I Spent the War
Golfing in Scotland
“You’d almost think they blew up a horse,” Saffron Mallory giggled while the radio announcer raged on about some explosion of retirees at a pub as the latest nadir of depravity.
Barry hissed “sssh,” but half-stifled chuckles told her he remembered when a Hyde Park blast took out an official horse along with some officials, prompting greater wrath and mourning for its equine victim than the human ones. The Brits were like that. And like this, she recalled, forced to stomp the brakes hard and join the slow-mo alternate universe of a battered Mini ahead, until a fissure in onrushing traffic let her pass. Still no minimum speed limit, even on the M-11!
Outroaring the radio, traffic pandemonium and a wild top-down wind, he yelled, “I get it now! Those guys were war veterans!”
Bless them, the Brits were like that, too, which explained why horse honors were being heaped on these casualties. World War II remained an industry on this side of the pond, so she and Barry learned when they were Londoners: a jolly incarnation mostly, despite its link to one of her accidents of marriage, roads blocked by Tonka Toys and the quirky TV fare that let you pick between grainy battle footage and a documentary on cheese-making in the Dordogne or somewhere. Even the chèvre option probably vanished when wartime’s fifty-year jubilees rolled around. Coverage of those festivals — sweet, mordant and pointless in an age of drive-by death — got tough enough to escape even at home. With a fuck-all attitude plus the right wheels and skis you could dodge almost anything in Taos, but not Daddy’s War. Everybody’s daddies’ war.
Shouting, Barry tilted at her ear. “Those geezers who went blooey, they flew!”
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” she revolved to tell his nose.
“In the war! At bases!”
“Nevaah has so much beeen owed by so many to —“
“Who’d want to blow up a bunch of old pilots?”
“Never have so many been so bloody sick of hearing what they owe, maybe. Anyhow, it’s zap-a-tourist season.”
“But those dudes were at Duxford. In the middle of nowhere —“
“No shit." Barely at the edge of the nowhere called East Anglia, they were already amid a landscape as boring as ground got. Ahead lay hours of the same. “Let’s ditch the car at Stansted and snag an Edinburgh hop.”
“Mom, you promised!”
“To show you the area. In all its glory.” She flourished a limp arm at what should’ve been scenery and a trucker — “lorry driver,” over here — mistook her gesture for a wave. Ensuing horn-bursts were earsplitting, but she didn’t mind; what she’d hate like hell would be if guys stopped looking. “Fen country flat as west Texas,” she resumed after honking ceased.
“‘World’s largest aircraft carrier,’ I read someplace,” the kid countered firmly. “I want to see the air museum and all the places Goo-Dad hung.”
Saffron grinned. It was cute how he still used the baby name given to his grandpa. “The Wesley Mallory I knew,” she said, “wouldn’t want you losing major golf time.”
At this, a murmur of serious rumination issued from the passenger on her right in the wrong-sided Beemer leased at Heathrow and she risked a glance away from traffic to her handsome jock in the citrus-bright Arizona State t-shirt. Deliberative furrows lined his tanned face, bared in its suddenly matured angularity by blond hair twisting in the updraft. These deepened as Barry was struck by a further newsflash. Quickly he turned the radio up to blare and in a minute gasped, “Some of them were Wolfpack!”
“That was a whoosh, Babe,” she replied with an over-my-head sign to which the lorry driver in the adjacent lane responded with renewed enthusiasm.
“They were RAF to start, but then they joined us — in 56th Fighter Group!” he screamed over the fresh spate of honking.
“This should mean what to me?”
“That Goo-Dad maybe knew them! Their group was under 65th Wing, I think – listen!”
Uncharacteristically for a casual scholar whose freshly minted degree was in golf, he rummaged in baggage and produced a book while the honking trucker passed — “overtook,” over here. She noted the vehicle's outflaring smokestacks, Minoan horns for the grasp of some enormous bull-leaper, and then tuned as bidden into the newsman's grief.
“Numbered amongst those savaged in today’s deeply shocking attack,” he moaned on, “are distinguished flyers who saw service in four Allied air forces, not only the RAF and United States 8th Army Air Corps but also flying units within France and originally within Poland as first foes of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.”
“For three minutes,” Barry contributed, leafing through The Mighty Eighth. “Most of their planes got trashed on the ground when the Nazis hit. Nothing against the pilots; it was a dawn attack and they had crappy birds. Some of them made it out to join the French, though, and they came here when France fell.”
Saffron hummed Ain’t Gonna’ Study War No More as her son, amazingly well up on mid-century violence, flipped more pages and informed her, “Lots of Polish-Americans were RAF volunteers, too. They flew with Poles in their squadrons or in the U.S. group, the 4th, called the Eagles. The Brits gave us the 4th after we came in the war. Later, when we brought the 56th over, one of the Polish-Americans who’d flown with a Polish RAF group led a squadron and some of his buds got to transfer in. Mom, willya please kindly for Pete’s sake stop humming?”
