Monday, April 16, 2012

The Soldier Who Came to Dinner, Chapter 3


My companion pushed a button of some sort above his head in the vehicle in which we were sitting. And the large, segmented barn door in front of us was drawn slowly upward with a creaking noise. There was another hard-shelled vehicle resting inside. Apparently these metal beasts were not impervious to the weather, for I had seen the rusting skeletons of several in front yards of the more dilapidated-looking houses on the way to this residence. When we were inside the “stable”, he pushed the button again and as if by magic, the door lowered shut with a system of chains, pulleys and springs.

I asked him if I could tie up this vehicle to secure it, like any sensible person would tie up a horse coach. He told me that was not necessary. “Once we’re stopped and I remove the key, it’s off. It won’t go anywhere, trust me. We’re here, get out” he said as he unfastened his harness restraint and instructed me to do the same. He told me to unfasten the latch and pull the shiny handle to let myself out of the car. He opened up the wooden door to the house and out flung a very good-natured and comely-looking woman, who encased my young companion in a bear-hug. “Oh, I’m so happy to see you made it through that battle in one piece! I was getting worried. Why didn’t you call me?” “My phone was dead and I couldn’t charge it. My battery is horrible.” I surmised that the device the other man had talked into was now called a phone. Earlier my cohort had explained that this “phone” was like a telegraph that worked without wires, and was portable. Such fantastic devices!

He introduced his aunt to his strange companion, which would be me. He said, “Aunt Marian, meet my new friend Ignatius. I think he may be a distant cousin or something. As you can see, we both badly need to get ourselves cleaned up and eat some real food. Also, uhm, I don’t think I can drive back home tonight, so we may need to spend the night if it’s alright.” “Of course, honey!” she said. What he meant by real food, I was unsure of. Was all food not real? Perhaps the manner in which they prepare or cook food is very different here. I imagined his tastes were very different from mine.

“Well, help yourselves to the bathroom, it’s down at the end of the hall on your left. Hot and cold running water, and electricity!” She laughed, and illustrated by flipping a switch affixed to the wall in the centre of an ivory rectangular panel. I was startled as the lamps in the room instantly and simultaneously lit themselves! Then she turned a knob next to the switch on the ivory panel, and the lamps dimmed and brightened, in unison! I tried not to betray my shock at such a convenience! As I studied these “lamps” on the walls, I noticed they contained glass globes, like whale-oil lamps. But the globes appeared to be sealed. Inside these globes were very tiny coils of some unknown wire-like material, that glowed blindingly bright, like the sun. I found I could not look directly at them.

As she walked away down the hall and showed my companion where the “bath-room” was, I drew closer to this ivory panel on the wall. I tried experimentally flipping the switch and turning the knob a few times. The lights blinked on and off, on and off. I was fascinated by this arrangement, how the lamps lit themselves and extinguished so effortlessly! My companion looked behind him; he must have noticed the blinking lights. His Aunt had already disappeared into another room. He rushed back to me and grabbed my hand. “Please don’t do that. It’s very annoying. I’ll explain how they work later. This isn’t my house. Try not to touch anything else unless I tell you” Feeling abashed, I was conscious of my impoliteness. I sincerely apologized. He instructed me to come along as he dragged me by the arm down the hallway towards an open door. I looked down, and noticed all the floors in the house were covered by a soft, spongy surface that felt pleasurable to walk on. I looked at the framed pictures and paintings hanging on the walls as we moved by. There were what must have been photographs of people and loved ones. But they almost seemed to be alive! They were in bright, vivid and startling color, and they were all smiling! They looked very cheerful, quite unlike the stern faces of likenesses I had seen in my time. They were all so beautiful, especially the ladies. Even if they were dressed oddly.

