The Aftermath of War - 'An ordinary Man'
One of my most poignant childhood memories is of my father sitting in his chair by the dining room fireplace staring into the glowing coals. Minute after minute, hour after hour, barely moving, his eyes riveted to flame and ash.
Sometimes he would be sitting there when my sister and I returned home from school eager to talk about our day. Mum would quickly shepherd us into the kitchen, explaining Daddy wasn’t feeling well so we mustn’t disturb him with noisy play. We couldn’t see any signs of illness but we obeyed anyway, afraid not of our mother’s ire but of those shadowed blue eyes filled with pain and sadness.
After a week or so of eerie quiet and unnatural inactivity, Daddy would disappear from his place by the fire and from our lives. His absences often lasted for months, we were told he was in hospital and would return when he was better. We didn’t go to visit him; the hospital was in another town and Mum said it was too far to go on the bus. Occasionally he would come home for the weekend, armed with gifts for his girls. Huge lollypops, swirls of colour that stained (and eventually rotted) our teeth and objects he’d made in basket weaving or leathercraft classes. I imagined the hospital as a kind of boarding school but failed to understand why my beloved father had to go away to learn arts and crafts. At home he always mended our broken toys and enjoyed repairing old radios and clocks he’d purchased at the local second-hand shop. I was pleased with the little baskets and purses and bracelets but would have preferred my Daddy to remain at home.
When I was twelve, my mother disclosed the nature of my father’s illness. She called it depression and explained sometimes Daddy felt enveloped by dark clouds and couldn’t find a way out. Then he had to go into hospital, take tablets and talk to the doctors about how he felt. Depression was a mental illness, she said, which meant a sickness of the mind as opposed to a physical illness. She omitted to say what had caused this illness and many years passed before I discovered it had arisen as a result of his war service.
My father had been a rear gunner in the RAF during the Second World War, a rank with a very short life expectancy. He survived five years of warfare, including three years in the deserts of North Africa and eighteen months in Italy. Countless missions against German and Italian troops, firing at a mostly unseen enemy from his cramped position in the dorsal turret of a Baltimore fighter plane.
When he finally returned to England, my father was physically intact but mentally and spiritually shattered. He couldn’t cope with the brutality he had experienced and created day after day, month after month, year after year. He had committed violent acts against fellow human beings and to make matters worse, at the time he hadn’t thought about what he was doing, neither had he felt remorse.
Today the diagnosis would be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The sufferer would be given counselling, encouraged to talk about his war experiences and given appropriate medication. He would not be ridiculed or told to snap out of it.
But in 1945 servicemen and women were expected to return home from six years of war, slot back into civilian life and be grateful they were in one piece. Those who had lost limbs or suffered long-term physical illness because of their war service were given pensions and assisted to rebuild their lives. My father was regarded as one of the ‘lucky’ ones; he had returned with only a slight health problem, the ulcers caught in Egypt that erupted periodically in his mouth and on his lips. These could be treated with the new antibiotics available to all under Britain’s National Health Scheme. But his mental suffering festered untreated until the very foundations of his psyche were irrevocably damaged. For the rest of his life, my father was destined to suffer lengthy episodes of mental illness that frequently prevented his leading a normal life and impacted on his marriage and his daughters’ childhood.
Although protracted periods of hospitalisation, medication and electric shock treatment failed to completely cure his illness, there were numerous intervals when he was able to function normally. Then we went on family holidays, laughed at his jokes, enjoyed lively discussions around the dinner table.
One such tranquil period lasted for some years. During a hospital stay in the late fifties, my father saw a film about the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Everything about the Society appealed to him, from the way of worship (waiting in silence for guidance from God) to pacifism and dedication to social justice for all. The basic tenet of Quakerism ‘there is that of God is everyone’ spoke to his condition. Wholeheartedly he embraced Quakerism and became a loved and respected member of the local Meeting.
At home he radiated a serene presence at all times, never raising his voice when my sister and I were disobedient or boisterous or interrupted his favourite television programme with our childish quarrelling. He was almost too good to be true.
I have no idea what triggered a return to the dark days when once again he sat in front of the fire staring at the coals. Perhaps he had become spiritually exhausted having given so much of himself during those ‘angel’ years.
My sister and I grew up, left home for career and marriage; left the England of our childhood to begin new lives on the other side of the world.
Our father visited our homes in Australia twice. During those holidays, he seemed content, more at peace with himself. Perhaps this tranquillity was in part the result of no longer having to worry about long periods of unemployment and the effect this would have on his family. After many years lobbying medical boards to have his illness recognised as war related, he had been granted a one hundred per cent disability pension. Or perhaps he’d finally come to terms with the role he’d played in the carnage of the Second World War.
When heart disease claimed my father’s life at the early age of sixty-four, I felt sad and angry he was denied more years of peace. Selfishly perhaps, I also wished there had been more time for me to share my deepest hopes and fears with this sensitive, caring, intelligent, beautiful and troubled person.
Thirty-three years after his death, fond memories still nourish me. I remember how he helped me find the faith that sustains me through my own dark days, his acceptance and belief in the life-love I embarked on at eighteen when others could only foresee disaster. When I began mature age university studies, he expressed only delight and encouragement. No mention was made of my adolescent refusal to undertake tertiary study.
And sometimes when I sit in the special silence of Quaker Meeting for Worship, I recall the sound of his spirit, the words of an ordinary man trying to unload an extraordinary burden.