Promises to Keep
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep/ and miles to go before I sleep.
—Robert Frost (1875 – 1963)
I suppose that's one way of characterizing me, though I personally wouldn't class myself as one. Not in that sense anyway. When I think of a hunter I picture safaris and big game, hanging out in the bush in South Africa.
Which I'm not! You wouldn't catch me anywhere near wild animals; quite apart from the fact that I totally disagree with that kind of thing, but that's politics and not what my story is about. I prefer to think of myself as more of a collector. I accumulate things I hold dear, as do we all. I specialize in autographs and I've collected some of the most famous in the world: perhaps the biggest catch being that of ole blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
However, one in particular (Glenn Miller's) eluded me for a little over sixty years: it was my first, and the one that started off the whole venture.
I know what you're thinking: the wheels are grinding and the brain is ticking and you're trying to do the math behind that one. Either I'm a hundred fifty years old…or there's another explanation, one that doesn't add up.
Well, I'll tell you, and you can form your own opinions.
August 27th 1944:
The airbase was heaving with people and as the afternoon wore on it simply grew hotter. I was bored stiff and trying to find things to do, adventurous things that would excite a ten-year old living on an airbase with the really tight regulations.
We lived in a small wooden chalet and so too did my friend Charley Watts, but his dad had taken him out for the day and my dad hadn't because he wanted to see someone called Glenn Miller. He was American and, apparently, the leader of a dance band that were becoming popular over here.
Anyway my dad was sitting on the veranda with his friend—also an American—called Doug Straker, drinking a glass of afternoon beer. I sneaked around the back of the building and overheard them as they were laughing and talking.
“Are you serious?” said Doug.
“Of course,” replied my Dad. “Vera will be over the moon, she loves him.”
Vera was my mum, and I wasn't sure what my dad meant by that. Surely my mum loved my dad! Isn't that why they married?
“You're nuts,” said Doug. “You can't seriously ask him for his autograph. You really think he's gonna give it to you?”
“Why not?” my dad replied.
“Because you're a lieutenant and he's a Major.”
I didn't hear much more of the conversation and passed the afternoon away asking people what an autograph was and what my dad had meant by his comment.
Turns out it wasn't so bad after all.
Later that night I overheard someone say that Glenn Miller had put two trailers together outside the control tower and that's where he was going to give the show.
Everyone was dressed up to go: everyone except my dad that is, who'd been called away; he was a B17 pilot with the 306th Bomb group at Thurleigh, a few miles away.
My mum had been quite angry with him, not because of the business with the autograph: she didn't know anything about it, but because she was sick of the war and sick of living in a stupid wooden shoe box with no room and no privacy; and fed up of the fact that tonight was the first night they were going to spend together in a long time.
Anyway, I had a bright idea and decided I would get the autograph.
So I sneaked out of the chalet when I was supposed to be having a bath and going to bed.
I waited at the toilet block near the entrance and as soon as his jeep pulled in I jumped out and waved my hand to stop him.
He did and I was told off for all sorts of reasons and then he asked me why I was out here at night when I should be in bed.
“I want your autograph, sir…for my mum.”
“The Major's in a rush, son” shouted the driver.
“Okay,” said Glenn Miller. “I figure you're in enough trouble already, though I don't guess your mum actually knows.” He pointed to his driver. “But it's like he says son, I'm already late. If you're still out here after the concert, I'll sign my name for you.”
I was okay with that and he started to drive off but then stopped and glanced back.
“But you must understand, I'm not telling you to stop out here till late, you really should be in bed, young man.”
“Later that night” finally came and nothing went according to plan. I'd listened to his concert and he was playing tunes that he was famous for, though I didn't know any of them by name. Anyway, he eventually left the stage and started talking to people. I sneaked off back around the control tower and made my way across the base to the entrance. As I neared the gate I heard a jeep coming towards me. I turned and waved a postcard in my hand when I saw the jeep flashing his lights and the driver was shouting something.
I turned to glance behind me and there was another jeep, and it was all over the road, out of control.
Frightened, I turned back towards Glenn Miller's jeep, which had now stopped. The driver was running towards me, and after that I don't remember anything.
December 15th 1944:
“Come on, hurry up!”
My dad stared at me. “Calm down, son, you're just out of hospital.”
“But we'll miss him,” I insisted.
“We can't go any faster, Frankie, you know that,” said the driver. “Look at the state of the weather, it's too foggy.”
“Why are you in such a rush to meet Glenn Miller, son?” My dad asked.
“I just am, it's important.”
Nothing more was said and it must have been another twenty minutes before we arrived at the entrance gate.
As the soldier inspected our passes I leaned my head out of the window. “Is Glenn Miller still here?”
“It's Major Miller if you ever get to meet him, son.”
“I know, but is he still here?”
Suddenly, a small plane passed overhead. It was a single-engined Noorduyn Norseman: I'm good with planes, my dad taught me how to recognize all of them.
The soldier glanced upwards. “Sorry, son, you just missed him.”
