Sunday, November 2, 2008

Seasonal sadness

(My Grandfather, Arthur Holden Watson, as a private in the East Yorkshire's, a Kitchener Army training regiment, probably taken at or close to Hillsborough Barracks, Sheffield, spring 1917.)

Fall can be brutal.

Not the weather, the death of nature all around us. That's easy enough to deal with, although the colors and the falling leaves always contribute to my mood.

It's really the remembering that is hard.

This time of year, with less to do around the farm, a little time on my hands, and various anniversaries to help me, I can easily get caught up in remembrances.

It's perhaps a silly mood, very celtic, I think, but a whiff of coal smoke, a fragment of poetry or song, a photo, doesn't seem to matter what, but usually it's a song, and I suddenly realize that I'm an immigrant, in a strange country, and that all my people and their bones are somewhere else, and that somehow I've been lucky and had things in this strange country, like land, a farm, a house, a wife, an education, things I might otherwise take for granted that past generations of Womersleys and Watsons, and Sumys and Phillippis for that matter, particularly back in the old country, were routinely denied.

I start thinking about them, especially the men who served, and how hard it was for some of them, and how many of them there are in my family who served, and how disproportionate it is that my family served and suffered so much, when others, especially the wealthy who benefited from the British and American world hegemonies that our service ensured, in most cases did not, and do not, serve.

And now we have another war and some of the kids in my classes rotate in and out of their reservist, or National Guard, or regular service, and in and out of Iraq or Afghanistan.

My paternal grandfather (not the one in the photo) was in Iraq. In 1943.

What goes around, comes around.

This time is was Eric Bogle's And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda that brought it all back and nearly brought me to my knees.

Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Veteran's Day, call it what you will. It's part of me. I'm a former British airman, an aircraft engine fitter and RAF Mountain Rescue troop with nearly seven years in, who's really the last of a long line of British soldiers and airmen dating back to WW1 and before.

I have a lot of people to be grateful to, and to remember this next week:

Grandad, Arthur Holden Watson, British Army, WWI and II, including at least a year in the Northeast Fusiliers during the time of the second Marne (1918). A hell on earth. We don't know where he was or what he did, because he was so shattered by it, he never spoke about it. My sister and I are trying to find out through the National Records.

He went in again, for four years, as a way to survive the Great Depression. 1929-1934. We have those records.

Still on the reserves, incredibly he was drafted again at the age of forty in August 1939. According to the little he said, he was sent to London during the Battle of Britain and the first Blitz, to do heavy rescue from the rubble. Later he helped run the massive training base at Salisbury that contributed to the Normandy landings. We have these records too.

He served 6 years in WWII, 16 in all. He voted Labour and was an outspoken pacifist for much of his later life, despite his feeling that participating in WWII was his duty. He hated Hitler but made his own personal peace with the German people in the 1970s, taking a coach tour to meet some of them, German Great War veterans.

I doubt he would have participated in WWI, knowing what he later knew about war. And the ridiculous British and European class system that was the primary cause of the war and its prolonging. Lions led by donkeys.

He lived just long enough to see me become an RAF Mountain Rescue Party leader. Even with his pacifist convictions, he was proud of my service. It was another depression (I served from 1978 to 1985), and at least I was doing something for myself, not being a drag on my family or society, on the dole like so many of my classmates were, and I was helping save lives too.

I was radioed off the hill at Cheviot the day he died, and swept in an unauthorized MR Land Rover all the way to Sheffield, 120 miles of stolen RAF petrol, courtesy of my mates and the common sense and humanity of working class servicemen everywhere, but it was too late. I wore my best blues at his cremation, with the new MR arm badge so recently won.

But he's just the one I know the most about.

Great Uncle Tom Leigh, British Army, lost an eye somewhere, someplace in WWI. He and his wife, my great aunt Ethel, also suffered during the Depression. He was aways full of fun and mischief, never seemed to dwell on his losses or hardships. For a scare, as a young boy, he'd frighten you by showing you his eye socket.

Great Uncle Bert Watson, British Army, originally enlisted, he won a battlefield promotion to brevet major (so the legend goes). Again, he never spoke about it. He appears in the National Records as a subaltern, but at that time and at that place, officers who survived became brevet majors routinely, so it could be true. How did he survive? We don't know. He lived out his life with Jane his wife, and Tom and Ethel, at the modest cottage in Whitely Woods that our family held on lease for nearly 125 years. A century of landlord-ism. Never ownership. That's the British class system for you. Arthur and Grandma Lettie, and my mum and sister and I, would come visit all the old folks on Sundays and bank holidays.

What I would give to show them all this fine safe home and productive farm we've made here in the woods of Maine. And play Newmarket one last time around our kitchen table, after a good meal of our homegrown Yorkshire ham and sliced boiled eggs with salad.

There'll be no-one going cold or hungry in this home. Because of them.

Uncle Ron Watson, Royal Air Force, (mother's first cousin, actually, but this is the Yorkshire usage), was a Bomber Command navigator, WWII. The death rate among bomber crews was almost 50%. Mother's first banana was brought back by Ron from his flight training in Canada. Can you imagine being 10 years old and never having had a banana?

Dad, Gordon Womersley, British Army, National Serviceman, Royal Signals Regiment, 1953-55. Easier, certainly, but Dad's two-year service would have freed up regulars to go to Korea. Dad gave me all types of tips to get through basic. Including the stock, "never volunteer." Or, "If it moves, salute it, if it doesn't move, paint it."

Uncle Ron Womersley, Royal Air Force, Dad's elder brother, died 1964, another 1950s National Serviceman. Died of a now-curable fever at an early age. Apparently a low-key musical genius, was Dean of Music at Hexham Abbey and is buried there.

