When you are a child both the physical appearance of adults and their behavior towards you leave lasting impressions. And the appearance and behavior of several men who lived in the village where I spent ten years as a child and teenager did just that. So deep were these particular impressions that I can recall them without difficulty, even now, decades later. Indeed, more than half a century later, though doubtless some details may have faded without my knowing.Kent, Riverhead, The Square

While these memories are mostly pleasant, there was one that was distinctly unpleasant, and two that I shall call ghosts and who presented more enigmatic examples.

My village in Southern England lay under the flight path of Luftwaffe bombers on their way to destroy London in the Second War. They were escorted there and back by fighter planes. Messerschmitt Bf109s and Focke Wulf 190s. The RAF sent its Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes to shoot down both the bombers and their escorts. The RAF succeeded in halting the immediate threat to England in what came to be known as the Battle of Britain. In those years the countryside was littered with the wreckage of that fight. Planes, ordnance live and spent, and bodies of both sides had fallen to earth near my home. One estimate claimed that nearly three thousand Luftwaffe aircraft had been shot down in this short but critical fight. The government actually established an aircraft metal recovery depot a few miles to the west.

I did not witness any of this. I moved there in 1955 aged nine, when England was still attempting to put itself back together again, and much of the debris of war had been cleaned up. But a piece of it, a man, remained very close to my home. My first ghost.

He always wore a tan raincoat, gloves, a brown felt hat, and sunglasses no matter the season. One could only see part of his face. The skin was almost white and stretched tight in a grimace, the lips a strange unnatural shade. It was the reconstructed face of an airman burned in a crash. Reconstructed by Sir Archibald McIndoe, the pioneering plastic surgeon. The story told by ever imaginative village boys was that he was part of the crew of a Luftwaffe bomber that crashed into a local lake, and after being treated for burns chose not to be repatriated at the end of the war, but live out his life in the very place where he had come down. It seems more likely he was RAF Pilot Officer Noble who had parachuted into the lake when his Hurricane was shot down on September 1, 1940, but the Luftwaffe story stuck. I never heard his name then, or knew where he lived, or heard him speak, and seemed always to be far away. But I can always recall the fear his infrequent appearances around a corner would cause me; a small boy. This harmless and sad ghost.riverhead-the-beehive-inn-c1950_r319001

My second ghost was very different, but in measure equally sad. He was a deaf mute. Short and with a twist in his body. He was badly dressed and walked with a stumbling gait. I knew where he lived, and back then may have even known his name. He was often in the village, sent there on errands by his family or caregivers, with a list and cash, to the grocer and the butcher. But I think he wandered and was often lost or gave that appearance. He could not speak but made loud guttural noises. These almost animal sounds frightened me, but on occasion I overcame that fear to hold his arm and lead him across the not so busy street after he had stood waiting for help at the pedestrian crossing in the middle of the village. The noise he made as we reached the other side was I suppose a thank you, but as a nervous child I made my getaway quickly. Now, years later, I wonder what kind of intellect may have been trapped inside that body. Was he another sort of Christie Brown (My Left Foot) or an accident of procreation?

I lived in that village from 1955 to 1965 when I left for my first job and College. Not once in those ten years did I ever see these two ghosts, these sad humans, in the village at the same time. An unconscious partition of haunting duties perhaps. Plainly they are still haunting me but on a more relaxed and distant schedule.

 

 

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My first memory of streetlights was in a street that had very few. And the few that were there were gas lamps. The street was new in 1948. There were twenty or so brand new pre-fabs. Emergency housing designed to last a maximum of ten to fifteen years for people who had lost homes to the Luftwaffe during the Blitz and the later V1 and V2 rocket attacks. This included my parents who survived both of the latter. Many prefabs were still in use at the turn of century.

When we moved in 1955 to another not so svelte neighborhood close to a satellite village of Sevenoaks in Kent the streetlights were much the same. A few spaced far apart and as before gas powered. One of the lamps illuminated the telephone box at the top of the street where my Mother would go to enjoy every Wednesday or Thursday evening, after we had eaten, a five minute or less conversation with her sister Grace who lived twenty miles away. Often she had to wait while one or two other people had made their calls and would stand in the cold with her precious coins in her hands.

The gas lamps eventually were replaced by electric standards. But whether gas or electric they all were extinguished at midnight, and plunged the village and town into blackness. I loved it. It was a signal. As a teenager coming home from some adventure or other on foot, walking or running up the narrow lane toward home, trying to beat your curfew, and being suddenly without a shadow told you that you were in trouble. I had no wristwatch until I was nearly eighteen and depended on church and other public clocks to tell the time. Hearing those twelve chimes and knowing that upon the last the streetlight would extinguish was a powerful signal.

