My Father’s Medals

I was very fond of my Father, he was a nice chap who was never one to pour petrol on a fire and when he died on Easter Monday 2007 at the age of 86, I missed him and the conversations we had together. Even as I reached my 60th year, there was still that father/son bond and his gentle and subtle ways to reaffirming his faith in me and even then, my potential yet to come.

It was probably about 4 years ago, after my Mother too had passed on that I was decorating my front room and putting one of my Grandfather’s and Pop’s medals into display cases to hang on the wall when I had a realisation about a human condition that likely applies to most of us, a sense of “us not having achieved/done enough…”

Could Try Harder…

Just how many of us have had the “could try harder” comment put on our school report and seemingly like some mark of Cain, it follows us throughout our lives. In 2010 it was the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the BBC did a number of programmes to celebrate the event. Pilots who flew during it were interviewed but of course they were pretty old then if they had been 18/20 in the Summer of 1940 and in a different way were the “last of the few”.

I can remember one old boy who had been shot down, had 6 ‘kills’ to his name and obviously survived the war. He was asked about what it was like then, the impact on morale of the losses and the general attrition of those crucial months. He answered all the interviewer’s questions but at one point looking towards the floor said and I suspect more to himself: “Perhaps I could have done more…” There it was again the “Could do better, try harder…” crap rather than “ I did my best and that was my contribution.”

The Medals

My Irish Grandfather was a good shot, a skill honed in Ireland shooting Rabbits for the pot. As with many of his generation he enlisted during WWI and served in the trenches with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was a gifted Piper and I well remember his Irish dancing as a child, even as an old man he could still really “step”. Although he thought war a ‘dirty business’, he made a point of putting on his medals and heading to the Cenotaph every November for Remembrance Sunday and the odd pint or so too as his medal ribbons still testify to this day. I could get his medal ribbons replaced but I think not, as they are, is truly authentic.

However when it came to my Father’s medals there was a difference, they were still in the box they were posted to him in after he was demobbed, he had never worn them. I then remembered that he had only once gone to a Regimental Reunion and thought it a waste of time and that wasn’t because he was a shy person, he was always very sociable. Although in the end he worked it out, my instinct tells me that he was in a particular sense ‘disappointed’ and felt that he too hadn’t ‘done enough’.

He joined the Army in August 1937, he was then 16 and became 17 in the December. When war broke out I can suspect that as with most young men, he felt the pull of ‘heroic deeds’ to be done but by then he was a trained soldier and the Army was being expanded rapidly, it needed its existing men to become trainers. I can remember him once telling my brother and I that as a consequence he and his mate used to volunteer for anything that might get them away from training new recruits, this had some interesting consequences including parachute training which he hated !

As a Royal Engineer, his war didn’t really start until the run up to D-Day and after marching across Europe he then spent a couple of year with the British Army of the Rhine before eventually being demobbed. As I’ve said above, my impression is that as a young man he expected ‘more of himself’ and the situation he was in and yet, that is the way life goes, a matter of place/time and opportunity. I suspect most heroes are “accidental heroes”, life just isn’t like an action movie where the ‘hero’ performs non stop deeds of courage until the very last reel, more a case of being in the right/wrong place and the right/wrong time.

It Made Me Think

When in 2004 I left London to move down to Somerset to live with and look after my Parents, some friends found the idea of “giving up your life…” difficult to quite grasp, it wasn’t as if I were heir to some grand estate so why ? The answer really was simple, I liked them as people. They were part of that generation that fought the Second World War but they were not either heroic or not heroic for that, they were ordinary, decent people and neither my brother Michael or I had great illusions or expectations of who or what they were, they were our Parents and probably of the best kind for two lads, we were a family and that was enough whatever the current drama.

As I have said previously, although I set no time limit, I was “here for the duration”, it was in my mind, was my expectation I suppose that after my Parents had died I would return to my home town of London. In the event, by the time my Mother passed on, I was coming up for my Old Age Pension and I had rather ‘settled’ down here on the Somerset Levels and saw no particular merit in uprooting myself. Obviously the gulf in property prices would have been an issue too but I never bothered to even look, my decision although intuitive, was easily made.

Although I still enjoy visiting the City of my birth and could imagine living there again if necessary, I realised on various trips to London that I positively choose to live down here on the Bristol Channel, I have all I need here to complete my self imposed tasks and here I can live out my days.

The First and the Last Gift

In the end and although I still consider it more a privilege than any duty to have been able to support my Parents during their latter years, I have been more than adequately recompensed but in an unexpected way.

Throughout any life we always expect to be ‘someone’, an expert in this or that, the ‘go to man’ under these circumstances and so on. Added to this are the various roles we take on for which we are normally so poorly qualified, husband/wife/partner, parent, uncle/aunt, grandparent, God parent, Best Man, a fairly endless list in one way or another which we make more of a burden with our other choices. Those choices by which we define and one might say, confine ourselves with be it playing golf, sailing, skiing…name any sport, by class, religion, politics, profession or job another ever expanding list which can then become dwarfed by our lifestyle choices on top.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that in none of this are we actually ourselves, we are buried under the ‘expectations’ of each and every label we tie or, allowed to be tied to ourselves. It is inevitable that in the vast majority of cases, we will never be No1 and the Best at all these things, disappointment and a sense of failure is guaranteed and that is what most people carry around with them.

But coming back to my Parents and what I touched on above, whilst they would chivvy and encourage us to always do our best, although we never ‘knew’ it in a concious sense at the time, neither my brother Michael or I were ‘qualified’ by our achievements or lack thereof, we were loved just for being ourselves, nothing else required. That was the first gift our Parents gave us and whilst Michael’s death in 1978 was tragic, in their passing my Parents left me the same gift we both always had, which is that positive message that it is okay just to be yourself, nothing else is required.

End Piece

Over the course of my life I have had various careers and assumed many different roles but today I have left all of those behind, it is okay just to be myself. My Father was right to leave his medals in their original box because he didn’t need them, that was then now here comes tomorrow !

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