Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
An Incident in the Bari Opera House
I finally made it to Bari on my first 'eight-day leave', the very last in my platoon to get away. I'd been hoping my turn would come when we were at the front, but with my luck, it came when we were taking things easy in a rest area a hundred miles behind the lines. Anyway, after checking in at the newly-constructed 8th Army Rest Camp on the shore of the Adriatic a mile north of the city deep in the southeast of Italy. I scooted into town to have a look around, with no ulterior motive on my mind like hooking up with a local lady of ill-repute or getting drunk. I was just a clean-cut Canadian wanting to see the sights.
While standing outside an ice-cream parlour enjoying something I hadn't tasted in over a year I happened to strike up a conversation with a Yank Army Air Corps type who was doing likewise. I never did ask him what his job was, but I presumed he was ground-crew. After a while, when he asked me if I wanted to go to the Opera House with him to take in a play put on by an ENSA1 concert party I hesitated...for two reasons. First, I wasn't all that sure of his motives, and second, I wasn't all that keen on sitting through a boring 'play', being the uncultured klutz that I was. But the Yank seemed to be such a nice guy, an honourable sort, so I accepted his invitation when he showed me the two tickets he had.
I hadn't realized how many men there were in the two polyglot armies in Italy that went for what I called 'stuffed shirt' entertainment until we became a part of the milling throng waiting to enter the great building that was the Opera House, a large Baroque structure that looked more like a cathedral than a palace of entertainment. By the time the curtains were drawn open for the first act, it was literally packed to the rafters. From our choice box-seats on the second tier just off the stage we had an ideal place from which to watch the show and scan the audience on the floor below. At once I felt grossly out of place. There was nothing but high-priced help all around us. All I could see was officers sitting in the box-seats, except in the one to our left which was occupied by five pretty New Zealand Nursing Sisters. Most of the officer crowd was made up almost equally of British and Yanks, and only a few of them were below the rank of Major.
A good many of them were in the company of strikingly attractive ladies wearing fur stoles and stunning evening gowns. It was my guess that these richly garbed young ladies had to be either of royal lineage or the daughters, or perhaps even jaded wives of millionaire land-barons. If not those categories, then they had to be the most expensive prostitutes in town. A good many of the lower-ranked officers were accompanied by their counterparts in the Women's Division from all three Services.
The first act of "The Merry Widow", went along enjoyably well, most likely because it was somewhat risque. By today's moral standards, I'm sure it would get the stamp of approval from the Parents-Teachers Association for a High School concert.
Some of the acts were quite hilarious. The intermission, however, proved to be even more so. When the lights came on, the smoking began, along with the usual buzz of conversation. Nothing out of the ordinary yet. But then far to the rear of the Opera House, from the uppermost tier of boxes an uncouth officer pulled off a stunt you would only expect from a prankish schoolboy with a lecherous mind. The anonymous culprit took a condom out of his pocket, and without a trace of inhibition or shame proceeded to blow it up to the grand and obscene size of four feet. He then tied it and released it into the smoky air where it began a slow descent. The pale white balloon floated slowly downwards, unnoticed by the audience below. Only those in the box seats saw its descent. A polite murmur of laughter...only a murmur. And on the whims of air currents, the unspeakable object floated first in one direction and then drifted off in another. As it approached the level of our second tier, the olive-drab audience in the seats below, finally aware of the bloated condom, raised a hue and cry. It was as though someone had suddenly turned a radio on full volume right at the part where an audience let out a loud guffaw at a comedian's punch line. The fun was only beginning.
Hesitating for the briefest of moments directly in front of our box, the condom then slid sideways and came to rest indecently on the broad railing in front of the New Zealand nurses. Five confused, flustered and red-faced Nursing Sisters tried without success to hide their embarrassment. One, a little less sensitive in such situations thrust her hand out to push the offensive beast over the edge. She thrust her hand at it with lightning movement and withdrew it in a blur of motion as though she'd poked her hand into a fire. By this time the house was going somewhat wild with delight. On her third thrust she succeeded in knocking the balloon off the rail and it descended quite rapidly. But this wasn't the end of the fun. As soon as it dropped to audience level it was instantly propelled upwards and bounced back and forth in every direction by a hundred and more upraised poking hands. Up and down it went all over the Opera House like the bouncing ball on the screen at a film sing-a-long. The Opera House echoed to the hooting and shouting and uproarious laughter until the condom disappeared with a loud bang when someone's sharp nail pricked it. As if on cue, the shouting and the laughter died instantly, and for a half minute or so the place was as silent as the tomb. And then, as though preplanned, everyone in that ornate House of Culture who had a packet of 'Sheiks' in his pocket, had it out and was inflating it with great gusto.
Thirty seconds later a hundred or more of the elongated balloons floated in the smoky air in the great hall where Grand Opera usually held sway, with at least seven hundred yipping and hooting servicemen flailing away at them like a bunch of kids carrying-on in juvenile glee at recess in a playground. Even the usually restrained and mirthless senior officers in the upper tiers set aside their military bearing for the moment and joined in the free-wheeling hilarity and shenanigans. Down from the upper reaches of the domed palace of music floated condoms by the score. By this time my stomach was taking a merciless beating from laughing so hard. I hadn't laughed so much since I was a kid at a Saturday matinee watching the zany antics of Laurel and Hardy. Which brings me to say; the war wasn't always hell.
Original Story from messages received on 22 June 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 23 June 2002.
The story above, Incident at the Bari Opera House, was written and contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski, who served with the Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division. The moving story is a part of his published work entitled: Not All of Us Were Brave which was published by Dundurn Press.
Would you care to read more tales of World War II written by Mr. Stan Scislowski? His work is featured on a website devoted to the Perth Regiment of Canada. Check out this very interesting website and while you are there look at Stan's Corner .
We at World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words wish to offer our profound "Thanks" for the excellent material contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski.
September 5, 2002.
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