Fast forward to the early seventies. My Mother finally could afford her own phone and sit on the stairs in our hallway and talk to sister Grace almost at will, but definitely according to budget. There were no ‘free’ calls. The streets were now lit by new sodium lamps. They did not go off at midnight and there was no real night anywhere anymore, and our village became an orange raceway for twenty-four-hour traffic. No longer could I stand in the middle of the road at the foot of the narrow lane, glance up at the church clock trying to make out the time in the comforting quiet and darkness. No longer could a young man experience that frisson of delight and horror at midnight. We now lived in continuous light. Lux Eterna of an unheavenly sort.

Which brings me to burglary.

When one asks why we have to illuminate our neighborhood streets with enough light that a jetliner could easily land on one, or one could easily read the very fine print in an insurance policy, the usual answer is “security!”. There is this idea that thieves find illuminated premises unattractive targets for their work. As the President of the Bob Sterry School of Burglary, I say “Bollocks”. Certainly, I could agree that a thief attempting to break into a well-lit house would find it embarrassing should he or she be discovered doing so by a passerby or a policeman. Ad so the obvious question becomes, at the usual hour when nocturnal break ins occur where are these passersby and these lawmen? The odds against your being spotted as you pick a lock or force a doorway in a sodium light drenched street at 3.30 AM are large. The risks of not being able to find a lock to pick, a door to force, of tripping over a garden hose, a child’s toy in the dark however are much higher. What better environment for a would-be thief than to work on a well-lit target, knowing that the police are unlikely to patrol your location for hours and that the neighborhood are all busy sleeping or glued to a screen behind the shades and unconcerned with the exterior.

And this is why, at the Bob Sterry School of Burglary, we focus our instruction on encountering both well and poorly lit targets and in general favor the well-lit variety. In fact, most of our graduates prefer to do their work in broad daylight so as not to interfere with their family life and sleep patterns. Night work is usually practiced by our more experienced and daring alumni who understand the value of light and the absence of urban, suburban and even rural surveillance.

And now I think back with wonder and amusement to those shadowed evenings when my heart would almost stop as the church clock struck the midnight hour and darkness enveloped me. If it is midnight as you read this please remember to extinguish your porch, deck, garage, and yard lights. After all, my graduates are about and seek the challenge of unlit booty.

Sausage Wars, Part One

April 29, 2016

I did not begin to write this story with any idea that it should reflect things in the real world. But, as the rather depressing Presidential election campaigns competed to see how dumb the average voter might be, I found the story doing just that. Here is Part One…

Sausage Wars, Part One

Once upon a time in land so far away it might not even exist there were two bordering sovereign States.  In the State which we shall call A there was supposedly complete freedom of thought and ideas freely exchanged in the media, public places and homes. The Prince of A through the usual channels continuously issued Statements to the effect that this was so. People were by and large content. Content, but for one very large and unusually glaring exception. Whereas ideas on almost any subject were allowed to be openly and often fervently discussed, there was a strict prohibition on the exchange, discussion or sharing of any recipe for sausages. Not only this, but no one was permitted to even make a sausage of any kind whatsoever. The only sausage allowed in the State was the State sausage, produced by a small number of licensed Charcutiers belonging to the Guild of State Sausage. Less than ten in number they guarded the recipe for the State sausage with almost murderous vigor. Any person found either talking about sausage or worse making an unlicensed sausage was immediately charged with a crime against the State. The punishment was severe. For a first offense six months imprisonment with only the State sausage to eat. Since the State sausage itself was a greasy, flavorless, offensive, slimy sack of mystery meats, moldy bread and sawdust, grey in color and of revolting odor, one could imagine the horror. Second offenders, and there were some, were sent to remote farms were they not only had to eat the State sausage exclusively but were employed by the Guild for no pay in the manufacture of the thing itself.

Many societies suffer taboos of an amazing variety, but few go so far as to make such a simple food item the focus or singular prohibition. One can perhaps imagine the atmosphere in the cities of State A. Schizophrenic might be a suitable word. It was so easy to let the word sausage slip from ones lips and then become a victim of the informers who made a living welching their friends and family to the Guild Police. The pressure to conform worked to stifle conversation on any subject. And so the much vaunted freedom of thought and ideas was not so much vaunted as valueless.

The Guild Police were not so many in number but had money to spend on informants and as with all repressive police forces became corrupt. The Guild itself reported only to the Prince of A whose heraldic arms depicted a sausage rampant on a field of gruel supported by a single scroll allegedly bearing the recipe of the State sausage in an ancient language. The Prince himself was not clever enough to question the State of affairs, and as is so often the case was under the control of his chief advisor, who himself was directly related to the Grand Stuffer or Chairman of the Guild.

