“A black day on Wednesday. C/O and Chandler pranged in midair and both killed. Funeral today. Paddy overcome as he was burials officer. I was pallbearer. All had binge at Officers Club followed by a terrific session in the Mess. Skunkers.”
Such was my grandfather’s diary entry for April 20th, 1944, when he was 25 and based in Darwin, Australia, flying Spitfires and fighting the Japanese for King & Country. This was followed by April 21st: “Air-tested a kite (Spitfire) today for a glycol leak – everything OK. Four more Spit(fire)s came in successfully. Stayed in the Mess & wrote letters”.
This seems to sum up his war (and presumably that of many others). In all, he lost about half a dozen good mates in the skies above East Timor that year and the pattern was the same – mourn briefly, get shitfaced, get on with it. I know this because I spent a chunk of last year editing his 1944 Diary & Pilot’s Log into a book. And boy did I learn a lot. Turns out that the jolly, kindly, brown-cardigan clad Grandad who gave me that (excruciating) birds & bees chat and who I thought was pretty uncool was a bit of a bloody legend.
Whilst Remembrance Sunday (rightly) makes us all contemplate the Ultimate Sacrifice made by our elders and betters over the two World Wars, I think we should also use it to recognise the qualities that got lots of them through it and keep those qualities alive.
Because we’re in danger of losing many of them, if they’ve not deserted us already. In an era of 24/7 media hysteria, universal knee-jerk over-reaction and a US President who behaves like a toddler if anyone challenges him, we can learn much from the ‘Wartime Generation’, both as men and as fathers.
Here’s 4 things I’ve learned from reading the diary:
Resilience. Let’s get the big one out the way first. Every day of his 25th year my Grandfather awoke not knowing whether he would live or die or which of his friends he would be able to have a pint with later. But he just got on with it. When I was 25 I was also thinking about which friends I was going to have a pint with later but I was doing so in the fairly secure knowledge that I was unlikely to die (although some of my sessions were so ‘Terrific’ I’m not sure how I survived my 20s). Also, we seem to have lost the ability to ‘just get on with it’. I’m as guilty as the next man (just ask the Irish Pankhurst) of moaning about stuff so trivial it would barely merit a mention on the Mail Online. So Sunday will see a renewed resolve to get a bit more perspective myself and to nip in the bud any prima donna tantrums from under 5s who over-react when I refuse to put half crunchy and half smooth peanut butter on their toast.
Making stuff. My memories of my Grandad mostly occur in the vicinity of a half-built (or half dismantled, depending on your view) car, motorcycle or other machine. He once dismantled and reassembled an MG in a week, whilst simultaneously building me a boat. And, according to his diary, he did the same to warplanes (as well as flying them) whilst making his own shoes and building airfield accommodation. None of that shit is even in my vocabulary, and I’d wager I’m not alone. The majority of us leave our bonnets firmly shut. We pay ‘a man to do that’ or (if it’s a smaller ticket item) we simply throw it away and buy a new one. Making do and mending is a skill we’ve almost lost and one that is really quite important in a world of more finite resources that we originally thought. We need to follow the lead of brands like Patagonia and teach our kids how to do what we have failed to do. And Lego. Lots of Lego. I need to master the art of building a Duplo car first but I’m going to teach my kids to build stuff.
Dealing with boredom. “Another day of COMPLETE BOREDOM” he wrote on August 28th 1944 after a whole month of being in the 50-degree Australian desert (no aircon…) and literally nothing (I mean Tumbleweed, white noise, pin drop nothing) happening. He amused himself by making his own shoes and making a replica spitfire out of scrap metal. This is a revelation for someone who can’t keep his phone in his pocket for 30 seconds without checking it. I actually read this science paper recently about how 67% of men (25% of women, read into that what you will) would rather give themselves an electric shock than sit alone with nothing to do for 15 minutes. That’s how bad things have got. Seventy years ago, my Grandad made his own shoes to pass away a month’s worth of boredom – now we can’t last 15 minutes without self-harming. I’m not sure what to do about this other than to make sure my kids get bored enough to amuse themselves constructively.
Having a good time. “Party in the mess and downed a few beers and felt fit for anything at midnight. Dickie, Hugh, Frenchie and myself pushed the CO’s jeep over a bank and put a rooster in everyone’s beds. Pandemonium at 1am”. Christmas Day, 1944. Work hard play hard, that was my Grandad. It may have been the threat of death but he certainly knew how to have fun back in the day, whether he was riding a motorbike around the mess whilst drunk and crashing it into a wall or wreaking havoc and making friends (“Night in the Mess. Bottles were being thrown and I slung one at a Flight Lt. and broke a full bottle of his beer. Eventually, we became great friends”). Being 46 and reading about your 25 year old Grandad’s wartime antics certainly makes you feel like your 20s weren’t as crazy as you thought. I clearly was squarer than 9, 16 and 25. They may look old and wrinkly but don’t let that deceive you – old folks have some proper stories. Just speak to them (or go full Dutch). The more we do this, the better society will get and the more we will avoid news stories like this.
When Sunday comes, I’ll obviously be thinking about those who died in the war (like my other Grandad), but I’ll also be thinking about Grandfather Flash being bored and dealing with death and boredom by getting ‘skunkers’, making his own shoes and putting a chicken in everyone’s bed. And I’ll be trying to keep all those qualities alive in my kids.