Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Days That Changed Everything. Part 1 of a Series

Meters swum today: 1500
Playing in the background: Michael Hedges, "Rickover's Dream" from Beyond Boundaries: Guitar Solos

I probably haven't told y'all this, but I'm a member of Mensa. If you're not a member of Mensa, you probably think we're some sinister cabal of supergeniuses who secretly run the whole world. Well, it is true that we're supergeniuses, but we have a hard time even running a meeting, much less the planet. We all think we're the only one in the room smart enough to be right. Still, Mensans are fun to have around once in a while. They play wicked card games at three in the morning, can talk until all hours about particle physics, and have conversations where you hear words like verisimilitude. (One of my writing teachers once said, "Never say 'verisimilitude' when you mean 'truth.') If you happen to be a Mensan and you happen to be in Dallas and you happen to go to the monthly meeting, don't bring up the Cave Man Diet. Please. But I digress.

This month's Mensa Bulletin (we call it the Mensabull round these parts) has a feature story called "The Day That Changed Everything." For all that we're this sinister cabal of supergeniuses, the stories were rather humblingly human. We had one guy who, having found and lost a series of college-professor jobs, took a last-ditch position on an ocean-going research vessel. He ended up meeting his future wife and finding his life's work. Another guy woke up one morning and took himself to an addiction treatment center - without the usual intervention of angry family members and law enforcement personnel, but with his employer's 18-wheeler, which he left in the parking lot. That must have been a hard one to explain.

So I got to thinking, do I have such a day, and if so, what happened? And as George Bailey would say, it's not just one day, it's a whole hatful. So here's the first one. I'll find the others when I can.

We gotta go back in time for this sucker, all the way to the latter part of 1940. Several divisions of the British Army, among them the 51st Highland Division, were bogged down near Dunkirk, fighting the German invasion of France. After massive casualties, the Division surrendered to Rommel, and the survivors ended up interned at a POW camp. As POWs they were treated somewhat better than the folks next door being burned in the ovens, but there still wasn't enough food or medicine to go around.

This was heading into the darkest part of the war, when it seemed that nothing could stop Hitler's machine. Even London Herself was being bombed and the Yanks wouldn't show up to help for another year. One of the officers, Lt. Col. Harris Hunter, figured out that his men were dying as much of despair as they were of hunger and disease. He ended up writing a dance with some of his men, which was then known as the 51st Country Dance.

Backing up a second. Dancing has a long and storied history in the British Army. The Scottish regiments in particular teach traditional Highland dances to all the new recruits. It's kind of part of their boot camp over there. I believe the Official Explanation has to do with physical fitness and mental dexterity, but if you ask me, they just like to look cool. This isn't the Lambada or freak dancing, folks (says Jen, showing her age.) If you've never seen Highland dancing, I'm not about to explain it. Next time a Highland regiment comes to town, go check it out. You Won't Be Sorry.

Country dancing isn't as vigorous as Highland dancing, but it's just as intricate and technically complex. Hunter got his men out on the parade ground dancing every day and that changed everything. At first they were dancing to hand clapping or someone beating time on an improvised drum. After a while, the Germans (who might have just been amused) got them a couple of musical instruments and, well, this isn't exactly germane to the tale. What is, is that Hunter kept insisting that his men needed to learn this dance so they could teach it to their wives and sweethearts. It worked. The men quit dying. The dance got back home to Scotland and was retitled The Reel of the 51st Division. When you see this dance done at a large ball or party, it's traditionally done with at least one set of eight men in honor of the Division.

I, Jen, have done a fair share of Scottish country dancing in my day. I even did some Highland dancing once, but that didn't take, which is probably just as well for all concerned. So fast forward to 1991. I happened to be in Scotland that spring. It was a trip from hell for so many reasons. My traveling companion was driving me nuts, for one. I got into a barroom brawl and ended up with a concussion, for another. It was also on this trip that Stuart Adamson kissed me, but we'll come back to that later. Anyway, we were in Inverness, way way up on the North Coast. We were running low on cash and I just happened to see a flyer that there was a Scottish country dance that evening. Scottish country dancing in Scotland. It don't get much more authentic than that.

