Captain Berlitz of the Titanic | Street Jazz

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Captain Berlitz of the Titanic

Posted By on Tue, May 20, 2008 at 11:46 PM

It’s true - you don’t always have to wait for the translation. Also, this sad but true story proves that I have always been devious - even in high school.

Captain Berlitz of the Titanic

In 1970, in the midst of a bitterly cold German winter, I managed to sink both the Titanic and my standing in the family. The situation began, as do most journeys to Hell, with the best of intentions.

My father had just been stationed Zweibrucken Air Force base, a new American base near Saarbrucken. We all found ourselves in the position of midwifing the birth of this new base. As anyone who has grown up in the military can attest, it is very much a team effort.

Though we had a bowling alley, theater, and a small (very small) library, there was one amenity very much felt the lack of - TV.

Listen, it was cold outside. And while I may not watch much television now (I do, though)  in 1970 I was a TV junkie. There were days when I would watch anything, as long as it was on the tube, and I could vegetate.

When I say there was no TV I mean there was no American TV, as in AFN (Armed Forces Network), the small network set up in Europe to service American bases. Now, to receive AFN, we a had to be hooked up to a special antenna, and it would take over a month to set up. Cold turkey. Oh. no.

There just had to be a way around this situation. It presented itself to me in a spectacularly simple manner.

One day, in German class, our teacher, Mr. Waldman, was telling us about watching an old movie on a German TV station. He urged us all to watch the German television offerings at least once a week because it might help us with our own study of the language. He laughed and told us we could always watch American shows like “Bonanza” and “Mannix” if we didn't want to tax
ourselves too much.

Eureka! I had found it. We could watch German TV until our antenna was hooked up. There was just a slight hitch.

I was failing German. And not just failing; I was failing miserably. I was setting standards of failure for decades to come. If my parents knew just how poorly I was doing, they probably wouldn't let me watch TV in English, let alone another language.

But . . . they didn't know. While I was not averse to telling them how well I was doing in my other classes, I tended to gloss over my inadequacy in German. They'd find out soon enough.

Until then, however, I might be able to get just a little TV time, even if in another tongue.

"Listen, " I said. "I'm doing well enough in German, that I could probably translate a little of what we see on TV. Why don't we try it?"

My parents must have been as bored as I was because they readily agreed.

Now, in my defense, let me state that there is historical precedence for my actions. In England, in the 1700s, lived a very successful confidence artist. At one point, he passed himself off as a Chief from a tropical island. He volunteered to teach the language to missionaries about to
depart for the region. They felt it might be an advantage to learn the language since cannibals were reputed to inhabit some of the islands. He taught them a language, true, but not one connected to any tongue on this planet. The missionaries were never heard from after they arrived in the islands.

Like him, I found that my game went over very well.

At that time, luckily for me, a lot of German programming was actually American series and films, "dubbed" into German. “Hawaii Five-O,” “Ironside” and “Gunsmoke” were all on TV at that time. Even luckier, I had seen many of the episodes before we had left Missouri.

All I had to do was remember the big details, like who the villains were, and the small details would take care of themselves. To say that it was a smashing success would be an understatement. The TV was on all the time,  and I was having the time of my life. Oddly it was even helping my understanding of German, and my slowly raised from F to C.

Now we were getting into shows I hadn't seen before, and I was improvising like crazy. I soon found out that, be they German or American, most crime shows are pretty simplistic, and that helped immensely. I just made up dialogue to fit whatever action was on the screen.

The only program I stayed away from was “Mission: Impossible.” If I had trouble following it in English, I certainly wasn't going to attempt it in another language, I was having tremendous fun though, feeling like Scheherezade from the Arabian Nights, only I knew I couldn't get caught.

And then one night my mother's favorite movie, “A Night To Remember,” came on. If you recall, this film was about the sinking of the Titanic.

This is what we call "irony."

"I love this movie," she said. "I've seen it four times." I resolved to go all out and really give her a treat tonight.

If I had been a little less cocky, I would have stayed well away from the decks of that particular ship. When someone says, "I've seen it four times," it means that they've also listened to it four times.

I was on a roll that night, sometimes making up dialogue before the actors had finished speaking. I had one hell of a story going. Of course, it bore little resemblance to what had been written, but I thought my version was probably better.

I went on for about an hour, when I paused, and glanced at my mother. She was watching me, not the screen, and her eyes were narrowed so tightly that her pupils were like a dim memory.

She took a deep breath and said, "You've been making this up all along, haven't you?"

Caught? Unmasked? I felt like Batman about to be mangled by yet another villain's death trap. There was only one chance at survival.

I smiled broadly. "It kept you happy, didn't it?" As it turned out, it was entirely the wrong thing to say. At least Scheherezade would have only gotten her head cut off; she wouldn't have had to live forever with the consequences of a badly told story. You'd have thought I was Jack the
Ripper. My family had this odd thing about being hoodwinked. They couldn't accept it in the spirit in which it had been given.

And after all this, I still flunked German.

Grapevine, May 11, 1990

rsdrake@nwark.com

 

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