By Jean James
“In memory of my father, Ernest Hamlett, and thousands like him. May Veterans who read this story find healing in doing so, and may those have not been affected by war, or who glorify it, learn how it affects people’s life forever. Thank you to all those who fought so that we could have peace of mind.”
“Blackcurrant jam.” he breathed. “I used to dream of blackcurrant jam.” Returning from his misty-eyed reverie, the old man turned to his son-in-law and continued, “When I was a prisoner of war, we were starving you see. I used to sleep on my stomach to offset the hunger pains and, when I fell asleep, I would dream of blackcurrant jam – homemade, spread thickly on great doorsteps of homemade white bread. Funny that, isn’t it? You can be starving to death – not a thing to eat, miles from home, not knowing if you’ll live or die, and all you can think about is blackcurrant jam.”
On the mantelpiece over the fire stood a picture of the old man, taken when he was twenty-three. Three years later, he would be conscripted into World War II. That he had been handsome was undisputed by all, but the portrait photographer had gilded the lily by touching up his lips and cheeks with an artificial blush pink. He had wavy hair and a fresh, innocent face, and the portrait photographer had decided his eyes should be turquoise blue.
Now he was nearing his eighty-fifth birthday. Now he was shrunken and bald, with an odd clump of white whiskers here and there that he had missed when he was shaving. His painted turquoise eyes were now a blue-grey, half hidden by the lines and wrinkles on his face and, often, their distant expression suggested he was, as they say in Scotland, “away with the fairies”. His daughter thought she would scream if she heard the story about the blackcurrant jam one more time. She looked at the lost little old man who had once been the tall, strong hero of her childhood, and was filled with sadness to see what Alzheimer’s Disease was doing to him.
His elderly wife sat knitting in the easy chair by the fire. How much more could she handle by herself? Once fastidious and immaculately dressed, he now had to be pushed into washing and shaving, and his questions were incessant and repetitious. “Where did I put my hat?” he would ask, out of the blue. “I told you before, it’s in the bedroom.” she would reply gently, her heart grieving for the loss of the man she once knew. “Oh, yes. That’s right.” he always replied, and then a sad, far away expression would appear on his face, as he realized, once again, that there was something wrong with his memory. “It’s so sad,” his wife would whisper to her daughter “Because he knows something’s wrong with his mind. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t actually realize that something was wrong.”
His daughter often wondered if, in fact, he had already lost his mind by the time he returned from the War. How her parents had ever stayed together for fifty-eight years never ceased to amaze her. They were engaged to be married when he was called up to fight for England. He was twenty-six and she twenty-three. Perhaps they felt that, by some miracle, marriage would ensure his safe return. So they were married during the Blitz on Manchester in 1940, returning home after an overnight honeymoon to a bombed out house, leaving them with nothing but the suitcases in their hands, and the clothes they stood up in. However, it seemed that marriage did ensure his safe return. But the daughter questioned whether or not a wartime marriage had been wise. Years of separation had weakened the relationship, and deposited a skeleton on her mother’s front doorstep. “An eighty-five pound stranger knocking on your door in the middle of the night, clutching an American Red Cross parcel, and rambling on about the bar of soap it contained, was hardly the basis on which to begin a marriage.” she thought.
Declared “Missing in Action”, there had been no news of him for six months, despite his wife’s constant communications with the War Office. Then, one day, someone at work told her they had heard his name read out on the radio by ‘Lord Haw Haw’ as being one of many prisoners of war located. But ‘Lord Haw Haw’ often gave out wrong information provided to him by the Germans, and the War Office had told her not to believe it. When he finally did return home, thin and pitiful, he couldn’t eat even a hardboiled egg without his stomach blowing out like a barrage balloon. She nursed him then, as she nursed him now. Then, after she had nursed him back to health, the Army took him back and sent him to war again.
