Friday, November 9, 2012

War Child

Growing up in Canada,  I have been very fortunate to not have to had experience war on my home soil, though to think that I've never been affected by war would be an incorrect assumption.
Not for a moment am I trying to compare myself to those children who have had the horrific experience of growing up in a war zone, thankfully, my experience is far from that.
However, because of the experiences of my parents and grandparents I've always been acutely aware of what life was like during the war years for them.

My brothers and I are all first generation Canadians, with the rest of my family all hailing from Britain.
Both of my parents grew up during World War II, so for them to recall almost any childhood memory without making some reference to the war is nearly impossible.

The now famous phrase from the 1939 war poster that read, Keep Calm and Carry On, though not that well known at the time,  was very much the sentiment of how my family members lived.  Their phrase was more, 'we just got on with it', and I guess when you live through a 6 year war, that's what you need to do.  World War II was from 1939-1945 and as my father was born in 1932 and my mum in 1933, they were both old enough to remember and be affected by many of the concessions imposed by the war.

Probably one of the biggest adjustments for my father was being sent away from his parents.  He grew up in Greater London, one of ten children.  As London was obviously one of the main bombing targets, it was deemed safer for children to be sent to live with families in what was considered safer areas.   Not all of the children went, but apparently my father had an extra hard time adjusting to the chaos that became common in London, so he was sent to Wales.  In a different country, away from his parents and siblings, it had to be a difficult trade off.

My mum, her brother and parents all immigrated to Canada in 1953 so I grew up hearing more stories about the war from the Welsh perspective rather than the English experience.
Rationing was imposed in 1939 and wasn't completely lifted until 1954, well after the war had ended, so this aspect of the war was a constant in the family conversations.  Although, the odd time it was discussed as a 'lesson' for us, more often than not it was just brought up as part of regular reminiscing of times gone by.  I was always a pretty quiet kid, but I took in all of the information as I listened to their stories.  '2 ounces of butter for a week, not much you can do with that, you had to get creative'....things that we take for granted today, like the simple ability to make your child a birthday cake, just wasn't a possibility.  Aside from food rations, there were also rations on clothing, soap, petrol, paper and many household goods were simply not available.  This alone changed the way everyone had to live.  The stories that I heard made me aware that this war was not just fought on the front lines, each and every citizen had a part to play in the war effort.
Although Wales was a somewhat safer place to be, it certainly did not go untouched.  My mum tells the story of how her family and a group of friends were at the cinema in Cardiff watching Humpty Dumpty when the cinema was bombed.  My grandfather wanted to stay in the theatre feeling that it was safer than heading out of the building, but soldiers forced everyone out and into a street shelter, which my mum describes as a concrete room underground that was so cold that many of the people fainted.

Seemingly straight out of a movie, they also had a spy living next door!  My mum recalls him as a 'nosey old bugger, who seemed a bit odd', while they were in their bomb shelter worried, he, his wife and brother in-law were in the adjacent shelter calmly eating bread and cheese and enjoying a beer!  He ran a radio shop in town and always asked a lot of questions, eventually he was arrested and my mum and her friends watched him being taken away in handcuffs - exciting stuff for kids!! Equally fun for the kids, was the activity of collecting shrapnel after a bombing.  She admits, 'we didn't really think about the fact that people were possibly killed as a result of these bombings, for us kids, it was just a game'.

The air raid sirens, bombings, rations, blackouts, giving up spare pots and pans, iron gates and other spare metal to make ammunition, evacuations, all just part of everyday life during this time.  Which in comparison to those actually fighting the war, was just a small sacrifice, but it did make it a war that all people dealt with.  Every time my nan would ask me to pick up an elastic band she'd spot on the ground, I knew it was a throw back to the war, she'd say, 'you never know when that will come in handy'....when she would keep the styrofoam trays that meat came on, that she'd wash and use to put under house plants, I knew it also was a result of the war.  If it was usable, it was simply not wasted.  The war, although terrible, taught them some valuable life don't waste things, you don't take anything for granted, when bad times hit you deal with it, and when there's a breather from the chaos, you take that time to enjoy life.  You can't live in the sorrow, deal with the sadness and keep going.

All of these stories and lessons have greatly influenced my life and for that, I am grateful.  I never forget the men and women who sacrificed their lives, so that my family would have freedom.  I never feel a sense of entitlement, I know in many ways, I live the life I do, because others have given me the opportunity to do so.  My very humble way of saying thank you to those who made things so much easier for me, is to never forget.  World War II has never seemed like ancient history to me, it has always been a part of my life and part of my history, even though I was born 22 years after it ended.
This is my ode to all of those men and women who have served in the military and who have worked so hard to ensure our freedom.  It is also an ode to the wives and husbands of those service people who held down the fort on the home front and lastly to all of the civilians who've contributed whatever they could to ensure the war effort had a successful outcome.  I think in many ways the war was won by spirit and determination, the knowledge that losing, was simply not an option.

Churchill said it best -

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.