread, intelligent blue eyes parenthesized by numerous laugh wrinkles surmounted a long, aquiline nose and a wide, thin-lopped mouth, the whole combining to indicate the promise of a sanguine demeanor. We became friendly ‘neighbors’ on the long flight from Tokyo to Honolulu, with a brief stop at Wake Island, while the aircraft was refueled, and we sleepy, ill-humored  passengers were roused-out and herded to a brightly-lit Quonset hut, where we reluctantly consumed an execrable combination of cold, rubbery French toast and greasy slices of half-cooked bacon, guaranteed to induce gastritis, or worse, before being called to reboard the aircraft for the final four hour ‘leg’ to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu…

Sword-Martini’s innate, stiff-upper-lip reserve faded markedly when I revealed that my father was a fellow London-born ‘Britisher’ who had served in the Royal Artillery during World War I — and when I disclosed that, although severely wounded at the battle of the Somme, his gallantry during that fracas had caused him to be ‘mentioned in despatches’ which led to a subsequent award of the Military Medal, the major’s eyes literally sparkled with excitement. He regaled me with a self-effacing accounting of his combat experiences as an infantry officer during the Korean war — and when I mentioned that I had attended that ‘forgotten’ unpleasantness’ as well — we immediately became ‘brothers in arms’, so-to-speak, talking animatedly between naps, for the rest of the trip. We even got around to comparing our levels of military security clearance, the martial equivalent of schoolboy boasting, I suppose — I had been granted an American Air Force Top Secret clearance, while his was the British equivalent; MSI (‘Most Secret Indeed’) — which I found to be wonderfully droll, and much more intriguing than our own mundane ‘Top Secret’ — in fact, then as now, levels of security clearance are relatively meaningless – no real secrets are revealed without a ‘Need To Know’ issued very sparingly from on high…

As we neared Hawaii, I asked him if he knew where he would be billeted during the conference — he replied “The transient officers facility on the base, I would imagine” — I replied “Please consider coming to dinner at my home in nearby Ewa Beach, if you can conveniently break-away, I’ll ask my wife to cook you a traditional American meal, and you can stay overnight in our guest bedroom”. He brightened at the suggestion, and when I gave him my office phone as we deplaned at Hickam, he agreed to call and let me know when he would be free…

On the following Tuesday, as promised, Sword-Martini phoned to say he would be free on Thursday after the session had finished for the day. I arranged to pick him up at Hickam’s Visiting Officer’s Quarters at 5 pm. When I arrived, he was standing at rigid attention on the curb, a floppy straw hat atop his sunburnt pate, clad in the most appalling Hawaiian ‘Aloha shirt’ I had ever beheld, a pair of equally repugnant flowered shorts, which just met the tops of his inevitable knee-length, khaki stockings — his stockinged feet were firmly encased in mirror shined, brown military brogans…

Stepping briskly to the car, he bellowed “I waited for you on the curbstone here old boy — just in case you failed to recognize me in my new finery — aint I the tourist nob though?” I swiftly got him into the car before any passers-by could take jaw-dropping stock of his newly acquired glad rags. As we drove north along the highway to Ewa Beach, he filled me in on his shopping spree at the Base Exchange. “I found some marvelous trinkets for my wife and children — I’m afraid I’ve dreadfully sank my budget.”  When we arrived at home, Sword-Martini greeted my wife and children with extreme courtliness — kissing Eileen’s hand and producing bags of candies for Michael and Lisa, who took to him instantly…

As promised, Eileen had prepared a traditional American meal — meat loaf and baked potatoes, augmented by a superb tropical fruit salad. When the dishes had been cleared and coffee was set on a table on our Lanai, I asked the major if he would care for a brandy — my wine stash included a bottle of ten year old Napoleon VSOP I had bought at a fantastically reduced price at the class 6 store at Tachikawa Air Base on a previous trip to Japan.  He agreed heartily — and then I made my blunder! As I was about to pour the lovely libation into his glass, I asked innocently “Would you like some ice in that?”

“What! Ice in brandy sir? — I think not — what a barbarous idea — for shame” he barked, standing to his feet in dismay, his ruddy complexion darkening…

I was speechless with embarrassment, for my ‘unforgivable faux pas’ and I felt awful for my new friend — his emotional outburst was sure to bring an uncomfortable end to an otherwise pleasant evening. To my immense relief (and his equally immense credit), he recovered swiftly, apologized profusely for his “rude outburst” and the evening’s peacefulness was restored — later that night, just before he retired to his room, he briefly revisited the ‘Brandy incident’, saying “I was taken aback, old boy — you colonials are a wonderfully congenial lot — but you do have some rather intriguing ideas about drinking spirits.” I allowed that we did, and wished him goodnight, smiling as I turned out the lights and headed for bed…

The next morning he thanked Eileen effusively for a lovely evening and a very nice dinner — hugged the children, and after a quick breakfast (no brandy – just coffee, bacon and eggs) I drove the major back to Hickam. When I dropped him at the VOQ, he shook my hand with both of his — thanked me again for my kindness — barked “Cheers, old boy”, spun on his heels and marched away without a backward glance — as I watched him go, I smiled again, and mused that old-school British army officers were also ‘A wonderfully congenial lot’ but, they had ‘some curious ideas about the drinking of spirits’ as well!

Sword-Martini and I never connected again — but the memory of our encounter, and our swift, although brief, friendship still lingers — and whenever I think of it, I smile once more…

© 2013 – Alan Mowbray Jr.  

  

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