Baltimore Crabs and Pork Chop Hill
In the late 60's I spent 6 weeks in Baltimore which is located on Chesapeake Bay on the North East coast of the USA.
Boston Metals was a ship breaker and scrap merchants at a docks on Curtis Bay. They would buy ships that were being scrapped, mostly US Navy world war 2 ships, strip out all the machinery, pumps, boilers, turbines, etc and even watertight doors and portholes were just cut out with an oxy-acetylene torch and stored in an enormous warehouse to be sold. Then using cutting gear the hulk was cut away down to the waterline and the rest was then towed to a dry dock to be cut up until there was nothing left of the ship. All the scrap steel was sold and recycled and the machinery kept in the warehouse while a small staff sat by their phones answering inquiries and sometimes selling a pump or two. With a lot of entrepreneurial skill the business was successful and quite large. The owner, Morris Shapiro had arrived in the United States as a penniless 16 year old immigrant in 1902 and, starting in the scrap business, had built up Boston Metals to the large business it was when I first visited them. The crowning achievement of Morris was that 20 years after he started Boston Metals, he purchased for scrap SS Pennsylvania, the very ship that had brought him from Europe to Ellis Island in New York at the turn of the century. He died in 1969.
Our company became involved with them when we expanded our power plant in Venezuela and two boilers from the Battleship Hawaii were purchased. Several years later I was sent there to overhaul a small steam turbine for our factory in Uruguay. Harold Chait was Vice President of Boston Metals and he was assisted by two salesmen, Pete and Steve.
Harold was a true wheeler-dealer and superb salesman. As they covered the cost of the purchase price of a ship by selling the scrap at the going rate, any machinery sales were all profit, so they had plenty of margin for negotiating prices. We were lucky as we picked up power plant machinery for a song. We knew what we were buying, but they didn't. In any case they made a profit, we felt we had a cheap deal, so all were happy.
He told me one day that he had been the US Marine Corps during the second world war and had been in the far east. The US Marines took part in the hard fighting in the islands stretching from Australia to Japan and had earned a fierce reputation. Steve, his assistant, had served in the US Army later in the Korean conflict of 1950. The Marines always looked down on the Army as inferiors in fighting spirit and so Harold was always teasing Steve about this. Steve was a serious guy, good at his job and rarely smiled. Because he reacted when Harold started his banter, it carried on for months. During the telling of the story, Harold confessed that he had been in the quartermaster section of the Marines, getting supplies up to the front and had never been within a hundred miles of any serious military action, although he had never told that to Steve, probably even insinuating that he had been a fighter. One morning, after a day of Harold's teasing, Steve marched in to Harold's office and slapped his hand on Harold's desktop;
Maybe that will make you shut up!
shouted Steve through gritted teeth.
Harold looked down at the small object Steve had left on the desk and to his amazement saw that it was a Silver Star, an award for extraordinary bravery in battle. It is probably equivalent to our Military Medal. Apparently, Steve had been a Sergeant and one day his platoon had stormed a heavily defended Korean Hill, known as Pork Chop Hill and Steve had, almost single-handed, taken out a machine gun position. This action and his leadership during the attack had earned him this prestigious medal. Harold admitted to me how humbled he had felt and both men entered a better working relationship. I was proud to have known them both.
One of his greatest business triumphs was that he had contracted to sell a decommissioned ship to a Japanese company and the boat would be paid for at the daily rate for scrap iron on arrival in Japan. As scrap prices were rising at the time and the contract specified an arrival date, after such time the contract would be canceled. The deal became unfavourable to the Japanese due to the rapid rise in scrap price at that particular time, so the ship mysteriously broke down in Hawaii. Harold took a plane to Hawaii, met with the ships captain and gave him an envelope saying
I don't know what the nips have paid you to break down, but here is $25 thousand in cash to get there in time. It arrived in time and Boston Metals made a small fortune.
The following part of the story, to which the Baltimore Crabs part of the title refers, is not funny, in fact it was sad in a way. There is no twist in the tale, but it happened. It was just one of those things where I was dragged into something quite innocently.
The following year in May I went back to Baltimore to load a 50 ton boiler on to a ship bound for a new factory we were building in Brazil. I was only going to be there for a few days and I took the Saturday Panam flight to JFK then on to Baltimore arriving in the afternoon. I had telexed Boston Metals with my travel plans. On arrival at Baltimore's Friendship airport Pete was there to meet me. This was the first surprise as I expected to rent a car at the airport. We went out to the parking lot and, second surprise, we got into an enormous convertible which reminded me of the car John Travolta drove in the film Grease. It was a beautiful sunny day and Steve then invited me to go straight to his house for a meal then he would drop me at my hotel, the Holiday Inn Downtown, later. He explained that it was the official day for eating Crabs from the Chesapeake Bay and that everybody celebrated by having a barbecue with loads or beer and these famous crabs. Neighbours and family members were already there so, pleasantly surprised, I agreed to go.
On the way there, Pete confessed to me that he had stayed out late drinking the previous night and had told his wife that he was at the airport picking me up so would I please go along with that and not mention that I had only just arrived. I can remember sitting at a trestle table in their garden with a beer and learning how to eat crab using a mallet to crack the shell to get at the delicious meat inside. After a couple of hours I indicated to Pete that I needed to get to the hotel so we went into the house and I sat in the hallway while Pete went upstairs. He came downstairs with a stupid grin on his face and said
Lets go. The next moment his wife's twin sister came downstairs and shouted at Pete
Don't you ever hit my sister again As I stood there in amazement at this strange turn of events, his wife also came downstairs, confronted Pete and told him to get out and, turning to me, take your friend with you!
On the way to the hotel Pete wanted to stop for a drink so we went into a cocktail bar. Inside were a couple at the bar. After ordering, Pete started to chat up the woman right in front of the guy who looked to me like a gangster. I think that by this time Pete was in a self destructive mode and was looking for a fight to get beaten up. I was able to drag him out of the place and he finally dropped me at my hotel. About 11 pm as I was in bed watching the TV the phone rang and his wife asked me if Steve was there. He had dropped me off about three hours ago, but to protect him a little I said that he had just left. I checked up on him a couple of years later and Harold told me that he had divorced and had serious alcohol problems. As an employer Harold had helped him all he could by sending him to rehab, but one day he just disappeared. A sad tale as both he and his wife were quite nice. Such is the human condition. I was still a young man at the time so the event was so startling that I still remember it clearly.
Early the next week when we were ready to load the boiler and about 20 large wooden crates full of fans, pumps, valves, pipe fittings and steel pipes, I drove to Baltimore's railway station to pick up Jack, who was my contact in our New York office. Jack was in purchasing and had hired the stevedore company at the docks who would do the loading. We spent the morning watching the boiler and boxes being lifted aboard the beautiful new Moore-McCormack Lines freighter called the Mormacpride, built in 1960.
The first officer invited us on board for coffee and everything was so new and organized that for a moment I wished I had joined the Merchant Navy. When we had finished, Jack announced that we had been invited to lunch at a fancy restaurant by the boss of the stevedore company. There was a lot of bonhomie, laughter and drinking going on and as it dragged on, I started to get nervous, as I had planned to go shopping for a new suitcase. I was due to fly back to Venezuela early the next morning and with extra purchases, I didn't have enough space. When I announced to our hosts that I needed to go and the reason, two of them whispered to each other then one told me not to worry.
But the stores close at 5, I insisted .
Relax, don't worry, have another scotch was the smiling reply.
I was forced to try and sit back and relax as these guys, although extremely polite and charming, had a look about them that would discourage any type of arguing or insistence on ones own way. When everyone had had enough to eat and drink, two of them told me they would take me to get a suitcase I got in their car and we drove a few blocks away. We then pulled up outside a large Georgian style, white fronted house. This wasn't a shop I thought. They rang the bell and announced themselves over the intercom and the door opened. We went through the hallway when the room opened out into an Aladdin's cave of merchandise. Someone must have demolished the rear of several houses and built a warehouse style building behind leaving the facades of three houses intact to disguise what was really there. I was able to buy a lovely light blue Samsonite suitcase (these were the latest in luggage designed for the booming air travel industry) for about $30, in cash of course, which was about 35% cheaper than the store price.
Sometime later, I read that stevedore companies in the Eastern Seaboard ports were all run by the Mafia!!
All of this took place about 40 years ago and as I was writing this story I did an internet search for Harold just to see if anything came up. To my surprise, his name appeared in documents regarding the Iran-Contra scandal and he was named as a CIA agent!!!
