Tuesday, December 31, 2013

THE STORY OF AN ELF by John Steinbeck (complete with eyewitnesses!)

I'm sure that almost everyone will recognize the name of the author and novelist John Steinbeck, although most of you will not recognize the name of John Steinbeck the war correspondent. Nevertheless, like many others in those years, John Steinbeck went to war but with pad, pencil, and typewriter in North Africa and Italy - and later he would do it again briefly in Vietnam.

Fortunately for those of us who did not have the chance to read his original reports during World War II, a collection of them has been published as "Once There Was A War" by in fact several publishers over the years. I had the great fun over the past year of reading this collection and especially enjoyed Steinbeck's articles when I realized that I had the opportunity to read his 1943 exactly 70 years from the date of their original publication. The collection makes for a great read and I enjoyed them so much that I want to share one of these with you since it seems very appropriate for New Years Eve as we pass from 2013 into 2014. I've in fact found this exact same story already on the internet via several websites including one for a newspaper that carried the original publication.

If he were here with us now, telling this story to us over our beverages of choice, he might begin with those immortal words, 'no shit, this really happened'. Steinbeck comes pretty close to that in this column and I have attempted to further validate for you his list of eyewitnesses (barring the British Consul in Algiers who I can't identify and one journalist whose name apparently has escaped the notice of today's internet). Without further ado, I turn you over to Mr. Steinbeck.

THE STORY OF AN ELF by John Steinbeck

Monday, November 1, 1943

--This story would not be written if there were not witnesses—not vague unknown men, but Quentin Reynolds and H.R. Knickerbocker and Clark Lee and Jack Belden, who was hurt at Salerno, and John Lardner and a number of others who will come clamoring forward if anyone doubts the facts here to be presented.

The thing began when a British consul met Quentin Reynolds in the hall of the Alletti Hotel in Algiers. The consul was a small, innocent, well-mannered man who liked to think of the British and Americans as allies and who was willing to make amicable gestures. In good faith he asked Reynolds where he was staying and in equal good faith Reynolds replied that he had not yet been billeted.

“There’s an extra bed in my room,” the consul said. “You’re welcome to it if you like.”

That was the beginning, and what happened was nobody’s fault. It was just one of those accidents. The consul had a nice room with a balcony that overlooked the harbor and from which you could watch air raids. It wasn’t Reynolds’ fault. He accepted hospitality for himself, not for the nine other war correspondents who moved in with him. Nine is only a working number. Sometimes there were as many as eighteen. They slept on the floor, on the balcony, in the bathroom, and some even slept in the hall outside the door of Room 140, Alletti Hotel, Algiers.

It was generally agreed that the consul should have his own bed, that is, if he kept it. But let him get up to go to the bathroom and he returned to find Knickerbocker or Lee or Belden, or all three, in it. Another thing bothered the consul a little bit. Correspondents don’t sleep much at night. They talked and argued and sang so that the poor consul didn’t get much rest. There was too much going on in his room. He had to work in the daytime, and he got very little sleep at night. Toward the end of the week he took to creeping back in the middle of the afternoon for a nap. He couldn’t get his bed then. Someone always had it. But a three in the afternoon it was usually quiet enough so that he could curl up on the floor and get a little rest.

The foregoing is not the unbelievable part—quite the contrary. It is what follows that will require witnesses. It was during one of the all-night discussions of things in general that someone, perhaps Clark Lee, perhaps Dour Jack Belden, suggested that we were getting very tired of Algerian wine and wouldn’t it be nice if we had some Scotch. From that point on this is our story and we intend to stick to it.

Someone must have rubbed something, a ring or a lamp or perhaps the utterly exhausted British consul. At any rate, there was a puff of blue smoke and standing in the room was a small man with pointed ears and a very jolly stomach. He wore a suit of green leather and his cap and the toes of his shoes ended in sharp points and they were green too.

“Saints of Galway,” said Reynolds. “Do you see what I see?”

“Yes,” said Clark Lee.

“Well, do you believe it?”

“No,” said Lee, who is after all a realist and was at Corregidor.

Jack Belden has lived in China for many years and he knows about such things. “Who are you?” he asked sternly.

“I’m little Charley Lytle,” the elf said.

“Well, what do you want, popping in on us?” Belden cried.

The British consul groaned and turned over and pulled the covers over his head. Knickerbocker has since admitted that his first impulse was to kill the elf and stuff him to go beside the sailfish in his den. In fact, he was creeping up when Charley Lytle held up his hand.

“When war broke out I tried to enlist,” he said. “But I was rejected on political grounds. It isn’t that I have any politics,” he explained. “But the Army’s position is that if I did have, heaven knows what they would be. There hasn’t been a Republican leprechaun since Coolidge. So I was rejected pending the formulation of an Elves-in-Exile Battalion. I decided then that I would just make people happy, soldiers and war correspondents and things like that.”

Reynolds’ eyes narrowed dangerously. He is very loyal. “Are you insinuating that we aren’t happy?” he gritted. “That my friends aren’t happy?”

“I’m not happy,” said the British consul, but no one paid any attention to him.

Little Charley Lytle said, “I heard some mention made of Scotch whisky. Now it just happens that I have----“

“How much?” said Clark Lee, who is a realist.

“Why, all you want.”

“I mean how much money?” Lee demanded.

“You don’t understand,” said little Charley. “There is no money involved. It is my contribution to the war—I believe you call it effort.”

“I’m going to kill him,” cried Knickerbocker. “Nobody can sneer at my war and get away with it.”

Reynolds said, “Could we get a case?”

“Surely,” said little Charley.

“Three cases?”


Lee broke in, “Now don’t you strain him. You don’t know what his breaking point is.”
“When can you deliver?” Reynolds asked.

Instead of answering, little Charley Lytle made a dramatic and slightly ribald gesture. There was one puff of smoke and he had disappeared. There followed three small explosions, like a series of tine depth charges, and on the floor of Room 140 of the Alletti hotel in Algiers lay three cases of Haig and Haig Pinch Bottle, ringed with the hot and incredulous eyes of a platoon of thirsty correspondents.

Reynolds breathed heavily the way a man does when he has a stroke. “A miracle!” he whispered. “A miracle straight out of the middle ages or Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Dour Jack Belden has lived a long time in China. On top of a basic pessimism, he has seen everything and is difficult to impress. His eyes now wandered out the arched window to the sweltering streets and the steaming harbor below. “It’s a medium good trick,” he said. “But it’s a cold-weather trick. I’d like to give him a real test.” He ignored the growl of growing rage from his peers. “If this so-called Elf could produce a bottle of say La Batt’s Pale India Ale on a day like this, I’d say he was a comer—“He was interrupted by a slight fall of snow from the hot and fly-specked ceiling. Our eyes followed the lazy white flakes to the floor, where they fell on a box of slim-necked bottles. The snow swirled and spelled out Courtesy of Canada in the air.

I think Jack Belden went too far. He said lazily, “But is it cold?”

Reynolds flung himself forward and touched the neck of a bottle. “Colder than a (two words deleted by censor),” he said.

That night there was an air raid, and even the British consul enjoyed it. And anyone who doesn’t believe this story can ask any of the people involved, even dour Jack Belden.

1 comment:

Jack Belden said...

My mother showed this to me 30 or more years ago and I found it amusing then and still enjoy it as it paints my Dad Jack (actually Alfred -- also a funny story) Belden as the man I hear he was and I guess I have also inherited some of. I have shared the full content with my kids, which you were thoughtful enough to post here.


Jack Belden