by Kent Wallace
The pub where I was drinking with a group of Brits and Egyptians one foggy autumn evening in 1991 in Aberdeen, Scotland, used to be a church. The ornately carved wooden preacher’s pulpit still stood high on the right side of the nave. But now the pulpit contained a mixing board, three spinning record turntables, and a grinning black Rastafarian D. J. with long dreadlocks and a large Jamaican hat. Bob Marley was pounding out of the speakers and reverberating off of the grey granite walls. The music became a cacophony. No one seemed to mind. The pews had been removed to make space for tables, chairs, and a dance floor. The bar stood in place of the altar. Where the crucifix of Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, should have been hanging, there was, instead, a huge mirrored sign advertising “Budweiser—King of Beers.” Despite the high vaulted ceiling, cigarette smoke was thick. It was crowded. The women there were all typically Scottish-ugly, with bad teeth and short, stocky legs.
lan, Kieran, and I were sitting at a table where the first row of pews should have been. We were ignoring the Egyptians. A barmaid came over and asked us what we wanted, She looked at my elephant skin cowboy boots and Wrangler shirt and asked me if I wanted a Budweiser, and tried to pronounce “Budweiser” with an American accent. I ordered an Irn-Bru, an orange-colored but rusty-tasting Scottish soda pop, lan and Kieran, my two friends, ordered Glenfiddich neat.
We were all taking a three-week course to familiarize ourselves with a new drilling tool our company had developed. Our company, a large American oilfield service company, had its eastern hemisphere office in Aberdeen, and engineers from all over the hemisphere were sent here to train on the new equipment. This new tool was used for measuring the angle and direction of the drill bit, and it gave the data while drilling. It was cutting-edge technology. Some of the components were the same as those used in the Cruise Missile. I had learned more about the inclinometers and magnetometers than I
had really wanted to know, but it really was an interesting course.
I had become good friends with Ian and Kieran. Kieran was an Irishman who was based in Saudi Arabia, lan was the instructor, and today was his last day at the school. He would be leaving for the Far East the next morning.
“I’ll miss you two,” Ian said, “but it’s good riddance to our tea-towel-headed friends. Present company excepted, of course, but this was the thickest bunch of engineers I’ve ever taught. I can understand that there might have been some language problems, but we used Arabic numerals in the equations.You’d think they would have understood that part, at least. What a lot of gits.” Ian glared over at the Egyptians’ table.
The Egyptians would all be going back to Egypt and were trying to drink as much as they could before returning to a country where Allah could keep an eye on them. I shared Ian’s dislike of the Egyptians. When we ate lunch, the Egyptians would paw through the food hamper and cast aside all the BLT’s and the ham and cheese sandwiches. They were all married, but they still tried to hit on the secretaries and any other females they saw. At night they drank like fish. These Egyptians were all officers in their army and were as conceited as any group of people I had ever met. They were also incompetent, and the class had dragged along slowly because of them. Until I had met them, I had always wondered how a numerically superior Egyptian army could get its butt kicked consistently by the Israelis. After a few weeks with these guys, I was convinced the pyramids must have been designed and built by aliens.
Kieran, like the Egyptians, was headed for a Muslim country and seemed to feel a need to get particularly blasted now that the course was over, Ian had been in a black mood all day, Like me, lan was recently divorced. His ex-wife was destroying him financially, so he was going to leave the country. I would be returning to Norway the next day, and I really wasn’t looking forward to going back.
I had been concentrating so much on successfully completing my course work that I had managed to block out all thoughts of anything after this course. I should have been sending out my Christmas cards. For each of the past six years I’d written a cheerful letter full of good news—job promotions, interesting family vacations, the births of my three children, the purchase of a lovely new house with a great view of the ocean. And each Christmas letter had a picture included of my happy family, two proud parents and three lovely blonde children. My ex-wife was a typical Scandinavian beauty. Unfortunately, I thought of her, and the image that came to my mind was of her naked. She had a great body with perfect, full breasts, fine feminine curves, and flawless skin. Even after giving birth to our three children, she still didn’t have a single stretch mark, And I could smell her perfume.
“Kent,” Ian said as he punched me in the shoulder, “Hey, mate. You still with us. You look like you could use a drink.” I shook my head.