I e-mailed Larry Hancock, the author of Someone Should Have Talked, the latest book about the Kennedy assassination and cover up, who replied:
Actually I don't know that Chait was formally a CIA agent, probably the more likely term is agency "asset". Basically following WWII all of the ex-OSS types that ended up in the CIA went out and informally recruited former service contacts, especially if they had ended up in any business which operated internationally. Which of course makes perfect sense, it was a cheap and very effective way of obtaining open source intelligence and large numbers of American businessmen were recruited and happily cooperated for patriotic reasons, simply sharing observations, names, sometimes acting as couriers. In some cases they ended up operating front companies or were vetted to handle agency sourcing contracts - in turn they were giving business leads and info which gave them a real competitive edge. Beyond that there was a very special clique formed from guys who had served in China and SE Asia in WWII. Either in the AVG or the OSS detachments deployed there. Those guys heavily networked and because a couple of them became major financial wizards, (Helliwell, Concoran, Chennault, Pawley) the same off shore banks that were used for CIA money cut outs were also used for their own private financial purposes, patriotism plus profit, heck of a deal. We do know that several of those folks were very much involved in Iran Contra, unfortunately I don't have any details relating to Chait in that regard, but if he was involved I'm sure it would have gone back to his association with that clique of individuals. There are numerous examples of them helping each other in business deals for decades, sharing CIA intel for financial advantage...just like shipping schedules and manifests, country specific materials inventories, commodities information, etc. A matter of barging intelligence for more intelligence, a very cost effective tactic for general economic and political intel collection.
The Iran-Contra scandal, as it is known, took place during Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 80's, after I was there. I had helped Chait with a couple of sales and he offered me a job, which I turned down as I had a contract with my employer in Venezuela, but just think what I might have been involved in if I had in fact gone to work at Boston Metals.
I was watching a DVD of the classic film Our Man in Havana one night where Alec Guinness invites Captain Segura to a game of draughts.
Instead of the normal circular counters, the pieces are all miniature bottles of liquor, and when a piece is taken, it has to be drunk. Alec Guiness loses, but wins, in the sense that Captain Segura passes out, and Alec is able to borrow Segura's automatic, go out and shoot his enemy, Carter, knowing that he will not be followed by the police.
This reminded me of a true happening in Venezuela involving the Director of a Glasgow based multinational company and the leader of the worker's union at the factory in the village of San Joaquin.
Cardinal Puff was a drinking game played in universities in the 50's. I played it once in a pub in Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, with a bunch of climbers. The exact procedure escapes my memory, but was roughly like this. With a pint of beer on the table, you said
Here's to the health of Cardinal puff for the first time; then did a routine holding up one finger of each hand, then
Here's to the health of Cardinal Puff for the second time; took a second swig of beer and did the previous routine, but with two fingers, finally
Here's to the health of Cardinal Puff for the third time, drank the rest of the pint in one go and did the finger routine with three fingers. The first round successful you kept the empty glass at your side as a marker. The next one round the table then did the same and so on while you replenished your pint. Sounds easy, but by the third pint, mistakes are made in the one, two and three finger routine. If a mistake is made you have to start at the beginning again and your empty glasses are taken away. Obviously the winner is the one who can get through the most rounds without mistakes. By this time of course everyone is legless.
I worked in two textile mills in Venezuela and both had active workers unions. Union leaders were paid by the Company, but did not have to work as their union activities kept them busy. In general some could be described as thugs as their duties seemed to keep them in conflict with somebody or other. Also the factory owners and union usually worked to a contract of 2 to 3 year duration and when it came to renewal that was when the fireworks started. The union would present a list of demands for all sorts of improvements in their work condition. When official negotiations started the Company would quickly approve those that would not cost them much. Finally when the last item, which was usually the amount of pay rise, the serious talking started. Almost always there was deadlock and the union would call a strike. This was serious for the workers as they were very poor and did not receive pay when on strike. The union had a strike fund, but with the usual corrupt practices very often had little money in it.
At the San Joaquin factory during one contract negotiation the union called a strike which turned nasty and neither side would give way, the workers were unhappy and the factory was losing money. There was no common ground for conciliation so Head Office sent Hilary Jones the principal assistant to the Manufacturing Director and well-known troubleshooter. Now this was an organization with 120 factories in almost every country in the world and Hilary Jones was one of their top men. He was Oxbridge educated, very personable, extremely intelligent and moreover spoke reasonable Spanish.
On the second day of his arrival he had a long meeting with the key union leader and they made some progress on minor points but still no end to the strike. Hilary then made an extraordinary and unexpected suggestion. They would adjourn to the local bar and have a drinking competition. Hilary explained about Cardinal Puff and whoever lost would accept the other's demands. This appealed to the tough Union Leader's sense of machismo, as he was probably proud of his drinking prowess, so he accepted.
Hilary won of course and the workers were back on the job the very next day!
Cardinal Puff has several variations. One form can be found here
Jacobo, (pronounced hack-oboe in Spanish), was Administration Manager at Sudamtex when I first arrived in Maracay in 1962.
He was Venezuelan born and grew up in Maracay. His grand-parents were jewish and had emigrated to Venezuela in the 1920's as did many European Jews who maybe had a sense of what was to come in Europe with the rise of Nazism. Apart from Spanish, his native language, he also spoke very good English, which made him a very useful man in an American company. As he had been to school in Maracay he knew most of the local town officials from schooldays and so was able to sort out problems for the expatriate employees, including myself.
Two incidents spring to mind, which apart from being amusing, give a superb example of how things were done in Venezuela.
We had bought a 1953 Ford Mercury, a light green, enormous car compared with English ones at the time. We bought it, second hand, from another Englishman who was going back home and we were very happy with it. Jenny soon learned to drive it and as we then lived within walking distance from the factory, Jenny was able to use it for shopping and to start joining circles of friends during the day. In any ex patriot community the wives keep themselves busy in the day with bridge parties, sewing, golf or just visiting for tea.
One day, along the main shopping street, which was dual carriageway,
Jenny did a turn which, unknown to her, was illegal, and of course
there was a policeman near by who wrote out a ticket for the
violation. We were still trying to settle down in this new country
and culture, so this was a little bit disturbing. We didn't know how
much the fine would be or how to pay it, so I spoke to my boss a
Chilean who laughed and said
Go and talk to Jacobo! I
duly went to Jacobo who also thought that my worries were very
amusing and told me to come back in half and hour and we would see
about it. Soon we were in his car and within a few minutes drove
into the Police Headquarters. Jacobo announced himself to the
receptionist and almost immediately we entered the Police Chief's
office. Jacobo and the Chief immediately embraced each other, laughed
and gave the Venezuelan back slap that accompanies any meeting
between Latin males. There is nothing at all effeminate about this,
but to a raw Englishman the way that Latin men touch each other
especially the embrace on meeting was a bit strange at first. Of
course Jacobo had been at school with him! He introduced me and then
started the next act of the 'ballet' which I found to be standard for
any kind of situation where one requires help from a government
No mention was made of what we wanted or why I was there. Jacobo and
the Chief started the small talk, families, politics what are you
doing now? etc, until after about ten minutes the Chief asked how he
could help us. Jacobo told him I was a very important engineer in
the factory, had only been there for a few months and that my wife
had had a little incident with one of his policemen.
it then he said, and Jacobo handed over the ticket. He glanced
at it and I very nearly burst out laughing as he tore it into pieces
and threw it into his wastepaper basket saying
Well we don't
have to bother with that anymore then. We then shook hands, I
said goodbye, and as we walked to Jacobo's car I knew that I was
going to enjoy living here.
There was another incident a few years later.
When we started to travel, smallpox was still endemic and travellers to both North and South America were required to have an international smallpox certificate. I had one from Manchester when we first went to Venezuela, but they had to be renewed. This involved a small scratch on the arm and the vaccine applied, then a week later another visit to see that it had taken and the certificate was then issued. The certificate had to be renewed every three years and had to be done at a specialist government health centre who were authorized to issue certificates. In Venezuela, this meant for us a long trip into Caracas to be vaccinated and then another trip a week later to get the certificate. We did this a couple of times and apart from the travel meant taking nearly two full days off work.
Maracay, apart from being the principal army base, also had two military airfields, one with a runway large enough to take the large Hercules military transport plane. One of these used to travel weekly to Miami to pick up military supplies. So as there were many Venezuelan military personnel travelling, that the chief air force medical officer was allowed to issue international smallpox certificates Guess what? Jacobo had been at school with him!, so one day Jenny and I and another ex pat couple, Victor and Emilia, who were Cubans, also with Sudamtex, went with Jacobo to the Boca de Rio air base.
