Our Fathers that begat us

Since all of us are molded by our families in one way or another – even in the absence – I guess I should start at the beginning. As near the beginning as I remember. While most memories dim with time, I had the experience of one surfacing a few years ago.

I hardly remember my father, he went away to the war when I was just two years old. He never came back. He lies in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand after his body was moved to the permanent site from his original resting place at the Hintock River Camp. Those who remember the war movie, Bridge on the River Kwai, will know of the suffering and loss of life of about 13,000 prisoners of war and almost 100,000 local civilians who were forced to build the Burma Railway for the Japanese Army.

I learned, a few months back, that a Hintock River Camp still exists but now it’s a jungle tourist camp built on the site of the prisoner of war camp. The thought occurred to me that I could visit and stay at the camp – think about my father – but the contrast between the reality in war and the comfortable amenities now would be too hard to accept. I think I’ll pass.

I had one slight recollection of my father from an early age. I had some illness that resulted in my eyes closing, perhaps from some infectious disease. When they began closing, I called from a cot that seemed to have been located in the small living room, “Daddy. Open my eyes.” I don’t remember his ministrations, but he was a trained medic in the Airforce at the time, and had been a male nurse in a mental hospital in civilian life. He was probably a better nurse than my mother.

He was also a strong and enthusiastic swimmer and mother told me many times of how he would set me on his shoulders and take me swimming. On one occasion we were caught in an offshore current and he had to struggle mightily to get back to shore. That memory came to me years later in a dream. It was vivid, I could feel the warmth of his shoulders beneath my bottom, and sense the urgency of his effort to get us safely ashore. I have to wonder what other memories I have buried in this lump on my shoulders, and whether more will surface one day.

I remember an episode on a crowded wartime train when I was a bit older than a babe in arms. The corridor was packed with soldiers and I had an urgent need to go the toilet at the far end of the coach. My mother attempted to squeeze past the soldiers but they were too densely packed until one solved the problem. I was lifted and passed form soldier to soldier until I reached the one nearest the toilet – who took me inside and ensured the duty was done – and then passed me back along the chain to my mother.

I remember being woken in the night of one of the air raids on Exeter. I have a blurred mental image of the sky lit by flames and searchlights – and a bomber silhouetted against the glow as it dived toward the house on its way to escape to safety over the waters of the English Channel. I remember a small group of us children and mothers outside the Ship Inn when a low altitude air raid was made against the main railway line that passed the village. I can still see a crewman in a twin engined aircraft looking down at us, while we gaped up at the dark machine with its black cross markings – as it swept over our heads and was gone. Since the line past us was the most vulnerable stretch of track leading to the naval base at Plymouth and beyond, it was attacked several times. I recall hearing that the embankment was breached by bombs at least once, as well several trains being machine gunned as they passed along it.

I have told the story of the three small boys looking for spent ammunition on the air to ground firing range elsewhere; it’s longer, so will leave it for another time. The Liberty ship that ran aground in the estuary during a storm became a feature of the landscape for many years. Attempts to refloat it always failed but each winter a storm would move it. We would see it from our schoolyard and notice how the waves could always turn and shift it where the tugs had failed. It lasted there for many years and was only cut apart and salvaged down to the level of the mud sometime in the 60s.

That mud used to give us occasional treats back during wartime when some otherwise idle fisherman would spend a day digging cockles and winkles to boil in a bucket beside the harbour and see that all the villagers had a bent pin to pull the creatures out of the shells to enjoy their share.

After the war, that river estuary used to be a magnet for the fliers stationed at Exeter airfield. I can hear now the roar of two Merlin engines wide open as a Mosquito swept across the railway embankment, scant feet above the tracks.  I remember a Meteor screaming down the estuary and across our heads while I worked my first after-school job as deckchair attendant on the beach. That same summer I saw a very close shave for the crew of a Short Sturgeon, flying innocently along at a few hundred feet altitude, and buzzed by a Vampire trainer, the pilot of which pulled up from his dive so close to the nose of his target that they were a split second from a collision.

Well, those are a lot of reminiscences and I’d like to connect them to my writing. The place where I had Gisel’s people land for their first ground investigation in “Arrival” is set along that river estuary. The rescue of the Delphin takes place off the river’s mouth where I remember going on a mackerel fishing trip during the war. Kenstar, the name of the castle in Arrival is derived from the name of the villages near the actual Powderham Castle – Kenton and Starcross. I shifted the castle a bit and redesigned it to suit the story, so it sits in my world on the slight rise of land occupied by Powderham Church and its river gate cuts across the main line railway track that used to be a Luftwaffe target during WWII.

Not having a father in my life, I have made Gisel’s relationship with hers a sometimes troubled one as she struggles to assert her independence. I wonder if Cyril Hoare would have had as stormy a one if he’d made it back from the war and begun to exert his authority. I might have been guided away from many mistakes, but then, I’d never have learned a thing.

To finish up, I’ll post a photo of the village harbour of Cockwood, where I lived as a child. It looks it’s best here, with the tide in. With the tide out it deserves its local name, Cock’ood on the Mud.  This pic comes from Google Earth, so thanks for the memory.


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4 Responses to “Our Fathers that begat us”

  1. joylene Says:

    Nice tribute to your dad, Chris. And it was fascinating hearing your stories of life in England during the war. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like. Cockwood looks like a wondrous place to live, especially as a child. Thanks for sharing.

  2. natuursteen tegels Says:

    How did you make this template? I got a blog as well and my template looks kinda bad so people don’t stay on my blog very long :/.

  3. Arlen Kadi Says:

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  4. Sawatchmo Viesa Says:

    I think this is a wonderful blog. My Dad spoke of this website and I think it will turn into a weekly visit for me! Thanks for the fantastic post.

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