• dinner with eisenhower

dinner with eisenhower

1:15 AM, Saturday, August 21, 1939

Manila Harbor

It was an ominous calm. The laws of weather are like those of gravity, and those of human affairs. When one extreme has been reached, there must be a return to the other. Officially, there are no boundaries, no extremes, to the Pacific typhoon season of 1939. It had no beginning and no end. It raged all year long. The Earth completed its circuit round the sun; it passed by all the constellations in the sky, and the cyclones never ceased their birthings. The American adventure writer Richard Halliburton had already been lost at sea in the early Spring, boldly trying to sail a Chinese trading vessel across the vast blue to America. But the worst, the deadliest and the most fearsome time began in September of that year. In the sixteen weeks that followed, Meteora vented her spleen on East Asia sixteen times. The dead would number in the unknown hundreds; the damages incalculable. Ship sailings would be delayed, and delayed again. Aircraft operators bit their nails and watched their barometers. Insurance companies groaned. And the world paid little attention. Other storms, even bigger storms, were about to burst elsewhere. Everywhere.

But there was a brief calm in August. In the early hours of the 21st the waters of Manila Harbor lay like a shimmering glass. It reflected a quarter moon and the stars of Sagittarius. Through that constellation the dead center of the Milky Way poured its icy light born of stars and nebula and all the Messier bodies of the galaxy. Jupiter was bright as a star; Mars was nearly in opposition to the sun; Venus would be seen in the morning. Nothing moved on the glassy surface. Not a fish leaped. Not a breath or a sigh of wind. Lightening flickered intermittently in the easterly distance, but too far to carry thunder. Just a reminder. It’s not over. It’s just beginning. Here, and elsewhere. Everywhere.

In the snug, wood-paneled wardroom aboard the tramp steamship SS Beguine the Captain sat ruminating with his Cognac; the Chief Engineer with his Bourbon; the First Mate with his rare glass of Rhine wine; Sparks, the young radio officer, with his kopi luwak, weasel shit coffee.

They had just poured Lt Col Dwight D. Eisenhower into a shiny army staff car on the darkened pier: a black, model 1933 DeSoto sedan, flathead six under the hood. The same model driven by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Eisenhower had eschewed his usual after dinner game of bridge and opted for scotch & soda and conversation. Being on MacArthur’s staff for the last few years it was good to do the talking for once. And Ike had a lot to say, to those who would listen. And it was all about a near future that few people in the world even knew how to contemplate, let alone were willing to. “It’s going to be the biggest show in human history. And hardly anybody knows what’s really coming. Nothing is ever going to be the same again.” He spoke that mostly into his whisky. "Nothing ever the same."

“The Germans are ready now. Now. Even today. And they’ll move before the Winter. Hell, they could move tomorrow. That soon. Churchill knows it, but he can’t get Britain ready in time, doesn’t even have the power. FDR knows it, but he can’t get the Americans ready, not till they want to. The Japanese will have to make their move within a year, two at the most, now that the president has announced he’s going to cut off their oil. Some serious people think he’s deliberately goading them. And I can tell you, a lot of people on both sides are spoiling for a fight.”

First Officer, Eric von Francois, nodded wearily. “Yes. Mr. Hitler is ready. Will you be ready here in the Philippines, when the Japanese come?”

“We should be ready to make a stand, to hold out till the cavalry comes from Stateside. At least that’s the plan. But it’s not about here in the Philippines, or any of the colonies. It’s about China. There won’t be any colonies when it’s over.”

“That’s rather a sweeping statement,” Sparks observed.

Ike shifted his gaze from his amber glass to the weasel shit coffee. He let his mind drift a moment. He was eager to go home, back to the States, where he could see his breath of a winter’s morning, eat beef stew and pea soup and drink all the fresh milk he liked. And plan for the world to turn upside down. “We’re supposed to be getting out of the P.I. We’ve already handed over domestic power. Quezon is president. We’re supposed to be out completely in July of ‘46. It’s in the time table. The British are beginning a similar procedure in Burma. Whatever the Dutch want, or don’t want, they won’t be able to hold the Indies in the event of an uprising. Or a Japanese attack.”

