From the Prologue of “The Last Expedition: Stanley’s Mad Journey Through the Congo. W.W. Norton, New York, New York. 2005
August 13, 1887
“Avisibba,” the woman said. They thought she was telling them the name of the village, but they couldn’t be sure. None of the interpreters or porters could decipher her language. They had captured her during a foraging expedition two days earlier and kept her with them in hopes that she could show them a shortcut around the next set of rapids.
Avisibba turned out to be a collection of small settlements perched at the river’s edge. Stanley arrived first in the Advance, the 28-foot steel boat he’d had built especially for the expedition, followed by a flotilla of fourteen dugout canoes. The rest of the men were on foot, more than three hundred of them, hacking their way slowly through the forest. They straggled in throughout the afternoon, Captain Nelson and Major Parke, the expedition’s surgeon, bringing in the last of the line around four. The temperature still hovered near ninety degrees, with humidity to match.
The natives waited until everyone was in camp before they attacked.
From the Epilogue of “The Last Expedition: Stanley’s Mad Journey Through the Congo. W.W. Norton, New York, New York. 2005
When Joseph Robinson denied permission to bury Stanley in Westminster Abbey, it was, in its way, a kind of closure for an era that had lasted almost exactly one hundred years. Throughout the nineteenth century, the exploits of a succession of British explorers. Including among others, Mungo Park, David Livingstone, James Grant, John Speke, Richard Burton, Verney Cameron, John Kirk, Joseph Thomson and Henry Stanley, fired the English imagination and gave a veneer of nobility, and even romance, whether justified or not, to the English presence in Africa. Underneath the veneer, however, was a shifting pattern of religious, commercial, political, and colonial agendas (for which Livingstone’s “3 C’s – Christianity, civilization, and commerce” provided a succinct motto), but that mattered little to the people at home. England loved its heroes, and Africa provided a steady supply of them.
Stanley was, arguably, the greatest explorer of them all. Only Livingstone spent more time in the bush, and no one could claim anything close to the number of “firsts” that belonged to him. Remarkably, when he first went to Africa in 1868, the continent was still more unknown than known, at least to Europeans. Most of the interior had never been seen by white men. (In truth, much of it had not been seen by Africans, either.) It was the Dark Continent not only because of the skin color of many of its inhabitants but because so much of it was an utter mystery to the outside world. Henry Stanley did more to change that then any other man in history. Perhaps it was appropriate, then, that at the end of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition there was almost nothing left to discover in Africa. In crossing the forbidding Uturi forest, Stanley had filled in the last great blank space on Europe’s maps of Africa. True, there were still a few places that remained to be surveyed, measured, named and claimed, but for all practical purposes, Africa was no longer a great unknown. In a span of only twenty years, it had evolved into a great opportunity.
In the decade that followed, during the so-called Scramble for Africa, that opportunity was ruthlessly exploited by a parade of nations, quasi-governmental enterprises, and individuals that continued well into the twentieth century, a parade whose malignant legacy haunts the continent to this day. Stanley was their point man and drum major. Bula Matari was more than a Breaker of Stones; he and his ilk broke Africa wide open, and no one has yet found a way to put it back together again.
A Military Memoir
In the fall of 1968, I was inducted into the United States Army and sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for basic training. That’s where this story took place. Sooner or later, every soldier going through basic training would be assigned to K.P. – kitchen patrol. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it got you out of whatever mind-numbing drill or class or indoctrination that was on the schedule for that day. You also got to be indoors, not necessarily a bad thing in November in Missouri. You got to gobble extra food and drink soda all day. If you got lucky, you’d get some light detail so you didn’t really have to work all that hard (only a few guys actually had to peel potatoes.) On the other hand, it was a very long day, no matter what, because you had to report at about 4:00 a.m. to get breakfast ready for 2000 trainees and you weren’t done until every dish and pot and pan and tray and utensil was washed and put away and the mess sergeant had inspected every nook and cranny in the joint and was satisfied. This took ‘til about 8:00 p.m. Sixteen hours. No breaks.
There was a rule in the mess hall that if you had any nicks or cuts or sores of any kind on your hands, you could not handle food. That didn’t mean you were exempt from k.p., it just meant they’d find something else for you to do. That, as it turned out, was me. I had a band-aid on one of my fingers, so at the morning line-up, the mess sergeant pulled me out and told me to wait in his office, along with two other guys.
