Socotra House Publishing: Purveyor of Glib Words to the World
Socotra House Publishing is a small press dedicated to publishing and distributing the historical works of Vic Socotra, a non-mortal fellow who captures American and military history with aplomb.
Two significant issues occurred on the road south, well three if you count a stop at the marvelous Main Street Pub in Clifton, VA, a most triumphant oasis on the way to the farm. Well, four if you include the death of mayor-for-Life Marion Barry. I can’t actually conceptualize his not being around. Washington, DC, IS largely a representation of Marion Barry, with all its wonders and warts.
And it is five things, really, if I include the other news, but I had to get on with things.
I had an appointment with Andrew, the proprietor of Croftburn Farms Market to pick up some one-inch pork loin chops, so I could honor a pledge to my correspondent in Utah about not publishing a fool-proof recipe she has treasured for years. She was quite stern:
“Don’t publish until you have actually tried it.”
I honor my commitments unless I can get out of them and agreed. But of course, that involved the extended stop to chat with Andrew about the chops and what was coming for the winter months, and the stop at the Minuteman Antiques Mall to see if the Griswold #7 was still being offered for sale.
The farm is a sort of catch-all for junk and second-string cookware. It came with an electric stove, something I loath, but I have not got around to conceptualizing going propane, which would be good for a while in case the Chinese destroy our power grid with some Trojan Horse mal-ware. I imagine I could cook on the wood stove, but the world to come is going to have some intrinsic inconvenience we will just have to work with.
What I have been cooking with down on the farm is a battered non-stick twelve-inch fry pan. It isn’t non-stick any more, but it works for most things, and I have not replaced it with cast iron because I have gas up north and that is where I like to play with the Lodge #5 (most applications) and slow cook in the Griswold #12 and the Lodge Dutch Oven.
The Minuteman Mall is a strange and wonderful place. It is a steel frame warehouse- the kind that comes in industrial and church versions- and is compartmented into several dozen little cubbies loaded with junk and treasure. The way it works is that individual vendors stock their cubbies with all sorts of junk, and a central desk does check-out and tallies the sales to credit against vendor accounts. The skillet was $40 and the cornbread pan was $42, but both came with a ten percent discount for no discernible reason.
I have been thinking of renting my own cubby to start thinning out the contents of the barn and the garage at the farm, but that will be a project for next Spring.
Bronco and his lovely bride Lynn had prowled the place last weekend on their extended antiquing tour, and identified a Griswold skillet, a #7, and recommended it. The cubbies are identified by a unique three-letter code, but I couldn’t remember what it was and had to conduct a square search of the place. I found three skillets in the last place I looked, and one of them was a lovely 8 ¼ inch Griswold- late production model, sometime after 1920 and before 1950, from the look of the logo on the back.
On the wall was one of those bizarre corn-bread bakers with the corncob depressions, and I decided I needed that, too. I checked out with The Ladies at the front desk and drove on to the farm as the sun lowered in the November sky. It took a while to get the fire lit and the temperature rising in the Great Room.
Once the chaos of arrival was sorted out, I fired up the computer and looked for the recipe from Utah, which actually came from the Washington Post a dozen years ago: http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/recipes/1144-pork-chops/8750/
You can go with the various sauces- I opted for the Bourbon and Mustard just because. This is a fabulous recipe because it is scalable- works for feeding a group or just a single chop, sauce or no sauce.
I fulfilled my promise, after I re-seasoned the skillet and the cornbread mold, though I did not want to make the mess it would take to do the cornbread- though I thought a green chili cornbread might be just the ticket. Here it is- and it works. Oh, and the Griswold chunked out it’s first dinner in a long, long time, and it performed like a champ:
1+1+4+4 Pork Chops (Because it takes 10 minutes to make them)
1-inch-thick chops are crucial to this technique, which first sears the pork on both sides to seal in the juices, then cooks the pork, covered, over low heat to coax it to doneness without allowing any of the precious moisture to evaporate as steam. Do not use a thicker chop or it will become tough due to the additional cooking time required. But don’t even think about using thinner ones, either.
4 boneless pork loin chops, 1-inch thick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (I prefer Kosher salt)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (optional — I never use the oil)
Pat the chops dry with a paper towel. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat a nonstick skillet (I use cast iron) over high heat. If desired, add the oil and heat until hot but not smoking. Add the chops and sear, without turning, for 1 minute. Use tongs to turn the chops and sear on the other side for 1 minute. Turn the chops again, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 4 minutes. Turn the chops a final time, cover again and cook for 4 minutes.
Transfer the chops to a cutting board, cover loosely to keep warm and let rest for 5 minutes. If making a sauce, reserve the drippings in the skillet.
Thinly slice the chops, transfer to individual plates and fan them out. Serve immediately with a sauce.
Here is the quick recipe for the sauce:
Bourbon and Mustard Sauce
1/2 cup bourbon (may substitute other whiskey but why?)
1/4 cup Dijon-style mustard
2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra. Recipes Copyright Washington Post 2002
It was not the last time I was in Paris, but it was certainly the most expansive I can imagine. I got a note from Point Loma about his memories of the City of Light, and in recognition of a profound bit of news that came by phone this morning- very good news, BTW- I am going to let him do the heavy lifting this morning. I would tell you the news, but the news is embargoed until released by those concerned in the event. Here at The Daily, we may move from the City of Light to the Eternal City next, but in the meantime, here is Paris just a few years later:
“What a great travelogue series, Vic. To do it with the Lutt-man must have made it even more interesting.
Paris for me, after my indoctrination as a sailor on liberty in 1983, became an addiction when I accepted orders to EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart the next year. Given the proximity, I made several trips there early on, and had exhausted the tourist things to do in the first half of my tour. I walked all over that town, maybe ten miles over the course of a weekend visit. I was no longer a tourist, maybe not a local, but something else.
It was about that time, in 1986, when the French got involved in a proxy ground war in Africa in one of their former colonies. They were contesting control of it with the Libyans, led by the former brother leader of the revolution, Muammar Gaddafi. They needed intelligence, the kind that only we could provide.
Since we were the Intelligence Collections Division of the European Command Headquarters (J2-C), we got the job. It involved taking stuff over to the French, and providing it to them via the US Embassy and the attaché’s office.
In the beginning it was a somewhat haphazard operation, and my fellow members of the J-2C were drafted into supplying the courier bodies. They bitched about that duty taking them away from their jobs and making them late for dinner. Since I was the only single guy in the division at the time and sensing an opportunity, I volunteered to take this one on.
What were the other guys bitching about? I soon arranged it so that the courier deliveries were scheduled for Fridays, when I could put on one of my suits from Harilelas in Hong Kong and make the trip over myself; which meant that I could spend weekends in Paris on liberty as long as I got back sometime on Monday to assume the collections watch duty in the afternoon.
Suitably attired in Hong Kong mufti, I would mount my airborne steed (a C-12 twin turbo-prop or C-21 jet) and launch out of Stuttgart on the mission. Most people know that there are two big airports in Paris – Orly (where Lindbergh landed) and Charles de Gaul, which is akin to Dulles outside of DC proper.
However, there is a third close-in airport reserved for French official and VIP flights called Villacoublay. That is where we landed. Imagine a beautiful Friday afternoon, banking into Paris wearing your best bespoke clothing on a jet on a serious mission, with nothing but fun to come afterwards. Met by the armored embassy car, I was whisked downtown to la Place de la Concorde and the US Embassy at #2 Rue Gabriel. Once I cleared the Marine guard shack, I was ushered into the attaché spaces and able to open the briefcase that was wired to my wrist, and hand over the information that the Army Attaché- the ARMA- had to take over to the French military intelligence service later that day.
