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Did You Once See Willy Plain?


ISSUE:  Spring 1982

The time I came nearest to meeting W. B. Yeats was late on a summer day in 1969 after I had been up all night on the train from Copenhagen to the Hook of Holland and then all day on the boat to England. I had gone through customs three times in the last 24 hours and been searched for drugs at Harwich, apparently as a punishment for carrying hardly any luggage. Now I was waiting for the bus to take me the last two miles of the journey home, where I could soon and safely collapse. As I stood in the raging British sunshine, bright-colored bubbles floated back and forth on my eyelids, and below my half-awareness of the clank and roar of British traffic I was perhaps one-quarter aware of a whine from somewhere above, rather like a flying lawnmower. I did not look up.

“Biplane,” said a voice behind me. It sounded incredibly satisfied. It also sounded old and a trifle un-English, but what made me turn around and attempt to focus was the plain exultation in it. “Converted fighter,” it continued.

The man must have been about 75 and had what used to be called a military bearing, though he was thin to the point of fragility and might just as well have been some elegant kind of waltzing poet-soldier, now superannuated, out of an operetta. The disconcerting fact was that he was speaking to me— there was no one else near the bus stop—and flagrantly demanding some sort of answer. I turned my eyes to the sky and tried to focus again. The plane seemed to be an antique crop-duster.

“Sure is,” I said, and then, afraid that I sounded too American and might offend this dotty old plane-spotter, added: “Quite right.”

I used to be in fighters,” he went on, “in the first war.” He rolled up the left sleeve of his suit jacket and shirt as far as they would go and held up his wrist. “See that?”

I grunted as neutrally as possible. How could I fail to see his wrist? I began to wonder if the bus would ever come. It was about as old as the biplane, and if it broke down I might have old arm-flasher on my hands for hours. Why did his relatives let him wander around like this?

“All reconstructed,” he explained with relish, still holding up his arm. “All the way to the shoulder. The Flying Circus did that to me.” His tone of pleasure suggested that a strong man might quail to hear what he had done to the Flying Circus in return, and I did not ask. “Have you heard of Sir Edward Carson?”

It so happened that I had. His eyebrows gave the impression that he did not often meet young people who had the foggiest idea what he was talking about.

“He was the organizer of the Ulster Volunteers. He organized us in 1913 to put down the riffraff. The Irish rebels and all.” He did not literally pound on his thin chest, but that was the effect. “I was Ulster Volunteer number one, the first.” He peered at me. “What might your name be?”

I told him. “Lamb,” he said, and we shook hands. At this moment the bus came heaving and gasping into view. As it pulled up, I stood back to let him get on first—that way he could not sit down next to me. But he moved back to let a middle-aged woman with a laundry basket get off. He lifted his hat energetically, with a flowing motion that brought into play all of his original and reconstructed limbs.

“Afternoon to you, Mrs. Pierce.”

“How are you, Mr. Lamb?” the woman replied. “And how’s your daughter getting on in this warmer weather?”

“Better, thanks, Mrs. Pierce. I’m just out now fetching her tablets for her.” He replaced his hat on his head, and the lady went clunking across the street towards a launderette. “After you, Mr. Clausen.”

So I got on the bus and he sat down beside me. By this time I didn’t mind particularly; it now seemed unlikely that he was the raving sort of madman, and in spite of being exhausted I was mildly interested in hearing more of his adventures.

“And did you fight the rebels?” I asked when the bus was under way and we had paid our fares to the beefy young conductor.

“Ah, no,” he answered regretfully, looking out past me at the rolling Essex fields. “Never had a chance to. We fought the Kaiser instead. The day the war started, Carson volunteered us as a regiment.” He shook his head, perhaps regretting Carson’s choice of the Kaiser as an enemy preferable to other Irishmen. “Something like 85 percent of us got killed. If I hadn’t gone into air I’d have been killed. One brother was killed. He was in air.”

“Do you know Yeats’s poem about the Irish airman?” That had been one of my favorite poems since I was a freshman in college.

“Willy Yeats! That bloody faker.” He sneered past me at the window. “Yes, I know that poem.”

“Why do you say he was a faker?” I was, I think, merely curious to see where the conversation would get to in the few minutes before the bus got us to the village and we went forever in what I felt confident would be our separate directions.

“Huh. All that pretense of heroic Ireland. He was no more Irish than Harold Wilson. He spent the Troubles in England. Spent half his life here. I had him twice in my house in Hampstead, before the war.”