A scant fifty kilometers from the capital of State A lay the heavily patrolled border with State B. Elite soldiery of State A bearing the Guild emblem, a black meat grinder, were stationed here to prevent the crime of ‘Recipika’, or the passage of prohibited contraband sausage recipes or even worse an actual sausage from State B or the world beyond.

Across a barren one hundred meter no man’s land another soldiery marched up and down in a strict swaggering goose step. They bore the emblem of their own feared thought police, a blue question mark struck through by a thick dark red line. Both forces glared at each other whatever the weather.

In State B ideas were rigorously controlled. The people were crushed under the weight of an oppressive regime. A regime scared of its own shadow. So scared that it had made half of its populace mentally ill and the other half instruments of the State paranoia. Life here was grey. Here there was nothing to talk about. Nothing to discuss, Nothing to enjoy. Nothing except that is the amazing variety of sausages available for very small amounts. They were delicious and celebrated. New recipes were published nearly every day by the Guild of Sausagemakers and eagerly tried by the otherwise manic and depressed populace. If anything was allowed in discussion it was the amazing explosion of culinary creativity. Nothing else. Nothing, or risk the inquisitive attentions of the thought police. Reporting directly to the Prince of B, they were in fact controlled, as is so often the case, by his chief adviser, who was related to the Chief Stuffer or Chairman of the Guild of Sausagemakers.

As in State A, one can easily imagine the atmosphere in State B; a genuine paranoia about everything but one thing; sausage. The Guild of State B of course flourished. Supported by the regime as a sort of office of the State opiate, they enjoyed special privileges. The Guild of State A also flourished, funded by the regime as a handy brake to apply to freedom when it might threaten the status quo.

The border was not so impervious that ideas and sausage never made the perilous crossing. On the contrary a highly profitable and one might say professional black market, the Recipikastano, had evolved. No-one knew who ran the operation, but everyone knew it existed. While no-one knew the identity of the head smuggler, his agents were known to more than a few. The agents were most often spies from both Guilds or foreigners and exiles from beyond the horizon, living a dangerous life.

As is nearly always the case it was the rich and influential who benefited from the Recipikastano. A small but significant number of succulent sausages made their way from B to A, and a turbulent stream of subversive thoughts, poetry and literature made the reverse journey. While it was possible that there was an exchange rate; so many sausages for so many words; hard cash or gold was quite naturally preferred.

As you can imagine both Princes and both chief advisors and both heads of Guild and the mysterious head of the Recipikastano knew each other through a network of intermediaries and conspired to maintain things just so without actually trusting any of the others to do the same.

And so for hundreds of years the two States had sat side by side eyeing each other warily. From time to time each State had accused the other of seeking to destabilize it. Occasionally the exchange of accusations had risen to a fevered pitch and thinly veiled threats of military action ensured the approval of increased defense and security budgets in both States further cementing the power of the two opposing regimes and the profit margin of the Recipikastano. It was a carefully managed and cynical balancing act performed by two sets of cynical, greedy and fearful men, watched carefully by an even more cynical and greedier third.

While no-one in either State knew exactly why they hated each other so much many stories about how it came to pass were circulated. One story, which seems plausible, was that long ago the two States had been a single State. A single State governed by a King with twin sons. It was said that the people adored their King and he ruled wisely and carefully. Ideas and sausages of all kinds permeated the country freely. In many ways the sausage became the symbol of freedom of expression. As new ideas and recipes came and went with refreshing rapidity the mind and the palate were for ever and always entertained.

But if you know anything about dynastic strife you can almost predict what happened as the King grew older and his offspring began plotting against each other’s succession to the throne. Each son had become a Prince at the age of sixteen and by law had to have a small entourage or court. Naturally men and some women of ample means became part of the two courts. And even more naturally they began to plot how to eliminate each other. But such was the level of contentment among the people that neither side could find a suitable issue around which a more permanent and festering argument could be created. The people listened to each court and laughed at them. After all they had been exposed to nearly every kind of idea and knew the difference between a good one and a clumsy attempt to gain undue influence.

And yet fate was ultimately unkind and gave the two Princely courts the issue they had longed for. It was at a celebration banquet for the Kings fiftieth year of rule that the blow was struck. Unsurprisingly there had been much anticipation of a new celebration sausage to be served along with some new poetry and songs to mark the achievement. And indeed a new recipe had been developed in the royal kitchens and at the right moment a fragrant aroma of indescribably appetizing strength was released into the dining hall of the King preceding the introduction of the new sausage.

