Wednesday, September 10, 2008


At least I've found the perfect cure for whining about the economy and my diabetes diet. I'm watching the "house" series from the BBC and tonight was the 1940's house. I had thought this would be a sort of aesthetic diversion from life in my village, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nevertheless, it was bracing.

Mostly this was not about the house itself, interesting as it was. Each room had a vividly tiled little heating unit though they never told us what fuel was intended. I think this is the kind that is sometimes set to operate only when money is inserted, like a parking meter. The hot water unit worked on what appeared to be coke, compressed coal dust, which can be rather dangerous in terms of carbon monoxide and hard to re-light. Woodwork was painted in wild colors, mostly mustard, with thick enamel. Even the furniture and objects d’art were period-specific, partly through set decorators (oh, how the Brits love their wartime series!) and partly through history buffs. A panel of historians and other experts on the period acted as a kind of “government” which controlled what happened to the house through the nine weeks of the program.

Many families applied to be the time-travelers portrayed, but the one that was “cast” was a family consisting of a middle-aged man and wife, their divorced daughter and the daughter’s two sons, one about twelve and the other maybe six. The engine that pulled this little train was the father, a devoted WWII buff who was especially enamored of a particular kind of backyard bomb shelter, a sort of culvert erected over a hole sunk four feet into the ground with the excavated dirt piled back over the top.

As it turned out this was one of the first and most severe tests, as it was for the original WWII people. At the most desperate point of near-despair with everyone digging, all of them clearly unsuited for the task, two male neighbors (just as during the real war) came over to lend their backs to the project. Miserable as the little hole could be -- especially when the sounds of air raids were piped in or when their own personal “air raid sirens” forced them to interrupt meals, tasks and sleep -- they grew rather fond of the sort of clubhouse feel. Dad in particular went out to play his saxophone there and to smoke his cigars, for which he invented a little tar-paper blackout safety device that made a roof over the glowing end. “I could’ve made a fortune back then,” he exclaimed, ever the engineer.

Blackout was the next major challenge, harder than it might seem. Some rooms acquired big darkening drapes and other windows were blocked by dark paper or a kind of framed canvas as used for paintings, except that it was painted black. Even so, the family was fined heavily because early in the bomb shelter routine the mother was so intent on getting her children (who were deeply asleep) out to the shelter that she left the kitchen door standing open behind her while the kitchen lights were on. Something I hadn’t realized was that thousands died due to blackout conditions: auto accidents, falls, and other blunders. In fact, only a few blocks from this actual house a young mother hurrying to her crying child fell on the steps in the dark. She died of a broken neck. We don't know how many gleams of light were targets for bombers.

These two boys tried to be brave but now and then the younger one broke down: too much confusion, too little food, too much cold, too few toys and too much to do. The older boy was assigned the task of monitoring their energy use, painting a black line around the bathtub to show how high bathwater could be. (They were only allowed to draw a bath once a week and had no soap after the first few “years.”) He became a master of the warning sign stuck to light switches and got a lot of arithmetic practice from figuring out actual energy usage compared to goal. Often he managed to keep everyone below the goal with some to spare -- is that relevant or what?

Then the Machiavellian “government” began the real hard-core stuff: the father left for his actual job back in the north country. The women went for each other’s throats, as they had warned they would, esp. after the cigarettes were cut off! They could hardly be blamed: the food shortages came down hardest on them because they fed the two boys first. And they did all the cleaning, as well as having to learn to cook. Neither of them had ever baked a cake.

The committee put them through all the wartime stuff -- pretend explosions that broke up belongings (but mercifully not the mascot statue of a fox terrier which participated in everything), cutting off their gas and water, lack of darn near everything. The "granny" who was only fifty or so and normally dyed her hair bright red was the most transformed. For one thing she lost weight -- they didn't say so, but it was obvious. As time went on she ran out of makeup, only got four hours of sleep a night, and then had to quit smoking, which tipped her into rebellion. The government had to relent and let her do "volunteer work" with some local senior citizens at a center where they served lovely cakes, and from then on she got her feet under her. It wasn’t just the calories: she had not understood how rewarding it was to help others even more needy than herself, even if what they really needed was a friendly ear to listen to THEIR wartime sacrifices. The two little boys remarked that before this experience (nine weeks) their granny was a kind of spendthrift free spirit, but now she'd gone "all nanny-like." The daughter went to a workshop where old planes were restored. She had never worked with men before and found it an eye-opener.

What is worse than war? What made this pale imitation of an actual and intense effort so absorbing? What were they fighting FOR, actually? Would it have been so awful if Hitler had won? Well, how about gray, grinding, oppressive, constant deprivation under a dictatorship? And what's worse than that? Belsen. The show pulled no punches. Through an authentic account of the liberation of Belsen concentration camp “broadcast” over the massive wooden-cabinet radio, it was made clear just how bad life -- if you could call it that -- really could get. The family felt their hardships dissolve into rather pleasant memories.

And the “government,” not being stupid, made sure to provide joyful liberation experiences like picnics in grassy and flowered meadows (this well-off family had never experienced a picnic!) and a jitterbug dance evening with a group that wears authentic uniforms and “frocks” while playing the music of the period. The contribution of the Yanks was recognized as being food (notably chocolate, oranges and SPAM), a huge infusion of energy (some of it in the form of sex, for which they had prepared with condoms), silk stockings, cigarettes and music, oh, the MUSIC! How they loved the music!

There was a vintage airshow where the nearly overwhelmed father sat in a Spitfire, his idea of the most ideal machine ever invented. (He was an engineer working at Precision Parts.) His wife and daughter watched with wet eyes, knowing what this meant to “their man.” Maybe the best byproduct was what amounted to the liberation of those two women, a huge jump in confidence in their own abilities and a strong new relationship between them. And the boys? For a long time afterwards they played a board game they had invented with spinners and little markers in which the Doodlebug bombs tried to get through the Spitfires.

And I've shut up about my own limitations for a while.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Coke is not compressed coal dust but the residue of coal after it has been heated to obtain coal gas. It is largely carbon.