The mess sergeant was piece of work, a lifer, probably in the army for at least 20 years already, with the rheumy eyes and florid complexion of a hard-core drinker and the demeanor of a man who hated the army but had no idea what else to do. He was a meaner version of Sgt. Orville C. King, the long-suffering character in “No Time for Sergeants”. His desk was buried under piles of paperwork with binders, menus, schedules, requisitions and regulations scattered everywhere. He kept a bottle of bourbon in a file drawer (I saw it). His name was Brown.
Sgt. Brown dispatched the other “wounded” troops on some sort of maintenance detail, then eyed me wearily. “Can you count?,” he asked. “Uh, yes, sergeant.” “Can you add and subtract and multiply and divide or didn’t you get that far in school?”
I hadn’t learned much during my first six weeks in the army but one thing I had learned was that being a college graduate didn’t endear you to anyone, especially non-commissioned officers, so I didn’t snicker or smile or do anything except say, “I can do all that, sergeant.”
“TRUSTY!!!!,” he bellowed. “GET IN HERE!!!!”
My first thought was that trusty was a position, not a person, like a prison trusty or maybe some military jargon I hadn’t heard before. But no, TRUSTY!!!! was a person, a gangly. jug-eared, acned scarecrow of a kid who couldn’t have been more than 17 years old. Think Forrest Gump’s younger, dumber brother.
“Trusty, this guy’s gonna help you with the inventory. He says he can add.”
“I don’t need no help, sergeant.”
“You need all the help you can get. Now git!”
Trusty glowered at me, then spun on his heels and stomped off. I followed.
It turned out I was right – he was seventeen. His parents had had to give their permission for him to enlist. I was startled to learn that Private Trusty had been in the army only about three weeks longer than I had. That was because, while most army trainees do eight weeks of basic training followed by eight weeks of advanced individual training (A.I.T.), which is when you’re trained to do whatever job you’re going to do for the rest of your time in the army, cooks skipped A.I.T. They got sent to the mess halls directly out of Basic Training, the only m.o.s. (military occupational specialty) that was o.j.t. Private Trusty had finished basic training one week before I met him.
As it happened, Private Trusty had never been away from home – a small town in Nebraska – until he joined the army. Well, there was a field trip to the state capitol in Lincoln during his freshman year, but you take my point. I believe he was an only child. His parents may have been older, though I may be making that up. But one thing about which I’m almost positive is that I was the first person over whom he had ever held authority in his life. It went right to his head.
The task, as Sgt. Brown had indicated, was to take inventory of a couple of large storerooms full of dry goods. By ‘large’, I don’t mean warehouse-size, just big rooms with high ceilings filled chock-a-block with canned goods, sacks of rice and flour, cartons of Jello, boxes of cereal, etc. – all the bulk items and non-perishable food stuffs that went into making the world’s most monotonous victuals – Army chow.
In a high-pitched voice somewhat reminiscent of Don Knotts (“No Time for Sergeants” again) Trusty explained what he expected of me. There was a clipboard (everything in the Army requires a clipboard) with a sheaf of forms on it. The forms listed all of the dry goods used in this man’s army in 1968. My job was to check the contents of the stock room against the list and account for every single item in the room. Did I have any questions? I did not.
Private Trusty disappeared.
Among the things that the Army is good at, organizing and labeling stand out. The storeroom was a model of both. Corn flakes. Clearly labeled – contents per carton – twelve boxes. Four cartons to a row. Stacked three high and three deep. In other words, 12x4x3x3. Four hundred thirty two boxes of corn flakes. Find the box on the form, fill in the number. Check. Tomato sauce. One gallon cans. Four to a carton. Three cartons to a row, stacked four high and four deep. 4x3x4x4. One hundred ninety two gallons of tomato sauce. Check. Rice. Fifty pound sacks. Stacked five by five per pallet. Six pallets. It was like third grade word problems, only with actual things instead of words.
