Given what many would consider an unfortunate Christian name of Basil on 15th April 1925, my father was born into a large, poor family only 50 yards from the cliff tops in Lowestoft. He was one of seven children, a family smitten by tragedy during his childhood.
The eldest, Horace, was killed in 1939 soon after the beginning of World War 2. Dad’s oldest sister, Edith died also when he was 14, from tuberculosis. She was his very close and favourite sister. Her death had a dramatic effect on his behaviour during that time.
Also, at the age of fourteen, his family was moved from his much-loved sea, inland to Nuneaton, where he still lives to this day.
It was hardly surprising that with a brother killed by the Germans and a sister dying of an illness, he became desperate as soon as he was of age, without the acceptance of his father, to return to the sea and seek retribution on those who had hurt his family. He joined the Royal Navy immediately after his seventeenth birthday in 1942.
Like me, my father always wore his heart on his sleeve. When he was angry you knew it, when he was emotional he cried. When he was happy he was the best company. He had a devilish, cheeky twinkle in his eye, which still remains to this day. Only two topics were never discussed, religion and the war. I never knew what my father did during the war, what action he saw, how he felt. All I ever got from him as a boy, when I asked such things, was a moment of quiet and “it’s best not to talk about the war son. It was all too horrible.” On the religion front, he never went to church, but I do remember catching him sometimes by his bed praying. He didn’t believe in the Church. He hated the hypocrisy but did have his own private God to talk to.
He grew up hard and tough in Lowestoft. Street gangs, fights, dirty backstreets. His early life left no room for weakness. However, even at a young age his affection towards birds and animals became apparent. He would often be taking lost kittens or birds with damaged wings home to nurse. When his father found out they would quickly go into a sack, which was then forced into a bucket of water. This was the world he grew up in.
The street urchin became a Chief Petty Officer by the time the war was over. A tall, upstanding and extremely handsome man on the lookout for a young wife as soon as he was demobbed in 1947 gave my mother no chance. They were married on 26th October 1948 in a double wedding with my Aunt, Mum’s elder sister. At that time double weddings were more common due to the shortage of funds and rations for such an event. All four are still alive today.
Dad found the next few years very hard. He was angry with the world. His educational years had been stolen from him. The conchies, as he called them, had all of the key jobs. All he wanted was to have a regular job, decent wage and bring up a family in a secure world, the land fit for heroes, as he was promised.
His first serious employment was with Courtaulds in Coventry. His boss was a ‘conchie’ and, in my father’s eyes, one of the worst kind. The little man enjoyed ordering the new employees around. Before the first week was through my father was out of work again. His boss had a broken nose. This kind of thing was happening all over Britain at this time. Dad’s hot temper had really landed him in trouble at last. No-one was going to employ a ‘fighter’ or troublemaker.
He applied for numerous other jobs, being rejected as soon as they asked the reason for leaving Courtaulds. This was probably the lowest moment of his life. At this time his youngest sister was also taken with tuberculosis and fighting for her life. Her diagnosis did not hold much hope.
One day Dad went for an interview at the Morris car factory in Coventry. He had worked on gunner maintenance in the Navy and possessed some skills in mechanical working. The interviewer was an ex infantry sergeant and didn’t mince his words. As soon as my father explained his reason for leaving his last job the sergeant laughed. He told him that he could start next Monday, but if he laid a finger on him or any of the other staff he would get the biggest hiding of his life. They got on well together and became lifelong friends.
His sister June survived her illness after more than a year in convalescence. She is still alive today at the age of 88.
So, after the marriage my parents bought a semi-detached house in Nuneaton, a house they are still living in today. The number of times I heard “I will only leave this house feet first” during my life has probably influenced me more than I am conscious of. I place little such value on bricks and mortar and more on the people around me, who can move around.
Along came three sons over the following eight years. I am the youngest and the one most similar to our Dad. Because of this there was always a ‘connection’ between us. I spent most of my childhood in the garden with him, cleaning out the chickens, rabbits, goats, and ducks. You name it and I am sure that we kept some at one time or another. Once, when I was around eight years old, I asked Dad if I could have one of the rabbits to keep as a pet.
“Yes you can,” he said. “But if you don’t look after it properly and feed him and regularly clean out the hutch, he will go in the pot.” This was how I acquired my pet rabbit, Tumbleweed, named after a western I saw one afternoon. Some weeks later we were sitting for our Sunday lunch eating when I asked Dad which rabbit this was. I knew them all even though we had around 40 or 50.
“I did warn you boy, if you didn’t take proper care we would have him for dinner. This is your Tumbleweed you are eating.”
Now, I can imagine that a modern day boy would be horribly traumatised by such an event, however I don’t remember even taking a break from my chewing. It was our world and I was used to it.
Dad brought up his three sons with a rod of iron. He didn’t know any other way. Boys (and wives) had to be kept in hand. That was the way of his world. He had an almost obsession for schoolwork and education. I later began to realise that this obsession came from his lack of education. He was an intelligent man and easily capable of a university education, but life had handed some bitter blows which meant his time had passed. He therefore wasn’t going to let that happen to his boys.
