“I just visited an old peoples’ home as part of the museum’s work to encourage the elderly to open up a little. Completely new to it and I broke the ice well after sharing a town we grew up in, with a man called John (name changed). Had NO idea about him, but he seemed to want to talk so I pulled up a chair and we both got a tea.
I later found out (and I just let John do all the talking at his own pace) that he was born in 1923, so getting on to be a century old. He was sitting comfortably and his liver spotted skin was stretched over a quite obvious skeleton, but he was far from fragile. Clean shaven and whisps of straight cut white hair, he had milky yellowed eyes with piercing tiny pupils over pink watery eyelids.
And he laughed well. He said quite early that wherever he’s been and whatever situation he’s been in, he’d never been scared and always found a way to laugh.
I pulled my chair closer as he was quite quietly spoken, and just listened. I had no idea what he was going to say, but wanted to remain the listener regardless. He also had a habit of poking me in the shoulder when he wanted to stress something, in a “mark my words” kind of way. So knew he cared a lot for the memories he was sharing at those times.
There is no way I can express what he told me because this is me now writing this, but here are a few things I learned from John in over an hour….
We spoke about Margate and how as a boy he’d managed to get into grammar school. He had vivid memories of his science teacher, Mr Bill Thack summoning him to his study after a violent and out of control pea shooter incident. Within which, John soon found out he had an interest in physics and discussed a theory with a dynamo engine attached to an electric one to help recharge it. I’m no physicist, but John explained that most vehicles and tanks later used this method during the war. In fact he hinted he had had something to do with this, but never dwelled. He then moved on with quite a few things to say on the war. I knew he wanted to because he’d started holding my shoulder.
Yesterday I was told it was important to maintain eye contact – something I don’t easily do, but I was now locked. Oh the depth of his eyes. They were tired eyes.
“Never ask a man who’s been in a war if he’s killed anyone. Christ I’ve seen some things…”
His eyes were alive. “I found a lad once. German. He was dying. People always say we hated each other. No we didn’t. And all I could think of was somewhere back home his mother was writing to him without knowing he was with me dying. Christ! I knew this because MY mother wrote to me!!!”
He didn’t say anymore on how he’d left the German. But he suddenly poked my shoulder repeatedly hard – “OLD MEN FIGHT WARS! – NOT US YOUNG BOYS – I WAS ONLY 19! Someday I hope children will learn about wars in school and find it incomprehensible we used to kill each other.” He said this as though he truly believed the World will end up peaceful. Maybe.
“We always meet one or two people in our early lives who make us what we are.”
He served a lot in Burma and spoke of Hiroshima, and also of the Navy.
Once while in the Far East – he heard Vera Lynn sing “White Cliffs of Dover.” He got excited when he told me this – “I cried. She came over afterwards and asked me why, and I told her I was born in Dover. You see none of us ever expected to come back. I’ll tell you something – when I got back to this sceptred isle, I told myself a promise. I’d NEVER leave this island again. EVER. People moan too much here.
He then spoke to me about music, and how his passion for maths and physics inspires him to find relationships in pitch with writing it. A bit lost on me, but he does that in his spare time now.
It was about this point that his son turned up and explained he should have gone out with them 40 min ago, and they’d been looking all over for him! Hehe!!! We both looked at each other as if we were both in trouble.
“Oh I’ll get it now!” And he thanked me for listening and I left him to it.
And I was awed!!! I had heard memories of someone’s life which had truly humbled me. And I thought, and I think John knew this too, that at the end of the day, what do we have left but our stories, and what can we do with them except share, because they matter to us. He’d said earlier on there aren’t many now that could tell me some of these things and he’s right. That was the only time I really spoke back when I told him I could now tell my kids – and you the reader – what he’d just told me, and that, I believe, is why I listened. I lost the chance with my own grandparents and dad.
It won’t be long now before John won’t be able to tell anyone these things, so I feel really privileged.
At 94 he has an enormous energy in him which rubs off.
Thank you John.”