There was stuff up on high shelves, stuff shoved back in corners that was hard to get to, so ladders were involved and crawling over stacks of boxes and bags of this or that, but still… 10x4x3x3, 12x6x4, 24x6x4x4 (evaporated milk). The forms were remarkably complete. Jello, grape, 12x20x4x4. Jello, lime, ditto. Check and check. It was mindless, but at least I was alone. In retrospect, it may have been the only time I had been alone in six weeks, so I wasn’t in any hurry, but I also didn’t dally. I just kept counting. Private Trusty stuck his head in a couple of times to check on me. He admonished me not to lump the Jello together. I showed him the appropriate form with each flavor accounted for. “Carry on.” And he disappeared again.
The first room took about an hour. The second took less. Unwittingly, I had violated one of the most important rules of military life, especially at the lowest level of the chain of command, which is that whatever job you are doing, no matter how mindless, tedious, or boring it is, will be better than whatever you’ll have to do next. So, make it llllaaaaassssttttt. That’s what Private Trusty thought he had done when he gave me the clipboard. I don’t know exactly how long he thought it would take me to inventory two store rooms, but it was a helluvalot longer than two hours. He figured he had at least the whole morning to flake out because if Sgt. Brown asked him what he was doing, he could say that he was supervising me in the storerooms! Perfect. So when I emerged from the second storeroom in just under two hours and handed Private Trusty the clipboard with the forms all filled out, he looked, frankly, aghast. He looked back and forth from the clipboard to me several times, then said something like, “you cheated.”
“You musta just guessed at some of these numbers. You didn’t really count ‘em all, didja.”
“Yeah I did. You don’t believe me, check ‘em yourself.”
He marched back into Storeroom #1, flipping through the pages on the clipboard until he came to an item that he knew was up on one of the high selves, toward the back. He scrambled up the ladder, crawled over a couple of rows of boxes and started counting – out loud.
“Wun, tew, thu-ree, foer, fahv…”
“Can you count?” Sgt. Brown’s words came back to me with an entirely new meaning.
“Can you add and subtract and multiply…”
Multiply. There it was.
“Uh, Private Trusty?
“Dammit! You made me lose count. (beat) Wun, tew, thu-ree…
“Private Trusty, we gotta talk.”
There was a long silence, followed by an awkward backward crawl and descent of the ladder.
“The numbers are right. I didn’t cheat. Honest.”
He eyed me suspiciously.
“Private Trusty, what’s twelve times eight?
His eyes narrowed.
“Nine times seven?”
The eyes opened and anger flashed in them. I held my hands up like a man surrendering.
“I don’t care, okay? But those numbers are right. I swear. Now what else do you want me to do?”
He looked at me for a long moment. I couldn’t tell if he was going to blow up at me or start crying. He did neither. He just spun on his heels and did what he’d been taught to do by nine weeks of military training, if not by life itself: he went to his superior.
He was back in a minute, looking relieved. “Follow me.” We walked through the mess hall to a huge walk-in refrigerator – a reefer, as it was called. It was filled with fruits and vegetables, wooden cartons and boxes and big metal bins filled with real, fresh food – lettuces and radishes and broccoli and cauliflower and tomatoes and apples and pears and oranges and grapefruit. It even smelled good, like a slightly musty garden.
“Grab one of them pans of grapefruit.”
There were three of them. Six inches deep, two feet wide, three feet long, stacked to overflowing with glistening golden-yellow globes. I grabbed the first one and discovered that I could barely lift it. Huffing and puffing, I followed Trusty back thru the mess hall and then through the rear doors that led to a large loading dock.
“Put her down.”
“What are we doing?”
“We’re tossin’ em.”
“What?! Why? They’re gorgeous.”
“They ain’t on the master menu til Tuesday. They gotta go.”
