Vaudeville, Phone Fraud and Other Time Warps

| September 8, 2011 | Comments (0)



In the Fall of 1963 I found myself in Glasgow, Scotland. It was not my planned destination; I had been hitch-hiking on MATS (Military Air Transport) aircraft, starting in  what was then the Kingdom of Libya and had ended up, by pure chance, in Scotland.

As a  GI assigned to the huge American base called Wheelus Field  – this was when Libya was still a kingdom and nobody had yet heard of  Lieutenant Ghadaffi –  I had the right, as one of the perks of military service, to fly free “space available” on any Air Force plane that would accept me. All I needed was to be in uniform and have in hand a set of leave orders saying I was authorized to be on vacation.

Down at the air strip, there was no telling what you might find in the way of aircraft going all over the world.  Approaching the flight desk, I heard an Air Force sergeant bark out “We got a med evac flight headed for Morocco and a recon leaving for the Sudan.” I waited for something better and eventually heard the word Glasgow. Not far from Edinburgh where I had friends. I had told them to expect me one day.

Ditching my military rags for civilian clothes, I managed to make my way from the fog-shrouded NATO airbase to the Glasgow train station and found myself on the Flying Scotsman, sleek and polished,  headed for Edinburgh. Looking out the window from my smoke-filled, second-class carriage as we idled on the quayside of  the darkly gothic station, I saw the Train Master, clad in top hat and tails a la Alice in Wonderland, remove  from his vest a giant-sized pocket watch attached to a long gold chain. Glancing ceremoniously  at the time piece,  his arm circled in a dramatic sweep as the screech of a high-pitched whistle  announced our departure, he signaled us on our way.

After surmounting some directional difficulties due to varying American and Scottish pronunciations of the word “Glencarse” (drop the “R” in Scotland), my destination, I connected with my friends. Over the next few days it seemed we never slept. It was high summer and Scotland was in the land of the midnight sun, but I was young and excited to be in a strange, new place so sleep deprivation never bothered me.

Lacking a diary account or a video record of my trip, the decades have washed over my memory bank leaving only blurry, pleasant recollections of a time spent with good friends. And unlimited quantities of liquid hospitality – in Scotland it is not unheard of to have a wee dram at noon – have reduced my reminiscence of the Highlands to a misty reverie.

But one image of my trip remains hauntingly clear. My last day in Edinburgh we strayed into a tattered, run-down section of the town where inhabitants were shabbily-dressed and sour smells of boiled cabbage and stale beer prevaded the drab alley ways. As my host muttered his dis-satisfaction at having gotten  a bit lost, we passed a neglected building that appeared on the verge of collapse. About to move on, my ear caught the strains of a tinny piano coming from somewhere behind the dilapidated doors of  the derelict structure. As I followed the sound I noticed an old sign above the portal  that read “LAURIE VAUDEVILLE. The strains of a rickety ditty became louder and I found myself in what must have once been an elegant theatre. Guilded columns soared to a frescoed ceiling; elegant, empty balconies  looked down on an orchestra section where no more than a dozen spectators sat in torn, maroon velvet seats.

On stage an ancient actor was singing and dancing, his cane twirling as he laughingly sang in a half-mad voice, thick with brogue ” One day twas o’er at the Isle of Skye…..Donald, wher’re  yer trousers !” As I approached the stage, walking up the center aisle of the orchestra section I perceived his wrinkled face so  heavily farded with make-up that his features were indistinguishable. A grinning  red mouth framed rabbit-ish yellow-brown teeth and had been  painted somewhere to the left of his own lips; his eyes were drowned in dark eye shadow. Flour-white powder covered his cheeks and bursts of pink rouge gave him a strangely radioactive appearance.

I gazed at the audience. Some were quietly sleeping; others snored loudly, waking periodically to the sound of their own snorts  while the remainder slobbered on their vests or talked to themselves in gibberish. The stage was set with the backdrop of a misty Scottish castle, kilted figures dancing on its moat, flinging arrows into the sky. Most remarkable was the music which was produced by a full orchestra – some twenty members it seemed – ensconced in the orchestra pit, clad in tuxedoes.

As I drank in the insane scene around me, I felt my friend’s hand on my elbow and heard him say insistently, ” What are you doing  wandering into this dump? We nearly lost you !” Near tears, I was speechless to respond to his remonstrances and allowed myself to be pulled out into the daylight from  where  we retraced our steps to a more respectable part of town.

I was moved beyond description by this brief, not-to-be forgotten time warp encounter, so redolent of what ? The Orwell novel “1984” came to mind where the protagonists find themselves in a part of town that has somehow not been touched by Big Brother and the horrible homogenization he has created.  Time marches on relentlessly leaving some creatures, at once noble and pathetic, in its wake.

Some years later in Thailand another time warp occurred. A friend and I were speeding along the city’s expressway in his new Mercedes on our way to a glittering dinner party in Bangkok’s upscale riverside neighborhood. As we descended the fly-over onto a concrete ramp, we came upon and nearly struck with his car, a trio of Thai dancers –  withered, ancient dwarves dressed in elaborate, tattered brocade court dress, accompanying themselves with flute and drums as they swayed and twisted their bodies in ancient motions, oblivious to the high-speed traffic that threatened them. As we passed, I rolled down my window and on impulse threw some coins and paper money their way. The paper bills were caught by the wind and flew off  beyond reach, out of sight; the coins rolled away settling under the path of on-coming cars. I hoped the dancing dwarves would not rush to their death trying to retrieve them.

Closer to home was another time warp –  my mother. Even in old age she retained the melodious, youthful-sounding voice of a girl in her prime. At one point, after my father’s death,  she was back in touch with  a man who had been her beau fifty years before. They engaged in frequent, lengthy phone conversations and, overhearing the friendly tone of their banter, I suggested to my mother that they should meet.

Looking at her 200-pound image in the mirror, she rolled her eyes and laughed, saying to me, ” I was 18 then and weighed 120 pounds. Why destroy a dream?”

And why disturb a time warp?


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