Going Back to Washington, Fifty Years Later

Washington.

I used to live there, or near there, in the years before the Metro was built. In my mind it was my town, although I had no feel for politics, or indeed any sense at all, being young. But one could get on a bus in those days and roam all over the city, taking in the passing scenery, observing the people on the street. The view was exciting. You can’t see anything worth looking at out of the window of a subway train.

keybridge1The family home at that time was in Arlington, a house my parents rented from some army colonel who had been posted to Panama for a year. (Every year we rented a different colonel’s house.) I would get on the bus and ride to work in the city, passing the most amazing and seductive things. A used car lot full of strange European cars: a pale gray Opel, a huge black Mercedes sedan whose thick passenger-side windows were pocked with bullet holes, a tiny blue-green Morris Minor that I coveted. If I ever got hold of some money and learned to drive, that Morris would be mine. Or the Mercedes. You had to admit it had cachet.

Just over the Key Bridge was a grain factory belonging to the Washington Milling Company. They had posted a sign just outside the factory: “The objectionable odors you may notice in this area do not originate in our plant.” Where, then, did the smell come from? I never knew. In fact I don’t remember it smelling all that bad, but I can’t forget the sign.

One morning I saw, standing on a corner, a tall man in a floor-length black cape, a broad-brimmed black hat, and a long red scarf. I was thrilled and intrigued. You must remember that this was the early sixties. People didn’t dress funny. Come to find out he was only the doorman at a night club, not the actual Shadow. What the nightclub was doing open at eight-thirty in the morning is another of the secret mysteries of D.C.

My job in those days was as a library clerk at the Washington Post. Politics were talked in the library by people much more knowledgeable than me. A friend made me read the Post’s  copy of the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, in the hope that it would raise my consciousness. It sort of did. After a year at the Post I was fired for conspicuous lethargy.

Time went on and I married a newspaper man, my college sweetheart, to our subsequent chagrin and distress. When we left Washington we were still in love, I think. John Kennedy was president. The highest ambition of a number of people I knew was to be invited to dinner at the White House. I still didn’t understand politics.

The nature of politics is slowly becoming clear to me. The only reason I seem to have anymore for going back to Washington is to scream at the government, which one is better off doing in a large group of like-minded people. If you do it by yourself you attract unwelcome attention.

It’s not the same city. It’s full of cops and bollards now because of terrorism. Everyone rides the Metro. If you want to dine at Trump’s White House, I don’t want to know you.

We will go to D. C. next Saturday and scream at the government, if only to vent our frustration. I will breathe the air of a place where I was once young and silly. Maybe I’ll cry a little.

Meanwhile I’m going back and reading the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens again.

The Professional Sounding Board

 

43668673 - image of woman lying on couch in psychiatrist office

It occurred to me this morning that there should be such a thing as a professional listener, somebody who would let you pay a fee to lie on the couch for an hour and complain bitterly about whatever you found particularly annoying that day. I know, I know, there are shrinks out there who perform something like this service, but that isn’t what I mean.

Your shrink, your psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatric social worker, is there to help you make sense out of your mental problems, or your social interactions, or the fact that you have never been able to get along with your mother. I need—probably most of us over a certain age do—someone to bitch at, someone who will pretend to listen to complaints but will offer no advice and make no judgments. My feet hurt. My teeth hurt. Next week a molar has to come out. I’m losing my eyesight. With what’s left of my eyesight I see things I don’t want to see. Nobody likes to be told stuff like that. Unload such complaints on your friends and they will soon begin avoiding you. Unload them on your spouse and he will think you’re blaming him.

When I was quite young I had a friend who was so self-absorbed that  I could tell her anything, secure in the knowledge that she would forget it at once. I, on the other hand, was so self-absorbed that she could safely do the same. Years later I realized she had pointed something out to me that I refused to see at the time, that I was in love with a fellow I considered a mere friend. In those days I probably needed an actual shrink, or a very wise mother. My mother had her own problems. She could have used an hour on some stranger’s couch to complain about her life.

And who couldn’t? After an hour with the Professional Sounding Board we might dry our tears and go forth into the world with smiles on our faces, our dispositions outwardly as sunny as a day on St. Thomas. But what sort of qualifications would this person have to have?

Years ago there was a computer program called Dr. Sbaitso. It came with Sound Blaster and ran on a PC. You typed in questions or observations and Dr. Sbaitso answered you in a strange mechanical accent. “What is your problem?” “How would you usually deal with such feelings?” The good doctor promised to wipe all memory of the session away when it was done. People liked that. They got so deeply into it sometimes that they forgot they were dealing with a machine. But this would not be the function of my Professional Sounding Board.