“Really?” At this I perked up. Yeats was, after all, sacred to me at that time. Mr. Lamb had turned out to be a link, though I was not certain what sort of link. He might, of course, be making it all up, but everything he had said had a truthful off-handedness to it. “What was he like?”

He wrinkled up his nose. “Striker of poses. He would recite verse in the front room in a great bardic voice, with that mane of white hair fluttering. Affected through and through.”

I waited for more, but the subject of Yeats did not interest him, and there was no more. When the bus reached my stop, I rose to get off and nodded a farewell towards my companion. He got up from his seat.

“Will you have a lager with me at the Half Butt, Mr. Clausen?” he asked courteously.

There was a struggle with my fatigue, but in those days I was inclined to be deferential towards old people. Besides, he obviously had not finished, and my curiosity would be good for another few minutes.

“Thanks, I’d love to. A fairly short one—I’ve just come from Denmark. From the boat at Harwich.”

He looked shrewdly at me. “Ah. And would you be Danish yourself?” There was a note of skepticism.

“No, American. My great-grandfather was Danish.”

“Ah. You’re all mixed up over there in America, aren’t you.” I took it that he meant genealogically and nodded.

We went into the saloon bar. There was a young woman behind the bar, and Mr. Lamb again lifted his hat.

“Afternoon, Mr. Lamb,” she said cheerfully. “What would you like?”

“Afternoon, Mrs. Richards. A Harp for Mr. Clausen, and a half of bitter for me.” He paid and sat us down at a table in a very dark corner, next to the silent juke box. “This Harp is made by the Guinness people. You’ve had Guinness stout?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Liffey mud, they call it. Have you been to Ireland?”

“Yes,” I said. “Just to Dublin and Limerick. I liked Dublin.”

He nodded. “I haven’t been back over but once since the war. Since 1919, that is. What do you think of all this trouble over there?”

I shrugged, which was clearly the only possible answer in this situation.

“They need to shoot more of them.” He patted his closely cropped white hair. “That’s it. That’s the only way to stop it. Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, perhaps I’m seeing it too simply.” He shook his head again. “My great-nephew’s in the forces over there. We were always a military family.” He pointed to my beer glass. “Do you like that?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“Are you over here on holiday, then?”

“More or less.” To forestall the usual questions about what it meant to drop out for a year, I asked him how long he had lived in the village. Only four years and some months, he said. He had moved down from London to be with his daughter.

“From Hampstead?”

“Ah, no. That was a long time ago. I was bombed out in Hampstead in 1940.”

I nodded. Then I remembered my beer and drank some more of it, even though it was making me sleepier.

“Bloody bomb came right down the chimney. The next day I went back.” There was an affectionate lingering on the last word. “They put me in the quartermaster’s department because of my age.” He made a face that expressed loathing and disgust at the English government’s imbecility in coming between a man and his war. “Carson was dead; nobody could do anything for me.”

Is it credible that I might have yawned here? It was warm in the saloon bar, and I had not slept in 36 hours. And I had finished my Harp. Mr. Lamb rose to his feet.

“Time I was off,” he said. “I’ve been keeping you.”

I protested that he was not, and that it had been most pleasant. I was only sorry to be so tired.

“Go rest yourself.” He picked up his hat and made for the door. “Cheerio, Mrs. Richards. A great pleasure, Mr. Clausen.”

“Thank you again,” I managed lamely, and then he was gone and I finally got to go home.

That was the closest I ever came to meeting Yeats, who after all had died years before I was born. It all happened just as I have told it, and I have not even robbed Mr. Lamb of his true name, since in this case art could never improve on life. For a long time, after I had caught up on my sleep, I thought about going to see him with a notebook and getting his memories of great men and events down in circumstantial form, as befitted the literary scholar I was already on the verge of aspiring to become. I went so far as to look him up in the phone book and get directions from the neighbors, who encouraged the project. But I never went; an unscholarly reluctance to badger an old man for his long-ago names and dates always prevented me. What he had told me, he had told me, and like the Wedding Guest I would have to be satisfied. So that no one else can intrude upon his retirement I have suppressed the name of the village in this account, whose protagonist may after all still be a slim and keen-eyed watcher of the skies in his eighties. I like to think of him patrolling the byways of East Anglia at some pace midway between a march and a gambol, scanning the heavens from time to time, occasionally rewarded by the sight of a craft out of his own season, and spurred by it to find an unlikely hearer for whatever artifacts of memory and experience seem on that day to need passing along.

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