by Art Shay
(Swans - September 21, 2009) The New Yorker's recent proud posting of upcoming gems on this very screen seined up a non-hilarious account by the sometimes hilarious David Sedaris. It tells of David's meeting an Aussie lady who promises to "shout for" -- that is, pop for -- lunch and drinks next time he's Down Under. David's ongoing, worldlier companion Hugh is in on the treat. So they both go down to Down Under. Sure enough, shouting erupts at a restaurant in Melbourne's suburbs and a friendly waiter slices up some ducky duck meat, places it in a bowl, and lets Sedaris take it out back, or outback as they say, to feed the resident kookaburra bird. A great honor apparently, and a thrill for the worldly Sedaris.
We segue back to a visit home Sedaris made where his father always walks around in underwear shorts but has better legs than the J.C. Penney ads "which are consistently weak in the leg department." Worst luck!
David's father then thrice raids the room in which the eight-year-old David is in bed with his sister (age unspecified) gaily singing a kookaburra song containing the deathless phrase, "Laugh kookaburra. Gay your life must be!" On his third intrusion the old man, no music lover he, lofts an old fraternity paddle with Greek names on it as threatening as "Smith and Wesson," and thwacks David behind the knees.
Maybe Sedaris and/or The New Yorker are in decline? The other day my disappointing book on tape from the library filled my car with Sedaris's humorless reasoning for drowning a mouse in a water bucket, including directions for non-autodidact rodent immersers. Sounded like a script for a science-affliction movie.
In any case, I'm extremely jealous of Sedaris because I hear he gets at least five g's for reading about his mouse drowning, his beloved worldlier-than-he-Hugh, and his abusive daddy's fraternity paddle and sturdy legs before campus audiences who eat him up.
It brought me back to my own middling adventures in Australia in 1946. Having flown two combat tours as a navigator in Europe, I found myself playing Ping-Pong with a Colonel at 8th Air Force HQ in High Wycombe, about an hour west of London. "Why are you so angry, Lieutenant?" he said correctly analyzing my attempts to kill the ball as ongoing swings at the Nazis still alive. "You miss flying combat?"
"Yeah," I riposted.
Turns out the colonel was operations officer for Elliott Roosevelt's vaunted special mission squadron.
Two mornings later I navigated a Canadian plywood DeHaviland bomber some seven hours, 1700 miles to Murmansk, Russia. The DeHaviland had no navigation bubble, so I shot the rising morning sun (that had been to Russia while we slept) out the side window during every side-slip. We were carrying replacement instruments for Lend-Lease P-39 Airacobras. About a mile from the hangar a GM truck driven by a hefty lady sergeant pulled up. Her truck also carried about 20 five-gallon Lend-Lease gas containers which she said would cost us a hundred dollars American, but ten would do. We gave her an English five-pound note that looked, she mimed earthily, like white toilet tissue -- and were worth $4 a pound. She shrugged, accepted it, and hospitably gave us some strong tea then wrestled six big boxes of instruments into her truck, unloaded about 20 five-gallon fuel containers and apologized for not letting us get closer to a toilet. We might be spies. She pointed to the tundra, squatted, peed, and suggested we do the same. Our co-pilot then brought out the two bottles of vodka he had stolen from our PX in England, and the Sergeant, who insisted we call her Ludka instead of Ludmilla, which her husband always called her and she hated, came up with some paper cups. We sat on the instrument crates, admiring her high school-age children's snapshots and had a party only Tolstoy -- or maybe David Sedaris -- would have loved to describe.
She finished most of one bottle and my pilot, co-pilot, and engineer knocked off the second. Then the discussion turned to floor-shifting GI army trucks. Our hostess then reached for our fly zippers and expertly -- well -- she demonstrated how she and her fellow female students at driving school learned to drive.
Only our excitable engineer, who was not yet 20, and the only one of us not laughing, left an ample sample of his DNA on the frozen Russian tundra.
Nothing like the fun Sedaris had feeding that captive kookaburra, but almost. You had to be there.
My next special mission came to me across the same Ping-Pong table. I had my choice: Fly engine parts to the Brazilian Air Force via Casablanca -- where I would be certain to see the fabulous Candle Dance -- and almost certainly be able to date one of the receptively incendiary Moroccan dancers. My second choice was to pass a tough celestial navigation exam and join the famous polar explorer Bernt Balchen's American unit -- and fly Red Cross supplies into Sweden and transport downed air crews (shot down over northern Germany or southern Norway) back to Metfield, England.
Having helped translate the RAF's celestial navigation manual into American, and having then and now been awed at our ability to use three stars millions of miles away to establish my position on a blank Mercator chart, it was no contest. The Casablanca Candle Dancer ready to ignite my private Zippo would have to wait.
Given world enough and time I will one day tell you about my Swedish adventures -- and on another tell you about navigating a planeload of Aussie war brides from Brisbane, Australia to San Francisco. My own unshouted-for Aussie adventure Sedaris reminded me I'd survived with pleasure.
I never saw a kookaburra, but David Sedaris probably never saw a DC-4 full of untamed Aussie war brides. And when I mentioned all of the above to my proud father who had known Leon Trotsky as a boy in Russia, and was later jealous of Leon for laying Frieda Kahlo in Mexico while on the run from a vindictive Stalin assassin with a claw hammer while Her Main Squeeze, Diego Rivera, was out of town, (take a breath here, this is a very long sentence), my loving father hugged me and though he passed down his atheism to me, imprecated, "Artoor, thanks be to God you came out alive." Herman Shay never earned more than $60 a week, didn't have a fraternity paddle, and if he caught me in bed with the sister I never had, would've smiled proudly that I had come into the world at all, and had learned, like Peer Gynt, to gingerly then eagerly cross all the wildly rushing streams of life while remaining reasonably dry shod. Just as he had done in his own time on three other continents, including Africa. Without even hearing of Sedaris or feeding slices of duck to a pet kookaburra.
I might do better on Australia in the future because my scientist brother Barry Shay, a record-holding swimmer and an engineer who helped design the communications system on an early Air Force 1, is an amateur genealogist, and has tracked down some Shays who settled in Sydney and who live a short kookaburra flight from that world class opera house. But they own an airplane and helicopter rental company, so must not be great kookaburra fans. Still, there may be a $5000 story in them as interesting as drowning mice, dispensing slices of duck, describing my daddy's legs or his lack of cruelty.
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