'A moment in time with two little Girls...

Barrie David - Independent Author

 

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    In the wee small hours, when the house fills with a unique silence that is almost tangible, slumbering peacefully beside me is my wife Elly. It took a ten minute coffee break to realize I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. That was thirty seven years ago. Notwithstanding the rare occasional barney, we’ve been extremely happy together. We think it’s getting serious…

    These days the slightest thing awakens me, usually it’s Bill, our black Lab wanting go outside. When I get him sorted, return to bed, and sleep evades me, combined with excellent memory and visual recall I entwine my fingers behind my head for the screen of my mind’s eye to fill with a waiting tapestry of yesterday’s now amounting to seventy two years.

   In your twilight years you can’t help noticing how time seems to rush passed faster than ever. The tin foil strip of medication, meant to last a month, appears to empty mere days after you open it. Old films on the television remind you the host of movie stars you grew up with, Mitchum and Mature, Alan Ladd, John Wayne and the eternal Marilyn, are long gone along with an army of television stars. If you still have a sense of humour, you remind yourself not to buy any long playing records.

As advancing years bring reflection on the highs and lows of your life, the laughter and the tears, the times when what seemed idyllic became disaster, there is always a singular experience, an event lasting only a fleeting moment that was so intensely life changing it endures in your very soul. Such a moment came many years ago and lingers with awesome clarity to this day. It revolves around two little girls, one Jewish, the other African. Well worthy of note is a brief chronicle of events leading up to, and after it…

     In the mid 1950’s I failed the notoriously selective eleven plus examination where six years of Secondary Modern state education led to a twenty minute test that effectively squandered the academic progression of untold legions of British working class children. Never at any time during this ‘education’ do I recall being told how the country was governed, or the difference between a Tory and a Socialist. It was the system that failed, not its children. Having said that, as I look back my boyhood was everything a boyhood should be. At a time when glorious summer sunshine began in May and ended in September, wearing only underpants and a sheath knife tied around my waist with a length of string, I learned to swim in the local river. Boy's in that era loved being in the woods making bows and arrows, catapults and peashooters from reeds which left a rash around your mouth as we fired small berries through them. We of course all wore a homemade Davy Crockett hat. Unforgettable...

   At age fifteen I left school and foolishly, but confidently decided to take on the world. Leaving home and living in a bedsit in Cardiff docks, then called Tiger Bay, I discovered all there is to know about violence and abject terror when I became a victim of both. One year later, I was shaving my terminally ill father, who, God bless him, survived hazardous convoys to Murmansk only to die at age fifty two weighing a mere four stone. These consecutive traumas vanquished whatever confidence I had leaving in their wake an ingrained fearful timidity set to haunt me for years to come.

    On a happier note, and in stark contrast, I easily envisage the birth of my daughter from my first marriage, who began life as a howling purple bundle handed to me by a gruff midwife with curt but unnecessary instructions not to drop her. In terms of laugher I review in startling detail scenarios of falling down hilarity such as being an extra in a movie starring Peter Sellers where, dressed as an Arab with a black beard and carrying a ridiculously long wooded rifle I was biting my lip and desperately trying not to laugh when a huge Panavision camera turned in my direction. For this fleeting stab at Hollywood fame, which happened in Cyprus, I was paid the princely sum of five pounds. How I love to watch that time when the huge petrol powered lawnmower I was meant to control ran off and chewed up, effectively ravaged the perfectly laid surface of a bowling green leaving a three feet wide tank track in its wake and panic stricken Laurel and Hardy antics when myself and the man I was with frantically attempted to conceal it left by stamping bits of turf over it. My boss at the time, intent on sacking us, was so amused when I cracked up relaying the story to him we kept our jobs.

    If I want to change from humour to more adventurous aspects of my life I can easily draw on many hairy episodes during my six years in the Parachute Regiment Reserve Forces who, via a selection course designed to wear out a mule, trained me to control fear for such hairy James Bond mileage as a night descent into the desert laden with a one hundred and ten pound jump container followed by a sweltering twenty six mile incursion into the interior where two distant tiny black specks in a sea of sand was the rendezvous with our pick-up trucks. During a free fall course at Netheravon, along with reservist SAS troopers and Royal Marine Commando's, we would climb out onto the port wing of a De Havilland Rapide Bi-plane circling at 2,600 feet and step back to parachute off it. Parachuting into the sea is far from jump, plop, get picked up and go for a beer. Landing in water while still attached to a parachute means the canopy will fill with air and drag you along beneath the surface where you will almost certainly be entangled in the rigging lines. To overcome this the RAF trained us to undo the harness while still hundreds of feet in the air and sit in it, hanging on for dear life while floating down to then jump clear of the entire rig as the sea comes rushing up. I recall keeping my red beret perfectly dry in a plastic bag inside my shorts. This chilling bit of mileage has a thought provoking PS. Two days later we ‘dropped’ into our own back yard at Hankly Common near Aldershot where HM Custom’s officers said ‘Welcome home lad’s’ as they charged each man fifty pence duty on bottles of Bacardi and Whisky well-padded inside our jump containers to survive the landing. Petty state robbery I still refer to as 'Pennies from heaven’.