Uncle Stan Womersley, British Army, National Serviceman, 1950s. Catering Corps. They also serve who keep other men's bellies full. Still in uniform: the Salvation Army. Still filling bellies. Still serving. Amen to that.

Uncle Barry, Royal Air Force, National Servicemen, 1950s. Barry and Dad together taught me the traditional British serviceman's card game, Three Card Brag, a kind of poker. They would fleece me for my pocket money, then gave me more so they could take that too.

That's the Brits, but we're not done. There's also Dick,

Richard Phillippi, US Army, Vietnam. My father-in-law. Who now has leukemia from Agent Orange and is on 100% disability from the VA. Dick was a generator service specialist attached to the HQ company at LZ Oasis on May 11th, 1969, when the airfield and Dick survived one of the first regular NVA attacks of the latter part of the war. Later Dick married into the Sumy family, and thus the Church of the Brethren, and so some of his family members, and many members of his church, were conscientious objectors during Vietnam.

I am so proud of them all. Especially the ones who had the guts, the sense, and the religious belief to say no.

And then there's myself, who had it easy. I ate well, exercised well, and was not shot at, at least not with live rounds. I was at some risk from time to time on rescue trainings and call-outs, and was lightly injured several times, and almost killed once or twice by rockfalls, avalanches, and other hazards. Mostly I just had big adventures in the wilds with my mates. But seven years is still likely to be ten percent of my life. The guys I helped train went on to do great things; one summited on Everest for the RAF, and many of them were at the call-out for the infamous Lockerbie Air Disaster. My old roommate Heavy, who visited this spring, was in charge of this response for the RAFMRS, another hell on earth. But like Grandad, I've seen and helped more than my share of lost, hurt, broken, bleeding and dead people.

Sensibly, however, I'm the last of my family to serve. Not counting cousin David who followed his dad into the Sally Army, my young cousins on both sides, British or American, have not served, nor are they likely to. Nor do I blame them.

In my perfect world, we'd only go to war when we needed to, and everyone would have an equal chance of being drafted.

I guess I'm pretty crusty about this. And so now I'm sort of becoming an old soldier too. I have a few years to go, but I can see it happening.

Don't get the wrong idea. I'm no jingoist, no armchair conservative warmonger. I hate war. For myself, even after nearly seven years, I demobbed early in protest at what Maggie Thatcher was doing to the Yorkshire miners and to the Greenham Common Women. In a very strange way, I am my grandfathers' legacy. And in a strange way, Aimee is her family's legacy. She's a leftist American peacenik from a Peace Church family, which is very different but also very similar in many ways to being a greenist British peacenik from a Labour socialist and Methodist family. I don't object when my students join up. For most of them, they need the money to go to college. But in my perfect world, they'd be able to study for free, just like the wealthier kids that don't need to do a stint in Iraq or Afghanistan just to get through school.

But in a few days time, the old-timers of the RAFMRS will take their place of honor in the march-past at the Cenotaph and I sort of wish I could be there. Some of my old buddies will march. It's a matter of deep pride to me that our honor is for saving lives, not taking them. And deeper still, that I am still on call for search and rescue, even in this new country.

Amen to that.

No, what this strange, contradictory, yet severely disproportionate record of service and sacrifice really means is that no-one, no-one at all, in this country or any other, especially that armchair British or American conservative, has the right to tell me or my families what to think about war, peace, national service, and sacrifice.

Believe me, some have tried. Shame on them. The first idiot I met that thought you had to be conservative and a free market capitalist to have a valid opinion on any of this was an RAF officer. A real Zob from the British class system. Thankfully I escaped that nonsense long ago. These days, you hear similar bullshit all the time on the American radio and TV, from idiots that have never been in uniform, never served. And one candidate in particular during this election was truly offensive.

What this really means is, my mixed up, contradictory, atheist, religious, leftist, greenist, German pietist and Sheffield socialist and Salvation Army, all at the same time, but always peace-loving, extended family, is really right from the beating heart of both the British and American twentieth century experience.

The real people. Not just from red states.

They're my family, and my people, and no matter how red or green or pink or purple, we have the right to think what we want, where we want, how we want. For which we have sacrificed a good deal.

Have a good Remembrance Day.


  1. I was taught music by Ronald Womersley at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Hexham. He had a wonderful choir and madrigal group there and it is entirely through him that my own love of music developed, leading me to become a music teacher myself. He was an amazing teacher, choirmaster and instrumentalist and I, along with all who knew him, was broken-hearted when he died, far too young at the age of 31, on 19th April, 1965. May his memory live on.

  2. Hi CT. I should really update this post, as my sister and I were given more information about how our uncle died. We were told it was a fever, but it was actually an unfortunate hemorrhage, the kind of thing that we can deal with much more routinely today. We never knew him -- I was only three in 1964, and my sister was born later that year. He is survived by his brother, Stanley, and I will let Stan know that you wrote, and that you have fond memories of him. I'm a college professor myself in the US, and would like to believe that some of my students would remember me as well as you have remembered him. If you have any other specific memories, please write again. We could post them here. He has many great-nieces and nephews, of which my daughter is only the latest, and even several great-great nieces and nephews, and so it would be nice to have this information for them to know him. Thank you again very much for writing.

  3. Hi Mick,
    Perhaps you could delete the first of my posts - I didn't realise it had gone through and I saw that I had the date wrong and so rewrote it.

    At the time, Ron was said to have had a kidney disorder when he died but I don't know how accurate that is. Ron was a truly lovely man and I have strong memories of him, how he spoke, his humorous manner of teaching and his profound musicality. His memorial in Hexham Abbey can be seen here (scroll down to HEXAB2109.

  4. Thanks, CT. I hadn't seen the memorial, but my sister just went to see it.


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