I hadn’t seen my brother-in-law since he and Betty saw us off at the airport in Karachi, eight years earlier. So I was enjoying the drive around the Midlands as Peter and I searched for a house for Lolly and me and the kids somewhere near my new duty station, RAF Upper-Heyford, which was just a few miles north of Oxford.
“I need to get a pack of cigarettes,” Peter told me as we entered Banbury, parked in front of a small shop, and went in.
Inside, while Peter was choosing his cigarettes, I listened to a conversation between a clerk and a customer.
“But you must carry them,” the customer said, quite annoyed.
“Yes, sir,” the clerk replied. “We do, but we’re fresh out.”
“Knickers!” the customer said, turning angrily on his heel.
I strolled over to Peter and jerked a thumb at the customer as he walked out. “What’d he mean when he said knickers?”
Pete looked startled, and didn’t answer my question. So I started to ask it again, but I quit as he shook his head at me.
Later, outside the store, I asked the question again and watched Peter burst out laughing as he explained that “knickers!” was the British equivalent of our mention of the storage pouch of the male sex organ as an indication of displeasure.
It wasn’t the first time I opened my mouth in a foreign country and almost swallowed a foot in the process. Nor the last.
A few years earlier, having been told that there was no fixed price for merchandise in Japan, and having had to bargain for everything I bought off-base for almost a year, I made an offer on a fan in an electrical shop and almost restarted World War II.
Never saw anyone so angry!
Who knew that electrical items were different?
And the first time I rode the train over there in Japan! Wow! I stood aside for a little old lady, expecting to see the same super-polite behavior I had seen everywhere else and — look out! I dang near got trampled during the stampede onto the train.
Customs in Japan, so they tell me, do not apply to anything that didn’t exist when said customs became “customary.”
It is absolutely amazing to see people bowing and smiling one minute and then elbowing each other out of the way the next!
A poor American GI could get hurt that way!
My minor encounter with Brit slang wasn’t the only education I received during my four years over in redcoat land either. Mind you, I had no trouble with the usual stuff. You know, bonnet for hood, boot for trunk, petrol for gasoline, and so on.
But a couple of experiences really threw me for a loop.
For example, I shipped my little Chevy Corvair over there, just as I had shipped other cars overseas. About 30 days after I arrived, I was notified it was at the port.
Naturally, since they drive on the left over there, my first question was what about a license?
“Oh, they take care of all that at the port. Just be sure you get there early in the morning.”
Fair enough. I took the train, arrived at six in the morning, followed the signs to the right window, got issued a “driving license,” and was led out to my car by an attendant. I expected the attendant to teach me a bit about driving on the left, but he just handed me the keys and turned to walk away.
“Hey!” I called to him. “Is that it?”
“That’s it, mate.”
“No ... uh, no driving instructions?”
He eyed the car. “Don’t you drive, mate?”
“Oh, sure, but ...”
I just quit in mid-sentence, knowing I’d been had.
White knuckles for 125 miles of on-the-job training.
You will never know how easy it is to go around a traffic circle in the wrong direction.
And, my! How the British do wave their fists!
And you should try passing a steam tractor on a narrow two-lane road when you are sitting on what is the passenger side of the car for everyone else.
By the time you creep out far enough to see what fate has in store for you, it’s already arrived, all 18 British wheels of it!
Then there was the time I needed to buy some shellac.
I walked into a hardware store in Banbury, told the clerk what I needed, followed him down into the cellar, and stood open-mouthed as he pointed to a bin full of stuff that looked a bit like peanut brittle and asked me how many pounds I wanted.
What we call shellac, you see, is actually shellac dissolved in alcohol.
That’s why we call it “two-pound cut shellac,” or “three-pound cut shellac,” and so on. I knew that, but I didn’t know you could buy the stuff and do it yourself.
That’s nothing compared to the time a German clerk in a department store in Wiesbaden asked me if I wanted a “whole” sheet of masonite and like a fool I said yes. How did I know that their “whole sheet” was 2 meters by 3 meters square?
Good Lord! How do they carry something like that home? Do they all own semis?
Then there was the time Tom Reckner and I zoomed through the customs post into France at 65 miles an hour. Well, shoot! We’d already been through one customs post. Who knew that there was a place called Luxembourg that was two football fields wide?
For that matter, who knew that roofing tiles aren’t fastened down in England, so if you stand up in the attic and hit your head you can knock off an embarrassingly large number of the %$#@! noisy things while your neighbors stand around pointing up at you?
And if you knock a couple of mossy old stones off a historic bridge, and they tell you that you have to pay to have them replaced, how do you know they’re going to get divers to go down to the bottom of the river to retrieve the actual %$#@! stones?
And by the way, in a place where they drive on the left, get rid of your street crossing habits. Don’t look left, then right, then left again, and sashay out into the road.
Think about it.