Saturday, April 18, 2015

If We Had Only Known Him

Damn!  It's been almost 20 years!  While I remember the boys—What's-His-Name and The-Other-One—being smaller, I only have my wife's word as proof of when we made that trip.

Strange—while I'm a historian, my wife, The Doc, is....well, a doc.  This would lead you to believe that I would have some ability to remember dates, yet—for some reason—I have never had any idea when events in my own life have occurred.  Anything before lunch yesterday, is only a faint, dim memory.  In my own fuzzy way, I remember events by presidential terms.

I learned to read while Ike was on the golf course, I first noticed girls during the Kennedy years, I met The Doc (then The Pre-Doc) during Nixon's first term, I married her during Tricky Dick's second term (Don't Change Dicks in the Middle of a Screw—Vote For Nixon in '72!), and the boys were born during Reagan's tenure.

So, while The Doc remembers the exact date of the vacation, to me it is just vaguely Clintonian.  If you want an exact date, you'll have to check with The Doc.

The vacation was a canal boat trip through the Oxford countryside of England.  For a blissful week, my family motored through the beautiful countryside on a rented 53' canal boat—my first command!  If you go back about six years and  read the very first of what was originally intended to be only about a dozen blog posts, you will see that this nautical experience was far more successful than my first attempt at boating.

Truthfully, it wasn't that difficult a job—the canal boat was a large metal floating mobile home that at full throttle could achieve a stately (that's a nautical term meaning dead slow) four knots.  If we had raced a crippled hearse horse, we could have bragged that we came in second, while the poor nag was next-to-last.

At that pace, you could step off the boat, take a leisurely stroll down the tow path adjacent to the canal, admire the magnificent greenery, sit down and read for a while, and still have time to watch your boat slowly catch up with you.  Best of all, the only real physical labor could all be performed by my crew: the boys were assigned as deck hands and steersmen while The Doc was the Cabin Wench.

This is by far the best way to travel: you cook, eat, and sleep on the boat, and at the end of the day, you simply pull over to the bank, cut the engine, and go get another excellent English beer out of the fridge.  Better yet, tie up at one the countless historic pubs that were built along the canals to cater to the working men who earned their living on those canals and get several excellent English beers.

The countryside we traveled through was an endless magnificent park, featuring adjoining cricket fields, rugby fields, and stately homes.   The English people were so kind and friendly, that everywhere we went, we made instant friends.  I remember an enthusiastic—and highly inebriated—group of men who eagerly explained an ongoing cricket match to me.  It appears that several pints of stout are necessary to really understand this game.  I can remember making excited noises about "a wicked googly," and (from the reaction of my new friends) at the appropriate times, too.  The Doc swears I spent the rest of the day discussing drifters, bunsens, and bosies.  Alas, the effect was temporary; as the stout wore off, so did all understanding of the game.

Equally enjoyable, was meeting the people on the other boats on the canals.  Since the canals were usually too narrow and the boats too slow, rarely did you pass a boat traveling in the same direction.  For days at a time, you had the same floating neighbors, who quickly became friends.

It wasn't long before we made the acquaintance of the people in the 70' canal boat ahead of us.  A family of about our age with children roughly the same age as our boys, they were traveling with their elderly grandmother.  Our families quickly became rather close, occasionally sharing meals or an evening in a nearby pub.  You can imagine my surprise on one such night, when my new friend informed me that his grandmother had worked during World War II as one of the secretaries to General Montgomery.

Monty!  General Monty!  The only man in the war that General Patton wanted to fight almost as badly as he did the Germans.  In England, this was the great war hero who had defeated Rommel.  In America, he was seen as damn near as obstructionist as French General Charles de Gaulle.  No, I take that back—even the Germans cooperated with America more than General de Gaulle.

General Bernard Law Montgomery (after the war he was promoted to Field Marshall and made Viscount) was one of the most controversial leaders of the Second World War.  Brilliant, dedicated, and a gifted strategist, he was also tactless, arrogant, and completely devoid of any trace of diplomacy.  The only other man in the war that fit this description was General George Patton.  It is testament to the skill of General Eisenhower that he was able to keep these two eccentric geniuses from disengaging with the Germans and attacking each other.

I had to talk to this woman—she had actually met many of the famous men of the war that I had only encountered in books.  The next morning, I was sitting in the large front cabin of their boat—it was arranged as a cross between an observation room and a parlor—as I discussed the war years with her.  I remember vividly trying to summon up social graces few Texans have ever possessed as we drank tea and talked.  (What is the purpose of those silly little handles on tea cups?  No man can get his finger through the twisted foolish handle, and you end up gripping the damn thing as tight as a vise.  Were these handles actually designed to be as inefficient as possible?)

She had worked as a secretary for Montgomery only while he was stationed in England before D-Day, but this was sufficiently long enough to have gotten to know the man, meet most of the important generals of the war, and observe the way the American and British armies worked together.  I could have easily spent another week in England just talking to her.

This is not the place to talk about all of her memories or all the things I learned from her, but eventually, we did discuss at length the different ways Montgomery was portrayed in both the English and American press.  I can still picture this quite elderly and remarkably tiny woman sitting primly erect in her chair, a china saucer in her lap, and a delicate teacup in her hand.

She spoke at length about her duties, the people she worked with, and the excitement of feeling one's work was making a real contribution to the war.  I wish I had recorded our conversations, not only for the things I learned, but to have captured the way she spoke.  Every word was pronounced so crisply and so clearly, I had no doubts that as she spoke, she was reliving the events in her mind.  Today, in my own memory, I can still hear her final words to me at the end of the interview.

"You Americans did not like General Montgomery," she said as she stopped to sip her tea.  "But if you had only known him, as I did," she continued, stopping once again to sip her tea, "you would have loathed him."

Patton probably wasn't a pleasant cup of tea to be around, either.


  1. I kinda got that about Monty from all I've read. I think it was Montgomery's "I'm part of the nobility so you must defer to me peasant!" presentation that Americans find so off-putting. That and he always over-estimated how fast he could move troops. It got a lot of people killed at Arnhem. He was late on D-Day. The war might arguably have ended later because Ike had to prop up Monty's ego and hold Patton back.

    Somehow I like someone who's ego is right out there like Patton, just so long as he can deliver. When they talk a big game and then fail to deliver, I'm with the secretary. I think I'd have loathed Lord Monty.

  2. Mark, you said "For a blissful week, my family motored through the beautiful countryside on a rented 53' canal boat—my first command!"

    I seem to remember that your FIRST command was of the Flagship of the Texas Navy, upon which you earned a field promotion to Admiral...

  3. Yes, I had forgotten my earlier service in the Texas Navy. I should put in for retirement pay.