May 24, 2009

Separated by a war

I DREAMED LAST NIGHT of a two-and-sixpenny tin of Tate & Lyle’s golden syrup. It was among the meager stores in the little air-raid shelter my dad built in our back yard in Plymouth, a corrugated-iron Anderson shelter that smelled of damp earth and cat’s pee. I don’t know why I remember the golden syrup (or its price) except that it tasted good on a slice of bread and butter.

My mother and I were the only ones in the shelter one night when a German bomb exploded in the road outside our house and blew the roof off. My dad was absent, as usual. He was in the Royal Navy, guarding a convoy of ships on that dreadful run through the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk, the back door to Russia, and fighting German U-boats.

I saw very little of my dad during the five years of that war. He would come home on leave for a couple of days sometimes and then disappear again back to sea. He was a stranger to me, and he hardly ever spoke of his war experiences, even years afterward.

We were bombed out again in Birkenhead, where we had gone to visit friends, and my dad was with us this time. I was about four years old, and my mother had put me to bed upstairs while the adults sat around the fire and chatted downstairs. For some reason, my mother felt uneasy and after a while she fetched me downstairs with the adults again, and sat me in her lap.

When the bomb fell on the army barracks across the road, a great Whoosh! came down the chimney, blowing smoke and soot everywhere. A small piece of the glass from which my mother had been drinking embedded itself in my cheek and I started bleeding profusely.

I remember that the floorboards were sticking up at odd angles. The strange silence that followed the explosion was eventually broken by my dad. “Everybody OK?” he asked.

It seemed that we were, so he led us out of the darkened house, picking his way carefully through rooms lit by flickering orange flames from the burning barracks. Outside, in the cold street, the contorted bodies of several dead soldiers were silhouetted high over my head in the telephone wires.

My mother suddenly remembered that her purse with her money and our ration books was upstairs in the bedroom and she darted back into the house. My dad tried to stop her, but he was too late. She returned quickly with her precious purse and the news that a large, heavy wardrobe had fallen over the bed I was sleeping in before she came to collect me.

My dad carried me down the street to the communal air-raid shelter, where a nurse made a great fuss about the little wound in my cheek and we all hunkered down for the night while the bombs went on exploding all around us.

I was never close to my dad in my adult life. It was too late. The connection just wasn’t there. He has been dead for many years now, but I think of him on days like Memorial Day and Remembrance Day and Armistice Day, and often wonder how things might have been if a war hadn’t come between us.

Today’s Thought
Humanity should question itself, once more, about the absurd and always unfair phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain only remains standing the negotiating table that could have and should have prevented it.
—Pope John Paul II

1 comment:

Oded Kishony said...

A very touching story. Thank you.
I was born 3 months after my 18 year old brother was killed in action in Israel in 1948. That shadow has always been in my life just as I'm sure has yours.

Oded Kishony