James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx

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The Divine Doc M and I binged our way through season 3 of the Netflix miniseries The Crown.

The series purports to make reasonable guesses about what Queen Elizabeth II, the Royals, and a succession of prime ministers said to each other behind closed doors. How close they came to replicating actual conversations is anyone’s guess. My guess is: not very.

The opening episodes of season three corresponded to the years I spent on a U.S. Air Force base in England (1965-68) and I followed the drama with special interest. In 1967 (I think it was) I stood in a London crowd watching the Royals process in carriages and on horseback toward the Trooping of the Color ceremony (I think it was). The Queen herself, dressed in a red tunic and mounted side-saddle, passed close to my vantage point. Barely 40 years old, she looked younger and prettier than I expected. She smiled at the crowd as her horse loped and she held her right hand aloft in a rigid wave.

But I must admit I had little interest in the Royals back then. I was very interested in following the Labour government of Harold Wilson, who was prime minister during all my three years in the U.K.

Wilson had willowy white hair and dressed elegantly like the Oxford Don he was. He had a flat, nasally voice and a tendency to repeat catch phrases which made it easy for comedians to imitate him on the BBC. He liked to say, “I think we must be perfectly clear” as a preface to his esoteric and often turgid comments on economics, which satirists found very funny.

As a loyal American airman, I kept quiet about my admiration for Wilson’s strong views opposing the U.S. war in Vietnam. I tried to find ways of seeing him whenever I was in London. I managed to be in the city the night the House of Commons scheduled a debate on whether to support the U.S. war and sat in the visitors’ gallery. I was probably expecting a quietly genteel exchange of views and was surprised when Wilson had to shout over jeering comments from the Tory opposition. Then the Tory leader, Edward Heath, stood to speak and the Labour benches jeered him. It was as entertaining as a football match.

In season three of The Crown, Wilson (Jason Watkins) admits to the Queen (Olivia Colman) that he really doesn’t like to smoke a pipe. He said he really prefers cigars, but his working class constituency considered cigars the vice of choice of capitalist aristocrats.

I’m not sure that’s right. It’s hard to find a picture of Harold Wilson without a pipe in his hand or in his mouth.

One spring day when I was in London, I notice a small crowd of reporters and others gathered outside  Number 10 Downing Street. I decided to join the crowd to see what would happen. After twenty minutes or so, the famous door opened and Harold Wilson stepped outside. He held a large meerschaum between his uneven teeth but quickly removed it to hold it high over his head. The reporters snapped pictures and I joined the crowd in applauding the P.M. He smiled and nodded politely as he jumped into a smallish black car and sped away.

“’Ad ‘is pipe, din’tee, old ‘Arold?” said a man who had been standing beside me. Looking back, I think we would have been appalled if he had been smoking a Churchillian cigar.

I continued to follow British politics after I returned to the U.S. Edward Heath replaced Wilson as prime minister after the Tory victory of 1970. Wilson returned to office in 1974 as the head of a coalition government.

On March 16, 1976, Wilson unexpectedly announced his resignation as prime minister. He explained – unconvincingly – that he had always planned to retire at 60. More likely – as he is shown telling the Queen in a poignant scene of the mini-series – he had become aware that he was suffering early signs of Alzheimers.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh bestowed a special honor on Wilson by dining with the Wilsons at 10 Downing Street shortly after his resignation was announced. The only other time she had bestowed this special honor was for Winston Churchill when he resigned in 1955. In 1983 he was granted a life peerage as Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, after Rievaulx Abbey in his native Yorkshire. He died in May 1995.

The dramatists of The Crown suggest Queen Elizabeth liked Wilson and despised Heath.

That I tend to believe. It’s exactly how I felt about them.

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How It Ends

HOWITENDS

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Chapel Thanksgiving

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Thanks to a file of old clippings in my bookshelf, I know exactly what I was doing 52 years ago.

I was sitting at my gray desk in the base chapel at RAF Station Woodbridge, England, pressing a special pencil against specially treated paper to produce a drawing for the base daily bulletin.

The daily bulletin, or DB as it was economically dubbed, was printed each day at the base publications office. It went to each duty section on each of the twin bases – RAF Bentwaters and Woodbridge – and it was usually filled with unclassified military esoterica, often to remind officers to remind their NCOs to remind their airmen to shine their shoes and wear the proper seasonal uniform. We wore 1505 short-sleeved tan uniforms in the summer, and blues in the winter, and the DB told us when to where what.

On rare occasions the top brass permitted special advertisements to be attached to the bulletin, sometimes to promote attendance at Bentwaters football games or other morale building activities. As the base’s resident cartoonist, I was occasionally invited to provide drawings for such advertisements – at least until the Wing Commander, Colonel Robin Olds, complained to my supervisor that my cartoons made officers look too fat and too goofy.

