Monday, November 30, 2009


When I call the bank, I am usually asked a "Security Question". Although one of these questions is usually "What was your mother's maiden name?", that is not the only question. I am asked what was the make of my first car, what was my father's second name, and what was the name of my first school?

It occurs to me that these questions are not exactly PC for orphans, those who never knew their father, or the poor folk who never owned a car.

My first school was Micklefield. This was a small private school for girls and small boys. My elder sister had been attending this school for about three years, when I first went there in 1932, at the age of five.

Every morning, our chauffeur (Frank Coles, but never addressed by the gentry by his first name) would bring my mother's car around, driving it from the garage onto the main road, drive it a couple of hundred yards south, enter the estate again through the southern entrance to the driveway and bring it around to in front of the house. My mother would take over there, and drive the two of us to school. Within a year, my younger sister would be born and may also have started her school days at Micklefield several years later.

When giving road directions in the UK, it was commonplace to use the names of pubs to direct people. Across the road from the head gardener's cottage was the Beehive, and further up the road into town was the Angel. My mother would drive up the hill (a wonderful place for tobogganing during the brief winter snow season) and enter the High Street shopping area. We would go past one of our favorite haunts, the Ancient House Bookshop, still in business when I was last there a few years ago. On our left was the well established store known as Northover's, which rather strangely offered furniture, white goods, and funeral services. In those days, one could drive through the tunnel which took the road under a small hill. Nowadays, the tunnel has been blocked off, and to get to the North one must turn left down a shopping street, past where Lloyds bank is and the wonderful toy store (La Troube's) stood. I can still remember the names of some of the establishments, including our grocery store, Napper's.

In those days my mother seldom went shopping, in the way that most of us do today. She would order what she wanted on the phone, and the goods would be delivered later the same day. Handwritten entries were made in an account book, which was delivered to us monthly. When they arrived, my father would sit and complain about my mother's allegedly expensive buying habits, and write checks. This was a world without credit cards, but one did not need to pay cash if you were known to the store.

Just passed the grocers, one would need to turn right, eventually reaching the point where in the old days one emerged from the short tunnel.

Turning north, my mother would drive over what was known as a gated "level crossing", as a grade crossing is known in the UK. Reigate station was on the right, and soon thereafter we would turn left, and we children would be dropped off in front of Micklefield.

I started off in Kindergarten, where I was often bored, as most of the children were learning to read. My sister had taught me to read and I was already pretty good at it. Another boy and I were allowed to play a card game, in which one had to match words to pictures. The only problem I had with that was matching "boy" to the child, and "lad" to the youth. I don't remember very much about the lessons, except that we studied pre-historic times, and learned how our ancestors would trap animals by digging a large hole and covering it up lightly with branches, etc, so that the future food would fall into the hole, where it could be dispatched.

I was soon moved up to the next form (grade) - British children in private schools were promoted when ready, and not arbitrarily by age. I found that most of my fellow students were still learning to read, and a very kind headmistress allowed me to sit in her studies, and read aloud to her. The book was Kingsley's "The Waterbabies".

These memories, and many more, of Micklefield came flooding back when I recently found a copy of a history of the school, published at it's 75th anniversary, in 1985. The school had waxed and waned over the years, but was thriving then, as it is now. My dear relative through marriage, Jane Lindsey-Renton, worked at Micklefield until her recent retirement.

Soon the school which gave me a good start will celebrate it's centenary. These days, I am torn between the American public school system, where my beloved wife served until 1983; the virtues of the right kind of home schooling, now being enjoyed by two of our grandchildren; and the elitist private school, like Micklefield, which I was fortunate enough to attend.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Nowadays, I consider myself a man of peace, although I'm not a pacifist. I voted for George McGovern in the California primary of 1968, and I marched in San Francisco to protest George Bush's little war in Iraq.

However, in my early days, I was an officer in Britain's Royal Navy. I gloried in my studies of Naval History, and numbered many admirals, from Sir Francis Drake to Lord Nelson, among my heroes.

In more recent times, I have enjoyed the Hornblower novels, and later the wonderful Aubrey/Maturin novels of the late Patrick O'Brian.

When I read stories about the huge ransoms paid to Somali pirates, I long for the days of those brave seaman of fact and fiction.