You all know the rest; Glenn Miller was never seen alive again.
Unless of course you believe the crap the media peddle: in 1997, according to the German tabloid Bild, a journalist called Ulfkotte claimed he had documents to support evidence that Miller had arrived safely in Paris on the 14th, but had a heart attack on the 15th while consorting with a French prostitute, and that the American military had covered up the episode.
The Bild story also alleges a British diver found the remains of Miller's Norseman plane off the coast of France in 1985, and there was no damage and no signs of human remains. But if Miller's death had been faked, and the military had placed the plane there in order to back up its story about the real cause of his death, then why didn't they bother making it look like a wreck? And why leave it sitting there for forty years rather than find it after the crash? And since the diver stated that there was no registration number on the craft he found, how did he know it was Miller's plane?
I switched on the radio to the sound of the carols and finished dressing for the evening, thinking of the tragic events of that night, like I haven't done a million times already. If only I'd been more careful: if Miller had not been in a rush he would have signed then and there. But that's fate for you, it has a strange way of controlling your world without you knowing. They also say it has a strange way of balancing the scales.
I hesitated at the door to the chalet. It felt bizarre to be back on the airbase after all these years, and in the chalet where I lived with my parents. We moved away a couple of days after Glenn Miller's disappearance. Couldn't have picked a worse time, the week before Christmas. I had spent all that time in the hospital, missing my friends, and then they told me we would be moving on. I closed and locked the door and strolled towards the arena, taking the route through the woods. I found it quite unnerving, all those Germans, sitting around the campfires.
A fog had descended so you couldn't actually see them, but the crackling of flames and the aroma of freshly grilled meat penetrated the mist.
Continuing through the woods I reminisced on the day's events. Shortly after arrival I'd joined a small group and we were given a tour. The guide had been excellent, knew his history and talked about all sorts of things, in particular, the hauntings in and around the base. Funny thing was, a couple of people mentioned Glenn Miller but he quickly changed the subject. Somehow, he wouldn't be drawn into the talking about the bandleader.
As I arrived at the arena, events had livened up. A huge stage had been erected with a marquee style roof. There was quite a crowd and everyone had really made the effort to recreate the 1940's. Waiters served drinks and adjusted the patio heaters on request. Bodies filled the stage and were moving gracefully to the pre-war dance tunes: a live tribute band were expected.
Tonight was a special night to mark the 60th anniversary of Miller's death. Twinwood is normally closed for the winter months.
I passed the next half hour talking to a variety of people when an announcement was made that due to the unexpected turn in the weather, the tribute band were stuck on the motorway and it was very unlikely that they would make tonight. However, every effort would be made to ensure the guests enjoyed themselves, and for anyone who wanted to watch, The Glenn Miller Story was showing in the control tower.
I left shortly afterwards and walked back across the airbase, once again thinking about the circumstances that led to my accident all those years ago. I never did find out what had happened, other than the fact that I was knocked down by a jeep.
The entrance to Twinwood became visible and a sudden sound startled me, sending a shiver up my spine. A pair of headlights came out of the fog. I chuckled, wondering if fate had finally decided to finish the job it had started.
The jeep came to a halt and the driver tipped his hat. I couldn't quite make out the passenger until he leaned forward and saluted, perhaps more out of common courtesy than anything else. I stood rooted to the spot. The man not only bore an uncanny resemblance to Glenn Miller, you could have taken him for a twin brother.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Fine, thank you.”
“Are you on your way in, or out?”
“Out…I'm afraid I'm a little tired. I would like to have seen the show, but I heard you couldn't make it.”
He smiled. “Sure you wouldn't like a lift back?”
“That's kind of you, but I think I'll call it a night.” I tipped my hat. “Not as young as I used to be.”
“Are any of us?” replied the Miller lookalike.
The jeep was about to drive off and I suddenly stopped them.
“Could you do me a favour?”
I realized it wouldn't be genuine, and it wasn't the same but what the hell, it would be another for the collection.
“Would you mind giving me your autograph?”
“The Major's in a rush, son” shouted the driver.
My spine tingled and I felt hollow. They were the exact words the driver had said to me when I was ten.
Bravado kicked in and I laughed. “That's what you said years ago.”
The Miller lookalike laughed and after a lengthy pause he said: “Yeah…I guess we did.”
I stopped laughing then.
He whispered something to the driver and then turned towards me. He reached into his inside pocket and passed over a brown envelope and tipped his cap.
And then they left, driving back into the mist, without saying anything.
I felt really weird, and cold: and I couldn't shake the feeling for the rest of the night.
I woke up with a raging hunger the next morning. After a shower I decided to cook myself some breakfast.
As I prepared everything I noticed the manila envelope on the table. I must have been tired the night before because it was exactly where I had left it, unopened.
I slit the edge with a knife and withdrew the contents. If there had been anything in my stomach I'm quite sure I would have brought it up. I couldn't move and felt intensely cold. My hands started to shake.