The master menu. A term I had never heard before. And have never forgotten since. It seems that all garrisoned personnel in the U.S. Army, at least all of us stationed in the continental United States, ate exactly the same thing for every meal, every day. That’s why it was called the master menu. I don’t know about soldiers overseas. Perhaps those stationed in Guam or Alaska or other distant outposts were exempt, and the poor bastards in Vietnam were eating k-rations out of cans, but for the vast majority of America’s domestic defenders, whether you were in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, or Fort Ord, California, or Fort Hamilton, New York, or Fort Benning, Georgia, you ate the same slop as everybody else for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Thousand Island Dressing on your iceberg lettuce was made with same one-part-ketchup-to-one-part-mayonnaise. For breakfast everyday you could have eggs (powdered) and sausage or oatmeal or pancakes or dry cereal, washed down with milk, orange juice, coffee or soda(!). Corned beef hash on Wednesdays. Every Friday, fish sticks were available for our Catholic brothers-in-arms. How many beef roasts were needed to feed two million men spread across the lower forty-eight on Tuesday, November 12, 1968? How many boxes of Jello (available every day, though the flavors and fillings changed – lime with shaved carrots on Monday, grape with pineapple chunks on Tuesday, etc.)? Mac and cheese, pork chops, chop suey with those crunchy noodles on top, fruit cup, tapioca pudding (who ate tapioca pudding?) – whatever it was, it was exactly the same in every mess hall across the land. If it’s Tuesday, it must be hamburger stroganoff. Who knew?
Most of it was, of course, dreadful, maybe not as bad a prison food, but at least as bad as the food at your high school cafeteria. Still, there was a lot of it and it filled us up and at least no one was yelling at us while we ate – that came in OCS. And for me, there were always fresh fruit and veggies.
I have always loved fruits and vegetables. Maybe it has to do with my mid-western roots, but there’s no better summer dinner than a platter of beefsteak tomatoes and cucumbers, fresh sweet corn smothered with butter and salt, a wilted spinach salad with bacon, and watermelon or fresh peaches for dessert, with sun-brewed iced tea to wash it all down. And in the mornings, especially in the winter, there was fresh grapefruit from Florida.
My father used to serve it to me for breakfast. He’d cut every section with a special serrated knife and he taught me to eat it with a sprinkle of salt instead of sugar, which enhances the flavor. I loved every kind of fruit, but there was something about grapefruit in the depths of a frozen Iowa winter that seemed so exotic and almost privileged. And now I was supposed to trash about 150 of them for no reason other than the fact that they weren’t on the master-fucking-menu.
There wasn’t a thing wrong with them. They weren’t going soft. The skin wasn’t mottled. In fact, they were perfect. Each one had “Indian River” stamped on it, the best you could get. I told Private Trusty that this was nuts, that it was an incredible waste, that we should at least squeeze the juice out of them and serve it with lunch and dinner.
“I don’t much care for it myself,” he said. “Anyway, it don’t matter. Toss ‘em.”
He headed back into the mess hall.
As it turned out, the army was ahead actually of the times when it came to garbage. When I looked around the loading dock, I discovered a half-dozen enormous cans, almost as big as dumpsters, each with its own label – “edible garbage”, “bones”, “fruits and vegetables”, etc. I was unclear on the differentiation between them – it seemed to me that everything was ‘edible garbage’, depending on the creature involved – but clearly, my destination was supposed to be ‘fruits and vegetables.’ With a heavy sigh, I lifted the lid on the oversized container and started tossing those beautiful grapefruit inside.
“What are you doin’?
“I’m throwing away the grapefruit. Don’t tell me this is the wrong bin!“
“That’s the right bin but that ain’t the way yer sposed to do it.”
“You gotta squeeze ‘em first. That way they don’t weigh so much and they don’t take up so much room.”
“Well, is there some technique for squeezing them? I mean, how am I supposed to do it.”
It was at this point that Private Trusty surprised me. For the first time, he impressed his seniority upon me in a way I would come to recognize as a hallmark of military protocol thru the ages. If you are asked a question by a soldier of lower rank and you do not know the answer to the question, only one response is needed.
“You can figure it out. Use yer in-gin-ooty.” I was sure he had no idea what ‘in-gin-ooty’ meant but he’d learned when to use it. Was that the hint of snicker on his face as he went back into the mess hall?
All right, fair enough. I went back into the mess hall and found a butcher knife. I cut a half-dozen grapefruit in half, took one of the halves in my hands and squeezed. There was a storm drain implanted in the loading dock, so I made it my target. I kept squeezing until I had wrung the juice from about eight grapefruit halves. There’s a lot of juice in half a grapefruit. Especially an Indian River grapefruit in its prime – that’s what makes it so luscious. After hand-squeezing eight grapefruit halves, I discovered that I had lost all feeling in my forearms. I could no longer make a proper fist. I was in a lot of pain. And I had at least fifty more grapefruit in the pan at hand and two more pans after that. ‘In-gin-ooty’ indeed.