My companion’s comely hostess instructed us where everything was in this “bath-room” and then, telling us to join her in the kitchen when she was done, left us by ourselves. I entered this mysterious chamber and noticed many odd things. Ceramic tiles appeared to be covering the floor and the walls. Glistening metal was everywhere. There were sconces on the walls above the tile which were printed in a very elegant floral pattern. These sconces had frosted globes on them which cast a pleasing, soft light about. There was what appeared to be a marble counter-top, with a deep bowl carved into the middle, and an elegantly-shaped metal spigot protruding from the edge of the bowl, with ivory-handled knobs. As I leaned over it, I noticed the letters “H” and “C” were embossed on them in pearl. It occurred to me that this boy’s aunt must be very wealthy to own such a beautiful house. Hung on the wall over the sink was an oval-shaped mirror. I peered into it and was startled at just how filthy I was. My entire face was blackened by powder, dust and dried mud. My clothes were very soiled, and covered in dust as well. My face had a very large and unkempt beard, compared to my companion who was so clean-shaven. I was very conscious of this. None of the other natives of this land seemed to have facial hair to the extent which I did. I looked down and noticed my shoes were leaving bits of dirt wherever I walked. I bent down and unlaced them; my cohort said he would take them outside and clean them for me.

“Alright, we need to get you cleaned up and you really need to shave. I’ll show you how to do that after

you take a bath. Get your clothes off and I’ll go have my aunt wash them.” I told him I would prefer to wash them myself. It had been some time since my blouse had been scrubbed and de-loused, and my shirt boiled. I did not wish to let this poor boy’s aunt see what a frightful state my uniform was in. I politely asked my friend to leave the room so I could disrobe of my filthy vestiges. “Okay, but I need to show you how to use the tub. You don’t need to fill up a water bucket outside, we have plumbing in the house. Just turn this knob here, and the water will come out of the wall through this faucet here. H is for hot, C is for cold. If you turn both on, it makes it kinda lukewarm, not too hot and not too cold. Don’t turn either one too much, or you could freeze or get scalded. Just be careful. Also, the tub and floor get slippery when they’re wet. If you think you might slip and fall, grab on to these handles. Got it? Call for me if you need any help.” I nodded. He gave me some very soft towels which were certainly not made out of wool, and a bar of lye soap that was an odd color. It was a pale shade of pink. I asked him what the clear bottles of strange colored liquids were arranged along the wall of this bathing chamber. “They’re shampoos. For your hair. You get your hair wet, and rub them in and they’ll suds, then you rinse it out.” He scruffed up his hair to demonstrate. “They come in a lot of different flavors, I guess you could say. They smell different. Pick out one you like, and use it. But be sparing, don’t squeeze out the whole d---- thing, it will make a mess. I’m gonna go now, be sure the water is all the way off when you’re done.”

I thanked him. As he left the room, I stripped my sweaty clothes off and not knowing where to put them, simply dropped them on the tiled floor. Then I stepped into the bath-tub, grasping the handles, and bent down to study the bottles of liquids. They all had strange names that were elegant and bourgeois and sort of rolled off the tongue. Garnier Fructis. Suave. Vidal Sassoon. Many of them sounded French. They all seemed very feminine. I unscrewed the caps of each one, and sniffed their contents. One smelled like oranges. Another like the roses in my grandmother’s garden. Another had a fruity smell I could not discern, but the scents were all very pleasing to the nose. I poured a small amount into the palm of my hand. Just experimentally, I tried licking it. Blech! These oils certainly smelled better than they tasted. I found myself spitting it out violently. I supposed they were like the delicate parfums; ointments and lotions that French ladies used on their skin. They certainly reeked of those ‘houses of ill repute”! I was not sure which sickened me more; the idea of remaining a filthy tramp, or lathering myself up with this rich fruity stuff! It was sure to make me smell like a woman.

Supposing I should get this horrible formality over with, I resolutely reached for the handle marked H. I rotated it slowly. A slight gurgling was heard behind the ivory-tiled wall, and then water poured out! The more I rotated the exquisite pearl and ivory handle, the stronger the water flowed out into the tub. The water heated itself up in a matter of moments. There must be a very strong fire going in a hidden steam-boiler somewhere in the house, I concluded. It was getting rather hot, and it was scorching my feet! I hurriedly turned on the “C” handle, and the flow of water began to cool itself. Then, I noticed a knob in between the two which was smaller. I pulled that out, and the water stopped! Wondering where it had gone, I tried rotating the “H” handle more clock-wise. Then, there was a rumbling above my head. I looked up, and all of a sudden the water blasted out of a pipe in the wall, hitting me full in the face! I sputtered and coughed as my mouth filled up with water and felt as if I would drown. As I was knocked backward, my knee somehow knocked the H handle, and it became scaldingly hot!! I jumped back and lost my balance. I grabbed for the handles as my friend instructed, but missed! I instead grabbed at the odd fabric curtain in a desperate attempt to arrest my fall backward, and the curtain-rod came off its fastenings on the wall! I hit the back wall with a hard crash that echoed in the small chamber. The curtain and curtain-rod draped across me, as I lay delirious with scalding hot rain beating on my skin! It was starting to turn red!

