I have a lot of books. Used to have a lot more, but I screwed up when I moved up from the Valley. Thinking that I wouldn’t have room for them, I got rid of some of them. And yes, as you’re probably thinking, I’ve gone out and bought most of them again.
Dumb, but true. What’re you going to do? Dumb is dumb.
One of the books I was smart enough to keep caught my eye the other day. I spotted something I had used as a bookmark sticking out of its top. Curious, I looked at it. I have it in my hand now, a ration coupon for a gallon of gasoline, “Good from 1 Dec 71 thru 15 Jul 72.” Where? At the base gas station in England.
We bought our gas at the base gas station instead of off base. On base, gas was the same price as back in the States — 31 cents a gallon, but off base it was a whopping $1.65. Yes, a buck sixty-five! Hey, right now it’s eight bucks a gallon over there.
Why? There’s no free ride. When the government gives stuff away “free” it has to pay for it somehow. The somehow is taxes, mostly hidden ones. There was no way American GIs could afford to drive back and forth to work on $1.65 a gallon gas back in 1971, so the Air Force, which didn’t have to pay the $1.34 a gallon in English taxes, bought gas and sold it to us for 31 cents.
But that’s not what brought a smile to my face as I looked at that ration coupon. It was the book it was stuck in, Churchill’s “Frontiers and Wars,” an abridged collection of four books from his early days. It’s just about my favorite book.
I love reading Churchill. If you haven’t read his books, you probably think of him as a stodgy old guy with a big black cigar stuck in his face. But as you read his stuff that image fades. In its place emerges a very down to earth guy — with a sense of humor!
Think of it. Here’s a wealthy Englishman who was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, grew up in a big manor home, went to Harrow and Sandhurst, graduated from the Royal Military Academy, became a national hero during the Boer War, rose to the highest office in the British Empire — prime minister — and on top of all that, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
And yet he writes like someone you’d enjoy sharing a beer with at the local pub. That’s one unusual person! And that’s why I read his books. He tosses out all the high falutin crap and just talks like the guy next door. In English English, of course.
In Volume Six of “The Second World War,” for example, he tells of a time he ate with his Majesty, Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, an orthodox Muslim.
Churchill, who liked his “cigars and spirits,” was hosting His Majesty in the Fayoum oasis in Egypt. A Saudi aide very firmly informed him that smoking and alcoholic beverages were “not allowed in the Royal Presence.” But Churchill, being Churchill, turned, peered at His Majesty, and told him that his “rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars, and also the drinking of alcohol, before, after, and if need be during all meals — and in the intervals between them.”
I can just imagine the twinkle in his eye as he wrote down Ibn Saud’s reply. “The King graciously accepted my position.”
You’ve got to love a guy like that!
During the Boer War Churchill was captured and stuck in an escape proof prison. The Boers didn’t rely on barbed wire fences; they put a soldier with a loaded rifle, and orders to shoot, every 45 feet around the inside of the camp. Everyone else took one look and decided he was going to spend the war in a POW camp. But not Churchill. He watched the guards and saw that once in a while two of them would turn their heads at the same instant, leaving a tiny fraction of wall unseen for a second or two. So what did he do? He watched, waited, and did the one thing no one expected. In the tiny interval when no one was looking he hopped the wall, dropped down on the other side, and started a 250-mile run for freedom.
He was the only one to ever escape from the Boers.
But the best story he tells, I think, isn’t about himself at all. It’s about some military folks who were a bit too self-impressed. It doesn’t matter what the conference was, just that both our Joint Chiefs and the British Joint Chiefs, along with their entire entourages of some 50 or so generals and admirals were trying to settle a difference of strategy when someone realized the reason they couldn’t get anything done was all those stars and bars.
So the chairman sent the whole mob of generals and admirals outside the conference room to wait.
With just the two sets of Joint Chiefs in the room the matter was settled in a few minutes, so someone decided to demonstrate an artificial ice that was being considered for possible use as a floating airfield. In came two great slabs of ice, one natural, one artificial. Hap Arnold, the Air Force Chief of Staff and a fairly muscular guy, was chosen to take a whack at them with a huge cleaver. He doffed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and took a swing at the regular ice. Whack! Right in two! Then he raised his super-cleaver again and took a hard swing at the artificial stuff, but it was so hard the cleaver just bounced off, twisting old Hap Arnold’s shoulders so badly he gave out a yelp of pain.
Now outside the doors waited 50 British and American brass, listening for any clue to what was happening inside. And what? Here came the thud of a heavy blow and the sound of someone in pain. Fifty brass hats turned to each other in horror, certain that an international conference had broken down in a fistfight.
Meanwhile, inside the conference room, Admiral Mountbatten, who was familiar with the artificial ice, drew his revolver. He fired a shot at the natural ice, which shattered into pieces. Then he fired at the artificial ice, which resisted the bullet all too well and went ricocheting around the room.
Can you imagine what they were thinking outside? “Oh my God! Now they’re shooting at each other!”
Only Churchill ever told that story. The rest of them kept it secret, but you can hear Churchill chuckling as he tells it.
What a guy! We could use a few like him today.