The history of my father in "The War."
|Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them
These days, when someone speaks of “The War,” there’ll be a wiseacre in the crowd who pipes up with, “What war?” And it’s a valid question in this age of constant little wars around the globe.
In my day, however, when we spoke of The War, everyone knew that we meant the Second World War, an event that, in spite of its occurring before I was born, had a hold on the memories of those who endured it and on the imaginations of my generation. I am no exception to this generalisation; when I speak of The War, it’s invariably the one that formed the pivotal experience of my father’s generation that I reference.
Not that my father supplied much to my imagination. When asked what he did in the war, he would avoid the question with a joke or a flippant remark and the information I gained was sparse, to say the least. It’s possible that his experiences of the time were too dark to be recalled but, equally, it may be that he regarded them as nothing special and hardly worth mentioning. I can understand this, having for a long time thought of my upbringing in Africa as ordinary and pretty much the same as anyone else’s.
The truth is that my father was the only one in my family to venture beyond the shores of England by his own volition. In the years before the war, he had become a qualified pharmacist and worked as a chemist’s assistant for a couple of years. He wanted to progress at a greater rate, however, and began to look for a better position. This led to him applying for a pharmaceutical representative’s job with a large and well known firm. It’s real appeal was that it was in India and, having succeeded in his application, my father soon found himself on a ship headed for those foreign shores.
I have little but a few sepia-toned and black and white photos to tell the tale of those years he spent in India. The old man was pretty silent on much of his history even when the war was not concerned.
When the war did come along and the colonies became involved, with India especially close to the action, the Japanese in Burma and hammering at the gates, my father joined the Indian army and became even more tight-lipped about what happened. There are a few facts (some dubious - they may have been meant as jokes) that he let slip, however.
There was the matter of his becoming ill with rheumatic fever, for instance. I am fairly sure that this did happen, since he never did get sent to Burma to fight and his story is that his regiment was sent there while he was in hospital. It may even be that I owe my existence to my father’s bout with disease; not many who fought there returned to tell the tale.
But, when he rebuffed my questions with answers like, “I sent trucks up and down the Himalayas,” you might understand why I am doubtful of the veracity of the tale to this day. It’s true that he may have been in charge of transport in some way (he was an officer) and that this entailed sending trucks to bases in the mountains. It could have been just a deliberately vague answer to shut me up, however.
And so I come to the story that, alone of all the old man’s avoidances and flippancy, made his eyes light up and the details begin to flow forth. The claim was that he had designed and overseen the building of the biggest toilet in India, maybe the world, in fact. It was a fifty seater and the most magnificent construction on the base, surely an achievement that any man would be proud of. Being for the use of the whole regiment, it is quite possible that the story is true and, I have no doubt, that it was needed. Everyone has to go somewhere, after all. For all I know, that privy is still there, faithfully serving its purpose as so many old colonial buildings still do in India.
So there we have the tale of the magnificence of the man I am condemned to live up to, a true adventurer and world traveller, builder of mighty edifices and, maybe, the master of the logistics of ensuring supplies to remote outposts in the mountains of India. It’s no wonder that his son has opted for the quiet life, returning from the wilds of Africa to live in obscurity in my birthplace. There are some mountains just too high to climb.
Word Count: 777
For Roots & Wings Contest, January 2021.
Prompt 3: Open prompt - Do you have a great story to tell? Give us your best family jewel. What is buried under the dust in your attic?