I yelled loudly and quickly reached up to rotate the C handle clock-wise. Then the water became freezing, cold as ice! I howled in pain and my body started to shake. I thrashed around in a blind fury (as the water had gotten into my eyes) and somehow hit the knob again. The painfully cold rain stopped and the water was once more pouring out into the tub. I would have to see if I could fix that rod and re-hang the curtain when I was finished.

I had to throw the curtain aside and adjust the water temperature to make it warmer. One of the bottles labeled ‘Sham-poo’ had overturned and was spilling its rich oil into the tub. As soon as it hit the water, it formed soap bubbles that rapidly filled the tub. I cupped a handful of these bubbles in my hand and began to lather my hair with them, as instructed to do so. As I mixed this lather in with water and rubbed it into my hair and beard, I noticed it was rather gentle and seemed to smooth out the tangles in it. It was quite luxuriant. I wondered at the bizarre name of this “sham-poo.” Was it artificial? The word sham puzzled me. I noticed my poor eyes felt very dry from all the dust and heat and whatnot; they were quite stinging. So I wet my fingers and proceeded to rub some water into my eyes.

That was a mistake! I screamed in pain as it felt my eyes were on fire! This time my friend came crashing in through the door, alarmed at the noise. He no doubt saw the place in frightful disarray. Water on the floor…soap suds all over…I can only imagine my poor friend’s dismay.

“Oh, J----- we better clean up this mess before my Aunt comes in and has a hissyfit. I hope you’re done.” I nodded, tears streaming down my face. I felt like such a frightful burden upon this family with my incessant bumbling clumsiness.

I felt my friend lift me up out of the tub and wrap me in a soft towel. He turned off the water and gave me another cloth to wipe my stinging eyes. Then, he did the best he could to mop up the mess. He wrapped up my filthy blue suit in the wet towels and stowed them in the corner until he could deal with them in like fashion. It was then he noticed the tiny creatures crawling on my scalp and yelped, leaping about a foot in the air. “Jaysus H.! You got the critters!” It had been quite a few days since I had done my nitting work. My clothes were probably crawling with them as well. I was very ashamed at my uncleanliness. “Alright, that does it, I’m cutting that hair and shaving off that beard. Tip your head down.” He detached the spigot from the wall, which he called a “shower-head” and turned the bath water on again. Pulling the knob, he used this hose to thoroughly spray my head and rinse out all the grit. Things fell off of my own tangled locks into the tub, of descriptions I will not care to mention.

When this ugly business was done, he went to the closet and took out a pair of scissors. He instructed me to sit down on the cover of this large porcelain bowl, which I obliged, and proceeded to blindfold me. He explained, “This may be a bit of a shock to you, but I need to cut your hair very short to get rid of your little infestation problem. I’m covering up your eyes so you don’t catch yourself in the mirror until you’re ready. Sorry friend, but this is necessary.”

At this point, my dear young readers, I was so thoroughly humiliated at my bath-time bumblings and incredible clumsiness that, I figured, things could be far worse. At least I still had all my limbs. So I resigned to sit quietly and let my man do his work. I heard him snip-snipping, cut-cutting away at my ample coiffure as my head actually began to feel lighter. I felt locks of my long hair hitting my shoulders and falling into my lap. I did my best not to fidget, just as I used to obediently sit still for Mother when she “purdied” me up. It rather felt like I was a sheep being sheared.

