Christmas at Uncle Bertie's

Uncle Bertie was the patriarch of the family and once again Christmas was to be celebrated at his farm in Dorset. He had been born in 1900 and so had not only lived at the time of the 1917 communist revolu­tion in Russia but had, in fact, become a communist. He never once admitted to being red but his incessant praise of Russian exploits made it obvious that he was a 'closet' communist. Everything Russia did was bigger and better than anything in the West. Vast canals had been dug and rivers diverted, mountains tunnelled or demolished. Everything on a grand scale. Whenever he told me a Russian story, that is, whenever he spoke to me, I always responded in a deliberately dumb way. 'Wow' or 'Gee Whiz' or 'How wonderful.' But it made no difference, it only lead him to relate another Ruskie triumph.

It looked as though this Christmas we would all have to suffer Uncle Bertie's Russian rubbish, but I had an idea. On Christmas Eve, in the midst of one of his stories from Russian folk legends, I interrupted him. I asked if it were true that the peasants declared that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the cows could talk. He said it was a myth from North-Eastern Russia. I said I believed it to be true. Everyone laughed. I then said that Uncle Bertie's stories over the years had so convinced me of the wonders of Russia that even this story, despite its incredible nature, very likely had a grain of truth. I suggested we all go down to Uncle Bertie's cowshed at midnight and listen to his cows.

With a lot of laughter, it was agreed that we would go to the cowshed at 11.45. Until that time we celebrated the season singing carols and imbibing some rather pleasant wine, although the champagne was being reserved for Christmas Day.

Just before midnight we headed out for the cowshed with Uncle still praising Russia. I opened the cowshed door by swinging the latch out of its slot. Everyone entered the shed. I remarked 'Better not have any lights on as it might upset the cows.' and 'Don't smoke or strike a match, the hay in here is so dry it would make a giant bonfire.' The cows Daisy, Clover and Tinkerbell were undisturbed and continued chewing their cud and munching hay. I began to sing 'Away in a manger' and everyone joined in. In the almost total blackness I could see the stars shining through the open doorway of the shed. I sidled my way to the doorway, slipped outside, closed the door and tapped the latch down into its slot. Everyone was now locked inside. They could stay there for an hour before I would return to release them. Meanwhile, I went back to the house and sampled Uncle Bertie's champagne and ate a slice of his Christmas pudding.

When I returned to the cowshed I listened to the despondent talk, 'It's no use; we'll have to wait 'til morning when the milk-maid comes in.' and 'No! You will certainly not strike a match to look for something to get us out of here. You'll just have to wait.'

All attempts to force open the door soon ceased. The joviality of the party had also ceased with everyone resigned to waiting for the milk-maid. Quietly, I unlatched the door, opened it a little and slipped inside leaving the door ajar. I edged through the crowd and headed to the back of the barn where I knew there was a heap of soft hay. I curled up in this warm nest and, thanks to Uncle's champagne, was soon sleeping like a baby.

Hours later, I was shaken awake. 'Oh, I went to sleep and missed everything. Did the cows talk?'

'What? You don't know what's been happening? We were unable to get out of the shed until this morning when the milk-maid opened the door. But there's the mystery of it; the door wasn't latched. And another mystery, while we've been trapped in the cowshed someone has been drinking Uncle's champagne and eating his plum pudding.'

'It sounds as though Father Christmas stopped by. But did the cows say anything?'

'No!' and 'Of course not.' and 'Don't be stupid.' were spoken by the disgruntled, tired gathering. After the most uncomfortable start ever to a Christmas, apparently none of the party, including Uncle Bertie, was interested in cows talking.

I seized the moment, 'Ah! Uncle Bertie, I've worked out why the cows didn't talk. Cows use the Eastern Orthodox calendar and it has a later Christmas Eve than ours. We are all going to have to come back down to the cowshed on the 6th of January.'

A low groaning sound filled the shed. Where did it come from? It may have been Daisy, Clover and Tinkerbell mooing but I couldn't say for certain.

The Slouch Hat

The slouch hat is the immortal symbol of the Aussie Digger! Perhaps when soldiers are seen marching on the parade ground or through city streets it might be regarded as ornamental or decorative with most people liking the look of it. What I am doing, though, is looking at it in an entirely different way.

The slouch hat has existed around the world for a couple of hundred years but my interest is from the time it really became the iconic emblem of the Australian soldier; the Second World War. A soldier at war has a weapon, and the Australian infantry soldiers' weapon was the 303; the Lee Enfield point 303 rifle. In battle, the 303 was the most important bit of equipment the soldier had. A wonderful weapon, no question about it. His second most important bit of equipment was his slouch hat! And these two bits of equipment worked as a unit!

