Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up and living
in Oklahoma, California, Arizona, Texas, and Africa.....
Ain't done growing up 'til I get over on the other side :-)




EDITOR:
Steve Van Nattan

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THE DAY THE FAT LADY SANG

An experience, among many, on the HMS Mauritanian

By Steve Van Nattan

 

 

 

 

 

THE HMS MAURITANIA

It was 1959, and my parents were returning to Africa for their second term of service with the Africa Inland Mission. I had suffered through the tenth grade at Southgate High school in South Gate, California, and I was glad to be going "home" to Africa.

My parents booked us on the British Cunard Line passenger ship, the HMS Mauritania. This was a luxury ship with the classy old era look of the Titanic. There was lots of mahogany wood work, railings, and staircases. The decks had lots of pampering toys for us to use during the day time, and this was "tourist class," the cheap class.

Life on an ocean liner is dull by and large. So, the company makes sure to find many ways in which you can amuse yourself. Walking the decks is fun for a while, but this soon gives way to reading, and then that gives way to an urge to get some exercise. In the old days we did not have swimming pools, at least not in tourist class. We had coits. This is a game played like ping pong, but instead of a table there is a court marked out on the deck, and the coit is a round rubber hoop about eight inches across. The idea is to catch the coit and return it to the other side so that the opponent fails to catch it. There are some typically British rules as to proper courtesy in how to toss the coit so as to avoid bashing the other person in the face. This game is also called deck tennis I believe.

The fresh ocean air, the walking, the talking, the reading, and the coits are all just barely enough exertion to justify eating the huge meals offered on these British ships.

At meal time a fellow with a small marimba walked the passage ways banging out a short tune, bong, bong, bong. This meant it was time to go to the dining room.

The table service was colonial era of course, and formal. There was a soup spoon the size of a small shovel on the far right. Then there were two knives on the right, one was a fish knife with a cut out in the back of the blade which looked like it was made more for fighting than eating. Then, there was a generic spoon. To the left was a dinner fork, and on the outside a fish fork which had a wee cross between the two middle tines. A third fork was there, and I never learned what to do with it.

That is not all. At the top of the plate was a dessert fork, a dessert spoon, and a tiny coffee spoon. The napkin (serviette) was about four feet square, and you were expected to cover you lap with this. There was a bread plate with its own knife to butter the thin leathery bread all British aristocrats seem to like. There was a water tumbler and a wine glass. And, there was a coffee cup and saucer. If we had been in first class we would have got all the rest of the cutlery involved, but, believe it of not, the above was for us low price peasants.

The photo below shows a table setting in the British form used on the Mauritania, though only the First Class passengers got the silver plate dinner plate.

There was no salad fork or plate because the British do not eat anything that is not boiled to death or baked.

Meals were served the British colonial era way. There was a menu with several choices, and some of it was in French because, though the British hate the French, some food items that are really dull can easily be disguised by using their French name.

 

 

The waiters would take orders, and there was a short wait, but all similarity to American culture ended there. The waiter would come around with a large bowl of peas or mashed potatoes, slip the serving bowl in between you and the person to your left, and you would serve yourself a portion of each item on the menu which you wanted. It was very important to sit still while the person next to you was being served so that they got the roast beef onto their plate instead of the floor. All of this the British learn from birth, so we Americans had to learn on the fly.

First comes the soup course. The waiter brings these huge shallow soup bowls that are shaped like a short flat hat sitting on its top, and he sets one in front of you. When he brings the soup in a tureen, you serve yourself, and the trick is to get the soup from the tureen into your bowl instead of into your lap. That is why the huge cloth napkin is handy.

One ladle of soup and the silly bowl is full. It looks like a very bad start, like you may end up at the end of the meal still hungry. The soup is sometimes pretty good, but often it is important to read the menu first so that you can distinguish if it as turtle soup rather than road kill. Ifthe menu says "Mulligatawny Soup," that is soup made from various bits of vegetables and meat from the back of the freezer, and curry is added. After you finish your soup the bowl and spoon are removed, and you need only look to the left and right to tell from the weird gurka knife, and the Vatican cruciform fork, that you will next have fish.

Now, the British do know what to do with fish. They bread it and deep fry it nice and crisp. The waiter usually serves you himself, and a slice of lemon is added. If you particularly like the fish, and the entree on the menu reads "turnips and potatoes and a lump of beer boiled to death," you can have more fish. The trick is that you will want to carefully clean off your fish knife and fork on your cloth napkin, return them to their proper places beside your plate, and slip the plate into your lap under the monster napkin. The waiters figure out what course to serve each passenger next by checking what cutlery is still laying beside their plate. You can get up to three pieces of the fantastic fish before the waiter says, "Ayy, your lordship, I think you have had a bit of fish, what?" At this point, you smile, produce the plates and ask to go straight to the dessert course.

To which the waiter adds, "Are you quite sure sir? Did you see that we have a lovely curried lamb?" This is when you groan in regret because you love curry and rice, and it was added on a bit of paper at the top of the menu with a paper clip. And all your menu has left is the paper clip. And, you are full of fish.

The main course is often several vegetables boiled to death, and a lump of oven baked beef. This is good nourishing food which the British love, and we Americans tolerate. There are several sauces in a silver plated holder in the center of the table to add a touch of flavor, and this works out pretty well considering the dessert is ice cream.

Now, this is where the fat lady sang.

We had a Portuguese waiter who was really clever and downright entertaining to watch as he buzzed along making our meals delightful. The Portuguese were the first brave navigators who went around the world discovering lands and natives who were totally unaware that they needed to be discovered. The Portuguese did very well at the discovery business, and they planted forts all the way around Africa and on to India.