Every time that a ransom is paid to the pirates of Somalia, they are able to buy more powerful boats and heavier armaments. It is easy to understand the logic of ship owners and their insurers, that it is more economic to pay ransom than to leave ships and crew to molder away in Somali hands.

However, I am rather shocked at the pusillanimity of the many governments who allow this to continue. In my opinion, it is time to act with force to put an end to piracy near the Gulf of Aden. I am aware that the pirates don't remain at sea, but skulk away on land. I am fully aware that the forces of many nations are occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many of the affected nations are not so caught up in other conflicts.

In 1980, almost thirty years ago, two Episcopal priests were charged with "trading with the enemy", because of their humanitarian efforts to assist those trying to leave Cuba. After spending thousands of dollars on legal fees, Joe Morris Doss and Leo Frade (Both now Episcopal Bishops, the former in retirement) were exonerated. Perhaps the legislation needs tweaking, but I consider pirates to be enemies, not withstanding the charm of Johnny Depp, but if Cuba could be considered an "enemy", how much more should the pirates be considered our enemy? I would be happy if other nations would create similar legislation, so that any corporation or individual yielding to ransom demands from pirates would be subject to prosecution for "trading with the enemy".

I remember Operation Entebbe, as it was later called, when the Israelis made a surprise raid, rescuing most of the hostages held by Idi Amin, and his cohorts in 1973.

If the nation whose ships have been hijacked are afraid to put their citizens "in harms way", I would suggest that there are mercenaries to be hired, who would be glad to undertake the work with suitable logistical support, although personally I would prefer that Marine commandos undertake this task. The pirates who surrender should be given a fair trial, but those who resist would do so at their peril. Teams in professional sports in this land include Raiders, Buccaneers, and even the Pittsburgh Pirates, but off the East African coast we are not dealing with fictional characters like Captain Hook. The real pirates of the present era are creating havoc, and it was time they were stopped.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Open-air weddings

I don't really remember any open-air weddings from my days in England. Barbara believes that we attended one a few years ago, on a hot day in June, and I certainly remember the reception being out of doors, but I think we had come from a church. Since most of the weddings I do remember were held in churches, the lack of an al fresco pattern is understandable. When I attended a wedding in South Africa a few years ago, we left the simple Presbyterian church for a reception at the country club. We were out of doors for an apperitif, but the large numbers made it more practical to sit down at our appointed places inside the clubhouse.

It is a different story in California. I remember a small wedding held outside a Presbyterian church, with the reception to follow. Over thirty years ago, close family members decided to exchange vows in a Bay Area park, and the weather was kind. Not so when, more recently, a young friend and her husband choose a nearby winery for their nuptuals. It was a drizzley day, and even the couples choice of two llamas as ring bearers did not make up for the weather. Fortunately, we could shelter in one of the barnes used for wine-making, although we did also venture out for the food.

On a recent Saturday, a lovely family wedding was held in a garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was a foggy day along the coast, but we had been advised to dress warmly, and only a few in thin dresses were shivering. We were advised that the sun would come out in the early afternoon, and it made a fitful appearance, but the afternoon was never really warm.

I remembered one delightful wedding in the Napa Valley, famous for it's hospitable climate for the fruit of the vine. I felt very sorry for those who had dressed semi-formally for the occasion, because it turned out to be a very hot day.

I have an embarassing memory of attending a wedding in England when I was perhaps 11 years old. We left the church, and walked across for the reception in a garden. From somewhere I had picked up a phrase without understanding it's meaning, trying to make suitable conversation with two middle aged women ("ladies" to me in those distant days) I asked innocently if they thought the happy couple "had been a bit previous". The women were aghast. One of them said "My, you are a sophisticated young man." In those distant days, "nice people" did not cohabit prior to matrimony - though, being human, perhaps the couple had indeed sneaked off somewhere to be "a bit previous" in any case!

Monday, November 9, 2009


We loved it when owls would visit our Colorado "ranch". It isn't really a ranch, although it had been a working cattle farm until a developer bought the property and turned it into five parcels, ours being just over twenty acres. The beautiful home that won for Barbara's eldest daughter, the architect Kristin Lewis, the top design award for the Colorado north chapter of A.I.A. a decade ago, is actually a two-stor(e)y house, with the lower floor below grade level. There are two abandoned silos on our property, and it was a delight to watch the owls when they would perch on one of them. The owls used to feed on the prairie dogs which often infest the area. Reluctantly, because these little pests are often very cute, and we disliked ending their life, we went along with our neighbors exhortations, and eliminated the prairie dogs.