“And Indochine?” The Captain asked.

“How many Frenchmen, surrounded by how many Annamites, bordered by how many Chinese, chased by how many Japanese are there?”

“We’ve always managed.”

“When they didn’t have guns. And high explosives. But that’s not the half of it. When the houses of cards come falling down it’s going to be Mr. Roosevelt who sweeps up. And he’s going to be sweeping the colonies out.” He took another squint at Spark’s ‘outlandish’ cup of Joe, looked fondly into his Scotch, and downed the last. “And that, gentlemen, should send me home.”

And so, having bundled Eisenhower safely home to his wife, Mamie, the four men sat with their different drinks and their same thoughts. Captain Bardinet went to the polished brass and wood Victrola and wound it up again. He set the needle down on the Glen Miller 78 record that Eisenhower had brought as a gift. Moonlight Serenade. It was riding high on the charts in the USA. It was the number one feel-good record of the year. And it would be a year that people needed to feel good.

“You know,” opened up the 1st officer, “Speaking of the Dutch Indies. Back in June, when we were in Batavia, Sparks and I were ashore. He had gone off to find his kopi luwak. I went to the Hotel des Indies for lunch. The director, Mr. Hötte, is cousin to my mother. He introduced me to the American Consul, Mr. Flood. He was quite voluble. And told me emphatically that Mr. Roosevelt is decidedly anticolonialiste. More from practical and strategic concerns than humanitarian, of course. But that’s the best when thinking of strategy. Yes?”

The young radio officer piped up. “Monsieur Roosevelt is on the other side of the globe. Europe will have its war, and will sort things out. It has to be so. Disorderly elements must be dealt with. And Germany has to have her place. And when she does, Europe will again make common cause in the Yellow World. Just as in the Black and the Brown.” Nodding to the craggy faced American engineer, he added, “And the Red.”

“There weren’t so many Red Men to start with.”

“But no machine guns either.”

Looking at the 1st Officer, he switched to his Alsatian German, saying, “Is it not so, Herr First Officer?” He smiled and awaited the Prussian’s approval.

Herr von Francois suppressed a yawn, and suppressed a tired smile. “Of course, lad. Of course.”

After an uncomfortable pause the Captain offered, “Well, Eisenhower seemed to like the prune whip.”

The very term “prune whip” caused a ripple of smirks and muffled chuckles to circle round the table. “Prune whip!” It erupted into open laughter.

Bill Kindrick, big American grizzly bear of a Chief Engineer, couldn’t contain himself and let out a claxon call of long guffaws. “Oh, Jeeze Louise! When we told Lydia she hadda make somthin called prune whip I thought she’d turn turtle and capsize! ‘What in God’s name is prune whip?’ she says. ‘And why does anybody wanna eat it? Wadda they feed those Yankee soldiers that they want something called prune whip? I was Escoffier’s last apprentice! I cooked at the Ritz! And you want prune whip?’”

1st chimed in, “Alphonse had to get the recipe from the colonel’s desk sergeant, who had to get it from his driver, who had to get it from his wife! And then he had to find prunes! In tropical Asia!”

“And he thought Spark’s weasel shit coffee was bad,” Kindrick bellowed. And the yucks went round and round.

Sparks said that, “Her voice went from baritone to falsetto when she saw the tin of prunes. A good thing the colonel didn’t hear that. And good thing he didn’t ask to congratulate the cook!” And the laughter dampened a bit. But the warm saxophone tones and the lilting clarinet of Moonlight Serenade buoyed them and kept them smiling, and recalling Ike’s relishing of the fluffy prune whip and his furtive glances at the kopi luwak.

Perhaps the war would wait, after all. Perhaps all the storms would blow themselves out.