We drove to the main gate where a very smartly dressed airman with
shiny boots, blue uniform and white belt and gaiters asked our
business, made the phone call, saluted us and waved us through. We
drove past beautiful old Spanish style buildings which dated from
the days of the dictator General Juan Vicente Gomez. Gomez was very
cruel and ruled with a rod of iron for several years. He liked
Maracay and spent a lot of time there. As a General, he relied on
the army to keep him in power so he made Maracay the centre of his
army and air force. In his time he probably was the Saddam Hussein
of Latin America. There was great jubilation when he died in 1938
and his family had to flee the country and live in exile. He was a
womaniser who took any young woman he fancied and fathered many
illegitimate children, most of whom he recognized. There is a story
that when General Electric the US electrical goods company wanted to
set up business in Venezuela they gave him a refrigerator. After
being told how it worked, he was silent for a moment then pointed to
the name at the top and said
Take it away, there is only room
for one General in this house!. Like most dictators who, took
power by force, he was paranoid and always suspected that even his
closest associates were plotting to overthrow him, and on the least
whim, he would have them arrested and put into jail indefinitely.
Most were innocent and if he let them out eventually they certainly
weren't his friends anymore. In one case the victim's wife went to
Gomez's house in Maracay to plead for her husband's release. Gomez
gallantly invited her to lunch, but would not listen to the wife's
pleas. Finally she threatened that she would not leave his house
until he signed the release order. Without emotion, Gomez called to
Regina, prepare a room for the Senora, she won't
be leaving for a long while!
We eventually arrived at the Medical Officers surgery and sat in his
office. Then followed the obligatory smalltalk. Our Spanish was not
yet fluent, but we could understand most of it, so we kept quiet and
just let the conversation flow over us. Venezuela Spanish is spoken
more slowly than in other regions and has inflections and a musical
inflexion that are quite pleasant. It was also interesting to
compare Victor's Cuban accent. Finally the MO called his assistant
and he brought in four International Smallpox certificates. The MO
filled them in and stamped them with the official seal. We thanked
him, shook hands, a slap on the back and we walked out. We walked
through the passages to the exit and across the tarmac to Jacobo's
car. All of a sudden I realised what had happened.
He forgot to vaccinate us!.
lucky day, Mike. he replied with a grin.
I wrote the draft of this story about 3 years ago and just recently by chance I googled Jacobo. I was saddened to see his obituary in a Caracas newspaper. Through Facebook I contacted one of his sons, now living in Florida, and was able to get this photo of Jacobo who was, of course, a real person. I leave this story as a tribute to a good friend.
Venezuela is a country rich in natural resources, but the problem is, that the Venezuelans have never been able to administer these resources in such a way as to distribute the wealth evenly, and to pass these riches down to the poorest.
Apart from their principal export which is crude oil, they have undeveloped gold fields reckoned to be on a par with South Africa, iron ore, bauxite which is the raw material of aluminum and 2 thousand miles of Caribbean coastline which could be exploited, and vast plains for raising cattle. Venezuela, before oil was discovered, was the world's leading exporter of Cacao, used for making Chocolate. (Channel 4 has recently featured a crazy Englishman who has a plantation there, and is making his own chocolate).
When democracy was born in 1958 there was a unique chance to correct the imbalance, but the rich and political elite conspired to keep this great wealth to themselves and to add insult to injury, shipped the money overseas to safer banks. There was a moment when money held in overseas banks by Venezuelans equalled the External Debt of the country, on which crippling interest payments were levied. After nearly 40 years of this, along came Hugo Chavez Frias who told the poor that he would change the country and as the poor are 80% of the electorate, he was voted in as President. Sadly though words were not enough and the country today is in a worst mess than when we left it.
Black Label come into all this? Well, I was lucky to be in Venezuela in the 70's, on a good salary, member of the Country Club, when Venezuela was swimming in petro-dollars and Europe was queuing at the petrol pumps.
Black Label is one of Johnny Walker's best scotch whiskys, and was one of the favourites of the rich. The translation was Etiqueta Negra and Dame una Etiqueta Negra came too easily to my lips when going out to eat or drink. It was served in a tumbler, not as we drink it here as a few carefully measured drops at the bottom of a midget glass. The tumbler is first filled with ice cubes to the top, then the whisky is poured straight from the bottle to within an inch of the top of the tumbler. Into that inch you would pour a drop of soda, mix it by dipping your forefinger in and twirling the ice cubes around, making a delightful clinking sound, before raising it to your lips for the first sip of the day. Alistaire Cooke, the British journalist living in New York who broadcast a weekly programme called Letter from America on the radio, once said that the most beautiful sound on earth was the clink of ice cubes going into a glass at seven in the evening.
Venezuela, with a 15 million population in those days, was Scotland's leading export market for whisky more than the USA with 200 million population.
One of my businesses was to inspect large industrial steam boilers for several insurance companies which required spending a day or two in a factory together with the State boiler inspector. During the day we were usually treated to a good lunch by the factory's chief engineer.
One memorable occasion was in Valencia at a British owned tobacco company. We had finished a 3 day inspection early and retired to lunch. There were five of us and we sat down at about one o'clock. The restaurant was open air and at a Finca owned by the Carabobo Association of Cattle Breeders. The meat there was exquisite and the best quality. Instead of ordering an individual dish, the barbecued meat could be ordered by the kilo and would be brought to the table in one large piece on a wooden platter with a carving knife and fork. The meat was very lean as tropical cattle do not need to generate a lot of fat to keep warm and our piece was sirloin. This was accompanied by fried yucca which is a common root vegetable replacing potatoes. Yucca grows anywhere and once you are used to it can be quite mouth watering. Fried onion rings were also a specialty and with a mixed salad on the side, it was a meal for a king!! When eating barbecued meat at a restaurant, it was customary to use an oblong shaped wooden board, with a groove around the edge to catch the juices, instead of a normal plate, which made it easier to cut the meat.
Before looking at the menu drinks were ordered. Three of the lads ordered beer and to my horror the Chief Engineer ordered a bottle of Black Label. I was horrified because in Venezuela it was the custom that once a bottle of whisky is opened at the table, it must be finished and there would only be two of us drinking it! No problem, except that I had a 50 mile drive back home along the motorway when we had finished.
Once we had started drinking and eating, my worries vanished in the male bonhomie and chit-chat and we were still at it by 4 o'clock,the bottle empty, when I suddenly remembered that I had to get to a bank and withdraw some cash. ATM's weren't yet invented, so I had to get to the bank before 4.30. I made it, got some money and walked out to the car to drive home, turned the key and heard the rattling noise of a broken starter motor. All vehicles were manufactured in Venezuela and starter motors and generators regularly failed. Luckily, repairing them had generated many small businesses and each town had several workshops specialising in car electrics. A taxi passed by and I drove to his recommended workshop. We went back to my car with a mechanic and toolbox and later were in the shop replacing the solenoid in the starter motor. Back to the car to mount it and the car started first time.
All of this took about 3 hours and may have saved my life. The cafe near the workshop supplied me with several small, strong coffees and with the food eaten, I had sobered up by the time the journey home started. Once again my guardian angel was there to sabotage the starter motor.
Guns an' Things
Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most was that guns were all over the place in Venezuela. Coming from England at that time, where the police didn't carry weapons, it was quite a cultural shock to see every policeman with a sidearm just like in the films from America.
Now of course it saddens me when walking through Britain's airports to see police now armed with automatic weapons. For the last 10 years we spent in Venezuela every shopping mall was swarming with armed guards due to the propensity of the Venezuelan criminal society to rob using guns. Something I read in the Daily Telegraph the other day triggered (excuse the pun) a the memory of an incident that happened to a business client in Caracas.
I used to handle insurance claims for a well known British insurance company specifically with La Electricidad de Caracas, Venezuela's largest Elecricity producing company. All insurance business that was reinsured overseas had to be channelled through a Venezuelan Company, so the norm, especially with the very large risks was placed with a Venezuelan insurance company; they kept 10% of the risk and premiums and the remaining 90% was then reinsured through a specialist European or US company and spread around say Japanese, German and British companies. It is a good system especially when large losses can total hundreds of millions.