After a couple of trips doing this, the embassy admin ladies knew me (I always brought them German chocolates) and when I called over, they would set me up with hotel rooms on the Left or Right Banks at embassy rates, bien sur. Once the business end was done, then I settled in for some serious liberty in the City of Light.
My modus operandi was to go check into the hotel, and then head to Happy Hour at some classic place like the bar at the Ritz at la Place Vendome, or Harry’s New York at 5 Rue Danou for the obligatory scotch or two. Suitably prepared, I would decamp back to the hotel and change into more suitable Eurotrash clothing – jeans, a turtleneck, and leather jacket. Then, I would head to one of the other usual places. By that I mean the one of the tourist bars made famous by Hemingway like La Closerie de Lilas or Aux Deux Magots.
In those clubs I would invariably meet American, Brit or Aussie gals who were visiting and lost in the big city. You could tell who they were since they invariably had their Fodor’s guides on the table, and were puzzling over maps of the Metro. Since I spoke fairly fluent French and had some favorite bistros- “Little places I know you might like,” in my back pocket, I would offer to help guide their way around Paris for the weekend while I was there.
In addition to having some female companionship, it was great fun to show them unique aspects of a city that I had come to think of as my own. I made the courier trip over there about a dozen times over a two-year time frame before I left for Spain. On Sunday or Monday evenings – in case of a long weekend – I would take the overnight sleeper train back to Stuttgart. Like I said, I was an addict to that place.
One of my former roomies in Stuttgart is now married to a French gal and works at the embassy in Paris. I visited him a couple of years ago off of a TDY trip to Germany. He met his wife at a Halloween party in Paris in 1988 the year that we drove over from Stuttgart.
Rolling into the city, we were playing the Door’s hypnotic ‘LA Woman,’ half drunk (yeah, we were drinking beer the whole way over) and singing along with Jim at the top of our lungs. After a very surreal Halloween party, on All-Saints day, we went out to Pere Lachaise to make the pilgrimage to visit “Jeem.”
It was a great fall day, cool and clear, with the leaves changing, blazing in their glory. There were signs pointing the way to go see “Jeem” so we had no problem finding his grave. Once we got there, and as you so aptly described, there were some stoners doing their thing, and a lot of graffiti defacing the surrounding tombs around his.
The best best line I saw read: “Jim, you are in deep shit now.”
Jim Morrison’s dad was a naval officer and retired as a two-star admiral in the mid-70s. He was a naval aviator and in the early 60s, the skipper of the USS Bonhomme Richard (CV-31), the famous ‘Bonnie Dick.” Later, he was Admiral on the same ship. He was the battle group commander during the Tonkin Gulf incident off Vietnam in late 1964. My uncle, a Skyraider pilot like your dad, was the Air Boss on the Bonnie Dick when George Morrison was the CO.
He said that it was no wonder that Jim Morrison turned out to be so rebellious since his dad was a tightly wound, Type-A overbearing-asshole. His favorite thing to do in port was to get the crew up on the flight deck in the morning and lead PT, where he proceeded to prove that he could do more push-ups and sit-ups than anyone else onboard. Interestingly enough, he was the keynote speaker at the de-commissioning ceremony of the Bonnie Dick on July 3rd, 1971, the very same day that his oldest son died in Paris under ‘mysterious circumstances.’
So, it was great to go back but it was not the same Paris that I remembered. That Paris moved pretty much in tune with the US and UK college school years – it was slow in the winter and spring and got real busy after Memorial Day, died out in August, and after Labor Day, was pretty much dead until the holidays and thereafter until Spring.
I was there in September and the Chinese and Japanese tourists by the bus and plane loads pretty much ensure that the tourist season now continues year-round – there were lines everywhere and it was hard to get a seat in any decent bistro. I felt sorry for the Parisians because it now seems like they never get their city to themselves to enjoy anymore.
At that time 30 years ago, EUCOM was considered a backwater and career-killer but what the fuck did I care? At least for me, it was the best second-tour Junior Officer assignment you could ever imagine. I got to do everything, go everywhere and then ski thirty days every year. In addition to the other fun stuff involved with my job, I turned what everyone had thought was a piece-of-shit courier chore into something else indeed.
Sometimes, you’ve got to create it when given the opportunity, and there were plenty of people lining up to take my place when I left.
Is there any wonder why I extended my two-year tour to four? I just hope that your JG and other up and coming JOs are equally as entrepreneurial and lucky at finding something as exciting for their next shore assignments.
Copyright 2014 Vic and Point Loma
My last priority for the City of Lights was the pilgrimage to the Tomb. No, not Napoleon’s. Been there, done that. This is something important.
There are some weird scenes in the goldmine that I shared with the Lutt-creature. I have to work on my feelings about this. It required a trip to the 20th Arrondissement and a visit to the Père Lachaise Cimitere. It is easy to get there by Metro by taking the number two or number three trains since there are two stations immediately near the entrances on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Some folks prefer the Gambetta station on Line Three, since that permits you to enter the burial ground near the tomb of Oscar Wilde and then walk downhill to visit the rest of the cemetery.
Père Lachaise Cemetery was opened on 21 May 1804. Napoleon, who by then was ruling as absolute king, issued an Executive Proclamation stating that “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion,” and supported the right to internment for all, regardless of whether they were legally in France or not. Wait, I might be mixing that up with something else.
At the time of its opening there was no Metro and the cemetery was considered to be like Dulles International: too far from the city, and there was not much demand. The owners of the burial ground thus came up with a marketing strategy and with great media coverage and hoopla arranged the disinterment and transfer of the remains of Jean de la Fontaine and the playwright Moliere for grand state funerals.
It was a lovely day to visit- cool but sunny- and taking the gave some above-ground stretches to see some of Gay Paree’s less famous districts, increasingly being populated by North African immigrants. I debarked at Gambetta and saw an old woman in an apron near the entrance with a folding tale.
I tried in my broken French to ask where Jim was. “Pardon, Madame, Ou est la Tombe de le Jim Morrison?”
To which the old lady responded by holding out her hand and asking for dix francs pour le plan du cimitere. In addition to Oscar Wilde, who was exiled from England for gross indecency, I noted the location of the tomb of Félix Faure, who shares a funerary tale similar to the late Nelson Rockefeller, the last known Republican Governor of New York.
Félix was president of France from 1895 until dying in office in 1899. His presidency is famous for the Franco-Russian alliance and the despicable affaire Dreyfus. It was not the anti-Semitic scandal for which he is known today.
He died after suffering an apoplectic episode whilst in bed with his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. Rumors swirled that he had passed on while receiving oral sex from her. While the actual event is unknown, as is that of Governor Rockefeller’s last moment on intimacy with a female aid, it has become an famous example of Executive Privilege.
His tomb shows him on his back, draped presumably in the flag of France, though of course it could be his sheets. Contemporary politician George Clemenceau gave Faure the epitaph ‘Il voulait être Céwar, il ne fut sue Pompée,’ which can be translated either as ‘He wanted to be Caesar, he ended being Pompey’ or ‘He wanted to be Caesar, he ended being pumped.’
We could have found the grave we were actually looking for just by following the day-glo spray paint on the side of the headstones of famous non-rockers. The casual sacrilege to the momunments of the other dead was jarring.
At the grave there was an interesting scene. There was a small crowd of young people hanging out, not saying much, just being there. The faint smell of marijuana was in the air.
There was one hippy; or at least whatever it is that long-haired kids are these days. The tomb was a simple granite block with the name “JIM MORRISON” carved on the front. There were scraps of paper with poems piled on the stone, and flowers, of course.
