Eyes of a Child
In the summer of nineteen forty, shortly after Italy joined the fray, my father went to war. He was fresh out of the valleys, a bewildered seventeen and a bit year old, which was old enough as far as the system was concerned and he was processed and consigned before the ink was dry. I went with him of course, he couldn't possibly have left me behind, for I was the thumbprint to his thumb; a life in waiting, which we all are in the beginning. Naturally enough, we were both scared out of our wits at this plunge into the unknown, my father far more than I because I had the inside track that I was definitely scheduled to be born; (I even knew the date), which meant that whatever happened, Dad would live to tell the tale. It was a great pity that I was unable to impart this precious gem of knowledge, I suspect it would have been a great comfort.
The first time my father killed, I felt as sick as he, but I still urged him on. It was instinctive, because my future depended wholly on him emerging victorious. But when the bullet went in, (at very close quarters), and life flickered out, the heart wrenching mixture of exultation and despair that ran through my father cut me to the core. I wanted nothing more other than to reach out and comfort him, but of course I couldn't. Instead, I cried with him, tasting the hot scalding tears of the relief and the shame of his own survival at the cost of another life.
Sometimes, if the guns had fallen silent and the night was quiet enough, I would be able to hear my father in conversation with his comrades in arms. Their voices were always muted; softly lilting lullabies that reminded me of home; the talk, that of inconsequential matters. And the joking, the constant banter will live in my memory forever. It was a safety valve, a protective shield that helped them retain some semblance of normality. It was as if by this method they could convince themselves that the nightmare was no more than an interlude in their lives, and that come the dawn, they would wake and be told the madness was done with. But I could sense the overwhelming despair and anger within them. They were just children become men to soon, ill equipped to cope with the grim reality of war.
My father finished the war a Major, very rapidly promoted in the field. It was not uncommon to find such an acceleration through the ranks and although I was proud of him, I understood, as he did, that these field promotions owed as much to expediency as ability. A need to fill the gaps, with survival itself seeming to be the primary qualification required to reach the giddy height of the officers mess. Nothwithstanding this reality, my father wore his crown with much pride and here I feel the need to claim just a little selfish credit for both his promotion and survival. For without the inevitability of me, his chances of both would mayhap have been far slimmer.
Shortly after the war ended, (just weeks in fact), my father met my mother and after a brief courtship, followed by the normal incubation period I finally saw the light of day pretty much bang on schedule. It had been a long wait, but worth it and from the day I was born, to the day my father passed away, I never ever saw him raise his hand to another. He was, like many men of his generation, secure in his capacity and thus saw no need for demonstration, but he could quell rebellion with just one look. One time, at the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate, a place we often stayed during summer holidays, we were in the bar; Mum, (pregnant with my sister in waiting), Dad, my younger brother and I, when an argument developed between two men at the table opposite. It started off in a fairly mild fashion, but then they began to swear loudly at each other; this in my mother's presence! As my father got to his feet I saw 'the look' and a sudden shiver of memory ran through me. Only dimly did I hear my mother murmuring, "no Charles, keep out of it, it doesn't matter."
I never did find out what my father said, but the argument ceased instantly and very shortly afterwards the men left. I remember idly noting that they hadn't even waited to finish their drinks; two almost half full pint glasses remaining at the table in mute witness at the hastiness of their exit. An unusual occurrence in a time when every penny counted and nothing was ever left to waste.
My father died just over twelve years ago. A little early for my liking, a few more years would have been good. However, in the manner of his living, his passing was achieved with little fuss, for he simply failed to wake up one morning. When I arrived, half an hour or so after my mother's telephone call, it looked for all the world as though dad was just having a lie in. A week later and the church was full to the brim; good testimony I think to a life well led.
Reflecting now, in my conservatory, as I often do, I suppose that if my father had a fault, it was that he wasn't what one might call a humourist. Numerous black shawled and gimlet eyed aunties, together with a strict Welsh Presbyterian upbringing and a slavish devotion to the work ethic had made him quite Victorian in his outlook. But you knew where you stood with him, and my brother, my sister and I grew safe and strong in the knowledge that our father would sooner die than allow any harm to come to us.
Thus, whilst I do not stand entirely in his image, nor am I in any way what one might call a disciplinarian, I do hold and try to operate similar principles to my father. Be fair, be honest and do unto others and all that, being the tenets on which he based his life, and thus far it certainly hasn't done me any harm.
Most of all though, I would very much like to die in the peaceful manner that he did. I cannot imagine a better final gift from above, and in my father's case, I cannot imagine a more worthy recipient.
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