My original postcard from sixty-something years ago had been inside. I knew that because the top right corner had a crease. The picture was one of Glenn Miller in uniform. Only now, as well as his name, there was a message: For Vera…sorry it took so long.
I collected my coat, locked the chalet and rushed back across the airbase. Breakfast was suddenly the last thing on my mind.
What the hell had happened last night? Who had I been talking to? Who had signed my postcard? Logic told me it couldn't be Glenn Miller. But then who else could it have been? No one else would have known my mother's name, or that the autograph had originally been for her. I never told anyone. I finally found a member of the staff and asked about last night's concert and the tribute band. “I'm sorry, sir, didn't you know? The band couldn't make it last night, got stranded on the M1 somewhere.”
I may have wanted to protest but I couldn't find the words. I did manage to ask if I could see the manager.
Eventually, after about twenty minutes I was shown to a small but well furnished office. The walls were decorated with wood paneling and pastel colours and contained a number of original oils. The manager was pretty rotund and had perhaps one of the reddest faces I'd seen, probably from drinking copious amounts of alcohol. He had a twitch in his left eye and I had the feeling he wasn't too happy to see me.
I sat and he ordered tea for both us and then asked how he could help.
I explained my position in between the tea arriving and him pouring it.
“May I see it?” he asked.
He stared at it for a good five minutes without talking. Did plenty of huffing and puffing, but no talking, before finally laying it on his desk.
“It's genuine,” he said.
“But how can it be?”
“I'm not sure.” He took a sip of the tea. “You're Frankie Wells, aren't you?”
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“Not as well as you knew Charley Watts,” he replied, sipping more tea.
Another shock. I was growing used to them by now.
He extended his hand. “Roy Slater, we had the chalet opposite you. We moved away after your accident, before you came out of hospital.”
I shook his hand, trying to remember more about him.
“Look, Frankie, I've waited years for a chance to set the record straight, never thought I'd get it.”
“The night you had your accident, I was driving the jeep. I stole it, my Dad didn't know. I was always asking him to let me have a drive. Anyway, everyone was out at the concert and I didn't think it would do any harm.
“I just lost control. I was frightened, didn't know what to do. Didn't see you until the last minute…”
He let the sentence fade. Didn't seem to want to say any more. I waited before speaking. “Look, Roy, I do remember you. What happened years ago is in the past. I didn't come looking for answers to questions from 1944, I came because of this.” I pointed to the photograph. “You tell me the signature is genuine, how do you know? And how the hell can it be? Glenn Miller has been dead for sixty years?”
He picked it up. “I know it's genuine, because I watched him sign it.”
“When? Last night?”
He took his time before answering. “No, the night you were knocked down. You were eventually taken away in an ambulance and he asked me all about you and your family. And then I saw him sign it, for your mother. He eventually put it in a brown manila envelope and into his pocket.”
My hands started to shake again. Last night's events were beyond explanation.
“It clears up one little mystery,” continued Roy. “For me anyway.”
“Go on,” was about all I could muster.
“There's been a number of sightings on the airbase over the years: each description the same. People claim they have seen Glenn Miller being chauffeur driven around the site in his jeep, usually around eleven o' clock at night and usually when it's foggy.”
I thought back: pretty much the time and conditions of the night I was knocked down.
“They all say that he has the same haunted expression in his eyes, as if he's looking for something…or someone. Look, Frankie, I never knew Glenn Miller, but my father was a close friend of one of his aides. They reckoned that Glenn Miller was a man of his word. If he made a promise, he kept it. If he said he'd do something, he did it. Did he promise you an autograph?”
I finished my tea, could have done with a stiff brandy no matter how early it was. “He did,” I replied. “After the show…”
It all happened three years ago now. As I said earlier, it's an explanation but it doesn't add up. I can't claim to have any belief in the supernatural. Never had before that night, and still don't. But I have no rational explanation for what happened either.
But two strange things followed.
I left Twinwood about two hours after my meeting with Roy Slater and drove all the way back up to Yorkshire, taking only one tea break.
I bought a photo frame in the service station and placed the autograph inside it.
I eventually arrived at the nursing home around ten in the evening. It was very foggy, which was why I was so late.
The nurses finally agreed I could see my mother. Maybe they could tell from my expression that there was more than a sense of urgency.
She was still awake, sitting up in bed reading. She was 94 and, quite naturally, concerned about why I was visiting so late but pleased to see me nonetheless.
She reached for her glasses when I presented her with the frame. I hadn't seen her cry since my father's funeral, twenty years before: and that was the only time in my life I'd remembered seeing her cry at all. I had never known a stronger woman.
Ten minutes after I arrived home one of the nurses telephoned to say that my mother had died peacefully at around eleven o' clock, holding the frame. The radio in her room was on. It was an oldies station, and the tune had been Moonlight Serenade: her favourite.
I know what you're thinking: I said two strange things.
I've been back to Twinwood every year since then. Struck up a real friendship with Roy, despite the fact that he nearly killed me sixty years ago.
One dark, foggy night, he told me that Glenn Miller had never been seen at the airbase since the night I was there three years ago.