After several minutes, he withdrew the sheep-shears and I heard some rustling. He pressed something made of cold metal to the back of my neck, and flicked a switch. A loud buzzing emanated from this strange device, it sounded almost like a bee or hornet. I jumped as I felt a prickling sensation travel down my neck and move around my head. It was the most peculiar thing I had ever felt. Then, once the buzzing machine had traveled its circuitous route on my head, it moved to my cheeks and to my chin, then down my neck. I started to struggle and get up out of the chair, but his other hand firmly pressed me back down. He was shaving off my beloved beard, that had never been shaved before! I was much lamenting the loss of this additional “appendage” like a man who has lost an arm or a leg.

When this was done, he said, “I know your skin probably feels strange. I’m gonna rub some of this ointment on. We call it after-shave. You might feel a cool sensation. ” He proceeded to squeeze something out of a tube, and lather it all over my face and scalp the way a barber does. He was right. It immediately felt ice-like. A bizarre chill spread through my upper body, but it greatly soothed my raw sunburned skin. He also rubbed some of this unguent on to my shoulders.

After I was shaved certainly naked like a mole-rat and oiled up with perfumes like a lady, smelling like a sweet bouquet of flowers, my humiliation was at last complete. He told me to stand up and go before the mirror, whence he would remove my blindfold. I hesitated to open my eyes.

“Alright, soldier. Open your eyes.”

I was shocked! My companion had shaved me stone bald! I ran my fingers over my head and felt the scars from when I had fallen out of a barn loft as a boy. I had no idea my head was so lumpy. My cheeks were smooth, hairless and soft like an infant. I was startled at the shape of my own chin and neck, having not seen them in years! It was as if I were looking into the eyes of a stranger, a man I did not recognize.

My friend then announced to me he would try to procure some contemporary clothing that would suit me and make me fit to walk around in public. He disappeared for a few minutes and came in with some clean clothes for me to try on, neatly folded on his arm. A pair of white linen socks, much thinner than my wool ones. A plain white shirt, sleeve-less. And a pair of trousers that he refered to as “blue jeans.” These, my friend explained, were called “jeans” because they were twilled from cotton jean, much like my canteen cover was wool jean. In my time they would be called “dungarees.” Actually, they would not be invented for another fifteen years or so. But he assured me the brands were very old and well-trusted. Made in America. I donned these “blue jeans” and he gave me a leather belt to thread through these loops sewn on to the waist. It appeared they needed no suspenders.

Thus outfitted in these jeans, he gave me the light cotton shirt, which he called a “T-shirt.” It was plain and white; my partner correctly assumed I would want no garish colors or provocative images on my clothing. He also gave me a shirt made of plaid cotton, in a pattern that was familiar to me. The buttons fastened all the way down, splitting the shirt in half like a blouse or vest. It was also more tightly fitted than my old battle shirt, but still commodious enough to allow for ease of movement. He also gave me cotton socks—everything was cotton! It was so much softer and better than wool. “Where did you get all this cotton? Do you trade with the South?” Oh, imagine the luxury of cotton clothes! “No…” He replied. “It’s a long story. I’ll explain later.”

“But are you not rich to be able to afford such fine comforts?” I inquired, puzzled. “No,we are not what we would call rich. But we’re not poor either. We’re what’s now known as middle class. I suppose we are filthy rich to you though. Just get dressed, O-K? Here’s a hat for you.” He tossed me a hat not dissimilar from my kepi that he called a “baseball cap.” I put it on and he let me look in the mirror.

One thing was puzzling me still.

“What is ‘O-K’?”

“What?” he asked, not understanding me.

“What does O-K mean? Does it stand for something?”

“Oh, you mean the expression. I dunno. It just means okay. You know… as in it’s all good.” He shrugged. He did not seem to know what the letters stood for either.

He told me I would not very much like the shoes these contemporary folk wore, being much more soft and easy on the feet, but they had to be sized correctly. He would take me out to purchase some later.

It was almost time for dinner.

He escorted me out of the Bath-room, that infernal chamber of torture in which I had lost all semblance of my manhood; and led me down the hallway to the kitchen looking very much not myself, but feeling much cleaner and better-dressed in this outlandish contemporary garb of the natives.


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