I had to work through an Insurance broker and the Vice President of the company was quite a character and we got on well together. He used to walk around his Caracas office with a small 22 calibre revolver in a holster at his waist which I found quite amusing. One day he told me the following story: One Saturday afternoon a close friend of his came to visit, a plain clothes detective with the PTJ (Policia Tecnica Judicial) the equivalent of our CID. He pulled out his 45 automatic and they were discussing some technicality when it discharged. The bullet went through one side of the VP's buttock and out the other. A non fatal flesh wound luckily, but with plenty of blood. The detective promptly fainted, probably from shame (verguenza, in Spanish) at his carelessness or probably thinking he had killed his friend, and was in no position to help the wounded man. The victims wife in another part of the house, hearing the shot, came in, and seeing the situation, promptly screamed and had hysterics. The young maid also came in and joined her screaming mistress. My business colleague, wounded and with blood coming out of two holes in his back-side, realising that he was on his own, calmly walked to the bedroom, found two of his wifes sanitary napkins, covered up the wounds and wrapped and tied a shirt round to hold them in place. He then walked to his car and drove to the nearest clinic alone. (Ambulances are in short supply in third world countries). I assume that his calmness in handling his situation was due to the fact that he had done his military service with the American special forces.
Another client in Caracas, the chief engineer of a well known detergent maker, was also a gun-nut. He had one in his desk drawer in his office. I used to spent 3 days a year at his factory to do the insurance inspection of their large steam boiler. We usually ate lunch in the works canteen, but one day he invited me for lunch at a restaurant about 10 minutes drive from the factory. The most common form of mugging took place at traffic lights. A motorcyclist would draw up alongside the driver's window,put a gun to the driver's head and demand his wallet and watch. The the thief could then make his escape on his small motorcycle through the mass of jammed up cars that was a characteristic of Caracas traffic.
We walked to the company car park and climbed into his car which had a wide bench seat at the front, typical of American designed cars. He leaned across my knees to open the glove compartment on the passenger side, unlocked it with a key and pulled out a 45 automatic, placed it on the seat beside him tucked half way under his upper thigh. Remember this was a left hand drive vehicle so the gun was by his right hand. The car was also automatic transmission so once in 'drive' he could keep his hand on his gun. The power steering also enabled him to drive comfortably with his left hand. I was petrified!! Not at the sight of a gun, but because I knew that if he were mugged, he would start shooting and so would the thief and I had nowhere to go. I lost contact with him when he retired, but always on my annual visit, asked his successor about him. I was shocked, but not really surprised to hear that, at home, he had accidently fired a shotgun through the palm of his hand and had just had the sixth operation of reconstructive surgery with more to come.
An amusing incident reported in a national newspaper in the early 1990's involved a popular restaurant in Caracas where quite a few businessmen were lunching, when suddenly an armed man rushed in, went up to the cashier in full view of most of the diners and demanded the cash from the till. After shouting his demand he looked round at the diners and saw at least twenty handguns pointed at him. He turned and fled!
I went to a grammar school that had a combined cadet force, which one could volunteer for, in the second year at 13/14 years old. I joined up and every tuesday had to cycle to school wearing that awful rough serge khaki uniform that soldiers wore in those days. My mother told me that if I joined she refused to iron my uniform, so I had to learn to iron. We had to be smart and as the serge cloth of the trousers wouldn't take a good crease, unlike synthetic materials of today, the secret was to rub some handsoap along the crease inside and then press them. The soap stuck the cloth either side and one got a good sharp crease. Also as we wore gaiters which had to be "blancoed" and worn with with the trousers tucked in, we would get some lead weights on a string in a circle inside our trousers, which pulled the trouser leg over the gaiters and looked very smart. One morning cycling to school it started to pour with rain and I arrived at school with frothy bubbles all down the front of my trousers.
A highlight was a day every term at a nearby military rifle range. It was near the north bank ot the Thames at its widest part and I assume any shots over the target landed somewhere in Kent. We fired world war 1 vintage Lee-Enfield 303. They were single shot with a bolt action and a 5 shot magazine. After each shot you had to pull the bolt back to eject the spent case then forward to push the next round into the breach. AS you had to aim again after each shot, you were judged on your ability to place the 5 shots in a group, each shot as close together as possible. The 303 had quite a kick for a 14 year old and it had to be pulled firmly into the shoulder on firing.
The targets were a 100 yards away, and after shooting you had to do your turn in the butts. These were in a trench protected by a steel plate curved slightly at the top and covered in earth so that behind them you were completely safe. The targets were large and made from 4 by 2 timber and a stretched canvas with a painted bullseye. There were two targets at each position connected by pulleys and cord like a sash window. The idea was that while one target was being shot at in the high position the other one was down to floor level being repaired. This was easy and involved a big pot of wallpaper paste and bits of coloured paper. One day I was trying to be clever and stood right up against the wooden frame to watch the shots going through the target a couple of feet above me, until one very low shot went through the turf, through the upright of the frame, only a few inches above my head. I was showered in splinters and was a little bit wiser than a few moments before
Our Rector here was an Air Force Chaplain before coming to Buxton. Chaplains are given officers rank and have to do their basic training just like any new airman. The first day on the rifle range, the sergeant instructor was behaving condescendingly towards the new chaplain as if a man of the cloth would have difficulty in holding a rifle. The chaplain fired the five shots and the sergeant then asked him to walk down to the target. When they got there the shots were in a 2 inch group, the sign of a superb marksman. The sergeant was dumbstruck and silent for several seconds.
You are in the wrong job, Padre he said finally.
At school we had an armoury to store about 30 rifles and a bren gun. No ammunition was kept there so it was safe to let boys in once a week to clean and oil the weaponry, which was all part of the training. Then the unforseen happened as one lad who was crazy about everything military, brought in a 303 magazine which his father, a world war 2 veteran had kept as a souvenir. Neither the school nor the parent could possibly imagine the ingenuity of a schoolboy. Showing off to the other lads, there were about 3 of them in the small armoury, he loaded a rifle. Then ocurred what the army calls a 'negligent discharge' and a round whizzed round the walls, luckily, without hitting any of the boys. Those of us in the cadets were told not to discuss the incident out of school, the boy was severely disciplined and I believe the police spoke to his father.
As a student I joined the Territorial Army, the pay supplemented my grant and as it was an airborne unit I was able to go to Abingdon to do the army parachute course. Our local unit was part of the Royal Artillery and we were equipped with 4 inch mortars. It was heavy and was mounted on a trailer towed by a jeep. The mortar bomb weighed about 20 pounds and if it landed in amongst troops who weren't dug in it was devastating. We had been told all this and one day on exercises we did some live firing. The bomb is loaded by putting the charges in between the fins and then by dropping it fin first down the tube, then ducking and putting ones fingers in ones ears. We were on the range firing over a slight valley so it was interesting to follow the flight and then explosion on the opposite hillside. We had fired about a dozen rounds when one misfired popped out and landed 20 yards in front of our position. I flattened myself and nearly wore out my finger nails trying to dig a hole in 5 seconds. It didn't explode, as apparently the bomb has to reach a certain minimum speed before arming the impact fuse in the nose of the bomb, which we were told afterwards. We had to move to another firing position while the disposal boys recuperated the dud.
The Old Ropemaker
At lunch one Sunday in a small village in Venezuela on the north coast of South America, as I looked at the garden wall of the out-door restaurant, I noticed a small shrine set into the wall and with a candle burning inside.
I hadn't noticed it before, so I walked over. Inside was a small shot glass of a coloured liquid, which turned out to be rum, and from the smell, it was obvious that it had been put there recently, perhaps that very morning. Over the top of the shrine was the inscription in Spanish: To the Old Rope-maker. By this time my curiosity was aroused. Why honour an old rope-maker so much with a shrine normally dedicated to an obscure saint, that every day a small glass of rum was poured for him?
The small village of Magdeleno is located on the south side of Lake Valencia in the north central area of Venezuela close to Maracay and Valencia, large industrial cities about two hours drive to the west of Caracas, the capital city. (See map)
It is a strange village in the sense that it seems incomplete, half finished houses and shacks, roads with new kerbs, but no road surface. It was well known locally as a centre for hand made furniture and we first went there to look for the small carpentry shops that were usually one man businesses, run from a carpenter's home. Most of the wood used is from recuperated pallets, but the rustic design furniture was economical, and when varnished, went well in the tropical houses we lived in.
I once asked someone why the village wasn't full of building projects to get it finished and they replied that the village was cursed! Apparently two young men, in an attempt to rob the vicarage, had killed the local priest. Venezuela is a lawless country, life is cheap and murders frequent, but this was a step too far for the ordinary people who are committed catholics. It seemed to me that the villagers suffered a sense of collective guilt and their penance was not to make their village into anything.
Later I started to work as an engineering consultant with an Italian entrepreneur who had several food producing plants, including a tomato processing and canning factory located in Magdeleno. I used to go there occasionally to sort out problems with their boilers. Later when he added a chocolate processing plant, I was involved in the design and installation of the electrical and steam layouts. Paul who I knew from Sudamtex days and was now in charge of the new project, used to come over and we would often go out to lunch in the only “restaurant” in the village. I put it in inverted commas because it was not as one would imagine a restaurant to be.