As I considered my problem, I noticed that it had turned into a beautiful day. Even though it felt like I’d already been at the mess hall forever, in fact, it was only about ten o’clock in the morning. The sun had broken through and there was still some late autumn color in the trees. It was warm enough to take off my field jacket and work in my fatigues. And once again, to my amazement, I found myself alone. I had the entire loading dock to myself. At this point, Trusty clearly thought he was rid of me for a while. Having already understood the folly of completing the inventory too quickly, I realized that I should try to make the task of disposing of the grapefruit last as long as I could. Maybe I could make it to lunch. Or beyond. Given the status of my forearms, maybe the entire day. Still, I had to keep working, lest Trusty check up on me and find me goofing off.
I went back into mess hall, not even knowing what I was looking for. Then I spied a set of enormous kitchen tongs, the type you might use to turn sides of mutton or small goats. I took them back to the loading dock and locked a grapefruit half between the pincers. Squeeeeeze. No good. The juice squirted everywhere, the grapefruit half flew out of the tongs in mid-squeeze, and my forearms still hurt.
I took a cigarette break. I sat down on the loading dock, feet dangling, soaking up the sunshine. In the distance, I could hear some group of trainees being double-timed to the rifle range, the unmistakable call-and-response cadence of a senior D.I. singing “my first sergeant, he turned green”, the troop repeating the phrase in labored unison, the D.I. continuing, “somebody pissed in his canteen.” Trainees: “somebody pissed in his canteen.” “Sound off!” (sound off!) Sound off! (sound off!) One two three four sound off! Three-four!
I finished my smoke and stood up. On the dock sat another two dozen grapefruit halves, face down. That’s when it hit me.
I stepped on one of them. Squish. It burst like a water balloon. It even made a sort of whooshing sound. The juice shot out in a sunburst around the perimeter. Another step or two around the edges and I’d squashed that sucker flat. A perfect yellow oval, save for a tear or two. I picked it and sailed it like a Frisbee toward the “Fruits & Vegetables” can. Gooooooaaaalllll!!!! I moved another half into position with my toe, then leaped into the air, coming down hard with my boot heel. A mistake. My aim was off. The grapefruit shot out from under my heel and skimmed across the loading dock like a hockey puck. I fell on my ass. So there was a learning curve here. Technique was involved..
It didn’t take long. After experimenting with various configurations and choreographic approaches, I’d figured it out. I’d slice a dozen or so and lay them down in a grid of golden domes, with the edges touching. Then I’d carefully mount the grid, starting in one corner, and begin marching in place. Hup two three four hup two three four. My first sergeant, he turned… I’d work from back to front and side to side, keeping my steps low but forceful in order to maintain balance atop the increasingly slippery dance floor. Did you know that something can be slippery and sticky at the same time? Grapefruit can, especially when it’s being juiced by foot, but after a batch or two, I had it down. I had become the José Greco of grapefruit.
It was fun in an idiotic sort of way. It was absurd, it was a blasphemous waste, but it was also like stumbling into a lost episode of “I Love Lucy.” Yet the stomping wasn’t the best part. The best part was the tossing. Two dozen little yellow Frisbees to sail into “fruits and vegetables.” I was good at Frisbee, not as good as Don Greenwell, my college roommate, but I had skills. I could flip from behind my back, between my knees, with a spin move. I could flip on the move, I could jump-flip. I could flip without seeing the target. Cue the basketball announcer. “Pearson on the dribble at the top of the key. He hesitates, cuts lefts, pulls up and shoots. Swish! That’s six in a row! This guy’s on fire!!!” It was by far the most fun I’d had in the army, which wasn’t saying much, but still. It was a beautiful day, so warm that I’d stripped down to my t-shirt. My boots were soaked but who cared? I was using my in-gin-ooty. I was still alone. And I had another two hundred grapefruit halves waiting to be stomped and sailed into oblivion.