She did, for at last the broadcast had shifted to another topic: an account of protests that halted completion of a housing estate. “Yesssss!” Barry erupted – seeming to cheer public action on behalf of speckled newts. Actually he’d found what he was hunting in his book. “They were under 65th Wing - not just the 56th but the 4th, too! Goo-Dad had to know them — both those groups were max-famous. See!”
She shoved away the tome thrust at her, sickened by photos she glimpsed — not the old planes but the boys who flew them, younger then than her own kid now. Those baby airmen crashed and burned by thousands, never mind how hard people like her dad tried to keep track of enemy installations so safer routes could be plotted. No wonder Wes never talked about the work he did in those days; instead, his Collected War Tales had two chirpy chapters: Hot Base Parties and Great Golf Courses of the British Isles. “Am I in any spot to read?” she bellowed.
“In a minute you will be,” he predicted, pointing ahead to an exit sign. “You promised Saffron Walden. Goo-Dad loved that town.”
“Must’ve gleamed in his mind like Camelot.”
“It’s a nice name. I know two girls called —“
She groaned. A bevy of Saffrons now scampered untaunted in playgrounds across America but, for one born in the fifties, the appellation was a heavy cross to bear.
"Make the turn," he insisted in basso profundo.
Resigned, she aimed for the exit. Making it in time involved a big plaid tour bus, a Mr. Kipling’s Cakes van and an exotic lane-change ballet. Again horns blasted at her, on this occasion not admiringly. Beyond the off-ramp and a frantic round-about lay the Saffron Walden road, a narrow lane jam-packed. As they inched toward distant church spires at the pace of mucilage, lodged in the wake of a tricycle-wheeled Tonka truck behind which even lumbering tractors and horse trailers had to brake, radio news once again declared highlights of the Queen's Birthday Honors List for 2000. At the distinction granted a long-time official of the Northern Irish prison system, she shuddered. "Not exactly a PR stroke, when there's a truce on. Or was."
"But those old guys were mainly Americans."
The broadcast segued to the inevitable Purcell and Barry began rooting around in his carry-all again, saying, "We've gotta talk to those pilots."
“Whoa! We barely have time to hit a few sights or we won’t make St. Andrews by midnight.”
“Mom, guys still alive can tell things Goo-Dad never could with the fifty-year hush-deal. Loads of classified stuff’s coming out. Look at this new book on secret flights; you can read now.“
“Along this stretch, I could do my nails and grab a nap. Not the plan, either.”
“Don’t you want to find out what your own father did in the war?”
“We know what he did. He always said, ‘I spent the war golfing in Scotland.”
“He was in intelligence!”
“Compiling data, nitpicking maps. Wes was a Tech Sergeant, for Godssake.”
“Some guys running secret ops were only Privates – for their own safety if they got caught.”
"Sweetie, you came here to play golf, not Sentimental Journey."
“Whose graduation trip is this, anyway?” he countered, popping in a CD that proved to be Sentimental Journey.
"Time-warp!" she shrieked over Glenn Miller.
Barry winked. "Retro’s cool, Dude; blame it on Harry Connick, Jr. Could be Goo-Dad did some rad stuff," he went on, "Really."
“Would that make you feel better about turning pro?”
He subsided into silence. While Glenn began the beguine and ended it, the grease-exuding realm of petrol pumps and Little Chefs slowly gave way, replaced by wide zones of green and acid yellow beneath huge Constable skies churning cumuli the size of tertiary nations.
“If you’re feeling guilty, don’t,” she finally said. “Nobody held a gun to his head and said, ‘Lead a small life.’”
After another conversational lapse, tense behind the daffiness of Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Barry breathed with heavy reverence, “He was good.”
She nodded gravely. “Everybody said he could break par in a hurricane.” It was their remembering-Wes ritual. “Yeah," Barry intoned, "and I saw him make a hole in one twice!” About to contribute to the litany her only vivid memory of Wes, she paused after repeating, "He was good." Before she could add, “And a fabulous dancer,” Barry departed from tradish to scoff, “You don’t even know how good; you don’t play.”
Shielding her eyes against glints struck by high-noon light off an old medallion he was twiddling — his golf marker, used by Wes used until he got sick — she glared at the kid. “When Daddy tried to teach me, I got sunburned! Cynthia put her foot down. On him, as usual.“
“Don’t start on Goo-Mom! He could’ve done it if he wanted it enough.”
“That’s just Coaches’ Psychobabble. Wanting’s no magic wand. Wes’ prob was fear — Cynthia’s. She had a bad case of Choked by the Depression. Okay, he did, too. Anyhow, going for it counts, not wishing. Ever see me afraid to take a risk?”