“You know what sober means?” Kieran asked, He was pretty drunk and slurred the words, I shook my head again. Kieran counted each letter off on his fingers. “Son of a bitch, everything’s real.” I laughed, but Kieran had hit too close to home. Everything was real and it was rotten. I wanted my old life back, but there was nothing I could do about it. I kept drinking my soda pop. Ian was pretty drunk when a uniformed woman police constable came up to him and told him he was under arrest. The woman read (or attempted to read; she was unable to pronounce many of the words) from a typewritten sheet detailing crimes from drunk driving to lewd conduct. Then she took off her blouse. A circle formed, and I found myself with no way to escape and with an unobstructed view as the stripper removed clothing until she was completely nude except for high stockings and a garter belt. She had stretch marks on her belly and thighs. Probably in her mid-thirties and a bottle blonde-not a woman I wanted to see naked.
The fattest of the Egyptians had gotten so excited about this stripper that he had climbed onto a tiny pedestal table in order to get a better view. The crowd pressed in on me until I was so close to the stripper that I could smell her and see every blemish on her skin. I felt claustrophobic and frantic. I pushed back hard against the crowd to keep as much distance from her as possible.
She hugged Ian and he grabbed for her breasts. She pushed him away. I saw fear in her eyes. She was trapped by a drunken crowd of men, and she was naked. Before anything else could happen she quickly hugged Ian again and kissed him on the cheek. Then she gathered her clothes and began dressing. Once she was mostly clothed, the crowd broke up. I was disappointed that the Arab’s table hadn’t collapsed underneath him.
Everyone ignored the stripper as she left. People from the office came over and shook Ian’s hand or pounded him on his shoulder. Ian was in a good mood now. The cigarette smoke hurt my eyes and gave me a headache. Kieran launched into another of his Irish history lessons and told us of the outrageous things the English had done to his people starting hundreds of years ago and continuing right upto the present.
“What’s it like to be from a country with no history?” Kieran asked me in a break during the Irish history lesson.
“It’s not too bad,” I replied, “What’s it like to be from a country with no future?” I asked flatly. I’d been playing the ugly American with them before, but now nothing seemed funny. On other nights, when they were as drunk as they were now, they’d get serious and start to ask questions about my religion. I’d always make a couple of jokes and let the topic slide. I had learned as a missionary that it was futile to teach religion to someone who was under the influence of alcohol. But, now, I wanted to tell them about my great-grandfather and his baby daughter who was born in a dank dugout in Winter Quarters. This little girl survived the long trip across the plains and died as my great-grandfather’s wagon train entered the Salt Lake Valley. She had the dubious honor of being the first person to be buried in the Salt Lake Cemetery. The mob had forced my people out of the United States while the government stood by and did nothing to protect their rights.
I wanted to tell them about another ancestor who was a scout on the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition in southern Utah, where a group of Mormon pioneers had taken a wagon train through an area so impassable and barren that the area still has few roads and hasn’t been settled. The wrongs my people had suffered were in the last century, but we had gotten over it and pushed our way back into American society. We remembered our past, but, unlike Kieran’s people, we didn’t need to use bombs to punctuate our struggle as a minority group. I wanted that little Irishman to know that my people had a history and that I knew my heritage. Kieran leaned over to me with his whiskey breath and said something else about America that I didn’t catch.
“Do you know what an American is?” I asked. They both shook their heads, “We’re just Europeans who had intelligent ancestors.” They smiled, but I was feeling really angry. Everything suddenly felt so very wrong. I told Ian and Kieran that I needed some fresh air and would be back in an hour.
I stepped outside but I still felt dirty. My clothes smelled like cigarettes and beer from where the barmaid had spilled on me. But the feeling of dirtiness went much deeper. The stripper made me sad. That woman was obviously uneducated and was exploited and demeaned in order to earn money, and I felt like I had been part of it. After all, I had looked. There was more to it than that. A stripper and a bar in a church. It was blasphemous.
A grey fog had rolled into Aberdeen, a grey city built of granite. Everything was monochrome. Grey people wearing grey coats scurried along grey sidewalks. I was wearing an oilskin duster and Tony Lama boots. I was sure I looked as out of place as I felt. I hated Scotland, hated living for three weeks in a constant overcast drizzle. I was glad my ancestors had been bright enough to hightail it off to America. The chieftain of the Clan Wallace now lives in Bermuda. Bright boy. l could hardly wait to leave too, except that I really had nothing to go back to. In the morning I would fly back to a town I used to call home and take another load of my things from what used to be my house to my basement bachelor’s apartment, all under the cold, watchful eye of the woman I had been married to for seven years. We had three children together, but now she would recoil from my touch as I had from the stripper.
