A Night At The Opera House
by Stanley Scislowski
Perth Regt, 5th CDN ARMD DIV, 1943-1945
Bari, Italy -- I finally made it to Bari on my first ‘eight-day leave’, the very last of 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 and 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, 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. However, 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. It was 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-ranking 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. Then far to the rear of the Opera House, from the uppermost tier of boxes, some 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 it descend.  A polite murmur of laughter...  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 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 in 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 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. 
The war wasn’t always hell.

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