AWAY FROM the course at Fort Leavenworth there was an awful lot of extra-curricular activity going on, much of it thanks to our civilian sponsors who took their volunteer jobs seriously and made sure we were well entertained.
Kansas had, to European perceptions at least, pretty extreme weather. The summer was hot, sometimes very hot, and the winters freezing and with snow oftentimes up to two feet thick or more. Every so often there would be a tremendous storm with deafening thunder and dramatic lightning accompanied by torrential rain. More eerily, in tornado season the sky might turn green, indicating the distinct possibility that one of these damaging events might happen. Thankfully it never did when I was there.
In the summer months I lost count of the number of barbeques and “cook outs” I was invited to by my hosts. Because the summer weather tended to be pretty predictable and pleasant, they could be planned weeks ahead and were great fun. Sometimes they were in a neighbour’s back garden – sorry, backyard, of course – or part and parcel of a bigger event, like sports or other public occasions.
Talking of sports, I got full exposure to the complete gamut of American sporting activities. American football remains a mystery to me, but I enjoyed hugely the razzamatazz that accompanies it, even at local level. In these modern PC times I shall forego any comment on the cheerleaders except to say they were lovely to behold. Some are critical of the stop-go rhythm of the game, but I found it most interesting. What I did enjoy immensely was the whole feeling of occasion, and that it was truly a family activity, which sadly we cannot claim for our own football (soccer) which can still be blighted by bad behaviour and hooliganism on occasion.
Baseball I had a better handle on, having played rounders before at school. Whilst I was never completely au fait with the intricacies of the game I at least understood most of the basics. It was great fun to go with Tom and Barbara Brown, my great friends and military sponsors, to watch their boys play and get a feel for what I had seen on TV and at the cinema so many times before. I got the chance to understand the context as part of the American experience, which was most educational.
We Internationals also played friendly but always competitive games against our US colleagues. These too tended to be family occasions with barbeques and picnics and always great fun. If I remember correctly we got tanked at American football, scored a more-or-less draw at rugby (I can’t remember the exact score), and won comfortably at football (soccer in US-speak).
The footie rules allowed for a generous number of substitutes, and the Americans tried a sneaky tactic and subbed their entire team with ten minutes to go, knowing that we were too few in numbers of competent players to do the same. But we had a couple of South American wizards in our side who were by far-and-away the best players on the pitch. Plus we had a German goalkeeper. You don’t lose if you have a German goalkeeper. It’s just one of the basic rules of the game.
I also went to a couple of rodeos with my friends, and they were just great. Everyone in Kansas seemed to have a Stetson and pair of cowboy boots in their wardrobe for such occasions, and they were present in abundance. Some of the stuff – the bull riding for example – looked outrageously dangerous to me, and I was surprised at how few injuries the participants seemed to suffer. Presumably there’s a knack to it. These rodeos were an absolute carnival of colours, sounds, and smells, and if you ever get the chance to go to one grab it. Just remember to shout “yeehah!” occasionally and you’ll fit right in.
Part of our remit as Internationals was to fly the flag, so everyone took it in turns to host a party at home for as many guests as they could accommodate. Such parties had a national theme, with much bigging up of one’s home country with flags and other symbols of nationhood, especially in terms of food and drink. Particularly memorable was the Italian’s officer’s supper party where all the pasta dishes were in the green, white, and red of the Italian tricolour.
Much as I might have wished it, I’m afraid I was unable to source the ingredients for my favoured menu when it was my turn, and so my guests were spared the pie ‘n’ chips and deep fried Mars Bar, all washed down with copious glasses of Irn Bru, that I had hoped to unleash on them, poor unsuspecting souls. In the end I had to settle for something rather more quintessentially British, and for the life of me I can’t recall what that might have been. Nobody reported themselves ill afterwards, though, so it must have been OK.
Occasionally we might travel into Kansas City for other events, although in my case such forays were rare. I did venture there once, though, with my Aussie chum John Casey to see that well known Irish skiffle and modern beat combo, U2, of whom some of you may have heard. Why they named themselves after an early German submarine is anybody’s guess, but that doesn’t matter right now. The concert took place in a major stadium and the weather was absolutely freezing. They were awful, as in appallingly poor. Despite having front row seats we left halfway through and went home. I should have asked for my money back but forgot.
No, this is not U2. These guys were good.
Now, in some circles, bashing our transatlantic cousins has been a popular sport for as long as I can remember, whether it be for their extraordinary dress sense, extraordinary appetites, or extraordinary rendition – or perhaps all three and everything else in between. But you’ll have picked up that I’ve always rather liked Americans in general terms, and therefore hereinafter a few words on some of the positives that have come out of the good ol’ USA over the years. Here are a few things I think we should be grateful to them for, in no particular order.
I had a good-natured argument with one of our colonial cousins over this the other day, but in my opinion nobody does breakfast like the Americans. Down to the diner in downtown Leavenworth at some unearthly hour in the morning, sit up at the counter, and immerse yourself in the experience. Good coffee with endless refills until you cry “stop!”, crispy bacon, eggs-over-easy, pancakes with maple syrup, ye cannae whack it. Kippers and kedgeree aside, it knocks spots anything we can offer over here. Now, I haven’t had breakfast in Timbuktu or Transylvania so maybe I’m just showing my lack of travel, but I’ll take some convincing that anyone does breakfast better than the Yankee-Doodle-Dandies.
Next, Christmas. I don’t really know if it was anything to do with the large number of Americans with German ancestry – estimated at roughly 16 per cent or the US population or 49 million people – but our hosts seemed to do Christmas really well, and not in the schmaltzy way you might imagine from the movies. Just across the state border lies the small town of Weston, Missouri, pronounced “Missoura” if you’re local, a lovely historical and picturesque settlement full of antebellum houses and once the furthest west town of the US until Texas was admitted as a state in 1845. Buffalo Bill himself was once resident here, and it was a major starting point for settlers heading west to California.
I digress. All I wanted to say was that I spent some time visiting Weston during the Christmas holidays on 1992-93 and it was almost magical so well was it decked out for the celebrations. Even the cheerful Santa Claus on the boardwalk was somehow entirely appropriate and not in the least bit slushy or over-sentimental. It was a lovely place to visit at that time of year.
And, notwithstanding our U2 concert fiasco, we do have to thank the Americans for rock ‘n’ roll. Funny one this one, because arguably the Americans, or white Americans anyroads, didn’t really wake up to the fact they’d ‘invented’ rock and roll until we Brits repackaged it in the form of the Beatles and their many imitators and exported it to back to them. But invent it they did, emerging in the southern states from a mixture of rhythm and blues, country, soul, gospel, folk and jazz music in the 1940s and 50s, espoused by musicians and singers like Chuck Berry, Elvis Pressley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino et al.
Its development went hand-in-hand with the adoption of the electric guitar as instrument of choice for the young. Then the Beatles got hold of it and changed it forever, in the same way as they changed more or less everything they touched in that period in the 60s when the world went from monochrome to colour. So hats off to our US cousins for letting us have it to play around with.
Finally, the biggest and best thing I want to thank the Americans for is my daughter, who was born there. It lets me tell everybody that “I own an American”, a gift I am eternally grateful for and shall always cherish.
To come in Part 34; back to Britain, back to reality.
Photos by the author.
© Stuart Crawford 2021