Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mr. William; Soldier, Cook

Here’s another tidbit of memory from my tour at the US embassy in Monrovia, Liberia from 1977 to 1978…

Upon arrival, one of the first things the non-commissioned officer in charge of us six watchstanders did was to assign me my very own responsibility. Every marine had at least one additional duty besides standing watch. Mine became managing the mess, a naval term for kitchen or galley, a very strange thing for me to be in charge of, since the only thing I knew about cooking was the eating part.

But, I needn’t have worried, for the REAL man in charge of meals was Mr. William. No, that’s not a typo; that’s what he wanted us to call him. I don’t know what his actual last name was; we just called him Mr. William, as in Mr. Bill.

Mr. William was an amazing fellow; and the longer I knew him, the more amazing I found him to be. In 1977, according to him, he was already 65 years old. So, counting back, he was born around 1912. I would like to think of him as still alive, but chances are he’s long gone.

As the marine in charge of the mess, my job was to make sure Mr. William had what he needed to make us breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week; not to mention lots of cakes, pies and cookies to keep all our sweet tooths satisfied. On that note, he was a hell of a baker, a real pastry man.

Probably the hardest part of running the mess was the tedium of doing inventory. Every few days I counted every box of cereal, sack of flour and can of condensed milk. I did this supposedly to check for pilferage. Of course, the only ones who could possibly pilfer anything were me and Mr. William, since we had the only pantry keys.

Truthfully though, after a few weeks I learned that Mr. William, whose integrity I found to be above reproach, didn’t really need any supervision; especially from a snot-nosed 20-year-old like me. Just the same, I inventoried once a week (or so!), and gave him cash from the mess fund whenever he asked for it. For instance, he’d tell me in the morning that he wanted to make barracuda steaks that night; so I’d hand him a 20 out of the money box. For only a quarter U.S. he’d catch one of the hundreds of tiny taxis that plied the streets of Monrovia and head over to the fish market. A half-hour later he’d return with 5-dollars in change, cradling in his tiny yet muscular arms a 5-foot barracuda wrapped and twined in old newspaper.

It was an amazing thing to behold, to see the diminutive Mr. William turn a giant barracuda, that was every bit as long as he was tall, into a stack of thick round fish steaks. With cutting board and cleaver he didn’t chop the fish up so much as he attacked it. The first time I saw him do this I dared not approach too close. His glinting eyes and violent demeanor kept me well away, not to mention the flying fish scales that stuck to everything they touched. When he started to hack on one of those monster fishes he became almost feverish with the effort of it. I figured out decades later that he was probably in the grip of a combat flashback that took him mentally back to the jungles of Burma during WWII.

I used to have a photo of Mr. William and myself posing side-by-side with my arm over his shoulders. I towered over him; the top of his head barely reaching my chin. In the picture he wore a pair of my cast off trousers. They were practically new; I’d worn them maybe twice, so I thought, ‘Why not just give them to Mr. William?’

At the time, at just over 5’7,” I weighed all of 132 pounds. The pants were 29 at the waist and a bit snug on me; plus, I thought they looked a little short at the inseam. When I first broached the possibility of giving them to him, I could tell Mr. William really wanted those pants. I told him to go try them on first. Soon he called out from the bathroom that they fit just fine.

“Well, come on out and let me see how they look on you,” I told him.

I had to stifle a laugh when he shuffled sheepishly out the door. The tan slacks, flared below the knees in the style of the 70s, were so loose on him at the waist that he was forced to hold them up discretely with one hand by clutching at the waistband behind his back. He had cuffed them up at the ankle so that a full 12 inches of pant leg were folded back up almost to his knees. They didn’t fit him at all, but I could tell he REALLY wanted those pants. I chuckled at the silly sight and told him with a friendly slap on his back, “Mr. William, they look great on ya. They’re all yours my friend, but I sure hope you know a GOOD tailor!”

Over the months of my Africa assignment Mr. William and I became good buddies. I constantly learned new and astounding things about him. It turned out that he wasn’t originally from Liberia at all, but had lived throughout much of Western Africa over the six plus decades of his long and turbulent life. During the course of his travels and working scores of different jobs he had picked up more than six languages. Besides English and French, he also spoke several tribal dialects. At his age of 65, his youngest kid wasn’t even a teenager yet.He once told me that he thought he had sired more than 20 children in all; although he couldn’t be sure of that figure.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but back then, when it came to oldsters, I was probably typical of many of my then tender and insensitive years. Initially, upon meeting a senior, that immature me would see only the obvious—the worn out bodies, the feebleness, the lack of vitality. I hadn’t yet developed the imagination or insight to envision them as they’d been decades earlier—before muscles had gone slack; when hair was still thick and rich with color; and when vocal cords still produced sounds clear and vibrant. My time with Mr. William taught me that all those white-headed withered ancients that I tended to take for granted, had all once been just as young and as vigorous as me.

It’s a given, right, that energetic youth grasp that the frail elderly haven’t always been like that? Perhaps intellectually they know this, but for most self-absorbed young people, old people are invisible, or at least inconsequential; and back then, I suppose I too used to discount seniors in this manner. For instance, meeting a person like Mr. William—a man long past his prime, small in stature and with little means—I just assumed he had not done much in his life, never imagining that he might have accomplished remarkable deeds, traveled afar, and seen fantastic things. Soon, I learned otherwise.

I spent hours talking with and listening to the old guy. He was a great story teller, acting out his tales with great physical animation. He hadn’t always been a cook, although in earlier times he had cheffed in fancy restaurants, and had even taken cooking jobs on ships and boats of all sizes. Aside from food preparation though, he had done all manner of things, mostly involving physical labor and soldiering, since starting his working life in the 1920s. He’d spent most of it in various African countries, but he’d also worked for a time as a butler, handyman and cook in Europe. Whenever possible, he said he had sought employment with foreigners, because according to him, we paid more than his fellow Africans, and treated him better to boot.