To explain why that was so, I mention some personal things that first got me thinking. Only six years after the Second World War, I was called up for National Service. The Korean War was in progress and army training was the first step preparatory to going to that war. I was handy with the 303, at 440 yards and beyond, a first class shot, only one rung below a marksman. Despite this success, I had a problem. The bolt action of the 303 was on its right-hand side and was designed for right-handed, right-eyed shooters. Because I was left-handed and left-eyed, this meant I could only manipulate the bolt action by an awkward procedure of reaching across the weapon. I had a big think about how that might function in the duress of battle. I concluded that it was too cumbersome to handle but worse still, reduced the weapon's rate of fire to less than half. That was unacceptable and likely to result in a bad, if not fatal, outcome for me. It was vital that I learn to use the 303 right-handed and right-eyed. So, out to the butts with a few magazines of bullets for some right-handed, right-eyed practice. After a few days and a shoulder swollen and in agony from the 303's violent recoil, I achieved my goal, a first class shot once again.

These sessions at the butts were in mid-summer and while there I made an important discovery about the slouch hat. As a left-eyed shooter and because the slouch hat has its left side turned up, I had been looking through my gun-sights with my eyes unshaded and sometimes dazzled by sunlight. I had hardly noticed any detriment as my eyesight was excellent but when I switched to right-eyed, I aimed from the shade under the hat brim and my targets were much clearer and easier to see.

I began to think further about the slouch hat in a battle situation. I assumed I was behind a parapet or in a trench. If I were a left-eyed shooter my sighting of the 303 meant that the right brim of my hat would be the first thing to project above the parapet, not much, but enough to matter. The enemy would know where my head was about to appear and would aim there ready to shoot me. As a right-eyed shooter, the reverse did not apply because the slouch hat had its left side turned up and pinned snugly to its crown. The enemy would not know from where my head would appear above the parapet and I could fire my shot and be quickly out of sight.

It was at this stage I began to think of the parade ground and the wearing of the slouch hat. Its left side was turned up, supposedly to enable the rifle to be carried on the shoulder without knocking one's hat off one's head, but I believe, because of what I have just explained, that the origin of the side turned up was likely to have been on the battlefield not the parade ground.

Also, on the parade ground the regimental sergeant-major required the slouch hat be worn in an exact position; the left brim to be four finger-widths above the left ear; the front brim to be two finger-widths above the right eye-brow. Although these are parade ground requirements, I maintain their origin, including the measurements, were not the parade ground but the battlefield, the first to minimise being seen by the enemy, the second to maximise accurate aiming of the 303.

One may state the obvious, that left-handed shooters ought simply reverse the wearing of the slouch hat. This, though, fails on two grounds; firstly: too slow a rate of fire, and secondly: soldiers were never instructed that for safety in battle the slouch hat needed to be worn in a precise manner. These points were not contemplated by anyone other than myself. Had they been known and adopted, many soldiers who died in the war would have survived. I cannot say that categorically; I just believe it to be so.

Mystery of the LEFT HAND GLOVE

It was no surprise when the policeman knocked on our door. There has been a series of thefts in the neighbourhood, all involving gardening tools. Mostly wheel barrows, power mowers and whipper snipers; but some inconsequential smaller implements.

"Just to eliminate you from our investigations, I would like to have look at your garden shed. Nothing personal, we are asking everyone in the area."

"Certainly", I replied. We entered the shed and there on the potting bench was a box full of used garden gloves.

"All these gloves are for the left hand. What are you, some kind of Michael Jackson Fan?"

"No sir. There is a perfectly rational explanation for my extensive collection of left hand gloves," I replied, remaining unruffled by the bullying inspector that had just accosted me in the most reprehensible manner.

"Each of these gloves has born witness to the labour to the death of it's right hand companion. They have watched and often assisted while the right hand glove undertook tasks both arduous and, at times, dangerous."

" Gloves don't do ANYTHING on their own! You wear them while you do things."

"Not true! These gloves have protected my hands through renovations, stump removals, rubbish dumping trips, and wood cutting, sawing, hammering, drilling.."

"All right, all right. You've made your point. But where are the right hand gloves? Answer that!"

"They have been consigned to waste baskets, rubbish bins. Lost in battle with weeds. Destroyed by toxic paint waste. The finger tips ripped by splinters; torn on rusty guttering; Cuffs caught on protruding nails and screws; and occasionally, NICKED!"

"You mean to say someone would stoop to stealing a right hand glove? "

"Some people cannot cope with the loss of their own right glove, so they compensate by surreptitiously taking a friends. Just a loan, every intention of returning it. But they never do. It is one of the social tragedies of our time."

"So, just how many of these left hand gloves do you have?"

"Thirty two at last count. I do make a conscious effort to keep track of them."

"And how many Right Hand gloves do you currently have?", he growled as he pawed through my collection.

