Stories: Life in Books

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  • dyan campbell,

    Thank you Merc, Joe.

    I liked the way Kurt Vonnegut made it clear how young most of the people involved in the war actually were - both my parents were only 17 when they joined the RCAF and were 21 and 20 when the war ended.

    My husband's Father (who was in the NZ Navy) was even younger, enlisting at 15, seeing action by 16. My Dad, by contrast was 17 when he joined, but as the training was so long he was 19 before he flew missions. My Mum was stationed in Halifax, so of course never saw combat.

    Vonnegut was one of the first authors who described how incredibly young these people were. I look at pictures of my parents - some taken more than a decade after the war - and they still looked like teenagers until the 1950s were nearly over.

    But I don't think the rear gunners were necessarily small - though, you are right, their spot on board was extremely small. The rear gunner on my father's plane, "Boots" Engman was nicknamed so on account of his size 12 feet, was very tall.

    My Dad's plane crashed on his 9th mission - they were headed to Duisberg (though on a Halifax, not a Lancaster that time) and during take-of, just as they cleared the trees my Dad - who had not yet plugged into the intercom - noticed the mid-upper gunner had an odd expression on his face. Moments later they veered sharply and smashed back down into the woods. Fire broke out before they stopped sliding, and everyone rushed to get out.

    My Dad didn't think the undercarriage had been retracted but was wrong, so when he got the hatch open - not easy as it had been twisted on impact - he found it was only a few inches off the ground. He had to run through the fire to the escape hatch near the nose, getting burns to his lower face, neck and chest - and receiving the injury for which he still receives an Air Force Pension -
    not for burns - he nearly dislocated his neck as he snagged his intercom wire on something.

    He crawled to the rear door just as the mid upper turret began to explode, and a WAAF lorry driver, whose courage in rescuing all of them earned her a mention in dispatches - helped him to her lorry, which she had left with the engine running. As they were driving away the bombs and fuel blew up, nearly knocking the truck over and leaving a huge crater in the ground. All of the men survived, though two were burned - one worse than my Dad.

    My Dad's burns were not too severe - 1st and 2nd degree - and were not deemed serious enough for the actual hands of the great plastics genius and NZer, Sir Archie McIndoe. One of McIndoe's junior's did the grafts - which left nearly no scars, only a faint seam on his neck and chest, barely visible now and pretty faint when I was a child, though my Mum said they were quite a bright red for the first few years.

    He was very lucky to have the McIndoe supervised regimen of saline baths, skin grafts, the incredibly beautiful nurses (a stroke of psychological genius for those men who were badly disfigured) and the then-experimental antibiotics, Sulfa drugs. He said McIndoe used to come around to see how his junior's work was progressing and would amuse the airmen by shouting at the junior doctor, then winking at the airman.

    But it is a small world, it was a small war. Decades later - in the 60s or early 70s in Canada, my Dad worked with an English guy who was describing a photograph he took of the wreckage of a plane that went down in East Moor, where all the men had survived. As he went into detail, my Dad said "I think I was on that plane.

    I'd post the picture, and my Dad's recollections (which I made him write down) but I don't have a scanner, plus they are way too long for this spot.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    Dyan, really, you can post as long as you like, it is genuinely interesting, the real life stuff, the real stories (surfers call it talking story), your style...I'd really like to see those photos and read your Father's recollections. My Grandfather was posted to Fiji with the Air Force, but never talked of it. My step Grandmother saw service in Africa, she told wonderful stories that had the same feel of real about them that yours do. I know a person who publishes such things here in NZ.

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • Riddley Walker,

    my dad was in a german labour camp when the thousand bomber raids went over. he reckoned the buildings shook so much they were all afraid they'd collapse.
    what happended in Dreseden was disgraceful. Curtis Lee May and Bomber Harris should have been tried as war criminals.

    AKL • Since Feb 2007 • 890 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    Riddley Walker writes:

    "my dad was in a german labour camp when the thousand bomber raids went over. he reckoned the buildings shook so much they were all afraid they'd collapse.
    what happended in Dreseden was disgraceful. Curtis Lee May and Bomber Harris should have been tried as war criminals"

    The knowlege of the devastation caused by the massive bombing did weigh very heavily on my Dad, even at his navigator's table on a mission. As children my brothers and I used love to play war and to pester him with questions about his experiences, and he would tell us that war was not like a game, battles and soldiers are not wonderful things to be commemorated or honoured. He used to say the war was a horrible event and that civillians suffered much more than anyone in uniform and that human beings should learn from that horror.

