Different generations, different wars, same tragedies
‘You know I don’t drink Martin, why d’you offer it me lad?’
‘Because I’m celebrating Granddad…….’
I cut him off sharply ‘It was yer eighteenth last week Martin, surely you’ve done enough celebrating by now?‘ He’d obviously drunk a bit although he wasn’t drunk, just excited.
‘Granddad I’ve joined the army, I’ve been accepted and I go next Monday.’
His face was lit up like a beacon he looked so pleased with himself. I felt a surge of apprehension but not surprise, Martin had always been army mad. He’d hero worshipped me since childhood though god alone knows why. I’d done nothing special, just a couple of minor wars and peacekeeping operations.
‘That’s grand Martin’ I said trying to sound enthusiastic, ‘what do your parents think?’
He waved his half consumed six pack around vaguely ‘I haven’t told ‘em yet Granddad’ he hesitated looking sly ‘I was keeping it as a surprise.’
‘You mean you want me to tell ’em for you, yer little bugger.’
He blushed looking embarrassed ‘they’d take it better from you Granddad.’
‘Yes Martin but I’m not going to, OK? The army will throw many challenges at you lad, you’ve got to learn to handle your own shit’ he nodded knowing I was right.
‘OK Granddad I’ll do it tonight’ he then changed the subject abruptly ‘Grandma says that you used to really like your beer when you were in Malaya Granddad, she said you liked Tiger beer best. She said when you came back from Borneo you’d changed.’
‘Yer Grandma talks too damn much’ I snapped ‘I just got fed up with drinking that’s all.’
‘So why do you never say anything about what you did in Borneo Granddad? Why do you always say that same silly rhyme “It was long ago and far away and better told on another day?”
I sighed feeling guilty for not being honest with him. Now that he’d joined up it might be as well he knew the truth though it seared my soul even to think of it.
He came and put his arm around my shoulder ‘Granddad I’m sorry’ he said ‘I don’t want to upset you but all this mystery is killing me.’
‘Sit down Martin’ says I ‘It‘s time you knew. It might stand you in good stead one day.’
He took the chair opposite his beer now forgotten, all his attention on me. How much should I tell? I decided he should know the whole story then there’d be no more secrets between us.
‘Before we went to Borneo Martin we were sent to Brunei to a town called Kuala Belait, there’d been a spot of bother you see. We took over a school and an old Post Office as a patrol base. We did five days of patrols followed by one day off.’ I felt a breathlessness as the pain in my chest worsened and I stopped talking.
Martin pressed me impatiently ‘what happened Granddad? Please tell.’
‘Beer was rationed to two cans a day when it was available. I looked forward to mine more than most. One day, on my day off, a local chap came around selling arrack, a locally distilled spirit. It tastes like the wrath of god and is as powerful, too.’ I blurted, wanting to get it over with now ‘I’d bought a bottle before the Sergeant Major kicked the guy off base. That night I sneaked away to the far end of the compound. I drank the lot. At dawn I couldn’t be aroused for my patrol. When I did finally awake the medical officer was standing over me looking grim.’
Martin looked mystified ‘we all get drunk and do daft things Granddad’ he said a big ‘so what?’ in his voice.
‘Not on active service Martin, I was a stupid, selfish, immature kid. You see Martin I was the patrol’s signaller, the radio sets in those days were temperamental and needed specialist know-how. My best mate Paul ‘Jonno’ Johnson gave up his day off to cover for me. Later, when I was a little better, I went into the radio room because we were having difficulty raising the patrol. I did my best to no avail so a search patrol was organised.’ I paused, the memories still fresh and painful.
‘About two in the afternoon they came back in with the original patrol. There was something wrapped in groundsheets and tied to a pole being carried between four men.’
‘A body d’you mean? That’s awful Granddad couldn’t they…..’
‘No Martin, they couldn’t. It’s the only way to get a body out of the jungle. They tie hands and feet to a bamboo pole then tie up the head. Fastening the guy’s belt around the pole stops him sagging like an animal. It’s not dignified but it’s the best that can be done in the circumstances.’ My throat constricted now and tears started rolling down my cheeks but I was past caring.
‘It was Jonno wasn’t it Granddad.’
I nodded unable to speak. They had hit an ambush and the first shot had gone right through poor Johnson’s chest and smashed the radio on is back.
‘That should have been me on that pole Martin not Jonno. I’d let him down, I’d let my mates down and I’d let myself down. I swore I’d never touch a drink again Martin and I never have or ever will.’
Martin was stone cold sober now ‘what happened to Johnson Granddad? Did you get into a lot of trouble?’
‘We buried him out there, we did in those days. The one fortunate thing, if you can call it that, was that Jonno had been an orphan, he had no family to weep for him, poor lad, though god knows I wept enough. My company commander didn’t charge me I just lost my next four days off. He could see I was suffering a far worse punishment than the army could inflict on me. The lads were sympathetic, too, great lads all of ‘em, salt of the earth.’
‘I’ll learn that lesson Granddad’ he told me a sincere look on his young face ‘I’ll never let my mates down. Never’ he said it with such passion it scared me.
Martin’s back from Afghanistan now, he’s joined us all in the church where he was baptised. His coffin’s draped with the Union flag. The brave silly boy gave up his day off to replace one of his mates on patrol because the lad was ill. He saved his mates in an ambush that day although it cost him his life. They say they’re awarding him a medal.
Just before I collapsed I saw Jonno dressed in his Olive Greens standing by the coffin smiling at me ’it’s OK Russell’ he said ‘he’s with me. I’ll look after him for you mate.’
I’m in hospital now with wires and monitors all over me they say I had a severe heart attack but that I’ll make a good recovery. I don’t want to recover; I just want to join my hero.