Not his full name and no dates and no quote. That was quite nicely taken care of by the graffiti artists on every available piece of rock in the immediate line of sight. I am torn by my feelings about our strange times in that decade and the symbol of this man lying beneath us.
His music had moved my feet and stirred my soul. He was a dark genius with the voice of a gruff and caustic angel.
I remember the day the reports came of his death in 1971. Janice had died, Jimi was gone and these things seemed to happen in threes, like Jack, Bobby and Martin. Jim was entitled to burial at Pere Lachaise because he had passed, like Marat, in the bathtub inside the city limits. He was initially buried in an unmarked grave. When the cemetery management placed a simple marker on the site it was stolen. The same thing happened to a bust of Morrison placed on a simple gravestone.
Despite gazing at the stone for some time, it appeared that no stunning revelation will come; it was just a time of Strange Days. “So long, Lizard King,” and we walked away.
They tell me that much later, in 2008, the cemetery had hired a guard to ensure that visitors to Morrison’s grave did no more damage to it or other tombs. Now a simple block of stone bears the message, in Greek, ‘According to his own daimon.’
That day, the sun shone bright on the acres of intricately cut grey stone and the neatly-aligned streets of the city of the dead. We got back on the Metro and headed back to the old city, looking for some place to get a drink. I was pretty confident we were going to find one.
Vive la France!
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
City of Lights
(The Louvre at night with the I.M. Pei pyramid in front.)
There is so much really crazy stuff going on that I have been driven quite to distraction. I am not going to get bogged down on that this morning. Oh, hell, it is close enough not to even be morning anymore, and I have been pecking on the keyboard since before six this morning.
As you know, I have found it therapeutic to delve back into tales from other decades and continents. It has been therapeutic, but of course I have not been able to ignore the antics of this great Republic. I am not going to start commenting on it how- there is enough back and forth between my Trotskyite and Troglodyte circles, and will leave it alone, except for one observation: We are in Terra Incognita now, an unknown land.
I will be watching with great interest and more than a little concern. It was easier to simply actually be in an unknown land far away.
It was more fun visiting the City of Lights for the first time. It was two days after Christmas, 1989. The boat was parked in Marseilles for a month, maintaining a very low profile as the Russian Empire was starting to unravel.
I was up at five at the Hotel Morny, and went out for a jog in preparation with a monumental trek across the world’s greatest city. After a shower and a croissant with chicory coffee, I hook up with the Lutt-Creature and walk down past the Opera. Along the way, I buy a Sorbonne University sweatshirt from a street vendor with the emblematic Gauloise unfiltered cigarette clenched in his teeth. Although they don’t have much of a football program, I understand it is a pretty good school.
We continue south through the Place de Concorde; then turn right along the Champs Elysee. The streets are thronged with people. We stop by Le Drugstore and window shop. The sidewalk cafes are elegant. We are walking behind an attractive couple when I see her impulsively give him a kiss.
There is something in the air in this town. We drop by the Embassy to see if my pal Evan the Naval Attaché Robinson is in; the place has the suitable gravity of the Official Office of the United States of American. We are told that he is on leave until 03 January, so I jot a note conveying my complements, while marveling at the security arrangements. We walk on toward the Arc de Triumph.
The place is jammed, but we follow the tunnel under the traffic circle and up the stairs. The line to climb up to the roof is far too long, so we elect to walk under the Arc itself. Like everything is this city, it is far more than the postcards. The name of every engagement that Napoleon fought, every armee he led, is carved in the white marble that soars above us.
In the middle of the paving under the interior dome lies the eternal flame to the Unknown of the Great War. Around it are plaques dedicated to the soldiers of the Indo-Chine, to the establishment of the Republic, and to the veterans of Algeria.
I am tremendously moved and I did not think I would be. I translate for Lutt-mann and we leave in a state of wonder at it all.
Next stop the Tour Eiffel. We walk around the ringed streets that surround the Arc. We need to use a WC, so we stop at a likely place. It turns out to be a place called the Pub Winston Churchill. It is rich wood and dark tapestry carpets. Gleaming brass. Heavy glass. Oozing atmosphere.
This is the real thing. Travelling downstairs to the ‘loo we find another level to the restaurant; this one is small tables and nestled booths. We take seats as we cycle through the comfort stop and prepare to order a beer to make us walk better. Upon further perusal, we discover it is 35 francs per ($5.75) we think better of the matter and stroll on through the city, crossing the Seine toward the Tour.
This so far exceeds my expectations that I am struck nearly dumb.
This is the apex of a civilization. The latticework structure is ultimate in wrought iron construction, Eiffel must have stood his world on its collective ears. To those men all things must have seemed possible. The Suez canal, the planned French sea-level passage across Panama that failed, steel rails and steam engines to change the face of the globe…..
The Tower is set perfectly as the crowning accomplishment to a long mall. Graceful apartment buildings flank the mall and we walk aimless along them, finally checking the map and plotting a course that will take us to the Rue St Germain and on toward the Ile de Cite and the Cathedral de Notre Dame. Past the broad vista of Les Invalides, past the strange warren of Ministries on the Rue Babylon and finally through the rive gauche student district and back across the Seine to the Cathedral.
The view is extraordinary. We check the block in the greatest of the medieval churches and stop for a lager and a white wine in the shade of the two towers. “Look out for Pick pockets,” read the signs. Magnificent!
After, we walk along the church to view the symphony of the flying buttresses that support the stained glass windows of the Nave. Then across the rest of the river and onto the Boulevard de Rivoli near the Hotel de Cite.
We wander through les Halles and eventually back to Rue Liege and the Hotel Morny, stopping for refresments that turned the afternoon into an enormous pub crawl. We split up to rest, and I bought a bottle of Boujolais nouveau and bread and frommage and feast in the room. This is the life!
The usual suspects hook up and escape to the nighttime streets and head north and then east toward Montmarte, then south to the Place Pigalle and Moulin Rouge. We are literally slaying the tourist attractions. But still, every street has something new. They were right when they said that Paris required a minimum four days to see…..or a lifetime.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
Dreamscape, Part 348
I really dream well at the farm. It must be the fresh air, the exercise and the deep silence of the night here. I was going to get up and write about Paris, since I love that town, and the 1989 visit to the City of Lights was well-nuanced and spectacular. It had everything, literally.
Instead, the events of the days cascaded into a dream so real that the faces of the participants are with me still with the first cup of coffee. I can analyze the sources of at least some of the imagery and context of the dreamscape. ISIS had beheaded another American, this one an idealistic former Army Ranger who had returned to the area of conflict not to fight, but to assist those dislocated by the Syrian civil war.
The story evolved during my drive to the farm in the real world, and intelligence sources confirmed the actual imagery displayed on the propaganda video of the murder. The second case of Ebola in America was not going well. Dr. Martin Salia’s condition was worsening as the epidemic continues to rage in West Africa.
Hostage Peter Kassig is just the latest martyr to religious fanaticism. I tried to put that out of my mind through the day, and the epidemic, but it all came back in the second sleep of the night in the quiet of the farmhouse.
It had been a productive day. Driving down was a breeze, since I left before I-66 ground to a halt outside the Beltway. I got settled in to the house, worried about cast iron skillets, before stopping at Mattski and Natasha’s place next door to see if they needed anything from my afternoon trip to town. They were sitting in chairs drawn up to a glowing fire. Jack the German Shepherd puppy was sprawled on the floor. His fur was soft as down, and his needle milk-teeth teased at my skin and sweater. Not to be outdone, Biscuit the Wonder Spaniel attempted to crawl into my lap and lubricate my face with kisses.
Natasha was knitting a complex pattern sweater for Mattski.