    He is appalled by the glorification of battles and soldiers. He's quite the pacifist, and was already by the end of the war. He agreed with the British government's decision not to award the Bomber Crews any kind of medal, he would have been sickened to have been decorated for what he did.

    I agree with you, Riddley, that the thousand bomber raids were a terrible crime, that civillans should never be the main casualty in a war. My Dad has described how incredibly disturbing it was to know that the devastation he'd seen in London was exactly what he was causing from the air. And yes, Dresden struck the men on his plane as a very odd choice of target, though it is claimed now that it was a strategic target as some crucial material (I forget what) was made there. Which may have been true, but that would have been true of Detroit USA also, and they certainly wouldn't have bombed Detroit.

    He spent a little time in London after an air raid, and had helped evacuate survivors. One elderly, dazed and thoroughly distraught woman had to be forced to leave, because she couldn't find her cat in what was left of her flat. My dad said the whole block was gone and you could see a severed hand here, a baby's crib there, somebody kids toy, disoriented people digging though rubble. He and the other men helping the survivors were pretty sure that her cat was history, and the old woman's distress was one of his most vivid memories. After that when he was on a mission he thought of all the old people, children and pets he was killing and was pretty distressed by it all.

    Whether you could have tried Harris or others in Bomber Command without implicating Churchill and his cabinet, well, I don't think so. And it is easy to look in hindsight at the decisions they made with a sense of horror and outrage, but those of us who weren't alive during the time find it hard to grasp how desperate the Allies were, and how likely a German victory seemed, even late into the war.

    But my Dad would probably be closer to your position on this subject than most people, I think... unlike Nancy Wake, who when given a medal recently for her work in the French Resistance made one of the shortest speeches of its kind "I killed a lot of Germans and my only regret is that I didn't kill more".

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • Sarah Nathan,

    Wow Dyan and Riddley. Thanks for war stories - amazing to read.

    I am late to the 'books that changed your life' topic but here goes - despite now advertising to all and sundry my distinctly low-brow tastes...

    Pet Day - a junior reader at primary. Loved it. Wanted pet calf. Never got pet calf. Cue much therapy. And a stupid labrador I named "Brown Dog*". *Unrelated to 'Pet Day'.

    Enid Blyton - Secret Seven and Famous Five inspired in me the urge to stay up waaaaay past my bedtime and read and read and read. Addictive when you're seven to ten yrs old.

    Watership Down - Richard Adams. The first big, huge, mammoth novel I ever read. Sad to look at it now and realise it's only an inch thick. Seemed bigger. Probably was...

    Victoria Holt novels - romances set in Victorian times, usually involving dark, brooding heirs and gorgeous, down-at-heel but noble and panting governesses. Addictive when you're 12. (And possibly why am I still single at 40 - ugh)

    Thorn Birds - stolen from mum in order to read the rude bits aloud on the school bus. Addictive when you're 14.

    Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez. - Made it okay, if not heroic, to nurse pathetic, all-encompassing unrequited passions. Addictive when y ou're 25. Oh, alright, 35. But I've grown out of that now that I'm 40. And still single. Doh!

    Christopher Brookmeyer - "Be My Enemy" self-satisfied, smart-arse, high-adrenalin, post-modern, 007-type poppycock of the highest order. Addictive when you're mentally defective from a surfiet of vodka.

    "The Movie" by trash queen Louise Bagshawe. Based loosely if obviously on The Smashing Pumpkins and a fantasy about a fat girl screenwriter losing weight and winning the heart of... well, I don't want to spoil it for y'all.

    And may I just go back to some fave kids' books:

    Milly Molly Mandy - anyone who has a friend called Toby and thinks it's great fun to go and pick mushrooms gets a big tick from me.

    Maurice Sendak - yes, my personaly fave was called "Sarah's Room" for purely egotistical reasons. The plants on the wallpaper grew at night. Good, clean, freaky fun.

    Richard Scarry's "Busy Busy World". Because when I travelled through Europe much, much later I was able to recognise all of the key places: hey look it's the Coloseum! The Arc de Triomphe! Brought the world alive. But where's Lowly?

    "Marianne Dreams" by Catherine Storr - a kids book that I read as an adult but only b/c i was obsessed for many years with the 1070s B&W TV show it spawned. TV show "Escape Into Night" was about a bed-ridden chick who drew pictures in a sketchbook that came to life when she fell asleep. She drew an invalid friend in a house - Mark - who she visited in her dreams. But when she got the pip with him she drew eyes in the large rocks that surrounded his house. Then the rocks started moving towards them both in a menacing fashion... Talk about cack your pants! Auckland Public Library has this in the special stack of the kids book dept - worth asking for.