“Oh, God, how could she have stuck it during those years?” thought the daughter. She pitied both of them as she thought of what the years had done. The old man cried now, often and spontaneously. Any reminiscing about the war years produced a flood of tears. He was in the British First Airborne Division, First Battalion, Border Regiment. The brand new uniforms, with their red berets and winged Pegasus insignia, had caused a stir on the streets of England. “They must be Frenchies”, the people would whisper. The Airborne Division was brand, spanking new. The people had never seen uniforms like that on their lads before. He had been one of over ten thousand flown into Holland by gliders under cover of the dark night skies. Just lads they were, most of them. Kids of eighteen, nineteen, twenty. They called them the ‘Red Devils’. This was ‘Operation Market Garden’. Mission: to capture a bridge. Arnhem, September 17, 1944. Only two thousand one hundred and sixty three of them returned.
It was there that the old man had descended by glider into the deep black void of the night. A black hole. It was there he had been hit on the leg by a mortar bomb. The bomb had failed to explode, and had left him with only a broken ankle. He fixed up the ankle with a dead man’s boot. He didn’t speak of that for over forty years. (How could he tell anyone he had taken the boot from a dead man?). He had been taken prisoner, and sent down the lead mines to work at 4.00 a.m. each day, with his broken ankle and the dead man’s boot. The choice had been simple – no work, no food. So it was there in Germany, in Stallag XI B, that he had dreamt of the blackcurrant jam. He had had many other experiences he didn’t speak of all these years. He couldn’t. They were just too terrible to remember, most of them. So he bottled them all up for over fifty years. Now the cork kept popping out of the bottle. Now, only now, the tears flowed.
“During the War, we landed at Arnhem in Holland”, the old man would commence, for no apparent reason, other than he had just remembered it, “We went there in gliders. While I was there, I was hit on the leg by a mortar bomb. But it didn’t go off. I was lucky. Then we saw this German soldier. He had a gun, and we thought he was going to kill us but, instead, do you know what he said to us? In perfect English, he said ‘The war’s over for you, Tommy’. That’s what they called us, ‘Tommies’. That’s what they called British soldiers. ‘The War’s over for you, Tommy’. Yes, that’s what he said. In perfect English too. I’ll never forget that. ‘The War’s over for you, Tommy’.
But, of course, the War was never over for this Tommy and thousands like him who had to live with the memories of the daily horrors for the rest of their lives. What the old man lacked in short term memory was compensated for by his long term memory, bridging the gap, so to speak, between what he couldn’t remember and what he couldn’t forget. The bridge he went to capture had captured him, physically, mentally and emotionally. A captured soldier, a captured mind, and a captured life. No, the War never did end for ‘Tommy’. His long term memory kept it alive, just as his short term memory was killing his ability to function socially, mentally, physically and emotionally. A backfiring car would make him shake, just as he did when the bombs exploded on the battlefields. He couldn’t control it now. Not like he used to. He had never been able to climb a ladder or look over a cliff. Not since the War. Not since the gliders. No, he couldn’t stand heights. Not now.
And he couldn’t stand the memories now either. Memories of his buddies with their guts and brains strewn all over the battlefield, only weeks after he had met their little children. Children without fathers now. The faces of the children haunted him. He had given them chocolate. Chocolate was precious. You got it in your army rations. But chocolate was for children, so he gave it willingly and lovingly. He remembered how their faces had lit up when he gave it to them. But not in the same way as their fathers’ faces had lit up, in the light of exploding bombs and grenades and machine gun fire. No, not that way….but, somehow, the two faces were mingled together now, bridged together – connected always, like life and death.
Memories of the sights, sounds and stench of the battlefields of Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and all the places he had been during his six long years of military service, appeared in his mind’s eye like a giant Technicolor screen. An epic movie played out before him: tanks and camels, children and chocolate, Lord Montgomery, Winston Churchill, blackcurrant jam. German workers taking pity on the living skeleton and giving him dry black bread in the prison camp, risking their own lives. Adolf Hitler singing “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover”, and Arab children shouting “Biscuit, Johnny!”, and running after the soldiers in the hope of receiving some of their rations. Boys offering their sisters to the soldiers, bombs exploding, jeeps capsizing, mud, excrement, blood, and urine. A bottle of vino, a tin of sardines, a piece of cheese and some bread. Campaign medals and red berets….and head lice. And Vera Lynn and Rommel singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary”. And it was. “The War’s over for you, Tommy”, perfect English, German soldiers, “ATTACH BAYONETS!”. Blackcurrant jam, the dead man’s boot, and a Red Cross parcel with a bar of soap, a towel and a shaving kit….from the Americans.