I cannot fully account for what happened next. The sun continued its glorious arc through the autumn sky; the loading dock remained blissfully empty save for a lone soldier at his appointed task (me). I got a little giddy. I started singing as I stomped (rhythm helps work; ask any slave.) At some point, my terpsichorean labors evolved into a variation on the Mexican hat dance. (ya da tada da tada da tada…) It was ridiculous. I may have even had my hands clasped behind my back like some gay caballero. I mean, WTF?! It wasn’t any more ridiculous than what I was doing in the first place.
That’s when the jeep arrived.
It wheeled into the parking area behind the loading dock with red flags flying, mounted on the front bumper, with the insignia of a major emblazoned on them. There was a driver, an enlisted man in fatigues. And there was an officer seated in the passenger seat, mirrored aviator shades beneath his cap, square jawed, straight backed, every inch a soldier. Major Bennett. Executive Officer of the First Battalion, Second Cavalry, Third Division, Fourth Army, Fifth Reich. Whatever. The brass had arrived. And I’m doing the Mexican hat dance on a pile of grapefruit.
One of the first things you learn in the Army is to always, always salute an officer. Smartly. So I did. Still atop the grapefruit, I snapped off the smartest salute I could muster. “Good morning, sir.”
He just stared at me. Then he dismounted his jeep, climbed the stairs of the loading dock and walked straight toward me. When he was two feet away, he stopped.
“At ease, troop.”
I dropped my salute.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
I’m sure I winced. My eyes probably rolled. I can’t remember all of the possible responses I considered but what came out was…
“Complying with the Master Menu, sir!”
He disappeared into the mess hall bellowing, “Sergeant Brown!!!!!”
I cannot factually report what happened next, because I remained with my grapefruit, but I believe I can piece it together with reasonable verisimilitude. Major Bennett, the brigade XO (executive officer), most likely a West Point graduate, stuck in an assignment at a training base instead of leading troops in Vietnam or going to the Army War College or some other assignment that might offer accelerated career advancement, entered the mess hall, as he did every day because inspecting it was one of his onerous duties, determined to tear Sgt. Brown, the type of career NCO whom he loathed and despised, a new one. But Sgt. Brown, having spent considerably more time in the army than Major Bennett, and being as familiar with the rules, regs, rites and rituals of an army mess hall as any man alive, was undaunted. In the tradition of the military since time immemorial, he hewed to the first rule of the chain of command, stated succinctly, I believe, by none other than Alexander the Great: “shit rolls downhill.” Thus, when asked what the fuck I was doing on the loading dock performing a Mexican hat dance on a dozen head of grapefruit, he answered by saying…
Private Trusty, ears and Adam’s apple flapping, appeared from whatever hole he’d been hiding in and raised his own snappy salute to Major Bennett.
“Private Trusty reporting, sir.”
“Can you please explain to me, Private, what the fuck that soldier is doing out on the loading dock stomping on grapefruit like some crazed flamenco dancer? (okay, I’m embroidering.)
“SIr, he’s complying with the Master Menu.”
The Master Menu. Magic words. At which point, Sgt. Brown undoubtedly opened one of his numerous binders and produced an acetate encased sheet that specified exactly what every soldier in the United States was supposed to be eating during the second week of November, 1968. And then he opened another binder containing the rules and regulations of the United States Army governing the storage of perishable food items, stating unequivocally that fresh grapefruit could be held for not longer than four or seven or ten or sixteen or whatever the fuck number of days it was before they must be disposed of in an appropriate manner. Case closed.
I don’t know how long I stood amidst the grapefruit on the loading dock. I probably moved around a bit. For one thing, I noticed that my boots were not only soaked, but that the acid in the grapefruit was eating away not only the color, but the leather itself. God only knows what the penalty would have been for trashing a pair of combat boots in basic training!!
I can surmise that Major Bennett went about his inspection of the mess hall as usual. I don’t know what was involved, how cursory or exhaustive it might have been. Given the absurdity of the situation, I tend to think it might have been a bit perfunctory. Nevertheless, I remained at my post, as it were, awaiting further orders. And in due time, Major Bennett emerged onto the loading dock. I, of course, snapped another crisp salute.
Major Bennett looked hard at me. Scared, I held my salute, but averted my gaze. You weren’t supposed to stare at an officer unless specifically told to “look at me!” I may be imagining this, but it seemed as though he found himself at some sort of inflection point, as we’ve now learned to say. He looked away, then looked back at me, and then he sighed. A long, dispirited sigh. “Carry on, troop.”