    AND lastly but not leasly:

    Wises Maps. Like to know where I'm supposed to be going. Even if, at 40, I have yet to figure it out.

    Akld • Since Nov 2006 • 12 posts Report Reply

  • JLM,

    Sarah, I saw a new paperback copy of Marianne Dreams in the Dunedin UBS a few days ago for a few bucks. Would you like it?

    Judy Martin's southern sl… • Since Apr 2007 • 221 posts Report Reply

  • Sarah Nathan,

    Golly JLM - thanks! But I have just found an array of paperbacks - and 1 hardback even - on Amazon, so I don't bust a boiler on my account. Am about to head overseas so will be incommunicado for a couple of weeks, so don't feel slighted if I don't reply to you in the near future. But thanks again!

    Synchronicity, eh?

    Were you, too, a fan? (Not U2, ahem).

    Akld • Since Nov 2006 • 12 posts Report Reply

  • Riddley Walker,

    thanks for your thoughtful reply dyan, i worried afterward that it might be taken as a criticism of your father, which it certainly wasn't - so i'm relieved you didn't take it that way.
    you know, i think the thing that makes wars invariably really evil is that the people that decide to wage them are never the ones that pay the big costs.

    Wises Maps. Like to know where I'm supposed to be going

    me too, i love maps. when i was a kid i wanted to be a cartographer. i can't imagine why, i guess i just thought they looked neat. old, pre-satellite maps are cool too me thinks.

    AKL • Since Feb 2007 • 890 posts Report Reply

  • andrew llewellyn,

    <quote>the people that decide to wage them are never the ones that pay the big costs./quote>

    I've idly wondered now & then whatever happened to the good old tradition of leaders actually leading their troops into battle?

    Might make for a boom in diplomacy.

    Since Nov 2006 • 2073 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    There was a Pope who did that, they get a taste for it. Most wars (the rich one's) these days are about dropping private ordinance on public civilians in another country around election time, pretty refined really. A big ticket circus that's hard to break into, though the photo ops, my goodness, if you can get a shot of yourself on deck of an aircraft carrier in a jump suit looking like you just flew the mission with a Victory! flag behind you, everyone's clapping, except the bodies.

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • hamishm,

    Why do they always send the poor?

    Since Nov 2006 • 345 posts Report Reply

  • andrew llewellyn,

    Why do they always send the poor?

    Because there's plenty more where they came from. And it does them good.

    Actually, the UK did send Prince Andy to the Falklands.

    Since Nov 2006 • 2073 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Stowell,

    In the same vein as Mariane Dreams- a spooky classic that's quite appropriate for adults- is Neil Gaiman's Coraline. In Jungian analysis, houses represent heads/brains/the seat of conciousness, with attics, drawing-rooms and dungeons- and this house is quite haunted: the girl's parents are replaced by eery doll-parents with button eyes, and strange things are going on in the basement. Worth a look.

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 1353 posts Report Reply

  • merc,

    In the good old days they sent the poor, who had to provide their own weapons (ploughshares anyone), own food, own pay (you'll get your reward in heaven boys!) and face off against rich bastardos with horses, armour and longer stabby things - plus everyone knows the rich are closer to God and the royals, well, God And My Right, you know.

    Since Dec 2006 • 2468 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    a spooky classic that's quite appropriate for adults- is Neil Gaiman's Coraline

    Thanks, haven't read that one, but as I've really enjoyed all of Gaiman that I've read so far I'll give it a go.

    Most convincing portrayal of an artist's life for me is Patrick White's The Vivisector. Nothing else I've read comes close. A marvelous depiction of the creative process, and of how it's possible to know what you may never have directly experienced.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3291 posts Report Reply

  • Mal Zone,

    I was at my lowest losing my mind and someone passed me a book called 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway' by Susan Jeffers.

    It changed my life and gave me back the strength I had somehow mislaid.

    Whenever I feel a bit weak or low on confidence I reach for it again...sometimes we need constant training to ensure we don't slip into 'poor me' syndrome.

    Wellington • Since Apr 2007 • 2 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    John Ralston Saul's book Voltaire's Bastards devotes several chapters to the development of wars into their present form, including the point in history where those who gave the commands ceased to put themselves anywhere near any battleground.
    He also pinpoints the time when the idea that a man could be a "hero" even if the battle in which he died was lost. Before that point, a soldier who died in a battle that lost would have had a pointless and ignoble death. It's an incredibly interesting book.

