Bernard, father of Andrew

Stories of Dad I-V

Remembering my father today. The sacrifices he and millions of others made, and their bravery. I remember some of the terrible truths of WW2 as told to me by my dad, things you won’t find in the history books, stories of what it was really like, which was nothing like the movies and video games.

In honour of my dad I’m posting a series of poems I wrote, oh, maybe 10 years or more ago. Well, Parts 1-IV are at least that old, predating his vascular dementia diagnosis and entering the care home. I wrote Part V only today.

Be advised: this series of poems is not for those who want romanticised, glossy stories of war. The poems don’t shy away from the ugly and the intimate. The style of writing and the focus, they deliberately shift throughout. Some verses will appal you in what they detail. I make no apology. I believe my father saw much, much worse – secret horrors he took to the grave.

Honour the brave. Do not raise up the pompous undeserving. That’s what my father would say today. And also: do not repeat the past.

Thank you.

Stories of Dad I

He was a codebreaker.
I managed to persuade him
to let slip a compliment
paid to him during active service.

His mathematical abilities
were remarked upon,
praised by commanding officers,
rewarded with
unpublicised commendation.

He fought the Battle of El Alamein.
I remember his stories
from my childhood,
reluctantly told
under interrogation.

They were always
heavily edited,
tales of people,
bad food, and sand.

As I got older,
the stories grew
no less reluctant
but more truthful,
censor for young ears put aside.

The horrors
to which he was exposed
were at last laid bare,
revealed as real history,

not the stuff you get from books.

Stories of Dad II

Some soldiers died from dysentry,
their lives literally crapped away
in giant cesspits,
great walls of stinking
shit-soaked sand
which occasionally collapsed,
leaving behind
a cacaphony of smells
rags stuffed up noses
failed to dispel
from mind,
fixed forever in memory.

Then there were the soldiers
who screamed in hospital beds
crying for their mothers
when nurses and the doctor came
with red-hot needles
to push down penises,
the only known way
at the time
to address the pus
caused by gonorrhea infections
contracted through sex
some soldiers had
with women from the local towns
and bars
and sometimes with animals.

My dad told me an Egyptian woman
once had sex
with a donkey on a stage.
He wasn’t entertained.
He wasn’t there,
recounting the tale
as the tale had been told to him.

It might have been tall.
But he believed it true.

He said the screams
from the hospital
were enough to keep him disciplined,
free from stain.

Like something holy,
he entered war
and came away
when war was done
a virgin soldier,
promiscuity a foreign land
he never visited,
nor had a mind to.

He’s the kind of man you believe.
A man who played his part
in building the world
we live in today.

Stories of Dad III

My father told me
of fellow soldiers
hand in hand before battle,
stealing sweet glances.

None of the other
men seemed to mind
because, he told me,
they all might die tomorrow

was the thought, the idea
pervading all
their fragile hearts and minds.

And so these men
my dad had no real names for,
nicknamed men like ‘Bunny’ Austin,
were left alone to love
and lucky they were thought to be
by straighter men
who missed their girlfriends
or their wives back home.

And so why,
he asked me once,
did I ever think he would have objected
to me being me,
the son he loved?

Stories of Dad IV

I love my dad. While others once knew him as soldier,
he was never such to me and yet
when looking at his faded
army photograph,
it gave me pause
for serious thought
and him a chance to recollect,
to smile as time was rolled back
by judicious image manipulation
on personal computer,
a thing he could not understand,
asking what I was doing,
why I was doing the thing I did,
until he saw the image
cleaned up pixel by pixel,
tiny scratches,
photographic war wounds
accumulated down decades
of being kept secret in drawers,
boxes, cupboards,
years in which he became
a husband and a father
five times over,
all marks and stains removed,
nicotined backgrounds replaced
with fresh uncanny white,
almost but not quite
wiping the years away.

There are few things a boy can do for his father.
Whatever a boy does for Dad
never seems enough,
or so it often seems
but this one time when
I sent the photo to the printer,
I saw my father beaming
like the sun,
big and bright and warm,
like an old book opened up,
appreciated all over again.

I shared his happiness
but it made me sad
to think how much
he’d done for me,
how little I
could ever do for him,
save write some words,
mere language on the page,
for this unacknowledged hero,
honourable backbone
to this land I call home,
a pensioned treasure,
a dying breed,
a gentle man indeed.

I only wish I could do
one thing for him
other than write this poem
which seems so weak,
so ineffectual.
If I only could,
I would take a time machine
and go back.
I would take my dad with me.
Together we would stand
at his mother’s grave
as she was laid to rest.

We would bring the finest roses
and large, triumphant gladioli,
crafted from modern soil
by gifted gardeners,
to remind her
and him
of his father,
and Seth Rigby.

We would place a jar
of pickled herrings
before heading home
to the world of today,
having robbed time,
that bruiser of all men,
of my father’s most painful memory.

His mother died May 12,
four days after VE Day.
Dad found out she had died
in October, or rather,
he was told
one of his parents had died
but it was guesswork,
that told him it was her,

his mother,

a lady he loved and always
ever since
wished he could have been
there for when she died.

And so that
would be my greatest gift to him
if I were somehow cleverer than all,
bigger, more powerful than God.
I would stand,
not staring,
while my father said goodbye
and like the true man
he has always been,

Stories of Dad V

Later in my life, inevitably,
long after poems one to four
came this, five, when Dad
had died, peacefully.
Fate or God or happenstance,
they made it so
I was the only one by his side
in a side room at the hospital.
Family had been the night before
but no, not then, he would not go
and by me alone he said goodbye.

My father had been dignified
throughout his long dementia,
my mum always by his side.
With another month on Earth
that was not given, sadly,
they would have been together
for seventy years as man and wife.

We grew so close, his last two years
in residential care, his eyes
remaining bright
but with shadows of war there
for those would never fade.
A good man. A loyal man.
Imperfect all the same as all we are.
I loved him. I thanked him
for his service as a father,
a soldier,
a husband to the woman
he has not truly left behind.
His last breath came and went
as I sat quiet by his side.
I knew it was to be his last,
so deep it was, as if
he wanted one last savouring
of all life had to give.

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