Almost at once a discussion broke out amongst the courtiers as to what could possibly be the tasty volatile components contributing to this overwhelming experience. Such was the astonishment of the diners, accompanied by their inability to identify any of the aromatic sources that a new atmosphere began to insert tendrils of an unfamiliar emotion. It was anger. Anger, fed by the feeling that one was being made a fool of.  The discussion grew louder and louder and moved from discussion to argument and from there to a fully-fledged row. The King seemed powerless to calm either his own courtiers or those of his two sons, and it was a this moment that in a brief lull of the tumult one of the courtiers of Prince A shouted to one of the courtiers of Prince B that he could no more tell the difference between a sausage and stick of celery than he could between a donkey and an elephant (no-one had actually ever seen an elephant). There was a short moment of silent horror. No-one had ever heard such ill manners before. But then a courtier of Prince B shouted that there was none in the court of Prince A who even knew what a good sausage was. Uproar. Weapons were not drawn because none were allowed, but fists were raised, and it was only because the King had fainted that a tense calm was restored. Conversation slowly resumed as the King was helped to his chambers, and the new sausage served to enthusiastic but somehow muted applause. The poems were read and the songs sung, but the damage had been done. The courtiers had their issue. It has been staring them in the face. Sausage. The people loved their sausage and their ideas and would go to lengths to make sure neither was endangered.

Over the next few months the more venal courtiers of Prince A began saying in public that it was shame that Prince B had so many new recipes for sausage when he had not had a new idea since escaping diapers. Similarly inclined courtiers of Prince B responded by publishing fictional accounts of Prince A’s inability to invent a recipe for hot water let alone sausage since his mind was overstuffed with pointless ideas.

It did not take long for the general populace to take sides as the opposing courtiers fanned their increasingly raw emotions with further Statements and revelations from well paid-off court servants. Over an amazingly short period of time a deep divide was created in society. It went so deep as to divide families. Regional differences of opinion sprang up. Notable citizens who had heretofore avoided any public stance on any subject now made their feelings known.

The King himself was of course at a considerable impasse. He loved his two sons equally well and detested both their courts. He dared not make a Statement favoring one or the other and as his age began to tell on him more and more he could only encourage people to sit and think for a moment as they ate their sausage. The simple thing that so far had united them but now threatened to do the opposite.

It was after a series of riots in several cities where book waving supporters of Prince A fought hand to hand with sausage waving supporters of Prince B, and more than a few heads were cracked that the King roused himself from inaction and confronted his sons. He asked them what the fragrant stuffing they thought they were doing. They each replied that they were protecting cherished traditions of the country. The King countered that they were doing it at the expense of the stability of their country. He went on to say that freedom of ideas and sausage had existed side by side since he could remember. They replied that times had changed. Prince A claimed that free ideas were paramount and sausage could go to hell. Prince B said that complete freedom of ideas was a dangerous fallacy and the communities understanding of sausage held them together. The King was furious. He saw his reign, his peaceful and prosperous reign of fifty years, being washed away by the greed and lust for power of a few individuals manipulating his sons. He turned on his heel and left his sons shouting over his head that their Mother was turning in her grave. They both laughed. The King’s heart hardened.

It took another few weeks of increased rioting to begin to affect the trade on which the country depended. Both sides blamed the other. Truth, already on a vacation, extended her absence. Finally after two children were seriously hurt during a riot and foreign arms dealers began to make calls on the courts of both Princes, the King took his last stand. Calling his own court together, along with some heavily, but discretely armed friends from his days in exile, he invited his sons to attend him. They came thinking it was just another pathetic appeal by the old man for them to make peace with each other.

The King welcomed both sons and asked them for a vision of their country that they could work for once he had died. Prince A said that he wanted a land where ideas were free as the wind and not tied to old icons and recipes. Prince B said he saw a land where ideas though useful were the prerogative of the State excepting of course anything to do with the historic sausage. The King exclaimed that this was marvelous and that they would have their wish. The Princes were confused. It was then that the King produced two scrolls, one for each Prince. They were maps.

The King stood up and raised his eyes to the sky, handed each Prince their scroll, and said, “Here is your land, Princes, do with it as you please!”

The Princes unrolled their scrolls and found that the King had neatly divided the country into two States of equal area and wealth. One half for each Prince. The King had meant this as a final chance for his sons to reconsider their disagreement. But sadly his appeal failed and both Princes, though miffed at not having the whole country, thought the idea a good one.

The following day the King issued all the orders needed to divide his once happy land into two. He then left the country and returned into exile in another land. It resembled the bosky town of Sevenoaks in England, but we shall call it Xanadu. The two Princes set up capitals in their respective States and let the enmity fester for centuries. State A, supposedly free ideas and lousy sausage. State B, no ideas and superlative sausage. And centuries later this is where we catch up with the story

One day, just when tempers had been inflamed in both States by carefully worded editorials and Princely pronouncements a few weeks ahead of annual treasury audits of security spending, a curious thing happened.

 

Stay tuned for Part Two, and possibly Three.