“Yes, sir,” I responded, and snapped off my salute.
He mounted his jeep and sped away. I never saw him again. Nor did I see Private Trusty. After the contretemps with the sergeant and the major, I guess he disappeared into the bowels of mess hall. It was too bad. I would have liked to hear what he thought of my in-gin-ooty.
I did see Sgt. Brown again. As my one and only shift of k.p. was ending, I decided to leave through the rear doors so I could get a last look at the fateful loading dock. It was after eight o’clock at night, the end of a long day. I may have been the last person in the mess hall except for Sergeant Brown. As I passed his desk, he was slumped in his chair, staring at the mountain of papers and binders and detritus on his desk. In his hand was a good-sized glass of bourbon. “Good night, sarge,” I said.
I guess he didn’t hear me.
The Alert Hose Company
It’s a great name, don’t you think? Today, it might provoke a snicker – “I got your alert hose right here, baby” – but at the beginning of the twentieth century, The Alert Hose Company was a real thing – a volunteer fire company in Iowa City, Iowa, where I grew up.
The company was organized in 1883, housed above a livery stable. In those early days, when a fire call came in, the company’s only piece of equipment, a two-wheeled hose wagon, was pulled to the scene of a conflagration by the fire fighters themselves. As the city grew, it was decided that the company needed its own building so a new firehouse was built. It was a handsome, two-story brick edifice with a clock tower. On the clock tower a sheet metal sign was inset into the façade. The block letters were soldered on. “The Alert Hose Co.” was arrayed in an arc across the top. Underneath was the date of the building’s dedication – “1903”.
The new building brought new equipment. The old two wheeled hose wagon was replaced by a four-wheeled wagon that was so heavy, it couldn’t be pulled by humans. Enter the two most famous “employees” in the history of the Iowa City Fire Department. Highball and Snowball, a matched pair of Percherons, each standing more than 17 hands high (about six feet at the shoulder) and weighing more than two thousand pounds, would serve in The Alert Hose Company for 22 years. Snowball’s nose was pink, Highball’s nose was black and when the alarm sounded at the station, they would both pound the floor with their enormous hooves in anticipation.
In those days, volunteer fire departments staged annual statewide competitions. The highlight of these (mostly) friendly get-togethers was a race between each department’s best team of horses hauling four-wheeled hose wagons. Snowball and Highball were entered in every competition from 1904 until they were retired in 1925. They never lost.
But I digress.
That beautiful sheet metal sign that once perched on the façade of The Alert Hose Company now hangs in my living room. It may be the only object in our house that my sons will fight over when we’re gone. The sign has been in my family since 1955. It is, in effect, a trophy, a symbol of Pat Pearson’s singular determination and perseverance. He was my father.
The Alert Hose Company was located at 206 N. Linn St. My dad’s drug store was at 202 N. Linn St., two doors west, on the corner of Linn and Market streets. In between, at 204 N. Linn St., was a tiny one-story building that was not much more than a shack.
The shack was owned and occupied by a gnome. His name was Jake Reisenstein. He was a tailor who catered to both men and women and could do anything with a needle and thread, or, more accurately, a sewing machine. An Austrian Jew who’d fled the Nazis, he’d somehow made his way to Iowa City. He was reputed to be the best tailor in town. He lived in two rooms in the back of his shop.
As befitted his profession, Jake was always beautifully dressed, but in a very old fashioned way. He wore cravats with diamond or pearl stickpins, starched collars, sleeve garters, and spats. On occasion, he sported a monocle. In the summers, he wore a skimmer, a straw hat with a red white and blue satin band. In the winters, he wore a homburg along with a black cashmere topcoat with a Persian lamb collar. Regardless of the season, he tipped his hat and bowed to every woman he met in the street. Jake was a regular at the soda fountain in my dad’s store, where he always ordered an egg salad sandwich and a chocolate milk shake and left a quarter as a tip.
My dad bought the drug store in 1931, in the depths of the Depression. He paid $750, which included all of the fixtures and inventory. He had to borrow $500 to swing the deal. He opened on his 26th birthday, March 17, 1931, and he didn’t take a day off for three years. Pearson’s was open from seven in the morning until ten at night, except Sundays, when it closed at six.
