Captain USN Onofrio F. Salvia, Kapitän Langsdorff Shoots Himself & I Get A HaircutSaturday, January 19, 2008
I have experienced enough in the last two days, (see yesterday's two-part blog here and here) that I feel that my life at this moment is an old style library card catalogue with all the drawers out. I have to neaten them, one at time, and close them. Perhaps yesterday's events will finally close a few drawers definitely and with a satisfying thud.
Captain USN Onofrio Salvia (left) was my boss (besides my superiors on the Argentine Navy side of things). I translated documents from English into Spanish and the other way around. I advised him on Argentine naval protocol. In the beginning when an Argentine admiral would die, Salvia would right a short letter of condolence which I had to translate into Spanish. He could not understand why my translation was twice as long. He caught on quickly to the idea that we did things differently. A sincerely yours, became:
Lo saluda con la mayor consideración y estima,
Before I was sent to serve the American captain who was head of the US Naval Advisory Group in Argentina I had started my days with a haircut at the Arsenal Naval Buenos Aires. Angel, my barber had asked me how I wanted it. I gave him my instructions which he then gleefully ignored with a corte doble cero, or a "double zero cut". He clipped it all off. As bad as I felt I had the small relief that at least I was alive as not far, in that very arsenal, Captain Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, of the scuttled German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, had shot himself in the head with a Luger on, Tuesday December 19, 1939.
The folks of the Argentine Navy asked me to fill out a questionaire where I was to inform them of my talents. I knew that they would surely not put them to use. I mentioned that I played the alto saxophone and wrote I did not know how to type even though I did. But I was sent to work with Captain Salvia. It seems my English was useful. Since I could not type I was given a secretary. She was a lovely blonde Argentine woman of Irish extraction called Edna Gahan. You will have to suffer with the only photograph I have of her which I took in 1964.
My job was pleasant. I was pretty well able to sidestep many of the perennial boot camps. The Argentine non commissioned officers hated my guts and my swagger. I had obtained permission to smoke my pipe at work (Salvia provided me with lovely tins of Edgeworth Pipe Tobbacco) and I was able to avoid greasy kitchen bell cleaning routines as my job was supposed to be important. Suddenly I was hit by a wave of arrests and I had to spend many a night in the nearby brig of the Secretaría de Marina. I stopped these most efficiently by pinching a glossy 8x10 photograph of the head of the Argentine Navy, Almirante Benigno Varela from Salvia's files. With a fountain pen I wrote in Spanish, "To my friend Conscript Jorge Waterhouse-Hayward," and I signed it with my imitation of the man's signature. I placed the photograph under the glass of my desk. The arrests ceased.
But that situation did not last long. The Argentines wanted me to translate some documents they did not want Salvia to see so I was to do this in another office. A Lieutenant Commander ordered me to report every day at 6am. Since I had the priviledge of not having to live on the barracks (and be at the mercy of martinet corporals) this meant that I would have to stay at the barracks in order to arrive at that time. So I told the commander, "I refuse to obey your order." He asked me to repeat my statement. I did. He then told me, "In war I could have you shot for your insubordination or I could send you to rot in the Argentine Antarctic. your only relief would be sex with penguins. But I will hand out a house arrest for a month and you will report tomorrow at 6. You can complain to your friend the admiral if you want. It will do you no good."
Captain Salvia came up to me and said, "It is fruitless for you to rebel. It is obvious that a military career is not in the books for you. I will give you advice which I hope you will accept. Do nothing, obey all orders. And leave when your time is up. Then rise in position in the world and then, when you are able change the system you so abhor, change it." I never forgot those words and I respected the man. I can almost say I might have loved him. And he did have a sense of humour. Something that according to Gahan I did not have. Some years before I lost touch with her she sent me a letter with a cartoon with her comment on what it was like to work with me.
One day I asked Gahan (she was a saint as she was able to read my horrible handwriting) how she was going to spend the next day's holiday. She told me she was unaware that the next day was a holiday. I told her, "Tomorrow Friday is Benedict Arnold Day. He was a famous American patriot." That afternoon when she said goodbye to the Captain, instead of saying "until tomorrow, "she said, "see you Monday." At that point I left the room. The next day when Captain Salvia came in he looked in my direction and said, "Why don't you and Edna take the day off?" We didn't. We were too afraid.
Yesterday I spoke for almost an hour with the 90 year-old retired Salvia who had just returned from a bowling tournament with his wife. He plays in a senior's league in Reno. He told me that his eyesight was degenerating and that he had not been able to drive since he was 80. We talked in Spanish and his voice (his diction was perfect) had not changed in the least. I could only address him as "Sir," anything else simply did not seem right. I had to tell him of his influence on me and how lucky I felt that I was able to thank him. I told him how I had been strangely affected by the sight of Argentine A-4 Skyhawks being shot down when I watched the Malvinas war on television. I told him that I did not feel for the pilots. They were professionals and they had chosen their career. They knew of the consequences. But I felt different about the A-4s. I told Salvia that I felt possessive over the A-4 Skyhawks. They had been purchased by the Argentines during our tenure and I had translated the operating and maintenance manuals. I told Salvia, "How did those Brits dare shoot down our planes?" My guess is that Salvia must have smiled and then he said, "Alex, you have made my day." I could not begin to tell him how he had made mine.
The colour photograph posted here was taken by David B. Parker/RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL in 2004