I moved off Union Street and followed a street I had never been on before. It felt good to be away from the smoke and the noise. I had learned the appeal of pubs. They were clean, well-lighted places that surrounded a person with sound and a kind of warmth. As long as you had money, you could feel part of something larger in a pub. The loud music prevented serious discussion or thought, which was also probably part of the appeal. Outside it was numbingly cold. The dank fog from the North Sea seemed to go right through to my bones, but the fog also seemed to soften things. I could see no farther than ten meters, Away from the noise of the pub, I could think clearly again.
I had been divorced now for three months. The four MormonsI had known who worked with me in the oil business had, within a two-year period, all gotten divorced. In each case it was the wife who had wanted out. I was the only one who still managed to remain active, and I was only barely hanging on.
I came to an intersection where there were churches on each corner. Two of them were, in fact, no longer churches but an architectural firm and an insurance building. The third one was being remodeled and had a “For Sale” sign on it. Stained glass windows were being replaced with double-glazed ones.
The one that was still a church looked shabby. Its exterior was darker than the others. Moss grew a few feet up the sides. The massive wooden door was old and scratched and battered. It had a key-hole that would fit a giant skeleton key, and I felt that a good kick could put my foot right through the rotten wood of the door. The times of the services were stapled to the door in a plastic sheet. Scotland seemed in a hurry to join the rest of Europe in its post-Christian splendor. I wished the door was open and that there was a priest inside to talk to. I felt like I was badly in need of absolution.
I thought about Provo, Utah, my hometown. Churches were still being built there, and they were filled to capacity each week. But Utah seemed so far away to me that I almost doubted its existence.
Maybe I needed to get back to Utah where my Mormon God could keep an eye on me. I was thousands of miles from where I wanted to be and light years away from being who I wanted to be. I could feel the drag of the world working against me, and I knew that if I stayed in the oil business I would eventually turn out like Ian. Or, worse, I might find myself perched on a wobbly bar table like a fat bird straining for a glimpse of an ugly stripper. The money I was earning, however, was too good to leave. Oil is an exploitative business, reaping where it hasn’t sown. It exists for quick profits and leaves town the moment the wells run dry.
I felt like just quitting and taking the next plane to Utah, but I knew that I couldn’t. I was shackled to my job by a golden chain that I didn’t have the will to break. After all, if I left its employ, what would become of me?
Ian had said that the stripper had been the first naked woman he’d seen after his divorce. I couldn’t have said the same, I hadn’t slept with any of them yet, but it seemed like it would just be a matter of time before I did. Women have always been my weakness,
I thought marriage would have been the cure, and, in a way, it was. I had never been unfaithful to my wife. I also hadn’t ever been totally happy with her, or, for that matter, any other woman I had ever known,.
Hugh Nibley, a notable Mormon scholar, and I once talked about the nature of man. He said that he felt that men belonged in one of three classes-celibates, monogamists, and polygamists. He felt that he was, by nature, a celibate, but he had been married for nearly fifty years and had a fine family. I guess that I have always been inclined more toward polygamy. I was working in the North Sea region and had girls in Bergen, Stavanger, Oslo, Copenhagen, Esbjerg, Aberdeen, Cheltenham, and London. lt was nice that I could get into nearly every town I worked in and have someone to spend time with. I never liked being alone for too long. The girl in Bergen was tall, blonde, and had been a model. The girl in Aberdeen was short, dark, and (by Scottish standards) a beauty. None of the them, however, seemed like someone I wanted to marry.
A couple in long coats came toward me, gliding like chess pieces through the knee-deep fog. They were the only people I had seen in sometime. Almost everyone was inside on a night like this. As I went further, a man came out of an alley with a glowing cigarette in his mouth. My company had warned all of us engineers about walking alone in Aberdeen, since a Dutch engineer had gotten beaten up and robbed a few weeks previously, I laced my keys through my fingers. I let the big key to my company BMW stick out between the second and third fingers on my left hand. With my right hand, I released the snap on the sheath of my Buck hunting knife. I really wasn’t very worried. Standing six-feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, I felt like a giant in Scotland. The man was a good six inches shorter than me. He ducked backdown the alley. I could see the glow of three cigarettes as I passed by. No one came out, I was almost disappointed. Getting into a fight would have let me release some of the anger that I was holding in. I am, by nature, a very violent person, but I always keep my anger under control. I did, however, find myself regretting my good behavior and often wished that I had beat up some people who seemed to deserve it.