Life in the tropics is all about keeping cool. Ambient temperatures are around 30 degrees centigrade and higher at certain times of the year, so one spent as much time outside. It was unbearably hot in the sun, but comfortable and pleasant in the shade and with a slight breeze it was paradise. One survived by having an air conditioned car, an air conditioned office and bedroom and by spending as much time as possible outdoors.
To get to this restaurant, whose name escapes me, we went along half a mile of unmade roads, finally turning into the gate-less entrance where we were able to park to one side. The other side housed a small zoo. I can remember a peacock, a goat, a pig and numerous ducks and hens all living in a wired enclosure and creating a racket which I suppose farmers are used to, but town dwellers never understand. (Can't you tell them to be quiet?) After passing the animal enclosure on the left we reached the dining area which consisted of a giant mango tree with great spreading leafed branches all around. Underneath the tree a few metal tables and chairs were randomly placed. There was a small two storied house with an open plan kitchen and bar underneath.
After a morning spent working in a hot factory, to relax in the shade of this gigantic tree and take the first sip of an ice cold beer made by Polar, a local brewery with German know-how, has got to rank amongst the most pleasant experiences of life.
Venezuela with the vast plains called Llanos is a great cattle producing country and the meat is good and plentiful. It is not well known, but the Royal Family own a ranch there and it is rumoured that Venezuelan beef is eaten at Buckingham Palace. Because of the lack of cold weather, animals do not need to store fat and so the meat is very lean. The streaky fat that we get in english beef gives it flavour, but I prefer the lower cholesterol lean Venezuelan meat. To compensate for lack of flavour the meat would be marinaded in various spices and you soon got to enjoy it. The favourite meal when living outdoors is of course a barbecue, so after our first bottle of cold beer we would order a mixed grill known as a “parillada argentina”. This would include a piece of lean steak, a pork chop a black sausage and bits of liver. Instead of potatoes we would eat fried or boiled yucca accompanied with a mixed salad.
Sometimes we would be the first to arrive and would watch with amusement how quickly the owner got the barbecue going with the aid of his wife's hair dryer, a useful idea which was soon incorporated into our own barbecue making repertoire.
It was so nice, in spite of the primitive surroundings, but with a very friendly proprietor, that sometimes on a weekend I would drive out there with Jenny for lunch.
The majority of Latinos are Catholics and the poorer ones, at least, take it very seriously. They tend to worship saints and everyone has their favourite. Once on TV there was a programme about poor Mexican families. One lady showed the reporter a figure of her favourite saint on the mantlepiece. She prayed hard to him every Wednesday when she did the Lottery. The reporter then asked what she did when she didn't win. “I put the saint in the freezer for a few days as a punishment”, she replied! They also like to make little shrines and put their favourite saint inside. Shrines are most notable along the highways where there has been a fatal accident, where they resemble small kennels and have flowers and candles inside. This seems to be becoming common now in Britain.
When Pedro, the proprietor, brought our bill for lunch he told us the following story:
He was from a poor family and as a young man, was a bit of a waster, spending all his time and money drinking in the bars around the village. His drinking companion was the Old Ropemaker.
One day, in at their favourite watering hole, The Old Ropemaker announced that he owned a small plot of land in the village and produced a letter from the local Council to say that if he did not pay several years land tax payments that he owed, they would confiscate his property. He told his pal, Pedro that as he had no money and no interest in this piece of land instead of losing it, he would give it to Pedro.
He accepted the offer with little enthusiasm and with much trepidation went to the council to see what was owed, assuming that it would be a sum he would be unable to raise. To his astonishment the amount owing was only a few dollars which he was able to borrow from an uncle and so became owner of the land where our restaurant was located.
He immediately stopped drinking and started to work at building up his business. As a man of property he was able to woo and marry a village girl. The Old Ropemaker of course, was a regular guest at the restaurant. When he died, the proprietor felt so much in debt to him, that he built the small shrine in his honour and every day at midday, at about the time that they used to start their day's drinking he pours a small glass of rum and places it in the shrine.
I found this story quite touching and have remembered it to this day. Recently on television I have watched several episodes of The Secret Millionaire in which a millionaire businessman goes undercover to a town and searches out worthy causes, finally on the last day giving them the money necessary to fulfill their dreams. Money that they would have no hope of getting under normal circumstances. Their emotion and gratitude explains why Pedro maintains this little shrine with the glass of rum.
Death on the Motorway
I worked, for a short while, managing an industrial contracting company, based near Valencia, which required commuting from Maracay every day along the Motorway.
I was given a company van as part of my contract, but as it needed servicing, I went home one night with one of the pick-up trucks that I had never driven before. Petrol was cheap in Venezuela and so we used the american style pick-up truck which was quite wide and seated three people along the front bench seat. It had a very powerful 3.6 litre engine and with power steering and brakes was a joy to drive.
Very early the following morning as I was driving along the motorway to work, the traffic started to slow and I noticed several vehicles parked ahead , which normally meant that there had been an accident. The traffic slowed, but did not stop and so I edged forward and continued slowly through the single open lane. It was just light, about a quarter to seven, when a National Guard Corporal waved me down, saluted and asked if I would be a good citizen and help them.
In Venezuela, as in Spain, the National Guard is an independent military organization, separated politically from the police and army, and is entrusted with defending and guarding public institutions such as airports, bridges, buildings and motorways. They check vehicles going on and off the motorways and handle incidents along them.
He told me that an old man, a pedestrian, had been killed crossing the motorway just before dawn. As he spoke he waved his arm in the direction of a bundle on the grass covered with a sheet. No ambulance was available and that it was necessary to get the body to the morgue in Valencia as soon as possible so that traffic could be restored, and so would I be willing to carry the poor old man's body in the back of my truck. They would come with me of course! Nothing surprised me anymore in Venezuela after several years there, and as I had previous experience of seeing death, I wasn't in the least put off, so I agreed. I let down the tail gate of the pick-up and calmly watched as, grabbing the bundle by the shoulders and feet, the two guardsmen, with their rifles slung over their shoulders, slung the corpse up and on to the floor of the truck, with about as much gentleness as a sack of potatoes. The three of us then climbed into the cabin and I was ordered to drive off.
Both of them put their rifles upright between their knees with the butts on the floor and I noticed the guardsman sitting next to me had his booted feet on the floor, but tucked under the seat and not stretched out in front of him as the other one had.
This was the cause of what happened subsequently.
The Corporal then grabbed the toll ticket for the motorway and without a word, tore it up and threw it out of the window. He looked at me. The unspoken message was that I was traveling free on that stretch of motorway in return for my public service. This was a joke as he was saving me about 10p. Still it was a gesture.
We started off, traveled about 500 metres, then the pick-up's engine just stopped and we slowly pulled onto the hard shoulder. Have you got petrol? asked the Corporal.
Yes I replied pointing to the half tank showing on the gauge. We got out, lifted the bonnet to check for loose wires, but nada!
The Corporal quickly said they they couldn't waste any time and immediately waved down the next pick-up that came along and explained what they needed. The driver's face literally turned green at the request, but he knew better than to refuse, so without ceremony tail gates were lowered with a clang and the poor corpse dragged out of my truck and swung into the other. The guardsmen then jumped in beside the new driver, leaving me on the side of the road with my immobilized vehicle. All of a sudden I realized my predicament, so I shouted to the Corporal to explain how I would get through the toll booth without a ticket and with fresh blood in the back of the truck. He assured me that he would tell the Guards at my exit to expect me. Supposing he forgot, I worried as I waited for the next tow truck to pass by. Mobile phones did not exist yet, but there were plenty of private tow trucks patrolling the motorway, so after a short while one stopped and we arranged for him to tow me to our office. When we passed through the toll I found that the Corporal had informed them and we were waved through.
Eventually arriving or company's yard I told the office manager the story and he sent a mechanic to check the truck. Apparently, unknown to me, as it wasn't my usual vehicle, the truck was fitted with an anti theft device. This was a valve in the petrol line which ran from the tank at the rear under the chassis and up to the fuel pump in the engine compartment. The valve was fixed to the chassis and protruded through to the floor of the cabin. When parking, the driver just pressed in the button on the top and it closed the fuel to the engine. To start again, the driver put a key into the button and gave a turn which opened the valve. It was normal to place this button where it was not obvious and in this case it was under the rubber mat on the floor of the truck, in the middle and half under the seat, so the guardsman in order to accommodate his M16 between his knees, had put his great big boot backwards and trodden on the button. There was enough petrol in the carburettor to propel us about 500 metres before the engine died.