    During almost four decades together Elly and I have travelled to most of Europe, China, Russia, and particularly America. I love to peruse our helicopter flight into the Grand Canyon for a picnic followed by the un-nerving comment from the pilot we could wander down to the mighty Colorado River, but to ‘keep an eye open for rattlersnakes?’ I won't relate here how I once came literally within a blink of being nailed by a scorpion, or woke up in a tent assumed to be crawling with them...

On further visits across the pond I see myself gazing down with moist eyes at Elvis's grave in Graceland. In my 1950’s schooldays, when Elvis emerged to rock the world, every boy I ever knew wanted him for an older brother. More recently we were in New York where an amazing day of sightseeing consisted of laying flowers at the 911 memorial, ‘riding’ the horrendously noisy subway to Times Square, then exploring from one end to the other a 1950’s nuclear submarine on the Hudson River and the Aircraft Carrier ‘Intrepid’ berthed beside it.

   I consider myself very fortunate to still have the marbles to review what to date has been an innings of immense variation, yet my reflections always turn to what happened with those two little girls. The opening scene never changes. It’s a glorious mid-Summer afternoon in 1976. Along with three of my mates, all paratroopers, we’re ‘swanning’ around the German countryside in an open backed Land-Rover when we come upon Belsen Concentration Camp and immediately pull over.

   Preceding the entrance to the camp a small museum displays horrendously graphic photographs and a diagram depicting the vast railway network that transported millions of men women and children to similar camps for state sponsored slaughter.  A scratchy, black and white film shows a bulldozer pushing hundreds of emaciated bodies into mass graves. One picture that held my rapt attention showed a girl about ten years old standing behind a barbed wire enclosure. Dressed in black and white stripped prison garb she gazed at whoever took the picture with haunted eyes that had undoubtedly witnessed unspeakable horror. Leaving the museum I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

    Entering the camp itself we fully expected to see countless rows of dilapidated wooden huts and endless barbed wire perimeter fences with long abandoned guard towers. Instead, we saw several acres of open grassland deceivingly appearing to be more of a tranquil inner city park than the site of a former concentration camp. Then, blending almost unnoticed in the overall terrain, we saw the first mass grave, a large mound protruding a few feet above ground level enclosed on all sides by stone wall. A plaque at the end of the wall states how many thousand people are estimated to be buried there. Looking around at identical mounds randomly dotted far and wide instantly numbs your ability to believe or begin to comprehend what you are witnessing.

The moment endures forever...  

   The paths within the site all converge on a memorial area where high remembrance obelisks donated by several countries when the war ended seem to point toward the heavens like a row of accusing condemning fingers. Even more stark is a curved immense marble arch in which are chiseled the words. ‘It must never happen again’. Then, something incredible happened. In nearby trees I watched two small birds noisily chirping as they chased each other from bough to bough. It’s a fallacy that birds never sing in places like Belsen. What they don’t do is bring any of their usual joy to challenge the blend of utter despair and sheer outrage that lingers in the very air. With all conversation during this chance visit spoken in respectful incredulous whispers, we walked back to the Land-Rover in abject collective silence.

   Several days later, after completing grueling maneuver’s where a random two hours sleep at any given time was the norm, hundreds of British reserve and regular Para’s lounged around Hanover International Airport waiting for RAF Hercules Transports to bring us home. To catch up on what was happening in the UK I bought a newspaper stating Britain was in the grip of a fierce heatwave leading to reservoirs drying up and the prospect of water being rationed with standpipes in the streets. The Government were borrowing its maximum entitlement of 3.9 billion pounds from the International Monetary Fund to prop up Sterling. Nationwide Trade Union militancy would lead one year later to the Winter of Discontent, where the quickest way for any British worker to end up in the dole queue was to dare question or challenge the bullying all-pervasive might of the Closed Shop and then be defined as a 'freeloader' by a leading Labour politician. Contemptuous of how this blight on an otherwise fine movement effectively suppressed individuality, for the first time in my life found myself in the dole queue. (That ‘senior politician’ is currently a multi-millionaire).

    As I was about to close the newspaper and pass it on to the nearest soldier, I saw a small picture in the middle pages showing a little African girl roughly ten years old. Skeletal, with protruding ribs and huge sunken eyes, beneath her image a beseeching caption read. ‘Two pounds can keep this child alive for another two weeks’. The only difference between her and the girl I’d seen days earlier in Belsen was that she wasn’t wearing stripped prison garb. Forty one years later, after centuries of horrendous conflict, as Europe purports to be united, yet in reality tears itself apart on the altar of individual national interests, children exactly like those two little girls appear in our living rooms every time we turn on our televisions. More so when I awaken and reflect on my life experiences in the wee small hours of my twilight years.

Barrie David. Author ‘Dormant Courage’

Belsen narrative abridged from Chapter 21 entitled. ‘The Brutality of the Swan’

Hohne. West Germany. Mid-summer. 1976. www.barriedavid.com

Postscript. March 2017.  

In a recent BBC news bulleting a United Nations spokesman commented how the world faces the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War with twenty million people in danger of imminent demise through starvation. He could well have added...   'In modern times, where millions take for granted owning such wondrous things as a hand held computer that can send words and pictures across the globe in mere seconds, the world could be a fabulous place for everyone were it not dominated by the lust for power and religious differences that are more prevalent than ever. What have we learned? Where, in real terms have we actually progressed from the words chiseled into that marble arch in Belsen saying... 

 ‘It must never happen again’     

Barrie David.