That is the way we decided to talk, free and easy, two young men discussing a boxing match. That was the only way to talk. You couldn't let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn't admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen. If you opened the door even a centimeter, you would smell the rot outside and hear the screams. You did not open the door. You kept your mind on the tasks of the day, the hunt for food and water and something to burn, and you saved the rest for the end of the war.
It doesn't happen to me anymore, because a fresh generation of Africans and Asians has arisen to take over the business, but in my early years in Washington, D.C., I would often find myself in the back of a big beat-up old cab driven by an African-American veteran. I became used to the formalities of the : on some hot and drowsy Dixie-like afternoon I would flag down a flaking Chevy. Behind the wheel, leaning wa-aay back and relaxed, often with a cigar stub in the corner of his mouth (and, I am not making this up, but sometimes also with a genuine porkpie hat on the back of his head) would be a grizzled man with the waist of his pants somewhere up around his armpits. I would state my desired destination. In accordance with ancient cabdriver custom, he would say nothing inresponse but simply engage the stickshift on his steering wheel and begin to cruise in a leisurely fashion. There would be a pause. Then: 'You from England?' I would always try to say something along the lines of 'Well, I'm in no position to deny it.' This occasionally got me a grin; in any case, I always knew what was coming next. 'I was there once.' 'Were you in the service?' 'I sure was.' 'Did you get to Normandy?' 'Yes, sir.' But it wasn't Normandy or combat about which they wanted to reminisce. (With real combat veterans, by the way, it almost never is.) It was England itself. 'Man did it know how to rain and the warm beer. Nice people, though. Real nice.' I would never forget to say, as I got out and deliberately didn't overtip (that seeming a cheap thing to do), how much this effort on their part was remembered and appreciated.
One also, in our milieu, simply didn't meet enough Americans to form an opinion. And when one did this was in the days of crew-cuts and short-legged pants they, too, often really did sport crew-cuts and trousers that mysteriously ended several inches short of the instep. Why was that? It obviously wasn't poverty. A colleague of my father's had a daughter who got herself married and found that an American friend she had met on holiday had offered to pay the whole cost of the nuptial feast. I forget the name of this paladin, but he had a crew-cut and amputated trouser-bottoms and a cigar stub and he came from a place called Yonkers, which seemed to me a ridiculous name to give to a suburb. (I, who had survived Crapstone ) Anyway, once again one received a Henry Jamesian impression of brash generosity without overmuch refinement. There was a boy at my boarding school called Warren Powers Laird Myers, the son of an officer stationed at one of the many U.S. Air Force bases in Cambridgeshire. Trousers at The Leys School were uniform and regulation, but he still managed to show a bit of shin and to buzz-cut his hair. 'I am not a Yankee,' he informed me (he was from Norfolk, Virginia). 'I am a CON-federate.' From what I was then gleaning of the news from Dixie, this was unpromising. In our ranks we also had Jamie Auchincloss, a sprig of the Kennedy-Bouvier family that was then occupying the White House. His trousers managed to avoid covering his ankles also, though the fact that he shared a parent with Jackie Kennedy meant that anything he did was accepted as fashionable by definition. The pants of a man I'll call Mr. 'Miller,' a visiting American master who skillfully introduced me to J.D. Salinger, were also falling short of their mark. Mr. Miller's great teacher-feature was that he saw sexual imagery absolutely everywhere and was slightly too fond of pointing it out [...]. Meanwhile, and as I mentioned much earlier, the dominant images projected from the United States were of the attack-dog-and-firehose kind, with swa