It was so domestic and so seasonal against the gray chill outside that I decided to build my own fire and hunker down once I completed a trip to Croftburn Farms to discuss a requirement with Andrew, the proprietor. Filled up the Panzer at the Martin’s supermarket complex, and procured some dry and wet supplies.
I made a light dinner and built a big fire and the Deadskins and the Eagles were humiliated on the flat screen. I dozed off after the games were done, got up at midnight and went to bed. Sometime in the larger small hours, I turned in the bed and realized I was someplace sunlight and real.
I was unhappy in my job. Pal Holly V was running a small woman-owned business, in partnership with a dynamic father-son entrepreneur team, very prep in apprearance. They looked like Agency people. I agreed to try to support a contract overseas with Holly’s company and deployed to Liberia. Boko Haram was the ISIS stand-in during the next series of vivid events, and Ebola was abroad in the land.
The father-son team running the contract and there were tensions flaring under the stress. My old pal Sunny was with me in the headlong passage across the stricken capital. Columns of government troops were flowing through the streets, we stayed on the side streets to minimize our visibility, since Westerners were being waylaid and killed.
Boko was said to be massing outside the city. Ten days, some said, until the militant Islamists will sweep over the city, killing and pillaging as they came.
My bag and my pistol disappeared as I was waiting for further transportation. I sighed at that, thinking about the implications of the loss of the weapon and my passport. Desperation began to rise. There was a boat slip with two berths where a few hardy yachts provided a shuttle service down the coast to what the Navy had established a Fleet Landing. I missed one, then another as I talked to someone about my bag. I wanted my gun.
I scratched at a carbuncle on my leg, and was alarmed when a green jelly-like substance oozed out. Was I infected? I had to get out. I had to get away from the twin threats of marauding religious zealots and deadly infection. Two of the Four Horsemen were bearing down on the city, and in fact, one of them was already there.
Would the boats return? Was there a schedule, however haphazard? If I could make the Landing, I hoped my status as a retiree might be able to get a lift out to Carl Vinson, who people said was orbiting off the coast. Would they take a possibly infected American away with them, or hoist the plague flag from the mainmast?
I was dropped by the boat near the Fleet Landing along with a woman whose face has now faded with the slowly rising light. A thin angry man engaged me, poking me with his index finger, haranguing me like the real world Haitian attaché who accosted me on a similar pier in a real land that was also dreamlike. People with red brassards indicting their infected states stood mutely by a fountain.
I had to get out, and I did by opening my eyes in the darkness, breath racing. The images of the troops falling back against an implacable cruel foe stayed with me, and the sense that something was spreading and I couldn’t do a damned thing about it.
My pulse came back to normal. It was safe at the farm. I did not hear about the Doctor’s death until I got to the computer.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
Grubering the Skillets
I am not going to gruber you this morning about cast iron. I am sure you have heard the new verb “gruber,” (as in: “to mendacious lie about major policy issues affecting all Americans because you have contempt for their intelligence,” and “an erroneous and inflated assumption of superiority and enlightenment totally in conflict with simple facts.”)
Rather, I will just lay out some key observations. I am not going to take action to ensure all Americans have cast iron, even if it is the right thing to do.
I got a case of serious skillet envy for the Black Dog Salvage concern out in Strasburg, VA, where my squadron buddy Bronco spotted the most amazing nested skillets ever at the Black Dog Salvage concern.
Strasburg is where the cursed I-66 interstate is born, and from which it sweeps majestically into the log-jam of the DC sprawl.
My pal Bronco and his lovely wife Lynn were out there prowling antique stores. I share the affliction- like I need any more junk. My garage at the farm already looks like a much more chaotic mini-version of the Strasburg Antique Mall.
Bronco knows my weakness for cast iron cookware, and he was tweaking me with phone-cam pictures about some of the treasures he observed.
A couple key points. I was going to do an exploration of some of the myths surrounding cast iron a while ago, but I will summarize a much longer appreciation of some common myths:
1. 1. These are not fragile things. You can use them as hammers if necessary.
2. 2. Cast iron is great about retaining heat- but it can have hot spots. Know your burner. It is your friend as much as the skillet.
3. 3. Don’t worry about chipping the seasoned finish. The residue is chemically annealed to the surface. If you scratch it, just re-season with a couple tablespoons of fresh extra virgin olive oil- or your favorite with a high burning point.
4. 4. Some claim that you should keep soap away from them. Point 2 above refers.
5. 5. I ignore that recommendation and re-season with each use with a small amount oil to dry the skillet and keep the seasoning fresh.
6. 6. Older cast iron is better because the casting techniques were more precise, but the new stuff from Lodge is just fine.
There. I feel better.
Skillets from different time periods can command significantly higher prices than modern ones. See point 6 above. These are collectible items so there are some runs of certain markings: the gold standard is the products of the Griswold company with the “slant logo” or “spider web” are more valuable due to their relative scarcity. If you want a good cooking Griswold buy a flat example that has “Erie, Pa.” stamped anywhere on the bottom and you cooking with gas.
(Heaven in Booth 21 at the SAM. Dutch ovens, skillets of all sizes, those cool cornbread muffin bakers and hard to find lids, a feature I find absolutely essential for slow cooking).
Note that some vintage cast-iron pieces (including some, but not all, Griswolds) have raised “heat rings” on the bottom. I’ve found that a certain size of heat ring just isn’t compatible with the burner grates on my gas stove, which are configured sort of like a ship’s wheel. When the pot is centered on the burner, the heat ring is balanced on the outermost points of the spokes, so the pot easily slips off the grate and sits at an angle.
That was the problem with a Griswold #12 that a friend had- I don’t know if the chicken fryer-model with the small handle opposite the big one all had them. I dunno. I will check the ones at the Strasburg Antique Mall when I get out there.
(Bronco claims to even have found some examples of the elusive and coveted Griswold Model #3 & #5).
Ann is the weekend Concierge at Big Pink. I stopped to check the mail yesterday and she smiled as she produced two slick magazines filled with hundreds of recipes for cast iron cooking. She is going to pass them along when she is done reviewing them. That, and a great recipe for one-inch pork chops that has been embargoed by the correspondent until I actually take it for a test-drive. I am going to swing by Croftburn Farms and pick some up and do and try it for dinner.
And maybe wander through the Minuteman Antiques Mall and see if there is a Griswold #12 hanging out there.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
I had just got to the thrilling conclusion of time with the redoubtable Matre Avery-Glis Kaine. We were swapping sea stories, and we had all made calls in the south of France, at Toulon, Marseilles, Nice and Cannes. They are all connected by frequent rail, and you can get all the way to Monaco in a morning.
My pal Point Loma leaned over at the bar at Willow and whispered, sotto vocce, “It is not a Tres Grand Voiture, he said. That means a big-ass automobile. The high speed train is called the TGV- the Train a Grand Vitasse, you dumbass.”
“Well, it was a goddamn big car. But I take your point.”
Point Loma laughed. “My initiation to the City of Light was in 1983 on the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) during her round-the-world delivery cruise from Norfolk to Alameda. We had ducked into the Med on the first part of our nine-month extravaganza for some weird nuclear response reason on the way to four months on Gonzo Station in the IO.”
“I was responsible for planning the Boat 1 target package on Forrestal. Problem was there was no Boat 2 around to do the rest. It is sort of embarrassing to have the wrong strike package all planned.”
“I’am surprised they didn’t crucify you for that,” he said, taking a sip of Happy Hour White.
“Trust me, they tried. But I had the message from EUCOM directing me what to do. They fucked up.”