In a recent episode of the programme "Who wants to be a Celebrity Millionaire" one of the questions referred to a 'plumb-line' and neither of the celebrities knew what it was.
My initial reaction was that most people would know the answer, but on reflection I realised that probably only someone over 40 would actually have used one for levelling a wall. Nowadays they have laser operated levels and the yellow levels ( from 6 inches to 6 feet long) that have 3 little glass phials filled with oil and an air bubble, whereas the plumb-line was a heavy weight tied to a string, and has been used since ancient times. The weight was generally made of lead and as the latin word for lead is plumbum, hence the chemical symbol Pb, and the term plumb came to mean level. We also use it in the word 'plumber' as houses used lead pipes for water lines, so the man who installed and maintained them was called a 'plumber'
The Bible also refers to a plumb-line: In the book of Amos, 7 v.7-8
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, "What do you see, Amos"
"A plumb-line," I replied. Then the Lord said "Look, I am setting a plumb-line among my people Israel."
And in the Book of Isaiah 28 v 17:
I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb-line.
The following story is about a chief engineer and his assistant in a Lancashire cotton mill, and it was told to me by an engineer in their South American factory.
It seems this chief engineer was about 5 years from retirement and I picture him as looking and talking rather like the late Fred Dibnah the steeplejack, Who in later years had a workshop repairing steam engines. He almost certainly would have worn overalls and a flat cap, and maybe smoked a pipe.
His assistant was keen and hardworking and performed his job well, but however skillfully he performed a task, the chief engineer always mentioned an, often unimportant, thing that was not quite right. He never once in their many years of working together ever told the assistant " Well done lad ! You did a good job there." The assistant took all of this on the chin and perhaps comforted himself with the thought that one day he would be in charge. But fate intervened and during a severe winter he contracted pneumonia and suddenly died.
It was a freezing cold February with flurries of snow in the churchyard. The gravediggers struggled with the frozen earth to dig his grave. When the shivering mourners stood around and the vicar hastily recited the final words, the assistants lowered the coffin as quickly as possible into its final resting place. However, on the way down, it dislodged a large stone protruding from the side of the excavation so that when the coffin rested on the floor it tipped slightly to one side. The mourners all left to the comfort of their cars and home while the chief engineer moved closer to the grave for a final goodbye to his assistant. Looking down he saw that the coffin was tipped slightly to one side and exclaimed, indignantly; "You're not plumb, lad!!"
The Sleeping Crocodile
Maracay had a superb 5-star hotel called, aptly, The Hotel Maracay. It had been built in the days of the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, who was deposed in 1958 after a coup and democracy was introduced into Venezuela for the first time. It was a majestic building, nestling in the curve of a mountain, with beautifully landscaped gardens with a variety of bushes and trees all around it. It had a large kidney-shaped swimming pool, and to crown it all, the rear of the hotel led on to an eighteen-hole golf course. A beautiful long bar was on the ground floor and Jenny and I would go there for an occasional drink, in the early days before our children came along.
One night an elegant Venezuelan gentleman came over and introduced himself. He was in his early forties, with a finely chiseled face and with a distinct military bearing. He was extremely polite and correct, and moreover, spoke excellent English. He explained that he had studied mechanical engineering in Louisiana,Usa where he had perfected his English. He told us that he had great respect for the English as a nation, and was pleased to get to know us. Over the years, although we did not develop an intimate friendship, whenever we ran into him, we always stopped and had a chat. We noticed that he never really spoke much to other people.
When Perez Jimenez was deposed in 1958 after riots and fighting in the streets, he fled the country and there was great joy, mostly because of his dreaded secret police force. Like all dictators, in order to hold on to power, he had to stifle all political opposition and this was done in the traditional South American way by putting one's opponents in jail or forcing them into exile. Unfortunately, there are always excesses which develop into hatred for the President.
In actual fact he did quite a lot for the country putting aside the oppresive side of his rule.
When he took power, the majority of Venezuelans lived on the land and had no skills other than agriculture. The country was rapidly becoming a major oil producer and money was flowing in, so he embarked on a massive industrialization programme. He invited foreign companies to build factories and then made it worthwhile by either closing the importation of similar products or putting an import tariff of 60%. This caused prices to rise, but wages also rose and with a controlled exchange rate, Venezuela became one of the richest countries in the world. When I went to work there, at the beginning my salary was three times what I could have expected in the UK. He had also encouraged the immigration of Europeans who had skills. Just after the second world war when jobs were scarce and there were lots of people in Europe who had no passports (mostly people from those countries which were incorporated into the Soviet bloc, such as Hungary and Poland). Perez Jimenez allowed them into Venezuela and after a time gave them Venezuelan citizenship. One of my power plant crew, an Italian, told me that he went down to the docks in Genoa where a Venezuelan boat was tied up alongside. A man had a table and chair set up on the quayside with a typewriter. He asked him what he did and he replied that he was a steam-engine driver. He filled out a form and in a couple of days was on his way to Venezuela with a boat load of fellow Italian bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters and steelworkers, that is, anybody with skills needed to build a country. With rapid growth and hundreds of factories, Venezuelans learned new skills and a powerful economy developed, which was lubricated by the income from oil.
Another of my boiler-house crew was a giant Austrian with a gentle heart. He had served in the German Alpine Corps until he was captured by the Americans at the end of World War 2. He also emigrated to Venezuela and when he arrived at La Guaira, the port closest to Caracas, he went for a walk ashore before continuing with his ship on to Puerto Cabello. He was wearing lederhosen, the traditional dress of Austria and Southern Germany, consisting of leather shorts and woolen knee-length stockings. In Venezuela at that time and until the mid 70's, it was prohibited for men to go around in shorts, so he was quite an oddity. People were so fascinated with this giant, blond haired foreigner that little boys and even men went up to him and tugged at the hairs on his legs, calling out Musiu. This was the slang word that Venezuelans used for a foreigner. It was not offensive normally, but could be so, according the context and tone of voice of the user. (The origin is unknown, but was probably derived from the french Monsieur.)
As we occasionally met with our new friend, he opened up a little and told us that as a professional soldier and with a degree in engineering from the USA, Perez Jimenez promoted him and put him in charge of the Venezuelan Army's engineering corps. When the revolution to oust Perez Jimenez started to gain momentum, the army was called in to restore order. As fighting started in earnest and only doing his duty as an officer, our friend commanding about twenty men was in the thick of it and some men were killed. When Perez Jimenez had to flee and a democrat called Romulo Betancourt took control of the government, our friend was arrested and court-martialed. At his court-martial he stood firm and explained that as an officer he had sworn an oath to defend the constitution and the President and in this he had done his duty and obeyed orders. As there was no evidence that he had participated in the dirty side of the dictatorship and had only involved himself in military engineering matters, he escaped being shot and after a short spell in a military jail was released and discharged from the army.
After we had known him for quite a few years, another friend who was high up in Venezuelan politics, who also knew our friend's story, asked me if I knew what our friend's nickname was? Venezuelans are apt to give incredibly accurate nicknames to people. They are mostly quite funny, and very fitting, but our friend's was not so humorous and in fact was quite chilling. It was : Caiman Dormido meaning Sleeping Crocodile. (On reflection he did have a look of half closed eyes resembling this reptile). If you come across a sleeping crocodile at the waters edge, give it a wide berth and you are safe, but if you disturb or provoke it, watch out!
I'm glad that we had him for a friend!!
The Tailed Bulls
Please excuse the title as the name of this Venezuelan sport, Toros Coleados, has no translation in English, but if you read on, the meaning will become clear.
Venezuela, apart from its rich mineral resources, jungles, gigantic rivers, Caribbean coastline and snow covered mountains has vast plains in the centre of the country which are home to thousands of head of cattle. The farmers in this area are owners of enormous ranches and their cattle roam at will. There are no fences as we know in England. I asked a farmer once how many head of cattle he had and he did not know. They live, breed and die with little control. Whenever the farmer needs money, he rounds up 20 or 30 head, ships them to the slaughterhouse and he has money for the next week. He looks after his herd with a foreman and a few cowboys.
As there are no fences, the cowboys need good horses and superb riding skills to round up the cattle ready for transport. Occasionally a young bull will object to being roped and will make a run for it. As the next fence might be 50 miles away, one of the cowboys spurs his horse and chases after the bull. Just as he draws level with the fleeing bull he reaches down low and grabs the bullīs tail with one hand. With the other hand he wraps the tail round the wrist of the hand holding the tail to get a firmer grip. All this is done at high speed and shows the skill of both rider and horse. As soon as he has a good grip the cowboy then signals his horse and the horse accelerates to overtake the bull. As they advance the bull is pulled round and suddenly finds itself running sideways at 30 mph. This of course is impossible so the bull tumbles and rolls over a few times. As this does not happen many times in a bullīs lifetime, he is dazed and stays down for a while before straggling to his feet and even then stands bewildered for a while. By the time he has gathered his wits he is securely roped and ready to be led away in quite a docile manner.