The PSB would not ask you how you were dealing with things. The PSB would not care. As far as fixing your problem goes, you would be on your own. In fact the ideal PSB would have no idea what you were talking about. Maybe he or she wouldn’t even speak or understand English. The PSB would simply sit there and appear to listen, perhaps nodding from time to time. Any insights you gained from your fifty minutes of whining would be a gift you gave yourself.

I like it. Now if only we can get our health insurance to cover it.

Why We Leave Stuff out of Memoirs

You will recall that I read Admiral Sir Guy Gaunt’s memoir with a pang of disappointment. All the good spy yarns were in there, and that was great, but he left out the juicy bits.

You will doubtless also recall that I explained these omissions as the natural behavior of an officer and a gentleman.  I was imagining Captain Jack Aubrey sitting at table on HMS Surprise with his fellow officers, telling war stories. Would he talk about the women in his life? Certainly not.

But I was mistaken. Here is a bit of typescript that was pasted inside a copy of The Yield of the Years. Not my copy. Somebody else’s copy.

Gauntletter

Interesting to note that the address on his letterhead is Tangier, the paradise he praised in the last chapter of his book without mentioning anything that was happening in his life.

So we see that Sir Guy’s second wife was typing it all up for him, and if that weren’t dampening enough, she was doing it for their daughter to read. Everything is now explained. Do I want my children to know all the deviltry I got up to in my youth? Not on your onion.

Spinning the Memoir

I finally got my hands on Admiral Sir Guy Reginald Archer Gaunt’s autobiography this week (The Yield of the Years, a story of adventures afloat and ashore). I have now read the thing cover to cover, and while I still insist that it was worth every penny I paid for it, at least to me, it pains me to report a glaring omission.

Sir Guy never mentions his wives and children.

TuliaHe mentions a few women in passing. One is Tulia, the Samoan girl who followed him into battle with Gaunt’s Brigade to put down an insurrection (or take sides in a civil war) in Samoa in 1899. Another is an unnamed wealthy New York society woman and German sympathizer, whom I recognized as Mrs. Edmee Reisinger, the beer heiress. He talks about the pony he rode on Samoa. But if he mentions putting in at Hong Kong in 1904, he says nothing about how he married a widow there, Mrs. Margaret Elizabeth Worthington, daughter of Sir Thomas Wardle (This according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography), and how their marriage ended in divorce in 1927, after he ran away to Canada with the wife of the Royal Ophthalmologist.  Nor does he ever mention the 35-year-old widow he married in 1932 (when he was 63), Sybil Victoria Joseph, née Grant White, or the two daughters they had together.

SammyHe speaks affectionately of Sammy, the pony. Later he describes in loving detail the sailing ship he bought after he left the House of Commons in 1926 and went to Canada. But, women?

The thing is, Sir Guy didn’t write his memoirs for me to read, or any other romantic-minded woman. He wrote for his friends in the Navy, who would have thought him a complete bounder if he talked about his personal life. The stories he tells are all about his school days, his military career, and his yacht, and thumping good yarns they are, the kind of stories an old admiral would tell at a dinner of brother officers.

Franz Rintelen, German spy, wrote his memoirs too (The Dark Invader). Probably he was a bounder. His enemies said so. But included among the war stories (half of them bald-faced lies) is a touching account of how he came home to his wife after long imprisonment in Atlanta and found that his marriage was dead, whereupon he sorrowfully left. Not a word of reproach for his wife. He hadn’t been home in years and years. Reports of his death had come to her again and again. It was just too much for her.

It is interesting to note that of the two World War I spy memoirs, only Rintelen’s is still in print, while Sir Guy’s is so hard to find that one has to pay hundreds of dollars for a copy. Either that or sit in the Library of Congress and read it, a task of several days. Rintelen, I think, was writing for the money, while Sir Guy was writing because his friends told him he should. His memoir is more interesting in and of itself than Sir Guy’s, which has its charms but rambles a bit and has to be picked through for historical facts.

I ask myself: What are you allowed to leave out of a memoir? Anything you want to, I guess. It’s your story. If you don’t want to admit to ever having been married, why, go ahead and leave it out. Write it any way you want to. Lie your head off. Who do you want to be? Who do you want people to think you are? Go for it. The more unknown you are, the more free you are to make up the life you always wanted.

That’s what I plan to do, if I ever get down and write my memoirs. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow. Let’s see. First I need a few heroic deeds. And maybe a pony.