War had become a way of life. Because of my stepfather, 48 Hook was often filled with young Canadian servicemen. One of them cut the winged trademark off a Sweet Caporal cigarette packet and pinned it on me. He dubbed me Sergeant Pilot. Shortly thereafter, he gave me another so that pinned together I had two wings and was raised to the rank of Pilot Officer. By Wars end in my mind I was a "WingCo" (Wing Commander). The soldier who helped launch my fantasy military career was in the Second Canadian Division. He was on the Dieppe Raid in August 1942 . I never saw him again. I heard recently that fewer than 1000 Canadian veterans of WW2 remain alive. There were so many of them who either lost their lives or were permanently scarred from the their experiences in the war. Poppies on Remembrance Day do not suffice nor does John McRae's, In Flander's Fields. War is barbaric and cannot be glorified in any way. But, there I was a child caught up in it as were millions of others young and old throughout the world. The untold suffering of most far exceeded anything I experienced and sadly often went largely unnoticed.
Life went on: mundane, day to day stuff and spontaneous simple things continued despite the war and the raids. We acquired three cats for pets. These cats reflected Sybil's chosen heros of the time. Of course there was Churchill known colloquially as "Churchilchity Brom Brickdadish Brownge" His partner was Eisenhower, "Ikey Penikey Peneisenhower" their Russian counterpart was simply Timeshenko. Somehow, there was no mention of the enemy and no room for Allied leaders such as Roosevelt and Stalin. My mother loved nonsense sobriquets attached to pets. She named the parrot we met in Blackburn in a residential hotel where we ran to hide from the bombs, "Arcoo" and spent hours teaching him to whistle a tune. He was a quick study but he never got the last note right. I can still whistle that tune today as mummy did and I can still finish as Arcoo did on the wrong note.
On Sundays, the family still gathered and I still had massive servings of boiled cabbage. After dinner we played Whiskey Poker. I was allowed to join when I was 8, being staked to some funds by Uncle Wally. The adults let me win and I quickly became an insufferable pain in the ass. Wally stopped my ascent to gambling glory by winning steadily and bankrupting the eight year-old wunderkind. This unpleasant result devastated me and cured me of the desire to gamble for life. Frank remained a tyrant. Michael Gay and I found a cauldron of tar being used by a road crew and decided to paint my peddle car, probably a present from my father Keith Kimber, with it. We used the mop in the cauldron and the results were horrible. When Frank saw what we had done, he took an axe to the car to teach me a lesson. He was enraged and apoplectic. I was devastated. Though it was never the same, it was Jim Allan my stepfather who repaired the car for me.
I didn't like Jim but Frank despised him because Jim stood up to him. This suited my mother and grandmother as they used Jim as a threat to the tyrant Frank. Though, Jim didn't know it my mother was into her forties. He wanted children of his own and Sybil got pregnant and miscarried. Then she got pregnant again. In spite of her history and condition Frank insisted that Sybil hang the heavy blackout curtains in the sitting room every night. One night she twisted herself and felt faint. Jim came home and in spite of a possible raid The three of us went on foot to the cinema. My mother was ill there and we had to hurry home. I was shipped off to bed. I was terrified about my mother. Especially when she came into the room and Granny Fiddler had her stand in a large basin to catch the blood. Jim had called Dr. Merchant who came immediately. Then all hell broke loose. Frank denied Merchant, a man of colour, entry and screamed that no man of colour would ever lay a hand upon his daughter. Jim intervened by simply telling Frank to get out of the way or he would kill him. Jim meant it. Merchant laid my mother on the bed and used his hands in a super human effort to stem the bleeding. She had miscarried again because of the her age and the blackout curtains. Dr. Merchant saved Sybil's life that night. Her father would have let her die rather than let a coloured man touch her.
She was bedridden for some time and pale as a ghost. Christmas came and although she was still weak, Frank ordered her to serve the family food in the evening as she wasn't, in his mind, doing her part. Needless to say Jim wasn't at home at the time and racist Frank, the bigot, was able to resume his role as family tyrant. I never could understand why my mother, an intelligent talented woman submitted herself to the physical and mental abuse her father and then her husband, Jim heaped upon her.