    But the point my Dad would make in all of this is that he did nothing remarkable and certainly not anything for which he should be honoured. In fact at the beginning of the recollections I asked him to write of his crash he is at pains to point out that he was "never taken prisoner, never decorated, was shot at but never shot, and at the time of his crash had only risen like a dying goldfish, to the humble rank of corporal".

    He has also reminded us all that a WAAF had risked her life rushing towards a burning aircraft that was starting to explode to save the crew which is the remarkable thing, and that you might expect the men on the plane to run from it, nothing exceptional in that. Lucky perhaps. But that it took incredible courage to drive towards a burning plane loaded with bombs and fuel, jump out, run towards it and help everyone safely in before speeding away.

    But he has said so many times - ever since I can remember - civillians suffered much more than anyone in uniform ever did. And talking to people - like our neighbour Dimitri Alpatoff, who'd been a kid in a ditch on the ground in Dresden - this does seem to be true.

    Or my friend Dahlia, who'd been 10 or so, and fleeing Lithuania with her mother and 4 year old brother. Their father had been missing(later presumed dead), and the 3 of them were among millions of refugees on the move. During an air raid in I forget what city - the family who'd not slept in 48 hours, was in a train station when the sirens started. Dalhia's little brother was horribly train sick, and was bringing up the first meal he'd eaten in 2 days, and her Mum made the decision not to inflict that on those in the shelter and reasoned that the planes usually were miles away. Not so this time - the bombs fell directly on the station, and the 3 of them sheltered under the bench, watching bricks from the station fly around. Dalhia said the concussion made their eyes and sinuses hurt, and that they were concussed and horribly traumatised by it - especially her baby brother who even at 4 blamed himself for nearly getting them killed. Dalhia committed suicide only a few years ago, leaving an adored daughter and grandchild, and though it would be hard to really make any causal link to her early experiences, I can't help thinking it contributed. She always seemed so sad, in that elegant Lithuanian way that made Canadians and their relentless cheerfulness seem so bumptious and crass.

    And I remember my friend Aja's Mum, (who was Latvian but raised in Nazi Germany and saw Hitler speak once, on a school field trip) describing hearing her neighbours - including a little friend her own age - screaming as they were interrogated and murdered by the SS. She told us she'd seen the blood from the family oozing out from under the front door, pouring down the white steps but that hearing the screams had been so, so much worse and that she'd recognised each scream. I remember Aja and I were incredulous not so much about the blood, or the screams, but that the school-age kids were butchered as well, but of course they were.

    And stop to consider the poor pregnant woman NZ born Nancy Wake (the most decorated woman in WWII) had seen disemboweled and left to die shackled in a town square in France - her husband had been someone important in the French Resistance. And spare a thought for the unfortunate woman's 2 year old daughter who sat crying quietly with her for the period of days it took her mother to die. The rest of the town was too terrified to defy the Germans and do a thing to help.

    I have been fascinated about this subject since childhood, but the lesson my parents - who were both in the Air Force - really wished to drive home to me was that those in uniform have both fee will and responsibility - the real obscenity is when civillians become the target.

    Here it is Anzac Day that everyone remembers - that's about soldiers. In Canada we commemorate November 11th - Remembrance Day, and it's supposed to be about all the fallen - not just those in uniform, but the civillians too, especially children who were caught up in it all.

    You know, I meant to post about books way back - My Mum read to us all every night - she was one of those readers of books that could make everyone put down what they were doing to listen - she would read for hours and everyone would be spellbound. Our next door neighbour's son Grant, who was the same age as my brother (around 8 or 9 at the time I think) used to knock at the door at bedtime, dressed in pajamas, dressing gown and slippers - and ask "Can Richard come out to play?" to which my Mum would say "Well, no it's bedtime. But would you like to come in to hear a story?". I'm told this went on every night for years, and on colder nights Grant might also be wearing a sleeping bag over his shoulders, and snow boots instead of slippers. Sometimes his parents would turn up to take him home before my Mum finished, and they would stay and listen till she was done.

    Anyhow my Mum read us all sorts of things. I can remember hearing Don Quixote (I would have been about 2) and wondering why that Donkey Hotey never seemed to be in it, and assuming he must be a friend of the horse, Rossinante. She read The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn, and the horribly sad dog story Beautiful Joe . Alice in Wonderland , The Secret Garden, A Christmas Carol, Victor Hugo's very sad Les Miserables and even sadder The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Tapestry Room__ , Pinocchio, Toby Tyler and Ten Weeks with the Circus.