Well, Portugal ran out of men who wanted to join the discovery trade, and the Spanish stepped in and took all the Portuguese' forts. Then, the British took these choice discovered lands away from the Spanish. The Portuguese did the next best thing-- they went to work for the Spanish and the British as sailors and crew. For this reason, by far the biggest percentage of stewards and waiters on passenger liners were Portuguese, and a very clever bunch they are too.

Our Portuguese steward could pile about seven plates of desserts up his arm and negotiate between other waiters and not drop one. He rushed top speed everywhere he went, and he was gregarious and witty. Just the sort of thing we all loved.

We sat at assigned tables. The British love this sort of thing because the British will add red tape to anything, even where you sit to eat. The table next to us had two older couples who behaved like they were well above us tourist class folks but were eating with us to make us feel privileged. One lady was huge, and she was perpetuating the old practice of wearing a girdle in order to shrink her wandering waistline while lifting her bosoms into the heavenlies for us all to admire. At her age the effect was much like looking at an elephant in an undersized swimming suit.

One day, at noon, we had Brussels sprouts, which was a nice break from the sprouts' big brother, cabbage. The British ate tons of boiled cabbage during World War II because they could grow it in their back garden, and it became a symbol of national patriotism to be merry hearted about eating cabbage every day. So, boiled cabbage was still cropping up in the main course of the finest restaurants and cruise ships of the 1950s.

There was an island in the middle of the dining room where monstrous metal bowls of each vegetable were brought, and the waiters filled their serving bowls from the big bowls. These monster bowls were made with a short ring around the base used to grip the bowl with one hand while carrying it on one's shoulder. Our waiter went to the kitchen and was bringing back one of these monster bowls filled and piled high with Brussels sprouts. He was moving fast, and I marveled at his graceful gyrations as he and the bowl teetered this way and that, around other waiters, all without pause or peril.

Just as our agile waiter arrived at the serving island, he turned to slip sideways between the chair of the fat lady and the serving island. This matron of international wisdom and wit was blazing forth on some urgent political issue of the day. Just when the waiter was right behind the lady and trying to squeeze past, the fat lady grabbed her chair, and scooted backward. I know not whence the lady desired to go, but she only got in one scoot.

The Portuguese guy was thin, but not that thin, and the fat lady scooted her chair smack into his belly. I happened to be in a perfect position to see this. The waiter got a look of horror on his face because he was losing his balance, and the bowl of Brussels sprouts was slowly tipping forward, over the lady's head, as the waiter fought it and was losing, and it did not stop. He never let go of the bottom of the bowl, but the Brussels sprouts began to cascade on and on downward, over the lady's head, like a buttered green water fall, and into the huge mysterious cavity between her bosoms made by her low cut dress. What did not fit there landed in her abundant lap.

That's when the fat lady sang.

What a howl. Contralto, and I can still hear her. Every opera soprano on the world would have loved her high note.

Being a teen ager, raised in a home by parents with a great sense of humor and the ability to laugh on themselves, I was at once in horrible pain. I knew the right thing to do was to NOT to laugh. My Dad had seen the whole thing, and he at once jabbed me in the ribs hard, which meant, do not laugh. I looked at my Dad, and he looked very stern but in the same pain I was in, and he too was trying not to laugh.

We all sat and tried to put food into our mouths, but it was awful. My little brother said, "What happened," and we all just stared at him. No one dared to talk. The fat lady got up, abandoned her dissertation on the price of tea in China, and was giving the whole room a run down on the horrors of hired help on ocean liners, all the while spilling sprouts about the room from her cargo bay. Everyone else sat and marveled, and no one laughed. The collective pain from this discipline could liteally be felt.

To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!
Charlie Chaplin

Meanwhile, the Portuguese waiter stood by looking miserable. People would catch his eye and give him a look of sympathy.

We eventually tried to make small talk- we didn't even dare to look at one another. Later, as we all left the dining room, passengers would walk out the doors onto the deck and then burst into roaring laughter.

The lady and the Brussels sprouts? I have no idea. But I am sure her cup runneth over, both of them.

I must not forget the dessert. It was ice cream, and it was a tiny little block of it at that. My Dad got a bit grumpy at the serving size, and then we started eating it with a tiny dessert spoon the size you might use to clean out your navel. We soon figured out why such tiny servings. The stuff was fully 50% butter fat, and the flavor was extreme. We could hardly finish the serving. But, it was good indeed. I have never had such rich ice cream before or since.

 

MORAL:

We must always pause in life and learn from our experiences. So, what is the moral of this story?

If you lift you cup amongst the masses in mirth and joy,
Do not complain when some hapless soul fills your cup with Brussels sprouts.

That's the best I could do folks.

 

HERE IS A VIDEO OF THE CHRISTENING OF THE QUEEN ELIZABETH II
One last moment of Britannian glory for England


FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF CUNARD LINE SHIPPING ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
This is the last great ocean liner, the Queen Mary II.
All the following cruise ships are a lot of wobbly boxes over populated by silly asses who crave nothing in life but to dance with the captain on the poop deck. I had a lady piano tuning customer tell me that. She and her husband went on cruises most of the time on their retirement, and they none of the usual gongs and trinkets on their walls, only photos of themselves standing or dancing with cruise ship captains. Wippy doo.

STORM ON THE QUEEN MARY II
This is not much of an issue on an ocean liner this size.

THIS IS THE BEST DOCUMENTARY I COULD FIND FOR YOU
ABOUT OCEAN LINER VERSUS CRUISE SHIP CULTURE.

There is suspense and drama in this documentary.
This would be a great start of a research study for some home schooler. Start with this documentary, and they go back in time and follow the history of ocean passenger travel up to the QM II. You might find that very few authors have actually done the whole story.

 

 

 

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