‘Concert’ by Christopher W. Dix

Phil Dix RAF pic 1 for MW story

Flight Sergeant Phil Dix – Author’s Copyright

 

Phil Dix stood alone on the deck of the ship. Dressed in his flying gear, big fur-lined boots and a pilot’s helmet, he looked quite strange. The inevitable cigarette was in his mouth.

He looked at the wide grey sea churning into whiteness on the tops of the waves, and heard the cry of gulls and the roar of the ship’s engines. Nearby vessels ploughed their way through as well, and the long grey shape of a destroyer guarded them in the distance. Twenty-four hours ago they were in Iceland – safe. Now, they were heading for Murmansk with food and supplies. Avoiding the German U-boats was hair-raising because they could be hit at any time, almost without warning. He had made the crossing many times before, but he never pretended that he was not frightened. None of them did. A ship like his was a sitting duck, or perhaps a very slow-moving duck.

SS Manela, Pic 2 Flying Boat Base ship for MW Story

SS Manela dockside – Merchant Navy Association Copyright

 

His hands were cold even though he had gloves on, and ice coated the ships’ railings and exposed metalwork. Life was uncomfortable and rations meagre. Hot American chocolate drinks were about the only thing you could get, made with hot water; milk which was strictly rationed. Everyone longed for mealtimes, even though what you got was virtually inedible. At least being below with your mates cheered you up and made you feel warm for a bit. On a long journey like this, boredom was inevitable, so everyone had a strict schedule of work to carry out: cleaning, organising, and lots of physical tasks. One of the worst tasks was being on watch. The huge Polish binoculars were difficult to focus and use, especially when someone else had been using them all day, and keeping the condensation away was a joke.

Sometimes mines would be spotted, and if they were well away from all the ships, the sharpshooters would take pot-shots at them. Because of the roll and keeling of the ship, very few were ever hit and it wasted ammunition, but a crowd always gathered to watch anyway. If they came close to the ship, the experienced sailors were lowered on huge sheets of webbing to shove them away with long wooden poles. The worst scenario would be being attacked whilst this was underway.

Everything on the ship was primitive: the hammocks, the meals, the toilets, and the mess-rooms. Anything that was remotely interesting had been removed long ago. They were on a bare-bones ship with only their cargo and themselves to lose. Milk powder and clothes were going on this journey, and occasionally the captain agreed to some milk powder being broken open and mixed with boiling water as a treat. It tasted foul, and although they drank it rather than nothing, they pitied the recipients away in far off Russia.

Day after day the routine went on, and sleep was the only relief. Sometimes you could get a book from the ship’s library, but they were old and pretty dull. No letters ever came to the ship. You had to get those at Reykjavik, and of course no-one could not speak Russian or Icelandic. On their days off, they went to the local cinema or to an outdoor hot swimming pool, which was no good, if like himyou couldn’t swim anyway.

There were many Americans on this trip. Consultants in various skilled jobs going to lend their expertise, and if one of them got to you, they never stopped talking even when you were trying to work.

US and GB Officers and Troops possibly on Board SS Manela pic. 3 for MW Story

British Naval Officers with American Personnel, thought to be on the SS Manela – Key Publishing Copyright

 

One day, a Senior British Warrant Officer called him in to a makeshift office below decks and asked if he knew anyone who was musical or could sing. When he said he could sing himself, he was told to find a pianist or other instrumentalists and to put on a show for the Americans, who were bored. He protested that he was also bored.

“Yes, but these chaps are our guests. It will be a break from all this ice snow and tedium…am I wrong?”

“No, sir.”

“Right, get on with it. Concert at 22.00 hours tomorrow, in the main mess-hall.” And that was that.

He searched the ranks for musicians and instruments. He found a juggler, a harmonica player, a chap who did magic tricks that no one thought were especially magical, and a George Formby look-alike who could not sing or play anything. Not much of a collection. There was no piano, not even a guitar. He found a room for them all to practice in and watched painfully as they went through their stuff. It was awful.  The Americans, who loved their dancing and singing, would neither be amused or entertained. Still, it was better than nothing at all. He would have to introduce the lot himself. He could inflict his dry and sarcastic Yorkshire wit on them, but he doubted they would make any sense of it.