    Almost all of them dated back to her own childhood and before - the era when children in a story were grateful for food, shelter and adult care - and predated the later literary development where children are heroic and the adults are tedious at best and unable to recognise the child's greatness at worst. I am pretty sure
    the odious Harry Potter would have been a little less scathing of the Aunt and Uncle who took him in, had his story been set in earlier times. Like Pinocchio, Harry Potter would have been portrayed as tiresome and selfish if he'd taken both food and shelter without some gratitude, and like Pinocchio he would have been punished by fate for his arrogance, and taught to appreciate the help and wisdom adults could offer. Ditto Captains Courageous - can you imagine such a story now? An arrogant, spoiled child is made to realise how much he has taken for granted, loses the most important adult in his life and in his unbearable grief he learns how much responsibility is his own if he is to grow up. If the story were written now, the Portugese fisherman would be an amiable bumbling fool who would not die at all, but be saved by the little clever and all-powerful boy.

    My Mum read us stories about being black - Julius Lester's To Be a Slave, __Booker T. Washington's __Up From Slavery and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

    She could never quite come to terms with being half Indian (don't say "Indian" if you go to Canada - it's considered quite offensive - we say "First Nations" but that is considered too PC here so I find I have to watch myself depending where I am) - she was French Metis and sometimes denied it.

    Part of the time I'd been led to believe there was no Cree blood in her family, she sometimes admitted her mother was half Cree. I found out in my 30s that while that was true, her Father was also half Cree, so I am twice as Cree as I'd been led to believe... which actually explained a lot.

    My Mum may never recovered from or accepted being French Metis, or as they used to say in Canada in her day, being a "dirty Indian" but she did have a strong affinity with the Black Civil Rights movement in the USA. Very confusing for all of us, identity-wise.

    She read us all sorts of unsuitable things for children - anything we requested. She read The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon the horrifying true account of Japanese fishermen who'd been unfortunate enough to die slowly from radioactive fallout from US tests in Japanese waters. She read Daniel DeFoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and later, at 9, let me read Albert Camus The Plague and tried to explain that it was an allegory of the Nazi occupation of Algeria, but I was 9 and literal and insisted that if it were about Nazis, I'd notice. I could see it in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and in adulthood was surprised to find it was about Christianity, not Nazi occupation, but however impressed other adults seemed to be that I read Camus at 9, my Mother pointed out that I'd failed to understand it properly.

    I'd said to my husband Paul that I suppose it's unusual to have had a Mum who let me read Camus so early, and he said it was unusual to have a Mum with Camus on the shelf.

    But she was a strong literary influence - we grew up in a house with literally thousands of books - none off limits.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Ben Austin,

    I just got rid of a huge amount of books, in anticipation of a move, and wow, it is hard to do. Although some how I'd managed to accumulate a rather large collection of pulp/junk fiction.

    London • Since Nov 2006 • 861 posts Report Reply

  • Richard Llewellyn,

    "I was at my lowest losing my mind and someone passed me a book called 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway' by Susan Jeffers."

    Actually - speaking of self-help books, and apologies to Susan Jeffers, but that reminds me the book that hands-down saved me the most money, and quite possibly some time at the back end, is the Allen Carr Quit Smoking Book.

    Thanks Allen (wherever you are) .....

    Mt Albert • Since Nov 2006 • 399 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    I was at my lowest losing my mind and someone passed me a book called 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway' by Susan Jeffers.

    My Mum got a lot out of that book (and an associated seminar, IIRC) at a really difficult time for her. That made me take take the self-help industry a bit more seriously henceforth.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17938 posts Report Reply

  • Riddley Walker,

    amazing stuff dyan, thanks.

    AKL • Since Feb 2007 • 890 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Rowe,

    civillians suffered much more than anyone in uniform ever did

    George MacDonald Fraser makes the point in his autobiography that he was a civilian too, as were all of the men that he served with in Burma.

    Lake Roxburgh, Central Ot… • Since Nov 2006 • 556 posts Report Reply

  • Riddley Walker,

    we're talking about von Ludendorff's Total Warfare here i guess, like so many thing's made that much more effective with industrialization. it wasn't always quite thus (not that former forms were all that marvellous, but they were less directed at civillians).

    AKL • Since Feb 2007 • 890 posts Report Reply

  • Deborah,

    There's an interesting obituary of Kurt Vonnegut in The Economist.

    Manawatu City • Since Nov 2006 • 1273 posts Report Reply

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