A few weeks before I left for Scotland, I had gone to a party at an American couple’s home in Stavanger. It was a theme party, and we were all supposed to come dressed as a song. I couldn’t think of anything for a costume. When I got there, one man was dressed as Puff, the Magic Dragon. One very confident woman wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka dot bikini. And one guy was wearing a cheap, shiny blue suit with a tie that had the narrow part hanging below the wide part. He had on white socks and scuffed brown shoes. None of us could guess what song he was. “I came,” he said, “dressed as a ‘Norwegian Wood.”‘
A few days after the party I found myself in front of a Norwegian judge who was dressed just like the guy at the party, and I stood there meekly while he gave my car, my children, and the house I had built to my ex-wife.
The fog was getting more dense. It swirled around me as Iwalked. I could no longer see the ground. I began to be afraid, silly fears like my next step would be into a manhole missing its cover. I was sliding my foot along the ground and making sure I was stepping onto firm ground before putting my weight down. The streetlights and autumn trees played tricks on my eyes. I would think I could see someone, but no one was there. My visibility was reduced to a couple of meters, but a thick patch of fog would occasionally drift past and reduce my visibility to nothing. As the fog boiled and swirled around me, I thought I could see faces in the fog.
I became disoriented and terrified, And I was angry at myself for being so afraid. As I walked along, I noticed that the newly painted, black wrought-iron fence by the sidewalk now had painted metal crests between some of the bars. The painted crests were bright colors—red, blue, and gold—the only colors I could see. As I looked closely at one of the crests, I recognized it as the crest of my clan—the same crest that was on the key fob I still had clenched in my fist. Ahead of me loomed a large, lighted statue. The statue was on a little island in the street where the road made a T-intersection. I crossed the road to the statue which stood higher than the fog. The statue was of Sir William Wallace, Scotland’s national hero. A wreath of fresh flowers had been placed at the base of the statue. William Wallace had been dead for nearly seven hundred years, and yet someone was still placing flowers on his statue.
According to legend, William Wallace was six-foot-five-inches tall, brave, fearless, and loved by everyone-except the English. Standing there at the base of the statue, I drew my right hand out of my coat pocket. The blade of my hunting knife looked ridiculously tiny compared with the claymore in the hand of the statue.
I didn’t know where to go, so I sat down on a park bench, the toes of my cowboy boots pointing upwards, my arm along the top of the bench, the knife still held in my hand. I took stock of my life. Nothing was going right, and I had lost everything that mattered to me. I couldn’t think of a single reason for carrying on. I wasn’t suicidal. I just didn’t want to continue to exist. I wished that I could just disappear into the fog.
William Wallace’s life had never been easy. His father had been killed when he was young. The English had drowned his wife. He had fought against oppression his whole life, and he never compromised. Pro Libertate. For Liberty, the motto of the Clan Wallace, William Wallace wasn’t the type of man who would have allowed himself to be ruined by a badly dressed judge and some lopsided laws. He would have gotten out his claymore and fought for his rights. Of course, he got hung, drawn, and quartered for his efforts. I just had to move into a basement apartment.
My life had been good for so long. I had always succeeded at anything I’d ever tried, and I usually hadn’t even needed to try very hard. And now it was all unraveling. I just wanted to go back to the pub and get drunk. It seemed too much to have to face the tail end of this century stone cold sober. On the other hand, I’d seen enough of the world to know that it didn’t have much to offer.
I sat there a long time. After resting for several minutes, I got up and circumambulated the monument. There were inscriptions on each side. One of the inscriptions was some advice that William’s uncle and guardian, Argyle Wallace, allegedly gave to William that had inspired him to fight for Scotland’s freedom. “l tell you the truth, liberty is the best of all things, my son, never live under any slavish bond.”
The fog started to lift as I sat there. I looked up into the autumn sky and watched the familiar stars. I was no longer as world weary as I had been. Wallace’s statue was luminescent in the starlight. I have never considered myself a mystical person, but something had happened to me. I felt a real connection with my legendary clansman, William Wallace had changed me, had given me some hope.
Orion was directly above me, I hitched up my own belt and put my knife back into its sheath, I felt some new strength and was ready to go on. Ian, Kieran, and the others would be waiting for me to drive them back from the pub. I remembered the words from Ecclesiastes and decided that I would discover if being a living dog really was better than being a dead lion.