Feeling fairly desolate, he planned the order of appearance, leaving himself till last. The harmonica-player was inappropriate to accompany him, and so he would have to sing acapella. He felt slightly nervous, not knowing how so many weary non-sailors would react to what they had to offer. He put up the notice for the event and went through the routine of the day, in which there were no major incidents.

At last it came to the appointed hour, and when the small band of entertainers entered the mess hall it was packed tight full of Americans, most smoking, and many already fairly merry on the meagre supply of watered down Icelandic spirits that had been passed around. The Englishmen had kept well away. He estimated maybe sixty Yanks were there.

First was the Magician. They barely reacted. No one knew George Formby, so he lead-ballooned. Then the harmonica player tried several of his best renditions including a couple of famous cowboy songs, and he hoped at least they might hum or sing along, but they were all from the East Coast cities and cowboys meant little to them. It was going like a real disaster, and he felt it was irretrievable. No one clapped. Mostly they talked or shouted at each other, getting visibly sillier and more careless, some even started little entertainments for themselves or played cards in small groups of their own.

He strode at last on to the small stage they had erected in the middle of the mess hall. He was not a tall man, but in his best RAF clothes he looked smart, handsome and purposeful. Standing there with the light shining on him he used his deep, rich voice to talk to them, and they began to quieten. He hoped they had appreciated what they had tried to do to cheer them up, even if it seemed paltry by their standards, and now he was going to sing for them, unaccompanied.

After waiting for silence, he introduced the song:

“This song means a lot to me. As a boy I lived through the Depression in England, and I know how much your country suffered too. It’s called ‘Buddy, can you spare a dime?’”

Off he went into that song.

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there, right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Say, don’t you remember? They called me ‘Al’
It was ‘Al’ all the time
Why don’t you remember? I’m your pal
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, ah, gee, we looked swell
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Oh, say, don’t you remember? They called me ‘Al’
It was ‘Al’ all the time
Say, don’t you remember? I’m your pal
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

He put all the feeling he could into it, and as it progressed he realised how quiet they had gone. The final notes echoed in the hall and there was complete silence. Some men were looking down at the floor. Then, slowly, they began to applaud until all were on their feet, stamping and cheering, whistling. Chords had been touched deep inside these men. They begged him for more songs, and so he obliged, knowing the lyrics and the tunes by heart. He performed one in which he whistled quite a lot, and that seemed to go particularly well. Despite the smoky atmosphere, his throat lasted, and as he finished, they begged him for the first song again. After the second rendition, there was more wild cheering and he was surrounded by men shaking his hands, hugging him, men with eyes full of tears, hearts in their mouths or on their sleeves. It felt good to be so appreciated in those cold and dark days.

His Senior Officer came to see him late that night as he prepared to go on watch.

“Well done,” the Officer said.  “I’m told it went like clockwork, and they’re all much happier now. Do the same on the way back if we have them with us. I’ve got a feeling we’ll lose them in Murmansk though.”

There was no concert on the way back, but his supply of American cigarettes had significantly increased, and wherever he went for the rest of the journey there were smiles, handshakes and back-slapping, which baffled the English sailors and airmen around him. It was a moment to treasure in a bleak existence, a moment to pass on to your children he thought, as once again he stood alone on the bleak deck watching the swirling dark grey sea with the stifling storm clouds above him, scanning the horizon with its promise of endless cold, rain, and danger.

Phil Dix in full Pilot's RAF gear Pic 4 for MW Story

Phil Dix on board SS Manela in full pilot uniform – Author’s Copyright

 


CHRISTOPHER W. DIX, after obtaining his BA degree, was first a journalist in South Wales. He later became a teacher, then a high school principal, and finally, a Secular Celebrant, before stopping work at age 65. He is now 71.

Copyright © 2018 by Christopher W. Dix. All rights reserved.