It is 4.45am and I have been woken by my dad tip-toeing around me. I am still horrendously, heroically, stupidly drunk in the way that only a 17-year-old can be. I smell of furtive cigarettes and stale Stones bitter. On the floor next to me is a pair of my trousers with one of the buttocks ripped out. By a police dog since you ask, the legacy of the aftermath of a half-hearted, drink-fuelled altercation with some Newcastle fans a few hours ago.
My dad goes to the bathroom and, in the darkness, treads on something. The something squeals. It is my idiot friend Tony, freshly recovering from attempting to commit suicide by sticking his head an oven; an electric oven, so presumably he was trying to bake himself to death. “Eee, excuse me,” says my dad. “I’m going to work and I need to use the toilet.” Tony – naked I can’t help but notice – goes for a lie-down on the settee.
Ten minutes later, my dad had abluted without putting the light on and had gone to deliver milk to the still-sleeping folk of a Rotherham council estate. We will never speak of this moment again. My dad isn’t fazed by stuff, certainly not by drunken berks lying semi-conscious on his floor. He wouldn’t have been…
He was in his mid-40s when I arrived. This meant, a) he was older than my friends’ dads, but neither of us cared and b) he was the only dad I knew who’d served in World War II.
Just a kid when he was conscripted in late-’44 or early-‘45, the War would be the defining event of his life, the one which completed his development as a man. Drafted into the Leicestershire Regiment, he’d only been out of Yorkshire before, except to be in the corner when my boxer uncle fought in Liverpool or Manchester (it should be noted that while he was a boxing maven, my father had no medical knowledge whatsoever), so the sights, smells and sounds of war-ravaged France, Holland, Belgium and Germany would have kicked his senses into overdrive. He must have been in a permanent state of dislocated fear.
Like most sons, I wasn’t that interested in my dad and his past life. The only thing I asked in my first 10 years was “how many Germans did you kill?” with a bloodlust that must have curdled his own. He never did answer.
However, even I noticed that he never watched a war film, never went on any remembrance parades, never alluded to his army life in passing and never mentioned friends or foes. Nothing. His campaign medals ended up in my toybox.
Eventually, inevitably, I did want to piece together his past. He loved to talk and he loved to talk to me more than anyone once I’d grown up and moderated some of my insufferability, but it took a while. At first he’d try to answer me properly, but then he’d change the subject back to football or the acts he’d seen at his working men’s club where, not being an excess man, he could make two barley wines last through several racist comedians and a Tina Turner impersonator. Even now I’m unsure, but I think he was relieved to talk about the War, not least since he knew his time was finite, if not quite how finite.
The patrols still haunted him. Carefully, he told me about those patrols and the terror-inducing pitch-blackness in which he and his pals made them. He told me, too, about the occasions (note the plural) when three men set off and one – him – came back. He told me a little about the others who were lost too, but not in graphic detail for he wasn’t a graphic detail man. Most of all, he told me how there was never any time to grieve for someone who could have been and so nearly was you. War doesn’t halt for contemplation. Obviously I wasn’t going to ask him how many Germans he killed this time around. I just hoped he hadn’t seen the death camps. He hadn’t, but he’d met boys of his own age who had.
He was more keen on explaining how he revelled in being a hopelessly unqualified regiment cobbler; how he was occasionally excused duties for his speciality of distance running and how friendly the natives were (he’d kept a photo of a Dutch girl, she looked lovely), especially the Germans. He never lost his sense of awe about those Germans and their mindset. He learned the lesson well and when the truly dark stuff imploded our family (not me and him; we were always strong) he put theory into practice, broken heart notwithstanding. When the moment came, he did as the Germans did to him and was able to unreservedly forgive in the blink of a telephone call and move on. A decade later, I’m still struggling to do the same: my dad is the better man, even in death.
Once the war was formally over, as part of the last generation of conscripts he was obliged to stay on in Germany. He became a military prison guard. One of his charges was a “very nice, very polite man, but they told us he’d done terrible things”, who seems to have been the Nazis’ slave labour king, Alfried Krupp. It was his only brush with history, unless meeting Wynonna Judd counts.
When he’d finished, there were no tears or hugs – he wasn’t a tears or hugs man any more than he was a graphic detail or excess man – as there was probably football on the television. As with my drunken escapade a few years before, we wouldn’t speak of this moment again.
Emboldened, I asked if he wanted to go to the Imperial War Museum. After some deliberation he decided he did, but our jaunt made a man who could prattle for England contemplative. He said he’d enjoyed it, but I think he was just trying to make me feel I hadn’t wasted a day. I hadn’t. Years later, apropos of nothing, he asked if we could go to Leicester to visit the Leicestershire Regiment’s Museum, but time was ebbing and we never managed it. When my children start wondering about the granddad they’ll never meet, I’ll take them for him.
On being demobbed, he briefly kept in touch with some of his fellow survivors, but if you’ve been shot at together, perhaps it’s not easy to go to the football or cricket together. They’d probably said all they needed to. Anyway, as we know, life gets in the way. Long before my birth, my dad left Britain just once more, a coach trip in the late-‘50s/early-‘60s which ended with a guided tour around Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium. He liked that part of it, but he didn’t like the food and that was that for him and abroad. He wasn’t bothered, but, tellingly, he was uncharacteristically perturbed when his campaign medals which had been mysteriously retrieved from my long-gone toybox were stolen (by my mother, but that’s yet another story). He asked the MOD if they could replace them: they did. When the medals arrived, he put them away – they were never displayed – and his life made sense again.
Having faced horror, he glided through the rest of his life, spurning both further horror and confrontation, but blessed with a quiet impishness that enabled him to vote Conservative all his life. “You’re not really a Tory are you?” I asked, during a period when I judged people by those things. “Eee, no,” he chuckled. “Don’t like them at all. But Labour always get in here. They need to know there’s some opposition.”
I do miss him.
John Aizlewood writes about all sorts of things for all sorts of people.