No prairie dogs, no owls.

It wasn't long before the prairie dogs came back, but owls are few and far between.

I recently had a dream. I had called a friend on the eastcoast who mentioned a friend of his living in the same area. I heard him say that this friend was also his "owl". I did not understand what he meant, until he explained. My friend's friend was a retired neighbor, who was a fount of information to a small group of people. If he didn't know the answer to a question, he knew how to find it out, even if google didn't help! When I woke up, I thought more about this, and decided that it was a great idea for a small group - perhaps members of a club or parishoners at a local church - to choose someone they trusted as their "answer person". After all, many societies had their shaman or "medicine doctor" who performed similar functions for their societies.

This lead me to think happily about owls and their legendary wisdom. It also reminded me of some good advice displayed on a wall close to the bathroom I shared with my elder sister until we moved in 1940, soon after my father's death. The sign read:

a wise old owl lived in an oak
the more he saw, the less he spoke;
the less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why can't we be like that old bird?

Great advice. I wish I had followed it more often!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Baseball in November?

It is bad enough (in my book) that we continue to call the annual contest between two North American teams the "world series". Of course, some of the leading performers in baseball are from such countries as Cuba, the Domincan Republic, and even Japan.

Some years ago, in additional round of playoffs was introduced by dividing the North American clubs into six divisions, permitting two so-called "Wild Card" teams to participate in the two rounds to produce the participants in what some wags describe as "the Serious". This year, teams representing New York and Philedephia are vying to become "World Champions". Those watching at the stadiums will be well advised to wear warm winter clothes. They can be thankful that they don't need to go even further north, as would be necessary if Toronto had made it to the final pairing.

I have mixed feelings about the actions of our former President, in approving the extension of what we call "daylight saving time". If one lives on the eastern boundary of a timezone, this unilateral move in the USA probably does save some fuel, which is good. If you live, as I do, near the western edge of the time zone, it gets a bit ridiculous, when it is still dark at 7:20am on Halloween. We now change back to normal time on the first Sunday in November. Thankfully, this year that took place yesterday, but in some years it will be as late as November 6.

In Britain, we called it "Summertime" that name would sound absurd in November, as most British children are thinking excitedly of "Guy Fawkes Day" (November 5).

(One advantage of having fireworks when it is dark is that young children can enjoy them at a much earlier hour than our American equivilent, the fireworks displays on Independence day (July 4).)

It was common place in my childhood to find children going around the neighborhood, calling out "Penny for the Guy" collecting coins to buy fireworks. Little did they realize the cruelty of setting the effigagy they had made on a bonfire. Few of them even realized that Guy Fawkes was sentenced to the even crueler fate reserved for those convicted of so-called "treason", nor did they realize that the eponymous originator of the beloved festival, in fact had been first tortured and then escaped the ghastly horrors of his sentence by jumping from the gallows, breaking his neck.

We have just concluded an American tradition, which I well remember horrifying my best friend's parents when they visited this country in 1938. Children ring doorbells of neighbors and complete strangers, calling out "Trick or Treat!". The idea is that you "buy off" the potential tricksters, by handing out goodies, usually candy. It is rare indeed to hear of anyone actually being "tricked", although I have heard of examples of air being let out of tires, of white wash being brushed onto windows, and of quantities of toilet paper being spread on bushes, trees, or anywhere else where it will take some time to clean up the mess.

One problem when our daylight saving time begins or ends on a different date from that used in most parts of the world is the havoc it plays with airlines schedules. There are parts of the US where (because of state boundaries and other considerations) daylight saving time differs from the expected pattern of being guided by time zones. When last I checked this out, the state of Arizona ignored daylight saving time altogether.

Typically, farmers - especially dairy farmers - dislike setting clocks back or forward. Cows can hardly be expected to understand why the milking routine has to be changed twice a year.

Anyone old enough to remember what is was like during WW II in the UK will remember that we had Summertime in the winter, and "double Summertime" in the Summer. All in the name of saving energy and reducing the hazards of driving without normal headlights.

Yes, we sure know how to mess things up when we con everyone to get up an hour early - but for the most part, it does work.