Friday, February 25, 2011
By the time I reached London on a gray winter morning I was in desperate need of a shave, I hadn’t had a decent meal since I disembarked at Cardiff, and much to my consternation the person I was supposed to meet (my crinkled and stained papers read Lt. C. Mumpy) was not at the appointed spot at the appointed time to take me to HQ and then my billet.
I stood on the corner in amazement at surreal London post-blitz. Up the street, down toward Piccadilly Circus, a row of flats had been squashed, but next to them, quite incongruously, nothing was damaged whatsoever (later I was to discover this was quite a natural occurrence). It was as if a tooth had been knocked out of an otherwise normal set of choppers.
People milled about in solitary clumps. Everyone’s clothes were shabby dull gray and faded black. I noticed the stares at my uniform, and became keenly aware that these Londoners had expectant faces. I glanced at my wristwatch, and then looked about, noticing a pub on the corner just beyond a pile of bricks. Maneuvering around the chipped chimney red lumps and a sallow young woman pushing a black perambulator, I pushed opened the blue green beveled glass door of the Boer’s Loins and entered.
The pub was crowded with working men and women, sitting at tables, on stools at the bar, murmuring loudly. There was the pleasant clinking of glass, the low hum of a radio reporting dreadful news from North Africa, and an overhanging blue haze of smoke. Many heads turned my way as I ordered a pint.
I was bound to disappoint the English and not terribly eager to speak. As you may imagine mine was not the typical American cut. If these war weary Europeans expected an optimistic frontiersman, a rude, healthy, backwoods cousin unfettered by European self- consciousness, they had the wrong man. I had an old world complexity that would shatter their expectations. I had, how can I best put it, a continental baroque-ness to my identity, a contempt of the banal, superficial, and the facilely forthright that is often found in the French. I was like an aborted European fetus let loose on the shores of the Hudson River. Vandemarks placed one weary foot in front of another and tried to will strength from pure bullheadedness.
But we were a tired clan. The color and depth had been drained from our line. We tried to midwife ourselves into the optimists that we could never be. Sipping a pint in that pub, listening to the BBC crackle on the radio, being jostled about by people whose common heritage I supposedly shared, I could feel the proverbial floor drop beneath me.
“What’s up luv?” a voice wafted toward me over the bar, a husky cockney voice.
“I’m pissed,” a girl-woman’s voice answered, buzzing near my ear like a pesky fly. “Some Yank was supposed ta meet me and he decamped or never arrived or I don’t know where in bleedin' hell he iz.”
“Why, there’s one here in the pub.”
“Where?” she asked incredulously. The man swung her about bodily until she faced me. Her round face was livid with anger and rage, almost to tears. For a tense, exquisite moment I did know if she was going to strike me or cry. Her finely plucked dark eyebrows were knitted in exasperation. Then, they slid downward, forming a sloping V of pure hate.
“Are you Vandemark, Langley Vandemark?” she asked, trembling.
“Why yes.” I said, startled.
“Don’t you people realize that we are dreadfully busy, with our backs against the wall. I can’t be running around to every pub in London looking for you….”
“Are you C. Mumpy?” I blurted.
“Yes. Lt. Clare Mumpy, from QMS, and I should have picked you up a half….”
“But I was there…” I reasoned, trying to reconstruct my movements for her, catching glimpses of her through the successive waves of emotion that passed over her young trembling face. As I wound down my soliloquy of transportation woes from New York dockside to London pub, she seemed to deflate before my eyes, perhaps even losing some of her physical stature.
Suddenly, as if emotion had temporarily aged her, she seemed to be quite young, no more than eighteen. Her dark brown hair was tied up in an unattractive bun; in the commotion and arguments it had become undone and stray wisps, like strands from a gorgon’s head, were flopping about her forehead and behind small elf pointed ears. Her eyes, a pale slate gray with sparks of dark brown sprinkled haphazardly around the iris like broken spokes, were darting over my face as if to take in the essence of an American.
Perhaps, she had heard about the American animal, so alike to the British yet so different, but never seen an actual specimen. She looked at me vaguely, but with a certain pointed rudeness, as if searching for a family feature we held in common.
“You know,” she said more civilly, “I lived in your Cambridge Massachusetts for a year, when I was fourteen.”
“Yes. My father’s an Oxford Don ---- Greek philosophy. He spent a year or two teaching at Radcliffe.” She stopped for a moment. I thought of my abortive year at Harvard, of warm spring days on the Cambridge Common, sitting in the shorn grass with biology and chemistry books at my feet that would never really be read, brimming over with the hot knowledge that anything could be done if you held certain things tightly enough, if you grasped, with a desperate measure of strength, that essential part of the self that if lost, would diminish you to a fine speck, and held onto that remnant with the last full measure of devotion.
“Odd,” she continued, “you don’t look like any American I’ve ever met.”
“What did you expect?”
“Mmmmmm, so hard to say, really. So when are the rest of you coming over…” Noise from the bar drowned her voice, and I strained to hear the same questions I had heard since my arrival.
Then, a great overhead crash, and before I knew it I was on the ground in a pile with several other patrons, a collection of stools, chairs, and broken glass. I stood up before I should have; I was lightheaded and weak and looked around. Most of the people at the tables were still in their seats, but their faces were white with fear. Those of us sitting at the bar were thrown off our stools, and the damage, all told, was minimal. I had a gash just below my hairline. I tore off a corner of a table cloth and slung the strip just above my temple crooked, Spirit of ’76 style.
“Do you want to go to hospital for that?” she asked, knitting her brows again. I noticed there was a fine network of lines on her young, prominent forehead. As she leaned into me to adjust the bandage; she smelled faintly of peppermint.
Someone came into the pub and told the curious crowd where the hit was, several blocks down, almost near the Thames. No doubt the bomb was intended for someplace else, since a raid wasn’t taking place, but planes flying overhead obey a hideous logic all their own…
I started to stumble about, and thought I heard a fife and drum and I felt (and you may think I’m maudlin) so utterly American at that moment of minor blood loss. I was the first American wounded in the European theater of war, or so I believed. And I remembered, as blood soaked through my minuteman tourniquet, that the people surrounding me in this pub burned the White House in 1814.
And then I recalled, as I swooned to the ground, that slaves were forced to build that house, or at least quarry the stones that built it, and then I felt a not so demur feminine hand rapping-tapping at my dozing face… trying to wake up a portion of Langley Vandemark that should have been left in eternal slumber…