“None I can think of,” he replied with a smirk in his voice. “You usually married them.”
“So now and then I commit marriage. The urge passes quickly.”
“I’m not knocking you. Life’s been interesting.” It was Saffron’s turn to fall silent, nibbling her lower lip. “Hey,” he said after a beat. “Who’s the team always?”
“Us,” she nodded, just as he’d done when asked so many times before. The answer was still true, but not in quite the same way. Barry would be on the Tour soon, barring an unimaginable catastrophe at Q School, for which he’d qualified with flying colors. The task of raising him stretched behind her like the verdant acreage backing a clump of farmhouses at roadside. Stolid Georgian squares of brick colored like stale honey, they looked proud but forlorn and for a moment she identified. Stalled while a tractor and horse trailer turned, she examined her wrists for signs of fungi beneath the turquoise and silver bracelet. Advancing once more, now directly behind the Tonka, she confessed, “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you, Kiddo.”
“And you’re dying to find out!” he laughed.
“True, too,” she grinned. “I’ll think of something.” She’d had a long wait, her entire adult life, for real freedom.
“Well, what do you want?”
“For that damn trike-truck to peel off.”
“I want you to have the best week of your life. This I can state with no reservations.”
“Funny you should mention reservations –"
“As in canceling a night at St. Andrews?”
“Or two. My first tee-time’s not ‘til Tuesday. Let's find a phone box."
"Nuisance not to have the cell."
"But then you'd have brought your laptop, too."
"And you'd have brought your hand-held." She clasped her brow in mock tragedy. "Catastrophe!"
"We'd experience no sense of antiquity."
"Some," she said with a nod at an ancient thatch-capped pub.
"There's one!" Barry grabbed the wheel and swung the Beemer into a rose-hedged carpark, beside which stood a phone box of the fast-vanishing red sort. She applied the brakes with a screech and he bounced out, saying, "I’ll get Nigel to –"
“Haven’t we already imposed on him enough?”
“He loves it. You could do a lot worse than go back to him, you know."
“Sweetie, somebody sucks out your brains with a straw, when they make you Despot of Igglepuddle or whatever. And Nige had none to spare, to begin with!” she called as he raced for the phone.
“Next left into town," the kid reported on return.
“That was brisk.”
“Well, you know Nige.”
“Never for brevity, and I believe you intended an airy shrug with that. It didn’t work.”
At the reminder, Barry lowered his shoulders from his ears, but still looked rigid. “We’re at The Dove,” he stated, then gave a passable imitation of Nige saying, “When in Saffron Walden, everyone stays at The Dove.”
“This didn’t happen to be pre-arranged, did it?”
“Only as backup. Nigel thought we might –“
Saffron revved, reversed and rolled forward, noticing across the lane an immense estate not unlike the Brockhampton family seat, except this was a scene of public gaiety. A crowd thronged its park studded with striped tents and clumsy sheep trotting among white stiles. She pictured a bright balloon landing on the grounds, like the massive air-castle that set down in dawnlight on her lawn, or what passes for one in Corrales, New Mexico. It was loaded with champagne, as all are during festival, for doling out by the bottle to mollify owners of their impromptu harbors. But Nigel stayed to drink Buck’s Fizz, while his co-pilot went on with the contest. Next morning, she flew with them, and it was super being eyeball to eyeball with the sunrise over Sandia.
“Cute,” Barry offered and she silently agreed. She’d missed the sweetness of England, where even mechanics said “lovely” and people watched shepherding in prime time. Maybe they were even taping One Man and His Dog over there, she considered as Barry added, “Maybe they’re taping One Man and His Dog,” and giggled, “I still can’t believe you liked that show.
“This left,” he said next and they climbed, approaching rows of half-timbered buildings beyond a quaint sign on which was blazoned crocus sativus: the saffron crocus that gave the town medieval wealth and its name, in concert with the river Walden.
“Cute,” he offered again and then pleaded, “Mo-om.”
After a puff of resignation, she managed a smile. This was no time to be selfish. “It’s all right,” she said. “As long as he doesn’t plan on meeting us here, it’s all right.”
“So today we’ll hit the major sites – I’ve got a list – and send some flowers to the exploded guys at Cambridge Hospital,” he burbled merrily. “Then tomorrow –"
“Please tell me you realize there’s not much chance these exploded guys knew Wes.”
“I realize there’s not much chance these exploded guys knew Wes,” he played back, then dropped the glib tone and stared down. “And you’re probably right he never did anything special.”
She squeezed his knee. “Oh, sure he did, Sugar. For you.” Taking this in, he grinned even before she added, “And someday you’ll win the Masters for him.”
“Is that all?” The blue eyes Barry shed his Ray-Bans to level at her in mock-fury were Wes’ eyes, aside from the twinkling she hoped he’d never lose.
“Sorry, sorry! I meant to say both Opens, too.”