In 1936, he was able to buy the store building and when he married in 1938, he and my mother moved into the apartment above the store. He no longer worked 100 hours a week but he still worked hard and the store prospered. Shortly after the war, he did an extensive remodel but by the end of the 40’s, he had an ambitious new plan for expansion. He wanted to buy Jake Reisentstein’s shack and the Alert Hose building, which had by then been vacant for almost twenty years. His plan was to tear down all three buildings and build a brand new state-of-the-art drug store complete with its own parking lot and drive-up prescription window. No one had ever heard of a drive-up prescription window. It was revolutionary.
My dad worked out a deal with Jake Reisenstein, who was ready to retire and could use the money. I don’t know what he offered him but I’m sure he was very generous. He then approached the City of Iowa City with an admittedly modest offer to buy the vacant Alert Hose building. The city declined. My dad went back with a better offer. Declined again. My dad asked if the city would at least give him a counter offer. Nope.
He couldn’t understand it. Well liked in the community, active in various civic and fraternal organizations, president of the Visiting Nurses Association, a staunch supporter of the Chamber of Commerce, he began to think he had a secret enemy at City Hall, but he couldn’t imagine who or why. He went back to the city a third time and told them to name their price and he’d pay it. He was told the building was not for sale at any price. He needed a new strategy, but what?
It didn’t take long to figure it out.
In 1952, the city of Iowa City had grown to the point that its parochial, mostly volunteer based form of city governance was deemed to be hopelessly outmoded. A modern, growing city, especially a college town full of forward thinking people needed a modern approach to managing its affairs. A municipal bond issue was overwhelmingly approved. It provided funds for a new city hall, complete with spiffy new public safety facilities and a deluxe recreation center. The bond issue also provided funds to hire Iowa City’s first full time city manager.
At the same time, the old district voting system, which was thought to be vulnerable to undue influences from various constituencies that voted as a bloc for their favored candidates, was scrapped. Some of those constituencies, though no one said it out loud, were the three Catholic churches in town, St. Wenceslaus (eastern Europeans), St. Pat’s, (you have to ask?) and St. Mary’s, (everybody else). City-wide elections meant the race was wide open. The first person to announce his candidacy was my Pat Pearson.
My father wasn’t Catholic but his drug store was located two blocks from St. Mary’s, six blocks from St. Wence (as it was called) and he had sponsored the youth basketball program at St. Pat’s for ten years. He had dozens, if not hundreds of customers from all three parishes and when the election results came in, he won in a landslide. He not only won, he got the most votes, which meant he became the mayor of Iowa City. Guess what was the first item he put on the agenda? At the second monthly meeting of the City Council, by unanimous vote, the Alert Hose Company building was sold to W.V. (Pat) Pearson for the sum of $1 (one) dollar. Conflict of interest? I got your conflict of interest right here!
My dad served out his two-year term on the council and, evidently, he was a very effective and popular mayor. It was widely assumed that he would run for another term and no doubt be re-elected as mayor. He did not and was not. He had a new drug store to build.
It took a while to draw up the plans and acquire the permits, but in the summer of 1954, demolition began on the Alert Hose Company and Jake Reisenstein’s little shack. The very first step in the demolition was the removal of the sheet metal sign that still adorned the clock tower. It was removed by an Iowa City fireman, perched at the end of an extension ladder telescoped from the largest fire engine the fire department owned. He worked very carefully so as not to damage the sign. A small crowd gathered for the occasion. The sign wasn’t very heavy – the firefighter tucked it under his arm as he descended the ladder and then he handed it to my dad.
The new Pearson’s Drug Store opened on July 4, 1955, with its own parking lot and drive-up prescription window. Everybody said it was the nicest drug store they’d ever seen. My dad brought the Alert Hose sign home and hung it in our basement rec room, overlooking the ping-pong table. Forty years later, when he went to live in an Alzheimer’s unit in Cedar Rapids, I brought the sign back with me to California and hung in in our living room. We have interesting and attractive pieces of art displayed throughout our home but the piece that people always ask about is the funky looking sheet metal sign. “What’s an Alert Hose Company,” they ask. My wife rolls her eyes – she’s heard this before – and I smile. Funny you should ask.