The eldest of us took the brunt of the strict discipline. He achieved his degree and went on to study for his PhD in chemistry. Son number two was not so academically minded and left school at 16 to begin an apprenticeship as a metallurgist. I saw the stark difference between an older brother at university with no money and years of study ahead of him, and a brother with money in his pocket, a Triumph Bonneville, and regular job. I chose for the latter, although never did get that ‘Bonny’
Leaving school caused big fights between my father and me. Academically I was strong enough to go to university, but I was a little wild, just as he was 30 years before. The house soon became too small for both of us. I left at the age of 19.
I will now jump forty years to the present day.
Mum and Dad are still in the little semi-detached that they bought in 1948 for one thousand two hundred pounds. It seems that Dad’s ‘feet first’ promise will be fulfilled, hopefully not for a good while yet.
His memory has all but disappeared. It began two years ago, when I first noticed that he could not find his bank, even though we were only a hundred yards away from it. I had given him a lift into town as he needed money from the bank. We went in and he could no longer remember why we were there. This is one of those strange quirks of human nature. If someone middle-aged forgets or makes a silly error we all laugh. If a person over 75 or 80 does the same, we automatically begin to think that they are losing it. Consequently, regarding this day, I just pushed it out of my mind, although I was a little concerned.
My next visit was three months later. Father needed to go to the bank to collect some money for their general housekeeping. I persuaded him to let me look in the place where he always kept his war medals, a few sovereigns etc. He wasn’t keen, as this was his private place, where even my mother didn’t go. I assured him that I just thought that he may not need to go to the bank and may have forgotten that he put some money away. Very reluctantly we went to his toolbox, which was made by him as a schoolboy. Inside was over ten thousand pounds in twenty pound notes.
I lifted it out to show him. He had the padlock in his hand and switched his glances from me to the padlock, slowly realising that he was the only person with the key and it was he who had stashed the money away. I didn’t know what to say. It was there, clearly demonstrated in front of us both, that he was severely losing his memory.
He said, “You know what lad, I put this money here didn’t I?”
I nodded. “I’m Sorry”, I replied. It was a solemn moment.
His face suddenly lit up and for a second I thought that it was some kind of April Fool joke. He burst out laughing and said, “You know what else? I am really in the shit aren’t I?” He found the whole thing quite amusing. We both laughed together like two little boys. What else is there to do in a situation like that?
An hour later he asked me if I would take him to the bank to get some money for the housekeeping. Since then I take care of their financial affairs.
This was two years ago. Dad is still at home but his memory has deteriorated much worse. It is tragic, but at the same time not so. When I visit him, he is very happy. I can visit every day for a week and each day is a new surprise as he has forgotten that I was there the day before. His strict and slightly aggressive manner has been replaced by a loving, caring gentle man, who only wants the best for everyone.
My eldest brother now is in an advanced state of Parkinson’s disease. He can no longer drive. Therefore in December I collected him to visit our mother for her 90th birthday. When my father saw the condition of his eldest son he asked what was wrong with him. My brother explained that he is very ill with this disease and can no longer do many things that he used to.
My father’s eyes filled with tears and the old Dad came out strong and clear. “Why don’t you come back home to me, where I can look after you, my boy?” He meant it too.
When I am there I try to explain to him that his memory hasn’t actually gone. I tell him that all that is gone is his ability to find it easily. The analogy I used was that each little piece of memory is in a drawer. It is all still there, but he no longer knows which drawer to open to get at it.
To demonstrate this we play a sort of game. I tell him that I will open a drawer just a little and see if he can peek inside. I must stress that it is only his memory that is failing, not his intellect. Proper conversation is still very much possible. I mention World War 2, or his late sister Edith, or his three sons. This triggers some memories and further probing helps him to remember some of the smallest details of his life. The pleasure that this provides him, to reconnect these memories, is immense.
It is at times like these that I regret living in a foreign country. I could give up this life for a few years to take care of my parents. Maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t. I have a wife who also deserves by devoted attention. This is not an easy call, and one which continually causes loss of sleep.
Why am I writing this personal account? I wish I knew. Is it some kind of personal selfish indulgence of mine? Is it morally correct to write such a piece without the knowledge of the people described? Is it conceited to do it anyway? I would like to think and sincerely hope, that it is simply to share my Dad with you all, a person that will not be here much longer and someone that I love and am extremely proud of.
When we look at old people we should never judge them. Often they appear to have out-of-date values and can sound racist or cynical. They may not trust anyone, even their close family. We must never judge them. Who are we to know what they have lived through? Who are we to have the slightest idea of what it must have been like to be torn from your roots as a child, thrust into a killing zone as a teenager, returning to a country ‘fit for heroes’, where the ex-squaddie was not really welcome.
As I look into the still-sparkling eyes of my Dad, eyes that have seen so much sadness and happiness, eyes that have laughed and cried so many times, I now see tiredness and a willingness to say goodnight and God bless to us all.
If you have a family member in a similar situation to my Dad, give them a big hug from me.