“Never trust the staff of a Combatant Command,” he said. “I learned that the hard way. We could have gone to Cannes, but the luck of the port schedule was that the boat was going to be on the hook for eight days in Nice which, considering the fact that it was the off-season there on the Cote D’Azure (March), made it even weirder than the other port calls we had in the Atlantic on the way south around Africa – Casablanca and Abidjian.”
“One of my bunkroom mates was the famous Harry O, who was from Georgia and one of our finer A-6 ball flyers. Harry O’s family was from Kentucky and were original investors in Harlan Sander’s fried chicken enterprise. To his credit, he lived off of his Naval aviator’s salary which was a lot more than I made as a air intelligence LTJG on a second cruise, but I had to keep up.”
“Of course,” I said. “One must keep up appearances.” Sammy the Moroccan bartender topped up my glass. He keeps pouring and I keep tipping, so things work out.
“Harry O never cared to hang out in the admin in port and, like me, wanted to see places. His unofficial motto was “I’m going to have fun and I don’t care what it costs. Signed, Harry O.””
“Four hours after the Vinson anchored in Nice, we were on an Air France flight to Paris, and were delivered from Charles de Gaul airport via bus to l’hopital on the Rive Gauche. We found a hotel, had a fabulous three days, and took the Tres Grand Vitasse south to Geneva.”
“I never got out of the airport there when I stopped coming back from Zagreb,” I said pensively. “I have always wanted to see the place. I had to be content with airport chocolate and a couple drinks.”
“After touring around that lovely Swiss city for day, we took a slower train back around the Alps to Nice. We had reserved seats but hung out in the bar car and met some ex-pat twenty-something American female dental techs who were working in Switzerland who were making a group trip down to the Cote d’Azur.”
“Go figure that there would be a community of American dental techs in Europe,” I said. “I met a bunch of Americans- kids who grew up on the Army bases. There were a couple of then who had never actually been to America. Their Dads homesteaded in Germany and liked it.”
“Yeah. Never see that again. The world has changed. But you can imagine our reception at the staff admin suit back in Nice when we walked in the door with six very cute gals in tow, four extras for the boys with three days to go in port.”
“As part of the deal, they had a nice trip out to visit the ship and by then, it had warmed up enough to go to the beach.”
“We saw topless gals there in the middle of winter. It was very progressive.”
Point Loma nodded. “One night, I remember vividly wearing my dark grey James Bond suit I that was tailored for me at Harilelas in Hong Kong during the 1981 cruise on the Hawk on a visit to the casino in Monte Carlo. I took my date, a very nice brunette gal from Connecticut with spectacular breasts who had gone out with her girlfriends during the day and bought a slinky cream-colored man-killer dress for the occasion.”
“Monte Carlo was a gas, and an easy train ride from Cannes and Nice. The yachts in the harbor had helo decks and were as big as destroyer escorts.”
Point Loma nodded. “We had dinner at a nice place on the hill next to the Casino before going into the Casino. Once inside, we played roulette, rolled the bones at the one lonely craps table (Europeans don’t play craps), and danced together romantically in the disco. Since I was well-dressed, was know to have won some money, and having some true eye candy on my arm, we passed muster for entrance into the adult gaming room, where the minimum bet was 5000 francs. The games there were roulette and baccarat.”
“We watched a very drunk and arrogant Italian playboy lose more money in five rounds of chemin de fer than I had ever made in my life to that point. I can still see the sweat on his face, going mano a mano with this French guy who controlled the shoe. he was kicking this Italian guy’s ass and smiling at him the entire time, which pissed The Italian off even more. As in the movies, the tension around the table was real.”
“I’ll bet. I saw a table in Tombstone Arizona one time where a guy dropped $180,000 on one hand of Faro.”
“This guy was bigger than that. Like Largo in the James Bond movie Thunderball, he kept calling “banco” after every game, trying to win his money back. I estimated that he was down something like 300,000 dollars when we left. I realized that I was half drunk in a place way over my head, and that the best thing to do was to hail a cab take my by then very randy girlfriend back to the hotel for the night. After that port call, we had a saying – “Nice was nice.”
Point Loma finished his glass and waved languidly for another. For some reason, all of us at the Amen Corner were smiling. Maybe tomorrow I can tell you about Paris.
Copyright 2014 Vic and Marc
Tres Grand Voiture
26 DEC 1989: I am up early to organize for the trip to Paris. I wander down to the ship’s Disbursing office and turn a semi-worthless check into a couple thousand francs. I pack my bag, to include formal wear, for the journey to Paris. I have pain et brie frommage for the journey. I have to rouse the Lutt-homme to pass down information on the Campaign Plan to cement victory in the Mediterranean, should we be commanded to enact it.
I pile into the Staff car with Mark and Moose. Mark is going to chauffeur me to the train station and Moose out to the airport to greet his wife Paula who is flying in from America. We drive through Marseilles and get stuck in the massive jam that goes along with the annual France to Ivory Coast cross-country road race.
The crowds are horrendous. Suppose I don’t get on the train? There is a vast throng of Frogs inside the station and on the platforms. I start to get apprehensive about getting where I need to be…Trouble at the ticket window…There are no reservations possible today, Monsieur….”
“Yike!” I say in fluent French. “Well, sell me a ticket anyway. “Maybe I can ride in the bar car……and so began Altogether New Adventures on the TGV….The Tres Grand Voiture high speed train is a thing of wonder. Bullet shaped, it is the railroad from Tomorrowland. I sneak into the bar-car and stake out a place with my New York Times to hide behind. It is a long four-hour ride in the bar car as I anxiously await the moment when the conductor will bust me. When the awful moment comes I use the American defense:
“Pardon, Monsieur, je suis Americain.”
The conductor goes away and I am not fined (which I later discover I should have been) nor am I thrown off the train. The 200KM scenery is spectacular as we roll across the green fields of central France. The sunset highlights the chateaus and villages that dot the landscape, and which slide by at incredible pace.
I alternate between gazing out the window and the New York Times. I actually finish the paper for a change. Darkness and the approach to Paris…I debark in the Gare de Lyon with the usual big city disorientation….I haven’t a clue as to where I am going and the darkness isn’t helping matters a bit. My map is suitable for urban house-to-house fighting, but the detail is too small to find where I am going.
I bite the bullet and do what I normally do when I am hopelessly lost. I hailed a cab. After some initial language problems (I have the name of the hotel spelled wrong) I am hurtling through the streets en route the Hotel de Morny….it is pure Gallic madness as we careen through the Place de Bastille, where I am convinced my driver should be confined, if it were still there.
My driver is an Arab with the clear idea that his martyrdom will translate him immediately to paradise. I am not laboring under the same delusion and my knuckles get white as we swerve around pedestrians…My terror begins to subside as we arrive alive in the Rue Liege to find a modest, but fabulously expensive, hotel.
The elevator is slightly smaller than a shoebox and I don’t quite get stuck with my bag. The room is quiet and clean and has double beds. I turn on French TV and the gentle babble in the background is soothing as I sit with my charts and guidebooks. Having safely negotiated the first portion of the odyssey I feel a wave of agoraphobia coming over me, but beat it down.
Paris is out there waiting. I get directions to the Metro from the woman at the front desk and then sortie to the streets. I discover I am located just around the corner from the 42nd street of Paris; the Moulin Rouge is three block away, just up from the Place Pigalle. The red windmill is incongruous among the sex shops.
