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Hackie: An Englishman in New York

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"Go ahead, then — how old do you think I am?"

Reggie Alcock, my customer, asked me that question as we sat parked in the queue for the ferry to Plattsburgh. I was taken aback at this sudden invitation to converse.

All I'd gleaned from his phone call to book my services was that he'd been visiting his birth country of England — his accent reflective of his roots — and that I would be driving him back to his home in Cadyville, New York.

At the airport when I'd picked him up, the elderly gentleman using a cane didn't speak three words to me. On the ride up to the ferry in Grande Isle, I had attempted some small talk, and he had volunteered that his wife died two years ago. When I asked whether they had "reproduced" — a weak stab at jocularity — he replied peremptorily, "I'm not answering any further personal questions."

I took no offense, understanding his brusque reaction in cultural terms. Generally speaking, Americans are open and revealing about their personal lives, even with strangers. Brits, by contrast, are reserved and private, and it's considered "bad form" to pry.

So, pleasantly surprised at his newfound sociability at the ferry dock, I replied, "OK, Reggie — but I'm gonna be honest with you. Now, if you were a woman, I'd knock off a few years, but for you I won't be currying any favor."

This represented more of my delightful jocularity, though I doubted it was received as such.

I pivoted in my seat to take a cool gander at the man sitting shotgun. Reggie appeared as if chosen by central casting to play an eccentric, aged Englishman. His gray hair was slicked back with some oil product, if I had to guess, and he wore pale plastic bifocals. His corduroy trousers were a yellowish-brown evocative of a healthy infant's oozy stools and were belted somewhere north of his waist. I can't recall the precise array of colors that comprised his plaid shirt, only that the mix was an affront to nature. But, despite his manifest sartorial crimes, I dug this guy.

"OK, I'd say you're definitely in your eighties, maybe 84."

"I'm 86 years old," Reggie stated for the record.

"Well, you don't look a day over 84," I said.

"Thank you," he replied with a formal nod of his head. By this point, I couldn't tell who was pulling whose leg, but it felt like the ice was broken.

A ferry ride across the lake affords a unique window to chat with a customer while not driving; I can put my feet up for a solid 20-minute schmooze. I did the math in my head and asked, "So, Reggie, I guess you were a prewar baby. Did your father serve in World War II?"

"He fought in the First World War."

"Did he see any action? Along the front in the trenches?"

"He was at the front but as a lorry driver, delivering supplies. This was one of the reasons he survived — because he was able to eat hot food. He told me how he would place his food on the engine to heat it up while he idled."

"How about you? Did you experience the blitzkrieg as a kid?"

"I did. We lived in the Midlands, outside of Birmingham, which had many industrial plants. So the city was a ripe target for the Germans. I remember once waking up at dawn to a droning sound in the sky."

He then imitated the low vmmmm-vmmmm of what I assumed was the Messerschmitt warplanes used by the Luftwaffe.

"The German aircraft made a distinct eerie sound, much different than the planes used by our boys. And a few minutes later, the bombs exploded a few miles to the east, the site of a munitions factory. Only then did the air raid sirens go off. After the raid was over, my parents made me eat breakfast before biking over with my friends to view the bomb damage."

The lake was calm, nary a whitecap, as we ferried towards Plattsburgh. Birds skimmed the water, seemingly inches from the surface. A few boaters were out enjoying the sunny afternoon, the peace and the precious tranquility. I rarely stop to feel gratitude, it occurred to me, for the blessing of living in a time and place where bombs are not raining down.

"So, your dad continued to work through the war?"

"Yes, he worked a full shift at a textile mill in Birmingham. Then he would take the train eight miles back to our home and eat dinner with us before returning to the city to stand vigil with the Brummies — that's what we called the people from Birmingham. He'd spend all night on a rooftop with sand and a bucket, scanning the night skies for German planes and helping with the fires."

As the ferryboat eased into the dock in Plattsburgh, I began to sing, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General. I've information vegetable, animal and mineral."

For the first time since I met the guy, I think I detected the hint of a smile. "How on earth do you know of Gilbert and Sullivan?" he asked.

"For some reason, my dad was a big fan. At home, he'd play the cast recordings from the operettas. One time we actually saw the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company when they appeared in New York City."

"After the war, my dad took me to see the D'Oyly Carte company in London," Reggie shared. "I think that night they performed The Mikado."

Ah, Reggie and I have come a long way, I mused as we proceeded off the boat onto dry New York State land. All the way from "not answering any further personal questions" to bonding over dads who loved Gilbert and Sullivan. I do believe I've charmed this old limey, I thought, chuckling to myself.

"Well, Reggie," I said, nearly tagging on "you old sod" before thinking the better of it, "that's something the two of us have in common."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

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