Back in 1942, when the Second World War was still poised to go either way, the legendary German commander, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, supreme commander of Germany’s Afrika Corps, took great pains getting to know his enemy, the British. He read up on the character traits and resumés of the opposing generals, including Field Marshal Montgomery, the commander of the Allied Forces’ 21st Army Group in North Africa.
Rommel, in Tobruk, Libya, 1942(photo source: Wikimedia)
Often, in the heat of the skirmishes at El Alamein, Rommel braved barrages of flak and flew over the battlefield in a single-engined Fieseler Storch , in order to get a first-hand sense of the enemy’s preparations. Once, he even drove right through an allied forces base in his staff car, the Nazi Flag brazenly fluttering in the wind, the British soldiers gaping dumbfounded at the huge open-topped Mercedes Benz disappear over a rise leaving a billowing cloud of dust.
Not that it helped Rommel in the end. The Allies’ desperation saved them. They say that when your back is up against the wall and you stare death in the face, you can turn into a very determined fighter and that is what the Brits became.
There have even been many who saw a goal and in order to achieve it, they deliberately sought out a back-against-the-wall situation. In this, the great Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortéz, founder-conqueror of Mexico and most of Central America, comes readily to mind.
Stationed in the Spanish Colony of Cuba in the early 1500s, 20-year old Hernie was an ambitious guy. As more experienced Spaniards sailed west from Cuba to explore the Yucatan Peninsula, he waited as one by one, they all seemed to disappear. Those who made it back, told horrific tales of being massacred by the native Aztecs and their habit of skinning foreigners alive and boiling their brains for supper.
Eventually his turn came and Cortéz was given 7 ships and 500 men and tasked with finding out what had happened to the others as well as to seek out the gold that they had all heard, existed in massive quantities over there. And if he could, he was told to lay the initial groundwork for a full-scale invasion – in the form of maybe a suitable harbor for the invasion fleet to land at and fresh water sources and stuff.
Hernán Cortéz was categorically forbidden to engage the Aztecs, since his boss, the Spanish Governor of Cuba, feared that he and his men would not last the encounter. They were to make it back in one piece, with or without the gold.
But the lad had other plans, far more ambitious plans. He got it into his head that he and his 500 fighters were enough to conquer the 150000 strong Aztec military machine. He made contact with their emperor and pretended to send friendly greetings to the sucker.
Hernan Cortez meets the Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma II, trying his hand at an initial hearts-and-minds approach. Note all those busty Mexican broads. No wonder Hernie was so single-minded. I would be too. (Photo source: Wikimedia)
Meanwhile, to ensure that his men would not get into the ships and scoot back to Cuba out of fright, once the shit hit the ceiling, Cortéz made an appallingly dangerous move. He spread the word that worms had eaten through the hulls of all the ships and that they were useless now. So saying, he had all 7 ships scuttled and now they had nowhere to go but forward, to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán.
The canny conquistador reasoned that, if he wanted to ram his way through to the Aztecs’ seat of power, his men would have to forget their wives and the sunny Guantanamo beaches and put in their desperate best, because failure meant being had for dinner. As boiled-brain pie. So they fought the fight of their lives and the rest is history.
And then there have been those who have excelled in their fields by meticulous planning. Such as the famous film director, Alfred Hitchcock.
Watching Hitchcock direct a movie was a revelation to many. While most filmmakers of his time were highly strung and stressed out, Alfie would sit on his chair and appear to be dozing off, like a rotund Buddha.
On the sets of ‘The man who knew too much(1956), the actor, Jimmy Stewart, saw an aloof detachment in Hitchcock and quickly realized that it was all because he was always very well prepared, with every little detail already scripted and ready, before the day’s shooting commenced. (I have heard Ray was similar in this trait).
The process of preparation started with a story-line he had read in a novel or an idea of his own, which he got a script writer to flesh out into a screenplay. He then transformed it into an elaborate shooting script.
After that came camera angles, props and set-building, costumes, schedules. Hitchcock had everything worked out before the shooting began. Cary Grant once said,”We are in the hands of an expert. You just do what he tells you to do and the whole thing works out fine.”
The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, circa1960 (Photo source: Wikimedia)
Hitchcock’s modus operandi may not seem like anything that needs a lot of flexibility or presence of mind. Here is what he had to say, in an interview with David Frost….
“It is important to enter the battle feeling calm and ready. When colleagues barrage me with doubts and slipshod ideas, I nod and pretend to listen but really, I ignore them. It is easy to be overwhelmed and lose sight of the goal. What gives me a sense of calm is my preparation.”
But I am quite the opposite of all these gents. I have neither the audacity of a Rommel, nor the cold adrenalin-junkie mindset of a Cortéz or the thoroughness of a Hitchcock. I revel in sudden impulses. Many of my most pleasurable pursuits have been spur-of-the-moment ones.
I was once on the 15, driving south aimlessly. The family was in Iran on vacation. I just kept on going. The US border is an hour’s drive from my house and before I knew it, I was checking through customs at Plattsburgh.
The customs officer pointed to my bedroom slippers and didn’t bat an eyelid. He must have seen all kinds of attire passing through. He said with a grin,” Welcome, if you’re looking for a decent breakfast, I can suggest Shamrock’s down by the Bee Line Logistics. Once you hit the 87, hang a right into the W Service road and you can’t miss it. You’ll smell the bacon from where the service road starts.”
What? Hey, folk here cross over in their nighties and pyjamas all the time. America is the most informal country in the world. They let you in nice and easy, as long as you don’t have a name like ‘Osama’ or ‘Mahamed Atta’ and have a woman in a veil, tagging along, clutching a box with a label that reads, “IED”. You would be asking for trouble then.
Once inside God’s own country, I kept my foot on the pedal for an hour, till I turned around and stopped at this delightful little restaurant with the prettiest waitresses. Tables are shared here and I sat with a bunch of bikers and eavesdropped on some rib-tickling yank humor. They were discussing farts. Yes, flatulence and how riding a Harley for hours can give it to you.
Soon they started letting loose and ROFLing all over. Someone shouted,” Hey, guys, listen to this….brappapap, broooleywooooo!”
A bearded grizzly look-alike lifted one butt off his seat and grunted, “That’s nuthin’, Joe, hear this …. pluggity ..wuggity.. woooooo”. The women broke up into peals of laughter.
Someone fed coins into an old jukebox which began with Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’.
The bikers and their women, all in their late 50s, really took to me and my corny humor. One of the women at the table rose and took me onto the dance floor. Hips swaying, she took my hands and resolutely wrapped my arms round her ample waist while her hubby/partner looked indulgently on. It turned out to be quite a blast, visiting another country, eating slices of bacon that were thick as armor plates and dancing with someone you never met before. All in one day. Every bit unplanned.
I suppose, both, planning in advance and catching yourself by surprise, have their pluses. Why, I proposed to my wife of 22 years, on an impulse. We were at a New Year’s Eve party, the only unmarried ones there and this sozzled guy suggested loudly that it wasn’t fair that they were all married and we weren’t and that maybe I should propose to her. And I, equally sozzled, did. The rest is history. A bit hurricanic, but nice history overall.
And I don’t regret that impulse. Okay, maybe sometimes I do. Fleetingly, on the beach in summer, amid a forest of cotton atoms and legs.