Wednesday, June 20, 2012

You've Never Heard Of Captain Shaw. Well...

Captain Eyre Massey Shaw was a major figure in the history of firefighting. In 1861, at the age of 31, he was named Head of the London Fire Engine Establishment (reorganized four years later as the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and now known as the London Fire Brigade), and served in that post for thirty years. He was responsible for countless innovations in firefighting, was a great popular hero, and prior to his retirement, was knighted by Queen Victoria.

Shaw was also a dedicated Gilbert and Sullivan fan, customarily sitting in the first row of the balcony. At some point, W.S. Gilbert noticed him, and wrote him into Iolanthe. A key feature of the plot of this operetta was the provision that a fairy who dared to marry a mortal would be punished by death. On Opening Night, November 25, 1882, the Fairy Queen, struggling with some inconvenient feelings toward a human, came to the edge of the stage, addressed Captain Shaw in the balcony, and wowed the audience by singing,

"Oh, Captain Shaw
Type of true love kept under
Could thy brigade with cold cascade
Quench my great love, I wonder?"

Well, all right, you might say - but where are you going with this?

 Here's where. My wife Myra and I had been at loggerheads over how to properly celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary this summer. For my seventieth birthday, I'd enjoyed a ragtime concert at our daughter's and son-in-law's house, followed by a terrific barbecue and a fabulous chocolate dessert; for Myra's seventieth, she'd set up a quiet dinner with the kids and their spouses. Now, for our anniversary, I thought we should do something special. She thought another quiet dinner would be in order.

By March, we were nowhere near resolution. Then we went to the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan mid-year fundraising event. There was singing, dancing, mugging. There were raffles. Finally, there was an auction: in the final show of the run, the high bidder would be dressed in a fireman's coat and hat to play the (nonspeaking) role of Captain Shaw, who, with a fire hose, would try to quench the ardor of the Fairy Queen. And, the producer added, couples were welcome to participate - there could be an "assistant hose carrier."

Myra gave me the hardest fish eye in her arsenal. "Oh, no."

"Oh, yes," I said, and raised my hand.

So on the evening of July 28, Myra and I will mark our Golden Wedding Anniversary by dampening the affections of a Fairy Queen. And here's the punch line. We were married in New Jersey on July 29, and time zones being what they are, when we go onstage, it will in fact be July 29 in New Jersey. Would Gilbert and Sullivan have loved that little twist? Even Myra now admits it's pretty cool.

And the next day, dinner with the kids, their spouses, and our grandson.

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