From this very practical way of controlling a herd of cattle on the open plains has developed a sport, which is very exciting, but unlike bullfighting in which the bull dies, with Toros Coleados the bull is not really hurt.
There is no expensive bullring, but just two 6 feet high wooden fences about 200 metres long and 10 metres apart closed at one and with a gate at the other. Six riders gather to one side of the gate and the bull is let in and given a whack on the rump to make him run. The riders then chase after him and attempt to tip him over. The sport is that the riders are all competing with each other so there is a lot of jostling for position and the skill of the riders counts. When one rider is successful he gets a rosette, rides over to the fence where his wife or girlfriend is sitting and she pins it on to one of his shoulders.
After each bull takes its turn and is loaded back onto the lorry and a new bull is prepared, which can take 15 minutes or so, most of the spectators jump down from the fence and stand about inside the enclosure. All are dressed for the occasion, with blue jeans over short riding boots, a colourful short sleeved shirt and a cowboy hat. One hand is clutching an ice cold Polar beer in a can which some enterprising lad, with polystyrene ice box hanging from one shoulder and passing through the crowd, has sold. It is four in the afternoon, the sun is low on the horizon, but it is still hot. It is about 2 hours to sundown. In the tropics the sun sets between 6.30 and 7.00 every evening and there is no twilight, one minute it is light and 5 minutes later it is pitch dark, because the sun drops vertically on to the horizon. Everybody is standing around talking to friends while the next bull is prodded out of the truck, then into the holding pen ready for the gate to be opened into the enclosure. The riders mount their horses and maneuver themselves into a good position and when all is ready with a shout the gate is opened and the mad dash begins. It is quite exciting to be standing in the narrow enclosure and see a bull and six horsemen charging in ones direction. Here is where the machismo takes over; it is considered bad form to be the first up and over the fence, nor is it correct to run to the fence, the secret is to time it, so that one is the last to move towards the fence, stroll casually over and be at the top of the fence as the dashing horde goes by. There is something about the smell of cattle and horses, especially in a hot climate, which is very primitive and must appeal to our relationship with nature. Living close to animals was part of life for humans for centuries and must be ingrained in our souls and the sight and sound of a tightly packed group of horsemen, horses sweating and snorting, men shouting, give one an idea of a cavalry charge. When the galloping mass passes so close to the fence where one is sitting, literally inches away, it is quite exhilarating.
The sport is quite popular and well organized, and even girls are participating these days. Most of the riders, male and female, are not professional cowboys, but sons and daughters of cattle farmers and have been in the saddle since early childhood.
The bulls used in this sport are not fighting bulls, which are bred specially for bull fighting and are huge and very aggressive, but just ordinary bulls which are found on cattle farms and are very often bred from Brahma cattle. These, originally from India, were found to be very hardy and able to resist the tropical illnesses which cause problems in European breeds.There is a Venezuelan website dedicated to the sport with some good photos and real Venezuelan music in the background. Take a look at:-Toros Coleados
The Sea Island Cotton Shirt
I was a teenager during the 50's. These were heady days. England was brightening up after the end of the second world war, rationing had just ended and there was optimism in the air.
A British led expedition was first to climb Mount Everest. The Comet heralded the start of the commercial jet age, Gordon Pirie, a lanky paint salesman, was breaking world records in the 10 thousand metres, Dr. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier and all sorts of interesting things were happening in my life as well.
It was in 1952, at his house in Jamaica, that Ian Fleming wrote “Casino Royale,” introducing James Bond, secret agent 007--the two zeros meaning that he had a license to kill- -what a hero for a young boy: Aston Martins, dry martinis, (shaken not stirred, of course,) casinos, BOAC jet flights to exotic places, beautiful women, a Walther PPK automatic hand gun nestling snugly under his left armpit in a hand made chamois leather holster, and the Sea Island cotton shirts.
A young man today can easily imitate his hero if he's a footballer or a rock star, but I had difficulty imitating James Bond. I couldn't afford an Aston Martin sports car, guns were not allowed, I was a bit shy with girls and I had never tasted a dry martini, although I once took a miniature bottle of whisky to a convent girls school dance in my inside jacket pocket (close to my left armpit). I showed it to the lovely girl I was dancing with, but she was horrified and muttered things about the mother superior. James didn't get that response from his women!
Then it happened! I was working in Trafford Park in Manchester when I spotted the advert in the Manchester Evening News. Sea Island Cotton Shirts, made to measure, and an address in the centre of Manchester. The price was two pounds and ten shillings, about a third of my weekly pay. Early the following saturday morning I was at the shop being measured up, and the following saturday picked it up. I rushed home and tried it on. It fitted perfectly and the cloth felt like silk and as I looked in the mirror I felt different somehow, bigger and more confident. I put an extra dollop of brylcream on my hair, carefully combed the DA at the back, splashed a palmful of Old Spice aftershave on my face and gritted my teeth as it stung. Then I was ready for anything and headed into town to the Bodega, a trendy jazz club of the day and I knew that the evening was mine for the taking.
About a year later I wore my Sea Island
Cotton Shirt to a job interview which was successful, and a month
later was sitting in a Panam Boeing 707 at Heathrow, being served a dry martini
by a beautiful stewardess, on my way to Caracas, Venezuela, via New
York, where I stayed at the airport's International Hotel. The
airport then was called Idlewild before being renamed J. F. Kennedy
in honour of the US president who was assassinated in Dallas in 1964.
As I loped through the airport with that sort of cold half smile on
my lips, I was whisked through Immigration and Customs, the agent
asking me if I was carrying a Diplomatic Passport.
time I replied mysteriously, my smile widening a tiny
fraction of an inch.
I forgot about my Sea Island Cotton Shirt for long periods as I worked at building a career, a marriage and children, although I was reminded of it as a succession of Bond movies appeared almost annually, with that haunting theme music and new song that accompanied each film that seemed automatically to become a hit. Then while still living in a country where a homeowner could legally own a gun, I was offered a Walther PPK at a price I could easily have afforded. As memories flooded in and I lovingly caressed the automatic in my palm, good sense overruled fantasy as I had at that time 3 teenage sons and it was well known that more family members were killed by home owned guns than burglars, so I reluctantly turned down the offer.
Then a few weeks ago, guess what happened? My local late shop had an offer! Cans of Red Stripe Beer at only 99p each. As I bought a six-pack, I was transported to Jamaica, to a shabby bar, on Love Lane, right on the beach near Ocho Rios, where James Bond sat, sipping a Red Stripe and flirting with the beautiful chocolate skinned girl owner. He was waiting for Scaramanga, a Cuban drug smuggler who worked with the Colombian drug cartels, the Man with the Golden Gun, the man whom James was going to kill. As I turned to leave and opened the door of the shop expecting a wave of hot air to greet me and raising my hand to waft away a cloud of mosquitos, my reverie was shattered by a gust of cold Derbyshire rain which hit my face instead!!
This short story was written as an exercise for a Creative Writing course that Jenny and I took at the High Peak College.
The Canberra and the Rolls Royce Reps
Maracay was home to the Venezuelan Air Force and had three airfields, the original one located at the start of the Avenida Las Delicias, near to the Plaza Bolivar, which is now a museum and two operational airfields, the older one at Boca de Rio, being used for training and doubling as a civil airport for light planes. ( Later the military allowed the airport to be used for occasional commercial jet flights to Margarita Island, just of the coast of Venezuela, using DC-9's operated by Aeropostal ). The third one, located at Palo Negro, is the main military airbase and has a runway capable of handling the largest military transport planes.
In 1928 when Juan Vicente Gomez, a dictator, was at the height of his powers, Charles Lindbergh, the American pilot who had flown non-stop from New York to Paris the previous year, with his plane The Spirit of St. Louis, landed in Maracay as part of a goodwill tour through South America. There is an amusing story about his meeting with General Gomez at the airbase.
In Venezuela, illegitimate children are called natural children and they become legitimate when they are legally recognized by the father even though the parents do not marry. When Lindbergh landed his plane in Maracay, Gomez and a large group of his friends were on hand to meet him, Gomez sitting under a large canopy.
Lindbergh landed, but instead of going straight over to the presidential pavilion and greeting Gomez, he left him waiting there for some time while he saw to the safe stowing of his plane in a hangar. He then went over to where Gomez sat. Everyone was perturbed about what sort of rebuke this behaviour would bring from the mighty one whom nobody ever kept waiting. In fact what Gomez said was
Um well that's the kind of man I like. He looks after his beast first.