"Three, if you count this one with the hole in the index finger. I'll have to make a trip to the hardware store soon."

He was apparently satisfied with my explanation and said his goodbyes, with a final warning to keep the shed locked.

As he left, I turned to the garden shed cupboard, pressed the concealed latch and pulled open the hidden drawer. There they were. Thirty two pristine right hand gloves. And room for many more. None of them matched of course. My Garden Club friends all buy different brands. I'm very discerning about what I borrow.

© F.C Mickey Benefiel

I Know a Man

He had been sitting there without making a single comment for the best part of an hour. The banal conversations carried on by witless people feeling a need to listen to their own voices was mind-numbing. Worse, the content was universally facile and meaningless. Some of the comments were obviously falsehoods, even if they were declared to be "Gods own truth", as contended by one of the most insistent babblers.

He looked docile enough but in his mind he said, "I'll drop a bomb in a minute and shut the lot of them up for good!"

He waited for the right opportunity to present itself, then lent forward and spoke softly but very distinctly. "I know a man that single-handed captured an illegal immigrant."

The mere act of a man breaking the silence commanded immediate attention. Gasps of "Really?" and "Oh my!" encouraged him to continue.

"He was flying from Beijing to Frankfurt at the time." He then thought 'They may not be bright enough to grasp that' and added out loud, "China to Germany flying Lufthansa."

The chattering group was struck silent by this disclosure and leaned forward, willing, even eager to hear him relate his tale.

"He was sitting in a business class seat close to the entry to the plane and just as the steward was closing the hatch, a large black fly streaked into the cabin and whizzed past his head."

"Heavens!" exclaimed an overdressed matron sitting opposite. Others nodded in sympathy.

There was a dramatic pause while the purveyor of this astonishing information adjusted his seat before continuing. "Now consider the following. In this age of miniaturised electronic engineering, it is conceivable that this was in fact a radio controlled robotic spy, cleverly disguised as a fly. It could have been sent into the aircraft to listen to conversations or even photograph documents being read by one of the passengers. The information could be transmitted back to a command post."

Now the listeners all nodded in unison.

"Or, the fly had been injected with a highly infectious viral strain and placed on the flight with the intention of introducing catastrophic disease into the country of destination."

This resulted in a cackling that would be expected in a hen house at egg-laying time. When the atmosphere was again favourable, he continued in a matter of fact voice, "Of course the fly may simply have been seeking a new home in which opportunities to feed, and potentially breed, were more favourable."

Another pause ensued and one of the listeners attempted to interject but was quickly silenced by, "Such an idea is of course ludicrous. A fly is unlikely to posses the intellectual capacity to consider such alternative life choices."

There was audible agreement to this observation and he decided it was time to bring his tale to a conclusion.

"All of this is meaningless conjecture of course. Said fly landed on his cheese plate during dinner and he crushed it with the In-Flight magazine."

He then rose and without further comment departed, leaving them sitting there, wide-eyed and wondering about the fate of the migrant fly.

