The wife and kids were out for the night, so I had the television set to myself. I don’t watch much TV, usually Red Sox games, so this was a treat. In my recliner, a bowl of popcorn in my lap, I powered it up and explored Newton Minnow’s ‘vast waste land’. My thumb clicked the remote, quickly rejecting the History Channel, which now demeaned it’s once great name and reputation with programming about Sasquatch, ancient aliens, and shark wranglers, along with cooking shows, sports channels-it was not baseball season, reality TV, vacuous talking heads on the news, and way too many shopping channels.
I was running out of options when a flickering black and white image of a spinning globe and the strains of La Marseillaise grabbed my attention. The familiar voiceover told of refuges from Nazi occupation following a tortuous route across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in hopes of obtaining an exit visa to Lisbon and onto the New World. I was hooked. The Humphrey Bogart classic movie Casablanca ranks among my favorite films along with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and A Day at the Races.
Casablanca is a great film, but one must occasionally suspend belief to enjoy it. Such is case when “Irrevocable Letters of Transit” are discussed. Ugarte, a petty grifter, tells Bogart’s Rick Blaine that he is in possession of such letters, effectively exit visas, that are, “…signed by General de Gaulle, Cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.” At the time Casablanca was administered by collaborationist Vichy France and de Gaulle was in exile. Why would any pro-Nazi bureaucrat, especially Vichy’s unscrupulous and cynical prefect of police in Casablanca, Claude Raines’ Inspector Louis Renault, who admits to being, “a poor corrupt official,” honor them?
Speaking of suspended belief. The closing scene takes place on wet puddle filled runway and, as a pilot, it has always intrigued me. In an earlier exchange Renault asked Rick, “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?” He replied, “My health, I came to Casablanca for the waters.” An astounded Renault shoots back, “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” If that is true, why the wet runway?
My mind drifted off, as it so often does, into a stream of consciousness and I found myself thinking of another escape from the Germans; Allen Dulles and ‘The Sealed Train’. A sealed train is one that travels internationally, under a customs seal-hence the name. Under seal its contents are not legally recognized as having been in the nations through which it travels and are not subject to tariffs.
On April 8, 1917 Dulles, then a young diplomat, assigned to Bern, Switzerland, was told he had a phone call from Vladimir Lenin seeking a meeting. He demurred as he was on his way to play tennis. The next morning Lenin left Switzerland aboard a German sealed train bound for Petrograd, there to spark the Russian Revolution. Thirty six years later Dulles, now Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, may well have thought about his missed opportunity, the sealed train. How much different his job might have been he just put down his racket, picked up the phone, and met with Lenin?
My stream of consciousness eddied back to the summer of 1967. I had a summer job teaching sailing and was shooting a lot of service rifle. I shot on the US Naval Underwater Sound Lab’s winter league smallbore team and helped The Old Man with their junior program. Because of this Allan Cameron, Executive Officer of the Lab, had taken me under his wing. He issued me an M1 from the Lab’s armory and provided an unlimited supply of .30-06 TW54 ammunition.
I dreamed of going to Camp Perry and was in hot pursuit of a spot on the Connecticut State Rifle and Revolver Association’s High Power Team. In those days, membership on an accredited state team meant the Director of Civilian Marksmanship picked up the tab for transportation, room and board, entry fees, and National Match ammunition. The ranges were run and manned by the various services who both scored and pulled targets. The only responsibility a shooter had was to be safe and, having earned the required Small Arms Firing School certificate, be at the assigned firing point at the appropriate time, draw ammunition, and shoot.
My plan was to use the money saved to purchase a “Rifle, U.S. cal .30 M1, National Match” for $95.00. Minimum wage at the time was $1.40, so the rifle went for about three 40 hour work weeks, oddly enough just about the same as it would today.
I had been shooting OK in the tryouts but was closer to the bottom than the top. What kept me in the running was that I was a ‘New Shooter”, a valuable commodity, as every team had to have at least 50% “New Shooters.”
The Friday before the final tryout was a brutally hot and sunny July day so I shucked off my usual long trousers for cutoffs when I got to the dock. Busy getting the class started I forgot to slather on, what we called in the pre sunscreen days, suntan lotion. After four or five hours of herding six 20 foot sloops around the Thames River my albino legs had turned a nice tomato red.
Tryouts were Sunday and I hoped time and some burn remedies would put me right. Over the next 36 hours my mother covered my legs with petroleum jelly, ice packs, a poultice of cold wet tea bags, dish towels soaked in Epsom salts, and, in desperation, buttermilk.
The first stage of the tryout went well, there was little contact between my burned legs and my clothing and I opened with a 195-7X standing. So far, so good. That all ended when I prepped for sitting. The agony of my elbows and trousers on my thighs and my tight dry skin cost me comfort and flexibility. I could not get into a good position. Rapid and slow prone were OK but my hopes for Perry had ended at the 200 yard line.
That was my missed opportunity, my sealed train for later that year Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor played a trick, without a treat, on the competitive shooters. On Halloween he announced that the Army would not support the National Matches in 1968. The NRA would keep the National Matches and Championships alive, but when I finally got to Perry, I had to foot the bill, shoot, score, and pull targets.
The Good Old Days were gone, never to return, and I had missed them, not for a set of tennis, but for lack of a little common sense and a large squirt of suntan lotion.