Little Boxes

My paternal grandfather was a war veteran.

Aside from being a collier, husband and father of two sons he did a stint in the British Army during 1944/45. And while he was too old to serve in the infantry, he took a position as a dispatch rider.

Which is someone who rides a motorcycle, and carries information, usually logistical but often classifieds, between command posts of different regiments.

It’s lonely work. Riders ride alone, for obvious reasons. Often open to all the gruesome marginal notes the history teachers and documentaries fail to tell.

His most popular story was always the one about when he was riding along a French road, following D-Day, when half a mile ahead this German Tiger tank suddenly crashed through the hedge, across the verge and swung down onto the road, coming straight towards him.

He 180’d the bike he was riding and took off the other way, finally finding a roadside ditch big enough to push the bike into. Lean the frame into the ditch, and then crawl beneath it.

The noise grows louder, and louder, as anyone who’s seen modern tanks and other vehicles knows, the ground trembles as these monsters approach. And he’s still laying prostrate beneath his motorbike, ground jumping as this behemoth (lovely word) rolls by.

Nothing happens.

After a few seconds he crawls out from beneath the bike and climbs up onto the road.

And locks eyes with the German commander, receding into the distance. The German salutes my grandfather. My grandfather salutes back in turn.  And that was that.

It’s a beautiful story because it shows that even amidst such chaos there was still some humanity present. My grandfather posed no threat; and the German tankers obviously had more pressing matters than one lone, unarmed dispatch rider.

It’s a beautiful story, and a sad one.

Like so many caught up in that conflict, it became something they could never forget. My grandfather would suffer depression for the rest of his life, the family consensus being that such a depression was caused by the war. For there were bad experiences too, as in any conflict, and they sadly left their own scars, ones he refused to share with us grandchildren. I learnt about them later, I won’t repeat them here.

But this whole idea got me thinking about generational detachment.

It’s a topic given much floor-time in the realm of stand-up comedy. Previous generations, the majority elderly, being portrayed as moaning stuck-in-the-muds. Saying how the youth of today have it easy in comparison, or the fact that life just isn’t as good as it was in “their day”.

It’s not a recent trend either. Jasper Carrot (comedian) once did a routine stating:

“In the seventies, people were saying ‘Weren’t the forties great!’ Yeah, buzz-bombs, death, rickets, wonderful…”

Funny, but also nonsense, but also honest. People remember the good times. In that instance the camaraderie and the “Dunkirk spirit” would win out, over the Blitz, food rationing and the worry of family overseas.

To continue the analogy, any Syrian currently involved in the conflict within Syria, or enduring the merciless trek from Aleppo to Calais will probably live with the images of the last four years for the rest of their lives. They’ll tell their children and grandchildren the stories, regardless of the outcome. Those four years might squat in their subconscious forever, as any negative trauma is bound to do (especially armed conflict, unquestionably the largest trauma of all).

But it’s not just warfare. Paul O’Grady, a UK comedian was interviewed over the weekend, for a promotion about his forthcoming autobiography. As a drag queen and an openly gay man in the seventies and eighties he’d seen his fair share of life, but then one line made me sit up and take notice.

“…and then AIDS arrived, and I lost all my friends”.

He goes on to explain the rush to get treatment, skipping whole rounds of drug trials, just to save those effected. Sitting by bedsides while his friends slip in and out of consciousness, the pain of seeing people you love die and knowing nothing can be done to save them.

The interviewer asked if the current generation had forgotten the AIDS epidemic?

Grady replied that they had, but through no fault of their own. It was simply because they had no frame of reference. Nothing the LGBT community, especially in the West, experienced now could relate to how it was then.

It’s something I can relate to also, sadly.

I’m currently studying for my MA, in a traditional university in the UK. Less than a fortnight into the current semester I was standing in line for Starbucks, eavesdropping when I heard the student in front of me speak, telling her friend:

“… it was like those 7/7 terrorist attacks, the ones we had to learn about in school”.

I was so flabbergasted and side-tracked that I had to give my order to the barista twice, before it made sense.

I worked that day.

In London, in St. Pancras hospital, less than 500 metres away from the King’s Cross subway.

I can remember my own panic for friends, living there, their unknown status as they commuted in the rush hour, the way a cigarette tasted, and what colour the sky was. I can remember the rolling news, and trying to calm and comfort my patients, who they themselves had relatives, and who were sadly not far gone enough mentally to not understand something terrible had happened.

Eventually they sent all students home. And I had to walk back across the river. With the hordes of other Londonites, trekking home as best they could. Fielding texts from family outside London who were likewise worried that I was caught up in the violence.

As Jayne from Firefly might put it. “It was an interesting day”.

And it’s something the undergrads here have no frame of reference towards. Thankfully. They don’t know, they don’t care, it’s not important to them.

There was always a theory that history can’t be taught, it can only be experienced. All three cases above prove that point as valid. Sadly.

It’s a fact that we all fall, and that we all need to fall in order to thrive. It’s human nature, the natural progression. Pain, loss, failure, they allow us to reflect on the situation, how it makes us feel and (hopefully) show us how to succeed the next time, or at the very least armour us from feeling the same hurt, should the situation repeat itself.

We’re a very adaptive species.

The first time you hear incoming artillery fire you’re in the air raid shelter or under the table. The tenth time you’re doing a quick check to make sure it’s not gonna hit you, and then you go about your daily business.

Same with the sight of blood in a hospital, or a Masters level essay on iambic pentameter. After you stop rocking in the foetal position and pick yourself up off the floor, it’s business as usual.

But a part of you will always remember that first time, that initial reaction, that experience. It’s how we quantify life, guys. For better or worse.

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