An excerpt from
This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing
My parents were married in the summer of 1949, in a wedding ceremony that kicked off three days of celebrations. As my mother told me, “We were so broke after the parties, we had to take all the bottles back to get the deposit money.”
Though she was already qualified as a bookkeeper, my mother had joined the Civil Service and was working on the secure government telephone exchange. My father was employed as a painter and decorator, having returned to his original trade following army demobilization in 1948. He met my mother soon after leaving the army and was in the process of reenlisting when their paths crossed—but he changed his mind about what might come next. His reason for planning a return to the service was simple—he had been offered the chance to train at the army catering college. Though some might not believe this, the army knew how to train a chef for the officers’ mess and the many dinners and dances officers enjoyed. My dad loved to cook and it would have been his chance to do something he could give his heart to. So perhaps it’s time to tell you more about how a young soldier who had become an explosives expert at the age of eighteen came to the attention of the army cook in Germany. We have to join that young man just as he’s beginning his apprenticeship at fourteen years of age in October 1940—this boy who hated loud noises, but had been tasked with running through the Blitz to deliver messages.
I heard the first part of this story when I was eighteen, and the most important part when my father was in the hospice, just days before he died. So much became clear with the telling. My father meted out his stories with care, as if he had squirreled them away to season with time.
The lucrative contract won by his first employer was for painting crews to go to every Royal Air Force depot, airfield or decoy airfield and to paint the buildings inside and out with a fire retardant. Airfields had been targeted by the Luftwaffe, so to save people and buildings from the spread of fire, the retardant had to be applied—and the RAF was building and rebuilding aerodromes at a fast pace. So my father, the apprentice, joined a crew and was sent from place to place, living in billets in country towns and small villages, wherever the government found room and board close to an airfield. There was an advantage to the job—it was a “reserved profession.” That meant my father would be protected from enlistment because he was employed on essential government work. But he was also working with highly toxic materials, so his steady hand was an advantage.
In one area Dad was billeted on a farm, walking along country lanes each morning to meet the crew—he was older by now, sixteen going on seventeen, I would imagine. He loved that farm. During his stay—a long one, because there were several airfields within traveling range—the farmer taught my father how to work with sheepdogs, and Dad began training two of them before and after work. These were Old English Sheepdogs, not Collies. My father loved those dogs. But the painting job had begun to wear on him, and he wanted to go home to his family—he’d hardly seen them since starting the apprenticeship. In 1943 he gave notice. His boss told him he was a fool, warning that he’d be called up and that would be him in the army. But he was young, and he thought the war would be over soon—how long could it go on, after all? The previous war had lasted four years, so they were probably close to the end—or so he told himself. He also thought it would take a few weeks for the authorities to find out he’d left his reserved profession; he would have some time. The farmer was sorry to see him go, and as a gift, gave him the two sheepdogs, Tiny and Tiger. When I first heard the story, I wondered what the heck he thought he was doing, taking two big working dogs to a house in south London. But my father believed he would soon return to the land with his dogs and stay there forever as a farmworker—and he was only seventeen, after all.
The government had other plans. My father received his call-up papers within twenty-four hours of officially leaving his job. He was instructed to report to barracks without delay. He left the two dogs with his parents, organized a local lad to take them for walks in the park—he told the boy he wouldn’t be away for long—and joined the army. Following the usual medical and tests, together with an assessment of his previous work, it was discovered that my father was one of those people who remained very calm under pressure. He was an unassuming, thoughtful person. So they sent a young man who had grown up in a quiet house—who had lived with a man suffering shell shock—to train in explosives. In the meantime, though he was sending home most of his pay to keep the dogs, it wasn’t long before my grandparents wrote to tell him they’d sold them. It broke his heart. I would never have told my father this—and no doubt it crossed his mind—but I believe the dogs were euthanized, because people in Blitz-hit areas were instructed to take their dogs to be put to death humanely given the extent of the bombings. It was hard enough saving human lives and dealing with the dead without having to account for household pets.
