AMONG the more melancholy moments of the British Broadcasting Company’s short wave to “North America” are the occasionally wry interviews of those hands-across-the-sea programs in which American soldiers who have been pent up for some weeks or months in a “typical English village” are invited to tell the folks back home all about it.
When pressed for details of battle experiences, the American yields perfect interview material, but he has never been one to articulate his love of foreign parts as such. As long as the questioner sticks to military matters, all goes well. The hitch comes when he finds a soldier who has no front-line story to tell; whereupon he embarks on the thoroughly risky theme, “How do you like it over here?”
It is strictly an uphill pull. The interviewers live in a state of constant frustration. Nothing ever comes off quite as they would wish to have it. Yet it remains to the credit of the BBC’s fanatical honesty that the interviewers continue the hopeless struggle, that they return each week with hopeful questions to the Sergeant from Montana or the Lieutenant from Dallas. There is never a question planted or a rigged reply, for surely no one would ever plant or rig anything in the vein of these exchanges.
The proceedings always start amiably enough, and the interviewer is on firm enough ground as he opens up. He has with him several members of a supply unit, and although these American boys have not yet had their crack at the Jerries, they will have much to report, he feels certain, of their experiences in the “typical English village" where they are stationed. He wastes no words, no time in idle enthusiasm of his own, however, for he is eager to share with us the cordial affirmations of our lighting men.
Sergeants, corporals, and sundry are produced. “And now, Corporal,” begins the interviewer, “tell us your name and where you come from.”
Our pseudonym conceals, this month, an inveterate addict of the short wave. He has assigneed fictitious names to the soldiers mentioned in his findings, but otherwise the facts are substantially as he gives them.
“Corporal George Foster, Shreveport, Louisiana.”
“Well,” says the interviewer, “Louisiana, eh? That’s fine.” No one could mistake the depth of his satisfaction. This one, he seems to feel, is going to pay off. “That’s fine,” he repeats. “We’re always glad to hear from a Louisiana boy. And now tell us, Corporal . . .”
That, as the British say, tears it. The interviewer does not know it but he is licked. “Tell us, Corporal,” he goes on, “how do you like it over here? ”
“How do you mean?” responds the Corporal. “Why, all right — I guess.”
The interviewer makes a new beginning. His own question was not quite explicit, he seems to feel. That one did not count. “What 1 mean, Corporal,” he resumes hastily, “is how do you find living in England? Have you anything you would like to tell us about your experiences here:”
A long pause. Finally Corporal Foster: “I can’t say much for the weather over here.”
The announcer laughs heartily. “Ha, ha, ha— that’s fine, that’s fine, Corporal Foster, it was mighty good of you to come up here and tell us about how you are getting along. Good-bye and good luck to you. And now we have here a Sergeant
—at least he is wearing the Sergeant’s chevrons— ha, ha, ha — and won’t you tell us your name, Sergeant, and where you come from?”
A new voice is heard. “Technical Sergeant Howard Hicks, Jackson, Mississippi.”
The interviewer tries a fresh gambit. “That’s fine, that’s fine,” he begins. “How long have you been over here, Sergeant ? “
“Fourteen months,” replies the Sergeant tersely.
“ Well ’ — and the interviewer is back in a spirit of complete assurance. “Well, in your fourteen months over here you must have seen a good deal of the British people and their way of doing things. And how does it all strike you, Sergeant?”
Sergeant Hicks appears to weigh his reply. He is neither an ingrate nor an isolationist, but he does feel that some measure of truth is called for. The listener senses the expectancy of the interviewer; the lapse of a few seconds seems painfully long. Eventually, the Sergeant has thought the thing through and he comes up with a masterpiece: —
“The British haven’t given us any trouble,” he reports.
This is the last statement in the world that the interviewer could possibly have expected. It sends him reeling for an instant. “Ha, ha, ha, ha — that’s very good indeed — ha, ha, ha, ha. And I know that you will have a good many interesting things to tell your friends back in Mississippi when you get back, and I want to thank you, Sergeant, for having come up here this morning to take part in this broadcast. Thank you again, and I hope we’ll have the pleasure of hearing from you the next time you are in London.”
The interviewer may have decided by this time to break in some of his own material rather than leave the entire burden to the next newcomer, and so he plunges briskly into the subject of post-war considerations. He realizes, he says, that the Americans are doing great things on the fighting fronts and that their presence in England has been a rewarding experience for both nationalities. They must have seen, as he himself bus been interested to note, that the British people are determined to have a better kind of world after the war. For that matter, the war is not going to last forever. These problems may be nearer at hand than we suppose. They call for individual planning and thought.
Having thus laid a rich foundation for what is plainly going to be a $64 question, the interviewer turns to a Lieutenant, who has identified himself as Henry Webber of Marshalltown, Iowa, and demands: —
“In the light of all this, Lieutenant, what are your plans for after the war?”
The question seems to stun the Lieutenant. “What are my plans?” he repeal=ts.
“Yes, what about your own plans?” There is just a hint of persuasion, or perhaps it is simply incurable optimism, in the interviewer’s voice. “Tell us about them—go ahead.”
The Lieutenant finds it monstrous that he has delayed or seemed to muff a question to which only one answer could possibly be given. “Boy!” he shouts. “Boy! I’m goin’ HOME.”
Although he must realize by this time that he is carrying on a rear-guard action against impossible odds, the interviewer is game to the last syllable. It will cheer us all, he declares, to realize that men like Lieutenant Webber, Sergeant Hicks, and Corporal Foster are giving such thought to the shape of things to come. “ Thank you, Lieutenant.”