Friday, 14 May 2021

Think of others in times of real crisis

REMEMBRANCE Day is coming and will be celebrated despite all that covid-19 can do.

Who do you remember on Remembrance Day? I remember “Uncle” Tom, one of my great-grandfather’s apprentices who, with two great-aunts, helped bring me up.

Tom was a wheelwright by trade, who stayed on with the family when his apprenticeship was done.

In his early 20s he volunteered for the army in the First World War and went out to work with the horses of the Royal Artillery.

Tom never spoke of the suffering he saw and endured, but there were three things which served as reminders, more to us than him.

First, the swagger-stick tucked into a convenient slot in the workshop wall when he returned in 1918. It stayed there until he died at the grand old age of 97, some 70 years later. “I’m home”, it said “but I’m not the same.”

Secondly, the picture of the Angels of Mons on the drawing-room wall. It mystified me as a child. Tom fought at Mons and was sceptical about the story (see wikipedia) but the great-aunts were fervent believers in it. War generates its own myths, as do all crises.

Third, the loaded shotgun he kept behind the door at the bottom of the stairs, which he would occasionally bring out for some unfortunate bird which had the temerity to interfere with his raspberries. Many a starling got both barrels.

It would be hard to find a gentler man in his dealing with people (as opposed to birds). He had a twinkle in his eye and an endless supply of stories with which he would charm the ladies but having that gun close by was important to him. The gun might explain why he remained a bachelor.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I find that around Remembrance Day each year it helps me to remember individuals, people I have known who served through, or didn’t make it through, one of the wars of our nation.

Remembering them, I begin to understand the true cost of war, the real meaning of courage and sacrifice and I begin to grasp what out current servicemen and women are offering as they serve here and overseas.

War-time, and other times of real crisis, wreck so many lives, they change us for ever, but they can also bring out what’s best in us if we let them. Unlike the timing of wars and pandemics, what they bring out of us is in large part up to us.

Do you remember the film Saving Private Ryan? A special team search Normandy for a paratrooper, Private Ryan who is the last-surviving brother of four servicemen, and missing in action. After many trials in which two of the team are killed, they find him. The Captain of the team is fatally wounded and his last words to Private Ryan are “James... deserve this.”

At this time of year I somehow hear Uncle Tom saying the same to me.

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