Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Photo by Banjobacon on

Berit and I were excited. Here we were during our London year of 1969–1970 with the rare chance for a night on the town. I was working for Britain Yearly Meeting and kept busy running around the country doing lectures and training workshops. That didn’t give us many opportunities to be tourists.

The children were with a babysitter in our snug apartment in the house of a Quaker in Hampstead. We could take a break from the dominating issues of the day: South African apartheid, the Nigerian Civil War, the Vietnam War, the arms race. We could forget peace movement wrangles and Quaker trends, and have a carefree evening.

We decided to be tourists. We would see a play on the West End (starring John Gielgud!), then go to dinner at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a tavern already famous when, three centuries before our London year, it was rebuilt. Our resolve was that for at least this night, we wouldn’t talk about peace and social concerns.

Gielgud took our breath away, and the tavern’s wood paneled atmosphere was everything we’d hoped for. If a waiter were to point out Charles Dickens or P.G. Wodehouse holding forth over there in the corner next to a blackened fireplace, we would have half believed it.

The Cheshire Cheese was laid out with long oaken tables where strangers ate side by side. We’d just gotten settled, Berit and I sitting across from each other, when an obviously American couple were seated next to us. The man’s blond hair was by far the shortest in the place. The woman’s polyester sweater had a pink and green floral design, and her lips were bright red.

We immediately switched into the Norwegian language and leaned toward each other, talking fast and doing our best to build a wall around our precious time together.

The Americans didn’t even try to break into our slightly manic Norwegian chatter until dessert time, at which point the woman excused herself to go to the restroom. I noticed the man gazing at us, his shoulders still square and spine erect after an hour on our shared bench. Now that I thought about it, I realized his blond brush cut gave him a distinctly military look.

“Excuse me,” he said hopefully.

We stopped and stared.

“This sure is a nice restaurant; isn’t it?” he said.

“Yes,” said Berit, reverting to the clipped Oxford accent she’d learned in her Norwegian high school. Then she turned back to launch a comment in Norwegian in my direction.

“This is my first time in England,” the man said. “I’m Jack. I’m stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. My wife and I are taking a little R&R.”

“I see,” I said with frosty politeness, then turned back to Berit. 

He was undeterred. “Not that I need a break so much,” he continued, “because my job is really interesting. I’m an intelligence officer. In fact, I just finished my most interesting case so far. I interviewed a Quaker woman who’d been held captive by the North Vietnamese military for a couple of months. She was seized in South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive—you know, when the Communists overran a lot of cities. Actually, she’s a civilian, a doctor.”

Berit and I were stunned. He was talking about Marjorie Nelson, a Quaker who’d attended our meeting, Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, while she was in medical school and during her first years of practice in Philadelphia—and for whom we’d been praying. Berit and I didn’t know that she’d been released by the North Vietnamese.

I stuck out my hand to the intelligence officer. “I’m George, and I’m a Quaker, too,” I said. “I know Marjorie. Tell me how she is. I guess this is a very small world.”

Jack laughed, then introduced his wife Kathy as she sat down. The four of us ordered another round of beers to acknowledge the coincidence and to celebrate Marj’s safe return. She had been working in Quang Ngai, in South Vietnam, with the American Friends Service Committee’s project to fit prosthetic limbs for injured Vietnamese, regardless of their political sympathies.

When I visited that project I went bicycling with Marj, and we talked about the dangers of working in a war zone. In fact we cut short our bicycle jaunt when we encountered some young people who threw stones at us. When Quang Ngai was overrun by North Vietnamese soldiers during the Tet Offensive, Marj and her friend Sandra Johnson, an International Voluntary Services worker, were taken captive. They spent nearly two months walking through the jungle with the troops.

“She was amazing to interview,” Jack said, “and I got to admiring her a lot. But there’s one thing I don’t understand.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Why would a doctor like her, who obviously has it made back in the States, volunteer for such a dangerous mission as working in Quang Ngai?”

“You guys risk a lot in war, don’t you?” I asked.

Jack nodded.

“We Quakers figure there’s even more reason to take risks for peace.”

“And now I’m going to spirit my husband away,” Berit said, standing abruptly. “It’s our big night out, and we want to be tourists for a change.”

Jack and Kathy nodded reluctantly.

Berit flashed a parting smile. “I guess you never know who you’ll run into in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese,” she said.

Editor’s note: Readers can learn more about Marjorie Nelson’s experiences during the Vietnam War in her 2019 book To Live in Peace in Midst of the Vietnam War.

George Lakey

George Lakey is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. His forthcoming book is a memoir including a number of Quaker adventures. Now retired from teaching at Swarthmore College, his recent books Viking Economics and How We Win are available in paperback.

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