A safe outlet for my drawings was the promotion of chapel programs and worship services because the senior chaplain kept a close eye on my efforts. When it was decided that all the chaplains would cooperate in an “interfaith” service to celebrate Thanksgiving, the chaplain asked me to draw something to encourage base airmen and their families to attend. “Be nice,” he said. “And show me what you drew before you send it to base pubs.”

I don’t remember all the drawings I made for the DB, but I remember this one: sitting at my desk, sipping black coffee, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, using thick-leaded pencils to draw bold outlines and smaller pencils for the painstaking process of minute shading. I stylized my signature on the drawing as “E.K. Jenks,” harking back to my youthful predilection to add a “K” to my name in honor of my idol, John F. Kennedy.

The drawing suggests an idealized – and Americanized – image of Thanksgiving, and the scenery was probably inspired by my recent visits to Berchtesgaden, Germany. A half-century on, reflecting now as a seasoned ecumenist, I might point out that it was not an “interfaith” service because the only faith represented was Christianity. But it was certainly an ecumenical service in the best spirit of interdenominational cooperation: Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Southern Baptist.

The drawing survives today as a token of a long-past Thanksgiving when I was taking my first steps on what would become a life-long ecumenical adventure.

And it is a precious souvenir of a particularly happy time of my youth.

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November 22 Approaches. Again.

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Perhaps it’s the shallow sentiment of age. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for an era that seems far brighter than the dark political gloom that engulfs us now. Perhaps it’s because I loved him from afar though I never met him. Whatever the reason, for the last fifty-five Novembers I have thought of John F. Kennedy when the twenty-second of the month draws near.

There is little need to point out that was the day in 1963 he was assassinated in Dallas. None of my adult children were alive on that day and nearly 70 percent of Americans living now were not yet born. But people know about it because the Kennedy assassination has become part of American folk lore.

My adult children have been very patient – even sympathetic – about my propensity to mourn a politician who seems as far removed from them as Chester A. Arthur.

And this year it’s beginning to seem a bit silly to me, too. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was one of the most complicated and compartmentalized politicians ever to sit in the Oval Office. The dry, statesmanlike JFK we saw in his televised press conferences was one of many JFK’s we rarely saw.

There was also the rich white JFK of privilege who lived through but never experienced the Great Depression.

There was the self-absorbed JFK who was short on human empathy. When one of his girlfriends pointed out poor people in a decaying neighborhood, he shrugged and said, “Poor bastards.”

There was the calculating “Mick politician” JFK (as his aide Kenneth O’Donnell put it) who could be ruthless in dealing with political opponents and dismissive of his friends when they no longer suited his purposes.

There was the crass political strategist JFK who hesitated becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement because he feared losing votes in the South.

There was the philandering sex addict JFK who told British Prime Minister Harold McMillan that if he didn’t have sex with a different woman every two or three days he would get “terrible head-aches.”

All of which is appalling.

But there were other more positive JFK’s lurking in his many compartments, and they make him worth remembering.

There was the idealist JFK who inspired a generation of Boomers to join the Peace Corps, serve in their country’s armed forces, and pursue careers in politics and public service.

There was the quick-witted JFK who could crack a joke or tell an anecdote that made his audiences laugh.

There was the poetic JFK who could interpose in his speeches inspiring verse from memory.

There was the courageous JFK who ignored General LeMay, Dean Acheson, Lyndon Johnson, and other hawks who advised him to invade Cuba in 1962 to remove offensive missiles.

Perhaps it is that last item – his hesitation to go to war – that makes him worthy of remembering. As we know now, there were Soviet lieutenant colonels in Cuba authorized to launch the nuclear missiles at the first sign of an invasion. And that would certainly have triggered a massive nuclear conflagration.

As complicated and compartmentalized as he was, that is one thing we can all thank JFK for: he stood up against the warmongers and kept us all alive.

So as November 22 approaches again, I do my best to remember John Kennedy for all he was, his great strengths and horrendous weaknesses.

And like many in my generation, this will continue to be so until I have no memory left.

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Justice on the Money

Here’s hoping the excellent biopic “Harriet” will focus more attention on what can reasonably be regarded as a racist decision.

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Cold War Cartoonist

November 11, 2019 – Looking back on my Air Force years this Veteran’s Day (1964-1968), I don’t detect a whole lot of sacrificial heroism. When I wear my Veteran hat in town, people – usually fellow Boomers – reach for my hand and say, “Thank you for your service.” I thank them politely, but I know what I should say is, “I drew cartoons and I typed.”

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When I was reassigned to McConnell Air Force Base in February 1968, cartooning became a major part of my military portfolio. Chaplain Clay Rohrer, the senior chaplain, and Chaplain Allen Kolmer, allowed me a free range.