Then, several of Gomez's children, all dressed up for the occasion, stepped out to present Lindbergh with bunches of flowers. Lindbergh smiled and asked
Are they natural? Gomez, thinking that he was referring to the children, replied
Yes, but they are all recognised Apparently Lindberg looked mystified.
After the second world war a new airfield was constructed at Palo Negro which has a runway capable of taking the largest transport plane, typically the Hercules. I believe the US government encouraged this in case they needed to engage in military operations in the area. The Palo Negro airbase was the home of the Canberra and later the General Dynamics F-16 fighter.
Latin American military officers are disciplined and intelligent, nearly always coming from well-off families, especially the pilots, and do training courses overseas and command armed men, so whenever there are political problems, it is always easy for them to depose the reigning president and take over themselves, so when Venezuela finally adopted democracy in 1958 it was politically sensible to occupy the military in something else, such as giving them some new toys to play with. In the case of the Air Force, the Venezuelan government gave them a squadron of 18 Canberra jet bombers and later 24 F-16 fighter planes.
Venezuelan Air Force Canberra
The Canberra came into service in the 1950's and was very advanced for its time. It broke various speed and altitude records and was built by English Electric and powered by two Rolls-Royce jet engines. We met Luis Leon, the squadron leader and played tennis with him at the Military Club (Circulo Militar) located on the Avenida Las Delicias. During the time of Romulo Betancourt's presidency, he went with some officers to voice disagreement with some of the President's policies. Betancourt, to his credit, instead of shooting him or throwing him in jail, sent him instead to the London Embassy as military attache for several years. Luis Leon, on his return to Venezuela later became Controller of the Air Force, the top military posting in that arm.
When we arrived in Maracay in 1962, the British ex-pat community was a small part of the English speaking community and we were soon absorbed in a group of Germans, Americans, Swedish, Danes and several other nationalities. Amongst the Brits were employees of English Electric and Rolls Royce. Their jobs were to act as technical liaison between the Venezuelan Air Force and the factories in England. They had a small office at the Palo Negro base, but did most of their work from home. Communication was a problem as there was no e-mail or fax in those days and an international telephone call had to be booked through the international operator in Caracas. The post took two weeks to England, so a telegram was the only quick way of communication for businesses. To send a telegram meant going into the telegraph office in the centre of Maracay. To receive one meant that a boy had to bring it to the house, so the secret was to give the delivery boy a large tip which ensured very quick deliveries of future telegrams.
Pete was the Rolls Royce rep, and he and his wife Iris became good friends. They introduced us to the rest of the community and passed on to us their Venezuela maid, called Flor after their imminent departure to the UK. She was superb and stayed with us until we were posted to Brazil.
Pete had an interesting work day as the Air Force worked the same hours as the oil companies. To escape the afternoon heat they started at 6am and worked through until 2pm, with only a short break in the middle. It was easy to go to work at 6am in the tropics as the night-time temperature was about 25-30 C.,so Pete was at home by 2.30 to have lunch and then a nice long siesta.
One evening, when we went round to his house for drinks, he was itching to tell us a story. A Venezuelan pilot who had been in the US for 6 months on a course, returned to his base in Maracay. He walked into one of the hangars and spoke to an aircraft mechanic and asked if he could sit in one of the training planes. He eventually persuaded the mechanic to let him just taxi around the perimeter track of the air-field. When he reached the start of the runway, the temptation was too great, and he roared down the runway to take off. Unfortunately he had forgotten the pre-flight checks and the air brakes were still on from the aircraft's previous landing, so he couldn't take off and the plane crashed at the end of the runway. This sort of thing could only happen in Venezuela!
Pete invited us to dinner one night to meet a couple of guests. They were Captain Johnny Hackett, pilot and Pete Moneypenny, the navigator, who had just delivered a Canberra to the Air Force in Maracay. Every couple of years the Canberras were flown back to the English Electric factory for a complete overhaul. There wasn't much of a problem flying a Canberra which had just had a factory overhaul, but to get in a plane that had spent 2 or 3 years in the Venezuelan air force and fly it back to England was a great leap of faith in my eyes. When I asked them about this, they said that, although they were professional pilots they knew enough about the mechanics of the plane to check it out before the flight. I asked them how they could trust the work done by the Venezuelan ground crew. Their reply was simple. They took the chief aircraft mechanic with them on a test flight before departing!!
The Canberra only had a limited range so they would fly from Maracay to Florida then up the east coast of the USA to Newfoundland, round by Greenland and Iceland and down through Scotland to the English Electric airfield in England.
On their regular trips to Venezuela they established several speed records.
The 1955 round trip to New York was reported in Time Magazine of Monday September 5th under the title Home for Dinner as follows:
As an air-cargo pilot, John Hackett, a burly man with a magnificent R.A.F. mustache, regularly hops across the English Channel a dozen or more times a day. He longed for a longer ride. One sunup last week, Hackett took off from London Airport, got a course from his navigator, Peter Moneypenny, and aimed his twin-jet Canberra bomber westward. Seven hours and 30 minutes later he put down at Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field. While newsreel cameras whirled, Hackett and Moneypenny spent 35 minutes on the ground, getting themselves and their plane refueled. Aided by tail winds, the Canberra arrived back in London in a record 6 hr. 17 min. The total elapsed time (14 hr. 21 min.) was no great shakes in these jet days, but Messrs. Hackett and Moneypenny could lay claim to be the first men ever to breakfast in London, lunch in New York and get back to London for dinner.
A short Pathe news video celebrating this event can be seen here
We met them again several times, usually sunning themselves beside the pool at the Hotel Maracay.
Through a strange set of circumstances, on returning to the UK in 1997, we met Peter Brack who had been the Rolls-Royce Rep in Maracay in the 50's. He told us a story about the famous two.
He received a telegram from them in Bermuda to say that the Canberra they were delivering had an engine problem and that his presence was needed urgently. Peter caught the next available flight and duly arrived at their hotel. He was told to request the urgent delivery of a small spare part for one of the engines from the factory, which would take a week to arrive. Peter checked the engines and found that there was no problem. On confronting the pair, they told him that they had entered a competition to be the fastest men to deliver a photo from London to New York, but something had gone wrong and they blamed English Electric for their loss, so had decided to spend a week in Bermuda, expenses paid as compensation. Peter was their alibi!
Wherever Brits lived in the world, they formed their little communities, but after a while we came across English women outside the expat group, who had married Venezuelans. In most cases they met their husbands when they were studying or working in England as young men and then the wives would go to Venezuela with them at the end of their studies or work contracts. As the Venezuelan currency was over-valued in the 50's and 60's and the Venezuelans were getting expenses as well, they appeared to be very wealthy to the starry-eyed young British women who were not used to the Latin charm and confidence of these young men. When they married and went to Venezuela they usually had a shock. Apart from the normal cultural differences which had to be overcome, they found themselves living in poverty or in many cases, the matriarchal society that existed then. This involved moving into the husband's parents home where the English wife, together with other brother's wives, were treated like servants by the mother.
One English wife, from Cambridgeshire, had married an aeronautical engineer. They had children of whom the eldest became a pilot in the Venezuelan air force. Perhaps because of his ability to speak English, he was posted to a special squadron that operated executive jets and light aircraft which were used to transport high ranking Air Force officers around the country and overseas. This service also was extended to the President and often to his mistress. We knew of this because Pedro, not his real name, told his mum in confidence, who then told us after the third round of gin and tonics. Not that we could do anything with the information, but it makes a good anecdote!
He would fly the president's mistress on shopping trips to New York quite frequently. The two aircrew would be given $500 each in cash as a tip at the end of the trip, presumably to ensure their silence, but it wasn't only the shopping they carried but sometimes boxes which were left in New York. Drugs would have been too risky, even for the President, but gold was a possible and untraceable way of taking money out of the country.
This President was later impeached and jailed for a short time, although as he was over 70 years old he was allowed to serve his time under house arrest. Prison conditions in Venezuela are extremely harsh so perhaps it is a small blessing that over 70s are given this privilege.
He now lives in exile in Miami with his mistress and is active in the exiled opposition to the present President who tried to topple him with a military coup.
The Rep's names have been changed, but I have left the Canberra Pilots Hackett and Moneypenny with their real names. Their names are in the public domain and references to their record breaking flights can be found on Google. They were quiet and humble fellows and it was a privilege to have met them.
(It must be remembered that there was no satellite navigation in those days and navigating had to be done by dead reckoning and location of airfields and landing made visually. Navigation at night was by the stars.)