“Yet, through all of this,” a fighting buddy had told his wife, some time after the War, “I could never have wished to fight beside a braver and more considerate man than your husband. Side by side we were, all through the War, looking out for each other -and he never let me down as a friend or as a soldier. He always had a smile and a joke to share and a kind word for everyone. His humour carried us a long way throughout that War.” And even now, under attack again – from the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease this time – his humour had survived, and his jokes and antics, his funny little songs and his friendly demeanor carried through the day all those with whom he came into contact.
After the War, the lads had simply been ‘demobbed’. No psychiatric treatment. Nothing. Just ‘demobbed’, and sent back into society, with all the good jobs already taken by the conscientious objectors and the men who had been too old, too young, or too infirm for military service, or the ones who had been needed at home “for the war effort”. He had to start all over again, with his job, his marriage and his life. His relationship with his wife had taken a rocky road. Bickering and disagreements seemed to haunt them throughout their marriage. She even left him once – for a weekend – only returning home for the sake of the two children, but she wouldn’t leave him now – not for anything. He needed her now. Ironically, she realized now that he had always needed her. She had to be the strong one now, watching his slow but sure mental deterioration rob them of the pitifully few years they had left together.
Six years before, he had returned to the battlefields at Arnhem, taking his wife, and traveling in a group organized by the old parachute regiment. It was the first time he had ever been back there. It had surprised the family that he was going as, all the time they had known him, he had never even been able to watch the Remembrance Day services on T.V., let alone go back to a scene of horror. It seemed strange that he couldn’t bear to watch the Remembrance Day services, as it seemed he had hardly ever spoken about anything except the war. But, on reflection now, the family could see that he had never spoken about the really personal things – the things that really hurt – like the time that his best friend had been blasted into a million bloody pieces and strewn all over the trench. Or the time that the Germans loaded them into cattle trucks, squished in like sardines in a can, and they were so thirsty and dehydrated they had to drink their own urine….no, he didn’t talk about that. Not about the things that might make him break down and let others know the fear, the terrible, gripping, stinking fear that he had felt every day for six long years. No, those are the things you hide away into some deep, dark part of you and don’t touch. The void. The black hole. The things you bottle up inside. Like blackcurrant jam.
On the revisit to Arnhem, the old soldiers had sported their best black blazers with regimental insignia depicting a winged parachute, embroidered in gold and silver thread on the breast pockets. They had polished up their medals, and wore their red berets and their regimental ties with the Pegasus motif. Every year, the Dutch people open up their homes to the British heroes who sacrificed so much in their efforts to liberate Holland. That particular year, the old man was among those honored. As the aged gentlemen were loaded into open cars and paraded through the streets, the doors of the houses were thrown open by cheering citizens, honoring the elderly heroes. “We’re not going again.” his wife told the daughter and son-in-law one day. “It was just too much. Dad never stopped crying. And our hosts, the Dutch people with whom we were staying, took Dad to the military graveyard, where he was reduced to tears again, and became totally uncontrollable by all accounts. No, we’re not going again. I’ve hidden the notice they sent him about this year’s trip. We’re not going again. I can’t cope.”
So he wouldn’t be going again, the old man. He wouldn’t be honored again. It had been decided for him. Everything was decided for him now – what to wear and where to go. It was hard for him to decide for himself, you see, because he couldn’t remember now. He couldn’t remember where his hat was, or where he was, or where he was going. He could only remember where he had been, over fifty years ago, and who had been with him, and who hadn’t come home – and why. He could only remember the fear and the horror and the stench of the trenches – the daily horrors that the universe had metered out to him like the meager food rations metered out by the army; the rations with chocolate and biscuits for pink-faced English children and little brown-faced Arabs. Children. Children without fathers. He could only remember the War, and an empty belly. He could only remember dreaming of homemade blackcurrant jam, spread thickly on great doorsteps of homemade white bread, and a German soldier telling him, “The War’s over for you, Tommy.”