Still, things slowly swung back to wartime normal. Off we went to attend a dance at the Banstead Army camp. Girlfriends in one barrack, Married women with children in another. Everyone smoked. This was dating 1943/44 style. Popular music was everywhere. " Mares eat oats and Does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy!" chimed the Andrews Sisters, Patty, Maxine and Laverne. My mother sang. She had been a professional. She was often called upon to sing. "A Nightingale Sang in Berkely Square" was her signature song and she sang it better than Vera Lynn. Earlier, in my life when she gave me a bath, I heard, "Boop boop dittum dottum wattum choo" as the three little fishes swam over the dam and out to sea. Nonsense songs were interwoven with the sound of black groups like the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots. English people though, bigoted in their own way, somehow accepted black Americans easily which served to upset white Americans greatly. To me black men were curious to see. My England was white. The great influx of West Indian and other black immigration was after the war and after I left. I still find it amazing to sit and chat with black English people who speak with a strong British dialect. But I know black cockneys whose families have been in London for several generations. I wonder what Dr. Cline, a Jew and Dr. Merchant a dark-skinned Hindu would make of today's world. The England of today is not the England of my childhood. Yet it is. Integration as a social process, has been going on forever. Surely, segregation begins to end on first contact and there is little or nothing we can do to stop it.
Back to dance night. Romance and excitement was everywhere. It was in the women's eyes. I took it for that. I was too young to recognize lust. It is only later in life, that I can wonder how it must have been for those young men and women. The intensity of the moment was there. So, must have been the foreboding of war. Many of the young men I saw did not survive another year. Many of the young women were widows before their first wedding anniversary. Those who survived like Jim and Sybil probably never fully recovered. Every Remembrance Day, I watch the lie retold. "Dulce Est Decorum Pro Patria Mori". Perhaps children should be taught Owen's poem instead of McRae's. I believe this would change the November 11 experience completely. War is never glorious and those who participate though brave, I believe, are heroes and victims at the same moment.
We went to Yorkshire, to Ripon. It was 1943 and Jim was on Manoeuvres, training to invade Normandy. Though these were, in reality, deadly serious, they seemed like playing war. That July in Sicily and a year later in Normandy it was anything but play. Mummy and I stayed in rooms above the town square. We caught a tiny fish in the river and placed it in a bowl. The bowl sat and the fish began to suffocate. So, one day we ran desperately beck to the river and threw the fish back. I don't know if it survived but the memory of the incident has. The summer was idyllic for us, no bombs. We went on the Charabanc, a single decker bus, to Harrogate where we saw "Bambi" The little deer's life seemed to mirror mine. I loved his friends, Flower and Thumper. Thumper was my favourite because he knew Bambi was twitter-pated. At St. Ann's in Tolworth I had begun to notice girls. Bambi was twitter-pated by Feline. It was a condition I desired and when i acquired it, I carried with me for the longest time. Perhaps, I still believe in it. Bambi's mother was like my Mummy, a gentle loving shield and protection. I was horrified when she was killed by the hunter and Bambi was left with his father. It horrified me to imagine what it would be like if I was stuck with Jim. He was much like the stern distant buck of the movie. I cried all the way back to Ripon and could not be consoled.
Early in 1944, Jim became a motorcycle dispatch rider in preparation for D Day. His uniform now included Jodhpurs for riding the motor bike. These didn't arrive so he was forced to use uniform pants. He arrived one evening with a pair of pants and scraps of leather and asked my mother to help him by inserting leather patches into the knees of the pants to allow him to bend his knees more easily. She cut a hole in each leg and sowed the patches in. Jim took the trousers back to camp and boasted about his English wife's skill until he tried them on. The men laughed. He couldn't bend his legs. He had wanted Mummy to slit the legs and insert a large patch in each making the legs bigger. Instead, she cut a hole in each leg, threw the material away and filled each hole with leather leaving the pants slightly tighter than before. He found this humorous but my mother did not. It took a long time for her to understand what she had done wrong. Jim was punished most. He lost the one military seamstress he had. One evening shortly afterwards, he was involved in a serious accident on a public road when a drunken civilian driver struck him at speed . The kick-starter of the motorcycle went right through his calf. His injuries were life-threatening and he never fully recovered. Still, the accident probably saved his life as he was unable to take part in the June 6 landings. He was definitely slated to go even with consideration for his age, which had intervened when he was transferred and held in reserve when the First Division went to the Italian Campaign the year before.
On the 10th of July 1943, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division took part in Operation Husky: the invasion of the island of Sicily. Jim wanted to go to Sicily but he was denied the experience of the longest and toughest campaign that took the First Division from Pachino to Ortona. The devastating campaign fought by Jim's comrades fell quickly into the shadows cast by Operation Overlord. My stepfather was both insensitive and brutal but he was no coward. He bitterly mourned the loss of his second opportunity to experience combat first hand. The Normandy Invasion was an awful experience for so many. So many lives were lost. The stark reality of war struck home. Jim's best friend was a man of similar age. Sergeant Willwand. Willwand was lucky enough to have his son assigned to the same company. They went to France together. They were in the second or third wave to land. Two days later, they were walking together when Willwand stepped on a mine that went off and killed them both instantly. Jim wept when he heard.