© F.C Mickey Benefiel

Future Visions

43 AD
Southern Britain

Marcus: How long have we been in this wild, god-forsaken country, Sextus? Seems like years but my reckoning says it's only three or four months.
Sextus: You probably work things out more carefully than I do, Marcus. Tribune officer rank means you have more thinking to do, eh? More strategic planning than I do as a Centurion.
Marcus: That's true, but doesn't change the fact that these Cantii Britons have fought harder than most tribes do. And while that rugged leader, Caractacus, wills them to fight we'll need all the skills we've got. But eight legions will be enough.
Sextus: I, for one, didn't expect them to destroy the bridge over the river at . . . What do they call the place?
Marcus: Durobrivae.         [Rochester = "bridge of the stronghold"]
Sextus: Yes, the cavalry swam across with their horses. But our infantry had to find the ford further south. All in the day's slog for a Roman legion.
Marcus: Of course, there'll come a time, Sextus, when armies won't have to march everywhere.
Sextus: Not march! How else will we get to places?
Marcus: Oh there'll come a time when chariots will get bigger, stronger and move by themselves. And you know how we form the testudo - the tortoise - when our shields make a solid five-sided barrier as we move in to attack: there will come a time when an iron-clad machine looking like that will move forward by itself. A big box made of iron. Can't you imagine how good that will be? It might even have a very long javelin spear mounted on top. Of course, we'll have to put chariot wheels on it. I can also foresee spears shooting into the enemy ranks by themselves from a single firing point.
Sextus: You're joking. You might be a good soldier but you've been dreaming again.
Marcus: Maybe. Same with the galleys. Imagine a trireme, three banks of oars all moving by themselves, no slave rowers required.
Sextus: How d'you work that out?
Marcus: Well, think of a fish. It doesn't need anyone to move it. It just swims by itself - fins and a good tail. Our ships will do that one day.
Sextus: Hard to believe, Marcus. I like your jokes.
Marcus: In fact I can even imagine a fish-like machine swimming under the water.
Sextus: A machine that swims! You've been drinking too much of this cheap British ale.
Marcus: I also happen to think that the legionaries won't always have to dig the trenches for the forts and the roads. No, there'll be a huge iron digging machine. You'll just point it and it'll dig by itself.
Sextus: And I suppose the legionaries will just stand around and watch. Some hopes!
Marcus: I'm afraid it won't be in our time, Sextus.
Sextus: Where do you get these mad ideas from? No one else talks and thinks like you.
Marcus: Perhaps I just observe the natural world more carefully. Take those great bolts of fire and light the gods throw down at us when there's a storm. Now everyone says it's the power of the gods but I think there's a special sort of magic happening there. Have you seen how those bolts sometimes bring down huge forest trees?
Sextus: Yes, they crash mightily.
Marcus: So what if we could use that sort of power to drive machines.
Sextus: Good idea, but how?
Marcus: I'm not sure yet but I'm thinking about it.
Sextus: The gods would get angry, wouldn't they, if you tried taking away their power?
Marcus: Maybe, but it's a chance you have to take. Courage, you know. I got to tribune rank because I'm courageous.
Sextus: That's true but who gave you such ideas?
Marcus: When I was young in Rome I went to the forum and listened to the speakers and philosophers. They talked about ideas, and living, getting an education, thinking about things, what the Greeks had thought. Seneca was one I remember. A wise man, I thought. And another thing. About ten or eleven years ago when I was a young legionary I was in Jerusalem with the Tenth Legion. The Jews were always making trouble but there was a teacher there named Jesus. His followers also called him Christos. They thought he was a god. But he caused such a stir, the governor, Pontius Pilate, sentenced him to be crucified. I was one of the guards on duty at the time. I watched him die. His death was different from all the others I'd seen. Hard to put a finger on it. Just a different person. Even in death he seemed very powerful. And afterwards they said he'd risen from death. I don't know if that happened, of course. We were moved on soon after. But it's just made me curious about gods and power, that's all.
Sextus: You mentioned the Greeks. They had some bright ideas, didn't they? I remember hearing a story about Icarus who stuck feathers on his arms and tried to fly. He came to grief when he flew too near the sun. Or so the story says.
Marcus: Exactly my point, Sextus. It should be possible to fly like the birds. Really fly. Once the gods tell us their secrets. It will happen you know. But I see you're not convinced.
Sextus: A machine made of iron - flying! It would be much too heavy. Anyone knows that. How would you get it into the air? Don't be stupid, Marcus:.
Marcus: Maybe it won't be made of iron. Wood is lighter. And while we're talking about big heavy things I've heard that our divine Emperor, Claudius, has arrived from Gaul. And guess what he's brought with him: elephants.
Sextus: Really. Why would he bring elephants to the back end of the Empire?
Marcus: For show, perhaps.
Sextus: Now that's a creature so big and strong it could never be replaced by a machine. You must agree with that, Marcus.
Marcus: I'm thinking about it.

Colin October 2010

A Passionate Interest

I got up early on the morning of July 12th; about 4.15, much as I had on most mornings for the past month. It was the World Cup Final between Holland and Spain. As a football fanatic I was excited. This was the last of the 64 matches in this year's tournament, held every four years; this year in South Africa. True, the final was not the best of the games, but for me there's excitement in most games, even those played by school kids. And of course I recorded the result of every game played.

My interest in this truly world game - it's played in every country - started in primary school; I played for all my school and college teams. At 10 I spent most Saturday afternoons kicking a ball around in the local park and many hours practising after school. This is where I honed my skills learning to shoot, dribble, tackle, trap and all the goal keeping skills. One day I scored a goal from the halfway line. I had a kick like a mule!

By age 13 I pledged my allegiance to the Arsenal club in north London, in the English Premier League. The team had its origins at the munitions factory in Woolwich, hence the Arsenal, nicknamed the 'Gunners' where both my grandfather and great grandfather had worked, but I didn't discover this till later. So on many a Saturday afternoon I found my way to the ground to stand on the terraces, sometimes shivering in winter, swaying with the crowd. Even today I still check their results first. My major disappointment is that in this era of multi-national player teams there are hardly any English players at Arsenal - most of them are French!

People ask why I get so excited about teams kicking a ball around. It's not for the ridiculous salaries professionals earn. It's the recognition of the incredible levels of skill required to control the ball and when you've played you understand this better. It's also the beauty of the pattern work which good teams exhibit. There's a skilful aesthetic at work which satisfies my soul.