My teenage son is not a malleable person, something that has both its good sides and its bad ones. When he’s got the right idea in his head, such as his opposition to drugs, it’s admirable. When he’s got the wrong idea in his head, though, as happened when he accepted uncritically his AP US history teacher’s assurance that the Black Panthers were freedom fighters, his stubbornness can be extremely frustrating. Sometimes I wonder where that stubborn streak comes from and then, when I think of my father (as I’ve done often since my mother died), I know exactly where it came from.
One of Daddy’s favorite stories from his service in the Royal Air Force during WWII highlighted Daddy’s dogged dogmatism. I forget exactly how it came about, but one day my Dad — a German immigrant to Palestine who enlisted in the RAF on the day Britain declared war on Germany — was the highest ranked enlisted man in his military encampment, somewhere in North Africa. That is the reason why, when a new commanding officer took over, Daddy was the one who went to the officer’s tent to introduce himself.
After Daddy identified himself, the new commander stated, “I am Newcastle.”
“Ah,” said Daddy anxious to puff his nonexistent British bona fides, “You were named after that town in England.”
“No, the town was named after me.”
At this point, the wise enlisted man would have stopped. Not Dad, though. He might have been a 21 or 22-year-old enlisted man facing off against his high-ranking new commanding officer, but he wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stop him . . . not when he was sure he had the right of things.
“Excuse me, sir, but people are named after towns, not the other way around.”
“Young man, I am the Duke of Newcastle. The town was named after me!”
Daddy was finally silenced.
Of course, when I first heard this story as a child, I asked the obvious follow-up: “Did you get in trouble?”
“No,” Daddy replied. “The Duke was a delightful man. He was one of the best commanding officers I had during those years.”
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I finally know what that nice Duke, who gracefully put up with a little bombast from a bright, personable, and very stubborn, young man, looked like (at least in later years, long after the war ended):
There was a coda to this story which my parents added every time my Dad retold it (which was often). “Such a sad thing happened to him later. His daughter fell in with a gang of thieves in the 1960s. When she was invited to the grand houses of family friends, she’d scout out these locations and then pass information to the gang, which would then rob the stately home. She was arrested; it was in all the papers. “Duke’s daughter is a shill” was (I believe) the headline Mom or Dad always quoted.
I don’t know if it’s true that one of the Duke’s daughters ran afoul of the law. Wikipedia identifies two daughters, but there’s no indication that either ever dallied with criminals. To my parents, though, this tag end story was inextricably intertwined with the story of my Dad’s delightful Duke.
(As for that reference to a “long line of stubborn people,” it’s not just his grandfather. We Jews, after are, are a stiff-necked people.