Hawkers prowl the pavement in front of their establishments, pawing at me as I walk along. I see a very tall gang of transvestites, surrounded by an admiring group of short Oriental males. The weirdness quotient is very high. I have a beer at a little standup bar and decide it would be easier to just get a bottle of Schweppes Dry to pour some vodka in and go to bed. I think this is going to be an adventure of unprecedented proportions.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
Guests at the Wedding
20 DEC, 1989:
There was a great Foc’sle Follies the last night at sea before pulling in to Marseilles on the mighty USS Forrestal, (CV-59). The Follies are the satiric variety review the Air Wing puts on for itself to poke fun at the complexities of life on the Bounding Main with 4,000 of your closest friends, armed to the teeth. There was much merriment at the expense of Oz, the Air Boss, and much mirth at the Vice Admiral who flew aboard to take our operational briefing. Of particular note was the dark edict of three days ago which forbad the mention- or even skeptical look- at the admiral’s at-sea toupee. Ops O meeting this morning at 0900; I awoke with a headache from the post-follies follies.
Staff meeting followed the Ops meeting…mostly about not letting important things fall through the crack during our nearly month-long port visit. After the President visited us to meet with Mr. Gorbachev at Malta, we are supposed to be low-trifle and non-threatening to USSR’s interests in the Mediterranean. Our Ops Officer Scooter and other notables (such as the Monsterchief) are going back to Florida for Christmas. I’m not.
At lunch, the last meal to be served in Wardroom One until we go to sea again I ordered a chili-burger and tried to fend off questions about the why, exactly, the U.S. had declared war on Panama. I had not been consulted on the matter and didn’t understand what it was all about, although I bluffed fairly well until afternoon, up to my elbows in Campaign documents with France calling me from the distance.
I quoted Presidential Spokeman Marlin Fitzwater who said at an emergency press conference at 0140 Washington time:”The President has directed United States Forces to execute pre-planned missions in Panama to protect American lives, restore the democratic process, preserve the integrity of the Panama Canal treaty and apprehend Manuel Noriega.
“Heavy fighting reported in Panama.” Goddammit, I’m in the wrong Theatre again!
Later, we stomp down the Officer’s Brow to go ashore in France. We are waiting in a long line of sailors for a bus to get out of the port area. For security, we are located way out in the sticks. In some ways this is worse than being at anchor. Suddenly our friends from the Flag Staff appeared and our problems were solved. We piled into a tall Mitsubishi van with Spanky M at the wheel and we were free and on our way to actual France!
Spanky has already made a familiarization (“Fam”) hop into Marseilles, so we are not flying blind. We rocket out of the customs/douane area and onto a strange elevated freeway. A cathedral on a hill beckons in the distance and rows of fin de ciecle apartments parallel the expressway.
Marseille’s port area sprawls for miles to our right as we roll south into town. We miss a sign or two and motor into the Vieux Port area through the old fortifications. We are immediately into a traffic jam and the urge to park the car is virtually overwhelming. We see an arrow that points to what could very well be a garage and Spanky bolts for it.
It is underground and the ramp is steep. The van is tall. The van does not fit. We are fortunate to escape. We dismount and wander the streets and wind up at an outdoor cafe with our crazy waiter with the Art Garfunkle hair. He likes my French accent. I am nearly totally immersed in the language by the time we finish the first five beers.
We pub crawl through the Gut and enjoy pizzas and artichokes in the Vieux Port. Later, more gratuitous beers at the Bistro New York where CDR Shake holds court with several Bulls of my acquaintance. Shakey graciously “gives me another chance.”
I resist the sudden severe visceral urge to punch him out and walk away in to the night avec my LTJG wingman Josh. Best decision in a long time.
In bed via the last bus by 0330. Liberty- and France- are very good indeed.
Prepare for the Big Brief. Work aboard ship until 1500. Jog on the pier. Go to France again. What a country! The Christmas shoppers, the beautiful women, the sidewalk cafes. My seeing-eye LTJG Josh and I roam to the outskirts of the city, finding little frommageries and boucheries. We enjoy pressed saucisse sandwiches and have an early night in. Bed by 1100.
As we sleep, a sailor from VS-28 is murdered in town by druggies in the small hours, around 0300. It appears to be a sort of French drive-by killing and not associated with international terrorism.
The Senior Shore Patrol Officer watches him die in the ambulance. Two down on the Cruise so far. Paperwork to follow….
Big Brief morning. We drink coffee in Mission Planning and make the final tweaks on the brief preparations. I’m in the head reading Navy Times when the summons comes from TFCC. We are on stage at 1050. Admiral Sweetpea, being the Liberty conscious sailor that he is, pronounces his favor and congratulations in a record 42.5 minutes.
Literally floating on air, we drift across the passageway to Admin, where CAG announces the big procession to the Wedding in Cannes. The response among the Junior Officers to the invitation is lukewarm at best.
I am appalled. I shout for support, rallying my staffmates like John Belushi in the rousing conclusion to Animal House. This is an issue of free travel, free food, and the opportunity for total immersion! I convince Toad and Lutt-man that this could be our chance to act as Ambassadors of Good Will to an entire city of helpless French.
New Chop and Thorn T are also bludgeoned into the trip. We pack on the fly, clothes hurtling everywhere through the compartment. Later, in the rental cars, Toad conducts a driving clinic.
Staying on the bumper of the CAG- acknowledged as the world’s greatest attack pilot- who is also lost in France is not the easiest thing to do. Thankfully, we are riding with the Greatest Fighter Pilot of his time, the famous Mr. Toad.
CAG pulls one six G maneuver to get to another lane that is truly a thing of wonder. We wind up on the Superhighway to the Cote d’Azure, after many travails, and roll across the lovely hills of the South of France.
After about three hours we pull off on the Cannes exit and plunge down a long straight road and into the lovely village. We enjoyed the view from the elevated highway which crosses the train station and parallels the commercial district. Later, after a Riviera version of gridlock, we found ourselves ramming the cars into the curb before a quaint walled villa. CAG gets us buzzed through the gate and we walk across a crushed rock driveway and up to the cool dark central staircase that lead up four floors. The place is wonderfully French; obviously vastly expensive but slightly down at the heels.
On the third floor landing we meet the vivacious Avery, the belle Maitre dan les Ville Cannes. She is an erstwhile Baltimorian, practitioner at the French Bar and President and Founder of the Cannes Navy League. Dark haired, Avery is a gamin of indeterminate age; when she laughs, which is often, the wrinkles around her eyes are pronounced.
The laughter begins almost immediately. When you join one of Avery’s parties there is no question that she is in complete command. Within minutes of our arrival we found ourselves shown through the garret apartment that would be our home off and on throughout our month in
We reach the top floor via a narrow staircase; the garret is everything one could possibly ask for. It is a complete apartment with a large central room where you could stand upright under the peak of the roof and a variety of smaller rooms near the eaves where you could not. In the small toilette there is a skylight through which my head potruded while urinating. There was a kitchenette and a magnificent view of the town from a window with working shutters. There is beer in the refrigerator and it is a good thing.
We had pressing social obligations; within the hour we were attired in Service Dress Blues and proceeding in a line like Avery’s ducklings down the narrow streets through the town to the Church. We are among the first of the guests to arrive at the old grey Protestant church and we are seated on the Groom’s side, fashionably down front.
Our role is to provide moral support for him, as he will tie the knot in his LCDR uniform. Avery thinks it will be nice or the Fleet to make a show and thus we are de facto members of the groom’s party, a ship-driver (Blackshoe) we have not previously met. We are the ersatz Groomsmen, guests at the wedding. In French, no less. It is a thing of wonder.
After the service, of which I understand perhaps 30%, we retired to Avery’s to prepare for the Reception, which is to be held in Grasse, France’s largest City. It must be. When we were lost we must have passed about twenty exit signs for the place. Grasse is famous largely for its parfumeries and number of highway exits.
We wind up the long hills and pull into the parking lot of a pleasantly modern hotel where the festivities will commence. We are seated at random throughout the real wedding guests. There is bottomless wine and delicious food. Soon we are dancing and the singing went on until dawn.