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Naturally, my Air Force years included a standard amount of marching, KP, guard duty, and latrine queening. So it was for millions of us who served in Air Force blue.

But the next time one of my grandchildren asks me what I did in the Air Force, I’ll keep my answer simple.

I drew cartoons and I typed.

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Memoirs of a Good Conduct Medalist

mewRAINBOWRAINBOWsignedVeteran’s Day 2019. – I joined the U.S. Air Force 55 years ago last September. My experience was shared by millions of women and men who joined the Aerospace Team since it was founded in 1948. I salute them all.

My memories are not unique. On September 10, 1964, nine of us adolescents were sworn in at an induction center in Syracuse, N.Y. It was a hot day in Central New York and I remember the soothing hum of the air conditioning as we raised our right hands. We were so overcome by the weight of the occasion that it was hard not to snicker.

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

I wondered who domestic enemies were and what I was supposed to do about them, but as I lowered my hand I felt a huge weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I was no longer just a recent high school graduate; I was now in the United States Air Force. My carefree summer had come to an end.

The recruiting sergeant handed us mimeographed orders. I noticed my name was misspelled: two l’s in Philip. Still feeling the new burden of responsibility, I figured there was no sense arguing minor details with the Air Force. I kept the redundant l all four years. (Later I confused the orderly room by arbitrarily adding “Kennedy” to my name in honor of my idol, the late president, so my name began appearing in orders as Phillip E.K. Jenks. I dropped the K in college, but in the current clownish political climate, I’m considering adding it again.)

“There’s a bus outside waiting to take you to the Hancock Field for the flight to San Antonio,” the recruiter said. “I’m going to give you your first order: look at your serial number and memorize it by the time you get to Lackland.” Immediately the nine of us stared at our orders and began reciting the numerals silently.

The aircraft from Syracuse to San Antonio, Tex., was a sleek jet tossed around by heavy turbulence as it skirted the fringes of a southern hurricane. I had never flown before so I assumed the severe bumps were normal. An attractive young flight attendant was thrown off her feet and fell into the uncomplaining lap of one of my fellow recruits, her shapely legs kicking in the air. The recruit tried to help her up, but she scowled and jabbed her elbow into his ribs.

It had been a humid pre-Autumn day when we left New York, but the steamy humidity of San Antonio was suffocating. We arrived in darkness at 0430 and were quickly collected by a civilian bus driver to be transported to the training center. Several of the recruits, oozing white New York entitlement, ordered the Latino driver to move his ass so we could get to the base and go to bed. The driver smiled and said, “When we get there, you will wish you were back here.”

The sun was rising as we filed sleepily off the bus and were met by training instructors Tech Sergeant Saxon and Airman First Class Ellefson. Several more young recruits who had just arrived from Chicago gathered with us. If we had any expectation of getting sleep that day, it vanished when the two TI’s – training instructors – roughly grabbed us by the arms and forced us into marching formation.

The TI’s began berating us loudly, using obscenities that were unfamiliar to most of us. We weren’t used to this kind of verbal abuse, but the stream of sexual and excretory invective, uttered in crude iambic meter, seemed almost poetic. In a comparatively gentle gibe, Ellefson shouted into the face of a large, lumbering recruit, “Jesus, you walk like a girl.”

For some reason the boy, who had been a running back in local high school, thought he was expected to challenge the sergeant.

“I don’t care for your attitude,” the boy said with a look that must have been intimidating on the line of scrimmage.

“What?” Ellefson said.

The boy didn’t get a chance to repeat his challenge.

“Sarge,” Ellefson screamed to his colleague. “We gotta wise ass here!”

Sergeant Saxon, a muscular man with a flattop haircut and barrel chest, stepped over and quietly pulled the boy out of line. He escorted him several feet away.  I couldn’t hear what the sergeant was saying but he seemed to be quietly menacing the boy, questioning his manhood and emphasizing each threat with a poke in the chest. Whatever the sergeant said. it was effective. The boy returned to the line in a more docile mood.

Somehow the two sergeants managed to get us into a formation suitable for marching. Nearby, training flights marched past us on the way to morning mess. They had had been on base long enough to be outfitted with green fatigue uniforms, which made them vastly superior to us. In our civilian clothes, we felt like teenagers playing war, which wasn’t far from the truth.  Military discipline forbade the senior uniformed troops from laughing at us, but their drill sergeant led them in a taunting marching song,

“Rainbow, Rainbow, Don’t Be Blue, My Recruiter Screwed Me, too!”

