Last night I went for a drink with a Kiwi in his early seventies whom I first met in the sauna at my local health club six or seven years ago. He’s the sort of the cheerful chap who will strike up a conversation with anyone and everyone he comes across, as I had seen him doing habitually doing with others before we first exchanged a word beyond a greeting. Once we had, he began treating me like an old mate and thereafter each time our paths crossed we chatted briefly about this and that or indeed nothing in particular.
Eventually I learned a detail or two about him. He runs his own business in the building trade and is interested in food, rugby (of course, given his origin) and life in general. He has a bolt-hole in a foreign land – his description of a farmhouse in Italy that he bought as a wreck some twenty years ago and has since done up.
At one point along the way he mentioned that his uncle had been shot down and killed near Honfleur in northern France as a fighter pilot in a NZ squadron in the RAF during WW2 but he didn’t know exactly where or whether he even had a grave.
I had then put him in touch with Ruster Henry Elkins who, on one of his own research trips, then stopped off on a detour and managed to locate said item in Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of a local municipal cemetery. A pledge to one day undertake an expedition to visit it remains a future plan.
And that’s all I knew about him until last night.
I arrived at the tiny pub on the dot as per my practice, bought a pint and sat in a corner. There were three others in attendance and that included the barmaid.
Minutes later my pal walked in as if he was the local sheriff entering a bar in the Wild West, announced to the world “I’m here!” and greeted everyone, including me, as if he knew us all – which he did (he appears to know everyone).
Our conversation began, interrupted by two phone calls he received from people he plainly knew well (“Hi Gerald, I’m in a pub having a drink with a very good mate – far more willing to put his hand in his pocket than you … Yes, I could do a drink tomorrow night, have you got a pass, or do you still need to ask permission from The Boss ..?”) and early on I lobbed in my standard conversational gambit by asking him to give me a potted summary of his life so far.
He’d first come to the UK in his early twenties to act as Best Man to a relative and then his intended six months stay ‘to see Europe’ had ended by becoming permanent.
We touched upon his uncle lying in his French grave and then got talking about WW2. He mentioned Glenn Miller’s song In The Mood, which happened to be my mother’s all-time favourite – in fact it got played at her funeral.
It so happens that I love 1940s Big Band music and the likes of Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey et al.
I told him the story about how, as a wartime teenage evacuee to Canada, my mother had been taken on a trip to New York by her ‘foster parents’, attended a Glen Miller concert, was allowed backstage to meet him and – when he said that he loved a particular type of Canadian sock – she had later sent him a pair from Toronto, for which she received from him a short but generous thank-you note.
From there we somehow alighted upon the subject of Glenn Miller’s disappearance on a flight from Bedford to Paris in December 1944.
The Kiwi told me of the time he had spent in Germany in the 1970s and acquired a German girlfriend. One time he met her parents. Her father had served as a mechanic in a Luftwaffe squadron that had been involved in defence duties against Allied bombing.
His explanation of Miller’s death was that pilots in his squadron were convinced that on the night in question some RAF bombers had been unable to drop their full loads because of the poor weather and had jettisoned them over the Channel on their way home – Miller’s plane had unfortunately been flying a couple of thousand feet below and had ‘copped’ one or more of said bombs on its way down.
I had heard this theory before – and/or read about it in the newspapers somewhere – but (as far as I am aware) the exact cause of Miller’s demise remains a mystery to this day.
Anyway, it was interesting to hear what was a German version of the incident that tallied with at least one strand of the still-ongoing speculation.
Here’s a link to a rendition of Glenn Miller’s In The Mood – please note that the accompanying image is of James Stewart, lead in the 1954 biopic The Glenn Miller Story – courtesy of – YOUTUBE