I propose a toast and sing my version of the Wedding Song from the Three Penny Opera. The groom seems dazed by the whole thing but we are truly Ambassador’s of Good Will and I am elevated to hero status.
The French are loving our act. Avery makes us promise to come back, and we volunteer to act as her culinary staff for the Christmas Festivities. Later, in the darkness of the garret, we find a recumbent ENS in my designated bed. “Are there any Ensigns in the LCDR’s room?” shouted Lutt-man. Our new Porkchop feigned unconsciousness and I racked in the double bed by the window with Lutt-man.
It is crisp with the window open and the stars are hard, clear lights in the French velvet sky.
Nothing untoward occurred. Not that there is anything wrong with it, of course.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
The Iron Duke
(The Iron Duke- Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, KG, GCB, GCH, PC, FRS gives us an imperious look. I have to tell you, I have enjoyed taking a trip back in time to visit some of the great cities of Asia from a long time ago. Since I threw in a trip report about the war in the Balkans, I thought I might open the aperture and account for a lost weekend in London, on a mission to confer with our opposite numbers in the UK’s MoD).
After a shivering return from Portobello Road I surveyed my situation from Room 531, Churchill Hotel, Portman Square, London. The sky outside still shed its liquid burden. My London Fog raincoat was in the sink with the hair dryer tucked under it. The hot air forced it up into a tent. I longed to climb back under the covers and doze the afternoon away, but this was the last day in London. I glanced in the London Guide for inspiration. Westminster Abbey was done, I had been to Saint Paul’s and the British Museum many times. Not that there wasn’t something new to see on each visit, but I craved something new. I glanced down the columns in the Times as the hairdryer made it’s muffled roar in the background. There was the Tetley Tea Museum, or an exhibition of contemporary life in the junkie culture at The Chaucer Hotel. The Oxford Union had the debate of the week. This one looked interesting, dealing with the apparent failure of some of the hallowed colleges to attract underprivileged students. James Collard in the Supplement noted that:
“You don’t have to be a Marxist to suppose that in the lottery that is British life, keen minds are sometimes wasted, But in truth the class system has never been as solid as it looks, not least because the ruling class has always been perfectly ready to drop its standards (not to mention its knickers) for anyone who brings home the bacon, from Vanderbilts to construction millionaires.”
It looked interesting, but my eye caught the next listing. “Apsley House. Formerly Number One London. Town residence of the First Duke of Wellington. Houses the Duke’s extensive art collection in great public rooms. The Duke’s decorations are on display. Hyde Park Corner, SW1, 10:00-5:00, daily.”
The write-up looked like the Duke might be at home. It was close and that was it. I decided to visit the Duke for the afternoon. My raincoat as warm and only slightly damp. I put the hairdryer under my ball-cap and was ready to go in five minutes. My sneakers squished a bit, but there was nothing for it. I left the hotel and headed back toward Marble Arch, turning left on Park Avenue and skirted Hyde Park headed south.
On my left I passed a series of discrete car dealerships. Jags. Mercedes. Nothing less than L38,000- $55 grand to start. Nice automobiles. My favorite was a modest plate glass window, behind which lurked a fantastic bat-winged racing vehicle. It was a McClarran grand touring machine. It modestly was billed as the faster production passenger automobile ever built. “Only 54 were built. When one becomes available, the McClarran Factory will custom refurbish the vehicle to your exacting standards” I wondered what those might be. Entry level prices started at L115,000. A boutique car dealership, another enterprise trading in the vast attic of an Empire. Tempted to waste their time, I braced my shoulders and walked on.
I passed the Hilton on my left as I approached Hyde Park Corner. Another block brought me to a great ring-around of London. Traffic flowed in a river. To cope, there is what they call a subway, which in British parlance means an underground walkway. Useful, because in the rain and the gloom and always looking the wrong way it would have been death for a Yank. Gray clouds scudded low over the buildings. I walked down and under the busy road and popped up in front of an iron fence that ringed a tall sandstone manor house, now isolated by traffic. I walked through the mist and up the gravel circular drive to a massive Regency sandstone building. The façade went up three full floors and there might have been something lurking above that. There was scaffolding up there, some work needed to keep the forces of entropy from intruding into the attic.
(Apsley House- Number One London).
Apsley House now stands in splendid isolation in the traffic. Once, when it was carriages that passed through the gate into London, this was the first stately house to be seen. After the Victory at Waterloo it was only appropriate that they would call this place “Number One London.” I walked up to the massive door and worked the ancient knob and lock. This was the real thing, unchanged for nearly two centuries. Inside there was gloom, and a strange hooded leather chair. It was where a servant dozed, on call to meet guests of the Duke at any hour of the day. There was a small placard advising me not to touch it. It was un-restored, unchanged by anything except time and decomposition since the last servant’s withered buttocks had occupied it. That was what I found in this house of the General of His Age. It was as though the owner had only stepped out. Somewhere in this pile of sandstone are boxes of shirts, crisply starched and banded with ribbons, ready in case the Duke returns.
There was an interpretive handset available in the gift shop and I took it. But it wasn’t really necessary. This was a place that is both regal and personal. It was the Duke’s house, his home and his castle all at once. The most celebrated man of his era, he entertained and lived a long and public life after his great victory.
The young Arthur Wellesley was born in Ireland in 1769, a minor noble of the Irish Ascendancy. In the usual manner of the day a Commission was purchased for him to have a second-son’s calling in the Army. He entered service in 1787 and had a career synergistic with that of his older brother Richard. Arthur’s regiment was posted to India in 1796, and he was there when Richard was appointed governor-general of India. Arthur was offered command of a division, which he commanded at the invasion of Mysore and in 1799 he was appointed governor of Seringapatam. His decade on the sub-continent taught him many valuable lessons in practical warfare, leading coalition forces. Napoleon was said to have remarked derisively on Wellesley’s time in India, the experience being unworthy of a Gentleman. That might be so, but Arthur was a valued counselor to his brother, advising him on political and military issues. When Richard was recalled to England, Arthur went with him and was knighted for his distinguished service.
Arthur won election to Parliament in 1806 and was elevated to Irish Secretary in 1807. But the hostile empire across the Channel had established the Continental System, which excluded imports from Britain or its colonies and chaos loomed. England had to do what it could within limited means. In 1808 Wellesley was sent to advise and support the Portuguese in their revolt against the French, much as Americans went out to Indochina for the same purpose. Wellesley did it better. The campaign on the Peninsula had nine
major engagements, and the Peninsula Medal on his red tunic displayed in the basement of Apsley House is the only one with all nine battle clasps.
Wellesley ultimately assumed command of the same sort of combined force he had lead in India, and the experience there stood him in good stead. He led British, Portuguese, and Spanish forces in the Peninsula, fusing the rugged ground, fierce local patriotism and the preoccupation of the Corsican with campaigns elsewhere on the continent. Wellesley drove the French north of the Pyrenees. Despite the grudging support he received from Whitehall, he pushed on into southern France and when Napoleon abdicated in 1814 he was at Toulouse. A hero.
Part of my admiration for the Iron Duke is derived from this dispatch from the field, which is perhaps folk legend, but better sums the contempt of the forward-deployed for those in the rear:
“General the Earl of Wellington, K.B.
Central Spain, August 1812
Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to
Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with
your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and
thence by dispatch to our headquarters.
We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner
of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I
have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer.
Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable
exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.
Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for
in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion
as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment
during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be
related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact
which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.
This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my
instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand
why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce
it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue
either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:
1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of
the accountants and copy-boys in London or perchance.
2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.
I have the honor to be, &c.
