Archive | February, 2013

When Memories Sting

20 Feb

It’s usually about something you forgot. Often, it’s trivial in the big scheme of things. But recall makes you writhe with mortification and self dislike even decades later. Let me tell you one of mine.

When one was short of cash for the pub in my university days, there was always the fallback position of drinking in the Buttery, the college’s own bar, where the prices were cheaper and, best of all, you could sign the tab and leave your long suffering parents with the bill.

The barman was a great guy, John. Always welcoming. Somewhere in my second term, I developed a temporary fixation on bourbon as my idea of a cool drink. And the coolest bourbon, presumably, was Jack Daniels. I badgered John to stock some. He shook his head and told me that this happened often. Some undergraduate would conceive a passion for some exotic liquor and persuade John to buy a crate. And then nobody would drink the stuff after the first celebratory try. He had been stung too many times, John said. And he did not have the recourse of returning the crate to the vendor.

But I wasn’t like that, I insisted. John would smile and shake his head as he listened. It became a ritual game. I did not crack his resolve that term nor in the third term. During the summer vacation I decided for various reasons that I did not want to spend a further two years at university. I wrote the Warden of my college a letter to inform him that I was quitting university. By the next mail I had a summons to an interview. I took the train, entered the chambers of majesty and was admitted to the presence. The Warden was highly indignant with me. He thought me somewhat presumptuous in declaring my dismissal of the university. If there was any dismissal going on, it would be of me by the university and not the other way around. He categorically refused to accept my resignation but considered that I was overwrought and in a state of temporary malaise. Therefore, he announced, I was to consider myself on an indefinite sabbatical. When I felt ready to resume my studies, all I had to do was inform him. I don’t know what the statute of limitations would be now re his decree. But there are the odd moments when the thought of becoming once again an undergraduate seems quite attractive. Anyway, it was decent of him and we parted on cordial terms. I had my freedom and a safety net.

The college was deserted but I thought I would grab a quick and much needed drink before taking the train back to London. I went down to see if by any chance the Buttery was open. John was there doing paper work on the bar. He raised his head and beamed on seeing me.

“I’ve got a surprise for you, mate.”

In an instant my heart sank. Somehow I knew. I pinned an enquiring smile on my face as he turned and reached behind him for that bottle of Jack Daniels. He opened it and poured two generous shots.

“You wore me down. I got in a crate.” He pushed one glass over to me and raised his own in a toast. “This one’s on the house.”

I picked up my glass with what must have been a sickly grin and drank it down. I didn’t have the guts or the decency to confess that I would not be back in September or, indeed, any time. We chatted and laughed as I cringed inside. I still cringe all these years later when I think of it. And I can’t stand the taste of bourbon now.

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Tough Dentistry

6 Feb

Up the Owens valley in California there is a small town called Independence. The U.S. Cavalry had a fort there. One of the few encounters where the Indian tribes came off best – for a time. A fair amount of activity has happened in this valley lying between the Eastern Sierra range and the smaller Inyo range to the east. Most of the historical evidence of ranchers, miners, Indians, the Japanese internment camp of Manzanar and so on is collected in a two room museum in Independence. Within a circle of a hundred miles are to be found the oldest living things on the planet (bristle cone pines), the largest living things (giant redwoods), the lowest point in the continental United States (Badwater in Death Valley) and the highest (Mount Whitney).

There was a time I regularly drove that route on 395 both for work reasons and pleasure. And I would make a point of stopping at the Museum and reacquainting myself with the memorabilia. There was (and is) one case I would always make a point of viewing. A pair of dentures.

They were not ordinary dentures. They were remarkable. There is an explanatory placard that tells their story. There was some gold to be found in the Inyo range. Nothing as rich as the deposits in the Western foothills of the Sierras – but enough for a handful of prospectors to scratch out a living. The weather can be harsh in winter. And upon occasion a prospector, faced with a snow blocked trail would have to tough it out till spring up there in the hills.

One such prospector, having lost nearly all his teeth, was in desperate straits. He could trap rabbits for food but he could not break down the meat with his gums.

What he did was this- he killed a coyote and hacked out the teeth. He made a rough mould and melted old tooth brush handles. And he rammed the hot mould on to his gums, both upper and lower. With these home made dentures he survived until the snows melted and he could get down to Independence. On hearing the story the town dentist offered to make him a proper pair in return for the coyote teeth. And they sit there in the Museum to this day. What is more and more remarkable to me every time I view them is how astonishingly professional they look. And they provide a reality check to those fantasies of going back in time to those days before anaesthetics and antibiotics. If you’re ever driving on 395, take half an hour to visit. Turn on the street that leads west from the County Courthouse. It’s just 3 blocks.