The song derided us for our multi-colored mufti. We would wear the clothes we arrived in for the next several days until the sergeants arranged for us to receive our uniforms. The only concession to uniformity was a large pith helmet that was designed to protect us from the searing Texas sun. The helmets wobbled on our heads as we marched clumsily to a GI barbershop where our civilian locks would be buzzed away. In 1964, none of the young men had long locks so the sheering was not an Elvis moment,

My memory is hazy, but I think we spent most of our first day at Lackland Air Force Base learning rudimentary marching skills. Boys who had been in high school marching bands had a distinct advantage over the rest of us.

Late that night when we finally got to the barracks – a World War II vintage building– I was so sleep-deprived I was hallucinating. Earlier I had sighted a recruit with a vivid port wine stain on his face and I wondered for days if I had dreamed it.

It was hot in the barracks, but we were ordered to hang our clothes on hangers and slide beneath the heavy wool GI blanket on the bed. Despite the heat, most of us fell asleep immediately.

At 0500, Airman Ellefson walked between the rows of bunks.

“You people get up and make yours beds.”

Several recruits slid out of bed and began to head for the latrine, but Ellefson blocked their way.

“I said make your fucking beds,” he said. “I know the first thing the human body has to do when you get up is take a piss. But now the first thing you do is make your bed.”

Compared to the initial shock of arriving on base, the rest of Basic Training was easy. We marched in the Texas heat, ran around a quarter-mile track in heavy brogans, polished our low-quarter shoes, ran the obstacle course, learned to salute, sat many hours in air conditioned class rooms learning military customs, and generally learned how to absorb illogical orders and homophobic taunts from the sergeants. Most of us got through it.

Our open bay barracks had rows of GI bunk beds lined up in precisely measured formation. The beds were covered with olive green GI blankets pulled tightly into hospital corners. The blankets were hardly necessary in the stifling summer heat of San Antonio, but, as I said, we were required to sleep beneath them anyway.

Most of our earthly possessions were neatly organized in footlockers at the foot of the bed. By neatly, I mean in military fashion. Boxer shorts, T-shirts, and black socks were tightly rolled into rows. Shoe polishing rags were also rolled, and toiletries – safety razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a can of shaving cream – were fastidiously cleaned after each use. We were instructed to dismantle the shaving cream nozzle to remove excess lather so it wouldn’t dribble out.

But sometimes the cans dribbled.

Each morning the TI’s conducted a full inspection of our personal areas. The beds had to be firmly made, shoes shined, uniforms clean and hung precisely on a rack, and foot lockers immaculate.

Dressed in white baggy boxers and T-shirts, we’d stand nervously at parade rest while the TI, scowling disapprovingly, moved stiffly among the beds.

Elihu Ellefson, a tall, blond, foul-mouthed TI, opened my footlocker and peered in. It looked perfect to me.

But Ellefson reached in, rudely dislodging rows of socks and underwear, and pulled out my shaving cream can. A tiny blob of cream was attempting to escape from the spout.

“What the fuck is this?” he asked shrilly, pushing the can onto my nose.

I was silent.

Ellefson glared at me censoriously. He up-ended my footlocker and poured the contents onto the floor. Boxers unraveled among socks and rolled away. My toothbrush clattered on the linoleum, and my safety raiser made a snapping sound. Ellefson picked up the offending can and, staring at me, spewed shaving cream onto the remaining contents of my locker.

“Jenks,” he said, “The only thing I hate more than a lazy fucker is a filthy fucker.”

I was silent. After Ellefson left, I picked up my locker and its contents and went into the latrine to remove the foam and put everything back into GI order. One of other trainees followed me in to commiserate.

“Geez, too bad,” he kept saying. “What a dick.”

Of course, Ellefson was not supposed to be popular with the trainees, and most of us hated him. In 1964, he used racial and ethnic slurs freely, including the N word, and he seemed particularly punitive with Jews. I’m not sure why that was, unless he was angry with his parents for naming him Elihu.

No other GI in our training flight had his footlocker tossed. No doubt Ellefson felt the point had been made.

And, looking back, having one’s footlocker tossed is not a big deal. It probably pretty much of a universal experience for basic trainees in all branches of the service.

Even so, I’m curious about whatever happened to Ellefson. I don’t hold any grudges against him, beyond the fact that he was a racist, homophobic, anti-Semite.

But it was clearly Ellefson who made me mildly obsessive with my personal hygiene habits over five ensuing decades, a habit I may have passed along to some of my children. And I’d like to thank the son of a bitch.

I stayed in the Air Force for four years after basic training, and they were good years. With each succeeding Veteran’s Day I reflect back on basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and marvel how an event so far removed in time and space has never faded from the memories of my life.

Fifty-five years on, I no longer worry about spit-polishing my shoes. But I notice when my shaving cream leaks and I still won’t leave the house without checking to make sure my gig line is straight.

As time goes on, I hope my fly will be zipped, too.

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