Mr. William’s most fascinating stories and the ones he most enjoyed telling were about his time as a sergeant with the British army during WWII; first in Eastern Africa against the Germans and Italians, and later against the Japanese in India and Burma. I hadn’t realized it until he told me, but evidently the Brits had recruited units of black Africans to conduct desert operations in the arid East African theaters, and once those battles had been won, against the Japanese in the malarial jungle climes of Southeast Asia, mostly in Burma and thereabouts.

Whenever he spoke of his desert and jungle warfare experiences the years seemed to fall away from him like old spider webs. He would get down on the floor in a low crawl and show me how he and his mates snuck up on the enemy, throwing imaginary grenades, and then graphically demonstrate how they fired their weapons, even how they hacked and stabbed the enemy with machetes and fighting knives. He always used to proclaim proudly, “It was kill or be killed and you notice I’m still here!” As a young marine yearning to prove myself someday in battle, I must say that I loved his combat stories, and lucky for me, he took great delight in telling them.

He did confess one thing though that didn’t settle all that well with my idealistic side. In the jungles of Burma, to instill as much fear and dread as possible in the hearts and minds of their brutal enemy from Japan, he said that they endeavored to “out brutalize” them. They accomplished this psychological terror ploy by not only killing their adversaries, but took it to the next level by chopping the bodies of the dead, and almost dead, into tiny bloody bits of meat and bone.

Mr. William claimed that this practice of post combat butchery caused the Japanese to avoid contact when they knew they were facing Africans. After hearing that, whenever I watched old Mr. William violently chop giant barracuda into plate-sized hunks of fish flesh, with his biceps impressively flexing and tendons mightily straining, I imagined him doing the same to slain Japanese soldiers 30 years before. Once, I asked him about that exact thing, but refusing to answer, he merely shrugged and toothily grinned.

Even so, or perhaps because of his violent deeds of yore, Mr. William had a deeply spiritual side. As a faithful fellow churchgoer, he was very impressed that I attended Mass once and even twice a week at the local Lebanese Catholic Church staffed by, off all people, an Irish Missionary priest. One day he asked me to come to his church the following Sunday to be his guest of honor. I readily agreed to come.

That Sunday Mr. William and I caught a taxi to his church located on a dusty dirt road in a settlement on the north side of Monrovia. It was of some kind of local protestant extraction. The chapel building was surprisingly large and lofty, built of reinforced concrete blocks painted in bright whites and yellows; although it was not as large as some of the other church buildings I’d seen in Monrovia. Because of his limited means, I’d just assumed that Mr. William’s church would be just as impoverished as he was.

I was shocked to learn that I was to sit in a place of prominence right in the very front of the congregation. I sat next to my host and with eyes wide with nervousness looked out a sea of smiling and nodding African faces. I could see that they were all quite curious about me. The only non-African there; I was the proverbial grain of salt in a pile of pepper corns.

Soon, Mr. William stood and took his place at the podium. As a senior elder of his church he began telling the worshippers about me, what a nice young man I was, how I’d volunteered my time and donated money to help needy local Liberian kids, and finally asking them all to give me a warm round of welcoming applause. I nodded back at everyone, smiled and waved self-consciously. Without having provided even a hint of what was to come, Mr. William beckoned me to come forward and address the people.

Today, if someone were to ask me to come forward and speak off the cuff to a large unfamiliar audience, after having learned to do it from years of giving briefings and conducting classes in the military, it would be a piece of cake. In fact, I’d jump at the chance these days to get up, cut up, and yack it up. Back then though, not having yet done such things, I was aghast.

I didn’t have a clue as to what he expected me to talk about. I had nothing prepared. What do I say? Do I talk about Jesus? Do I tell them about myself? What do they want to know? What are they expecting? I approached the podium and looked out at the mass of upturned expectant faces, all waiting for my “words of wisdom.” It was a living nightmare. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and began timorously speaking…

“Thank you Mr. William. Thanks A LOT! Well, everyone, I appreciate the warm welcome, and to be honest, I have no idea what to say to you all. So, how about if I tell you a little about my life as an American, and what its like being a Christian in the United States Marine Corps?”

I looked over at Mr. William and found him nodding vigorously in approval.

‘Yes! Go with that!’

To this day I don’t remember what I yammered on about, but I must have gone on for more than an hour. I’m pretty sure that I told those nodding smiling faces all about my young life traveling the world, first as a military brat, and later on with the Marines; and of course, being in church, I explained how important God was to me, especially being so far from home and family. I kept talking along those lines until Mr. William finally got up and relieved me from the torture that he had just brought down on me. I must have done all right though, because I got a standing O after concluding my unplanned speech by telling everyone how much I thought of their very own Mr. William; and how he had become such an important influence on me spiritually, even though we were from two very different faiths.

Then again, maybe they were just clapping so hard and joyously because I was finally done talking!

A few years later I ran into another marine who had been stationed at the embassy in Monrovia a year after I had left. I was dismayed to learn that they had let Mr. William go purely for economic reasons. A new policy was put in place that all Marine House employees were to be rotated out after a year to prevent having to pay them retirement and medical benefits. What a shame; hell, I WAS ashamed and still am.

The marine told me that Mr. William had managed to find work as a handyman cook for a private American household; but after that, who knows? Even after all these years, thinking now about how it played out for him totally depresses me. Surely, he deserved better than that. Considering the uncertainty of what Mr. William went through during what should have been his golden retirement years, most Americans just don’t realize how good they have it.

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