It was in Germany, before the war’s official end, that my father ended up working in the army kitchens. Germany had yet to surrender, and the armies of Britain, the US and Russia were moving in. My father was with a unit blowing up German communication lines, bridges and roads, and at the end of one long day, they were instructed to pitch their tents for the night on the banks of a river. My father looked at the river and realized the best place to get a good night’s rest was on the other side—he’d watched the flow of water and believed, correctly, that the location his commanding officer had chosen could easily flood. Ever resourceful, Dad found a place to cross the river and pitched his tent. He woke up the next morning surrounded by Russians in their tents. His commanding officer was shouting at him from the other bank that he was being put on a charge for disobeying orders and would be peeling spuds for a very long time if he didn’t get right back over that river. My father’s fellow soldiers were on the British side of the rushing water, wringing out their sopping wet clothes.
It wasn’t such a long time in the kitchens, as the telling goes, but it was enough to persuade one branch of the army that the young soldier with a steady hand on the detonator had a gift when it came to preparing food. He was offered a place at the army catering college, but turned down that first offer because, in his words, “I didn't want my mates to laugh at me.” In the meantime, despite having marched him to the kitchens, his commanding officer missed his “calm under pressure” demeanor, because there were still bridges to be demolished. And there were horses to ride, because as the soldiers worked their way across enemy territory, and as the war came to a close, Dad’s unit moved into a barracks abandoned by a German cavalry regiment. The groom had remained behind to look after the horses. My father could tack up a horse and stay in the saddle—as a child he’d trotted along the streets of London on his father’s cart horses—but the German taught him to ride like a gentleman. In truth, my father really wanted to ride like a cowboy, which probably has some bearing on the fact that my brother and I both ended up in California. It was Dad’s tales of the Wild West that did it—but that's another story.
We talked about all these things when my father was in the hospice. He told me about his dog, Tiger, how he would walk under the kitchen table and lift it up with his back, and how my grandmother would complain and his father would laugh. He told me about that job where he was exposed to the powerful fire-retardant used to protect the airfield buildings. One of his first tasks was to mix the emulsion and pour it into buckets for the painters. Then he had to test it after each wall dried. The testing amounted to lining up a series of blow-torches along the floor, with only a couple of inches between the searing hot flame and the dry fresh paint.
“Then we’d leave the torches right there for three or four hours,” said Dad.
“Wow—didn’t that leave a burn?” I asked.
“Not a mark. Not a mark,” he replied.
“What was that stuff called?”
“Oh no name, love. It just had a number.”
I knew then that the viscous emulsion had probably never been put through tests for human tolerance. Such things happen in wartime—consider the effects of Agent Orange on a later generation of soldiers.
My father had been diagnosed with a serious blood disorder categorized as “idiopathic.” That means there is “no known cause.” When I recounted the circumstances of my father’s passing to my doctor in California, she told me that when she was in medical school one of her professors maintained that idiopathic really meant that the doctor was an idiot and couldn’t figure it out. But I think I figured it out—of course with the help of Dr. Google. While my father’s illness is known as “idiopathic,” research has revealed a link between exposure to toxic substances and the condition, which leads to a breakdown of the red blood cells; the young cells—the blasts—die at birth, and if they survive, they don’t enjoy a long life, so the blood’s clotting ability is diminished. In the end you simply bleed to death. Fortunately—though in truth there was nothing “fortunate” about it—that bleeding is, for the most part, internal.
At a vulnerable age he’d been exposed to a powerful fire retardant with no name. Then explosives, followed by the paint he used as a master craftsman, from the days of lead through to polyurethane. And of course there were the years he worked on the farm where I was born, which meant exposure to the powerful insecticides and fertilizers that came into use in the 1950s to increase food production in a country still subject to wartime rationing.
As they say in America: Go figure.
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