So I dragged my reluctant traveling companion, who was grumbling about the expense, to this dance. I danced and she - well, that's not germane to the tale, either. Here's what is. One of the dances they called was the Reel of the 51st. I happened to like that one and I was standing up to find a partner when somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was an old man, shorter than me, who was 90 if he was a day and could hardly walk. He said, "Miss, I don't know your name, but mine is Alec Wiseman. Gunnery sergeant, 51st Division. May I have this dance?"

Well, of course I danced with him. And he could dance. He could, as I mentioned, hardly walk, but he did the Reel of the 51st just fine. He'd learned it 51 years ago, in the winter of 1940, from Lt. Col. Hunter. And it kind of hit me, in a way that it hadn't before, that Big Two was a real war for these folks. Sure, lots of Americans died in the war, too, but nobody ever launched an air raid against Boston or New York City or--or Dallas. Nobody in the States had to send their kids to the country so they'd have a better chance of surviving. These guys were on the front lines from the very beginning, fighting what looked like a hopeless conflict against a bigger, better-equipped enemy. They won, but they didn't know that would happen in 1941. They didn't even know they'd be alive to see '42.

The other day Joan and I were reminiscing about our 2004 trip to London. I mentioned that I happened past an old building there and I saw a sign, in blue paint fading to grey, that pointed to the air raid shelter. In the middle of recounting this tale I suddenly remembered Alec Wiseman and the Reel of the 51st Division.

I'd never told Joan that story. After my traveling companion and I broke up, I'd sort of tried to forget everything that happened on that ill-fated journey to Scotland. Even the part about Stuart Adamson kissing me, which is a lot harder to think about since he, uh, killed himself. Now I'm wondering what else I might have forgotten, and how many Days That Changed Everything are still lying there undiscovered in the dust.

By the way, I haven't been Scottish country dancing in ages.


Nutcracker said...

Harris did not write the 51st Country Dance.

It was the brain child of Lieutenant J.E.M. ‘Jimmy’ Atkinson of the 7th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

At Oflag V11C, Laufen castle near Salzburg, Jimmy Atkinson joined a reel club formed by Lieutenant APJ ‘Peter’ Oliver of the 4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. The two men discussed the dance forming in Mr Atkinson’s mind, and, with the help of Lt Col Tom Harris Hunter, of the Royal Army Service Corps, a former chairman of the Perth branch of the Scottish Country Dance Society, worked out the dance that is essentially the same reel today.

On Hallowe’en 1941, in Oflag V11B at Warburg, Westphalia, Major General (later Sir) Victor Fortune, officer commanding the 51st, approved the name The 51st Country Dance (Laufen Reel).

The Germans had paid little attention to the whistling, stomping Scots PoWs — until Col Harris Hunter decided to send the dance instructions to his wife in Scotland. To the uninitiated guards, the written steps — ‘Cast off three places, five to eight lead to top corners nine to 12’ looked suspiciously like code.

An NCO was given a demonstration. Mr Atkinson noted: ‘I think they thought we were completely mad, but the steps got through to Harris Hunter’s wife in Scotland.’

The reel became an immediate success in wartime Britain. The then Queen, now Queen Mother, persuaded the Scottish (later Royal) Country Dance Society to include it in its book of dances, even though it did not conform to its standards.

No More Murder said...

I am going to "follow" your blog. Check out mine at

miss you. see you on my way back to nola.

Jen Ster said...

Hi, Nutcracker!

I can't say as I'm an expert in British military history or, for that matter, dancing, so I'll take your word for it. The way I heard the Reel of the 51st story, it's a classic myth, not in its truth or falsehood but in the way it affected people. You had your Frodo (the Commander) leaving the Shire (Scotland) to do battle with the forces of Mordor(cold, hunger, boredom, the Germans) in order to destroy the Ring (write the country dance) and save his people (his men) just when all seemed lost (the winter of 1940-41). I was a starry-eyed teenager when I heard it.

For me, as I suspect for a lot of Americans my age, Big Two was a dry, dusty textbook subject until I met Alec Wiseman. Here was a guy who lived the war, and part of the myth for that matter. He made it real (reel?) for me, and everything was different after that.

Jen Ster said...

Hi, Murder! (Can I call you Murder?)

Welcome aboard - it's bound to be interesting around here.

David Isaak said...

Your teacher was right. You shouldn't say "verisimilitude" when you mean "truth."

But you hereby have permission to say "verisimilitude" when you mean "appearing to be true to life" or "seeming to have authority."