I couldn’t find it in a book of his dispatches from Spain, but maybe it is true. It certainly sounds like The Duke.
Returning to England, he received many honors and was created duke of Wellington. He served for a short time as ambassador to Paris, and then succeeded Viscount Castlereagh at the peace conference in Vienna. There was a rumor of the time that the Duke had traveled to the Louvre in Paris “unhooking and taking down the pictures which Napoleon had accumulated from every corner of Europe.” The Duke actually sent them back to their rightful owners, though other rightful owners demurred, and insisted that the Duke retain ownership of those he had actually captured in the field.
Then came The Hundred Days. Napoleon left Elba and raised the Grand Armee again through levee en masse- a military draft on steroids. Wellington returned to the field and assumed command of the allied armies. The field of Waterloo was a desperate fight, one that Wellington himself called “the closest run thing you have seen.” I have a tintype engraving done years after, of Wellington extending his hand to the Prussian Marshall, Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, for it was the appearance of the bewhiskered German and his troops that sealed the battle and made Wellington the man of the age.
Again lavishly honored, he returned home to take an active interest in politics and service to his class.
He had a healthy distrust of the common man, revered but never loved by his troops. Flogging was part of the discipline of the Royal Army. Wellington considered the values of the gentry to be that ordained by nature. He became the backbone of the Tory House of Lords throughout his long life and he was not content to live the pleasant life of a Lord’s backbencher. Instead he actively served in a variety of cabinet posts, as master general of the ordnance in 1819 and represented England at the Congress of Verona in 1822. He fell out with George Canning over what the Duke saw as overly liberal ways and he left the government when Canning became Prime Minister in 1827.
In 1828 Wellington reluctantly became prime minister himself, viewing it as a duty to class and Britain. He compromised some of his rigid principles- above all things the Duke was a pragmatic soldier and politician. He allowed the repeal of the Test Act and Corporation Act and the passage of the Catholic Emancipation bill. In so doing he alienated the rank-and-file Tories and his ministry fell in 1830.
All through the rest of his long life Wellington held the Waterloo dinner on the anniversary of the battle. First it was held in the dining room of Apsley house with his close lieutenants. Later it evolved to the London event of the year in the magnificent banquet hall he constructed on the park side of the residence.
They say that long after the battle that vanquished Napoleon the bacillus that he had unleashed continued to spread. It grew in England, rising to the movement that brought the Great Reform Act of 1832. Ludd and his Luddites, trashing machines that would eliminate weaving jobs in the cottages in the country, fighting the establishment of the knitting mills and the industrialization of the North. In that climate the Mob came to Number One London. The Duke’s wife had died. He was in mourning, and not displaying the candle in the window that the Mob demanded as a token to Reform. They would have looted the place, Napoleon’s swords, Gold Marshall’s baton, plate and china, the whole lot. But a servant went to the roof, and fired a blunderbuss to heaven and fired it again until the mob retreated.
Wellington was a Francophile. He is said to have had relationships with two of Napoleon’s mistresses, and certainly was a collector of other articles associated with the Corsican. He also continued his public service. Under Sir Robert Peel he was foreign secretary twice. In 1842 he was made commander in chief of the Royal Army for life. He died in 1852, thirty-seven years after his last military triumph. He is buried under a magnificent bronze martial memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral. When the procession took him to his rest there they say a million people clogged the streets, saying that they would not see his like again.
I walked from the entry hall past a set of closed double doors on which was affixed the notice: “Private Apartment.” When the 7th Duke was killed serving with the Parachute Regiment during the war- and by that of course I mean the Second World War- the title fell to his uncle. The place was about down to wrack and ruin and there was no way he could keep up the city place and the country place. So he cut one of the historic deals with the Government. In exchange for deeding over the property to the Trust, he kept the private lawn in back and a nice apartment It looks like it is the entire third floor and the former Duke’s private museum on the ground floor. I assume they have to use the old servants stairs to reach the apartment. The Duke’s museum has been moved to the corner of the first floor.
The entire house is filled with treasure. It is one of the attics of the Empire that not been consigned to Portobello road. To the left off the entrance is the Museum. It is a ground floor room that contains the personal trophies of the duke. There are his Marshall’s batons, one from each of the Grand Alliance that brought down the little Corsican. The swords; the Duke’s and the one Napoleon carried that day in Belgium. There are objects of silver and gold of astonishing detail, ewers and shields and candelabra. From the walls hang the embroidered flags of the vanquished French, intended for display as Napoleon marched into a conquered Brussels.
(Lager than life statue of Napoleon greets you at the door).
There is china and silver and air everywhere, mostly art captured and art commissioned of the men who won their version of the Great War. Walking to the circular stairs to the public salons and the living quarters on the third floor is the treasure of treasures. is the eleven foot tall stature of Napoleon, carved from a single block of Carrara marble stands at the base of the great curved staircase. Carved by Antonio Canova, it depicted Napoleon as Mars. It is nude, save for a cloak, and he clasps a winged nymph in his right hand. One of the wings passes close to the curved handrail of the steps, and the 8th Duke has said is was a real hazard to young men sliding down banisters. The British Government bought the statue from the Louvre for 6,000 francs in 1816 and the Prince Regent presented it to Wellington. The floors of Number One London had to be reinforced to bear the weight of the thing.
Napoleon won many more battles than the Duke of Wellington, but in the end it was winning percentage that counted. The Iron Duke was 100%. When he broke the proud Armee he guaranteed the British ascendancy for the rest of that century and bought the Pax Britannica that reigned for exactly one hundred years, 1815 right up to the gunshot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
(The silver centerpiece donated by the people of Spain to The Duke).
The residence is both human scale and majestic. One of the chairs in the dining room has been left un-reupholstered to show what a leather chair 181 years old looks like. On display on the dining table is a silver centerpiece that is thirty feet long and has 1,000 sculptures. It has little silver plaques for all the victories on the peninsula, and a magnificent detailed confection of silver in the middle. It the single most magnificent thing I have ever seen, and you could touch it, or lunge at it, if you so desired. This is a residence, open to the public. Not a sterile well-secured structure or vault. A house. Made by a man to enjoy his life and his station.
That is all gone now. I saw a picture of how the place looked on hard times, fancy wallpaper falling in sheets like something out of Miss Haversham’s house in Great Expectations. During the Blitz, the fig leaf covering the Napoleon statue’s genitals was blown off by concussion. The sole remaining resident, an ancient lady of impeccable virtue, made it her first priority to have the strategic leaf restored. She was of an age that almost touched the Duke. To her, he was not a legend. For those that lived beyond it was something else. Giving the sandstone pile of Apsley House to the State was probably the only sensible answer
I don’t know how the current Duke gets on with it all, living out of the way of the tourists. The Blair administration had effectively ended the hereditary component of the House of Lords. Those Hereditary Peers of the Realm who have been permitted to stay have been limited to fifty in number, and they may not pass their seats on to their progeny, effectively ending a tradition going back to medieval times. Effectively, they are all now Life Peers, good only for a single life. The Labor Lords love it, although even the Trades Union Council peers have shown a distressing affection for the pomp and perquisites. Blair is a trip, just like his Millennium Wheel that now dominates the London skyline.
The Dukes of Wellington got a deal that pre-dates Her Majesty’s current government. They get to keep the apartment. Maybe that will change with a fickle electorate. But I imagine sometimes after closing, when there is no one else around, the double door to the private apartment can be opened and the Eighth Duke can wander the house to his content and dream of what was.
Perhaps he can even touch the talismans, and even play pretend. I can only wonder what the Ninth Duke can expect?
(The hall and table where the Waterloo Dinner was held).
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra