War and Rumors of War

August 8, 2006 | By | Reply More

[Note: I wrote this piece in 2003, shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq].
The trouble with writing these opinion pieces is they require such intense emotional energy to write.  It’s a very exhausting business.  But then, so is life these days.  We all go about our lives quite admirably, but the low hum of threat, the “war and rumors of war” is wearing on us all.  

The intense emotion that I’m experiencing these days is sadness, produced by the news, produced by the innocence of so many of our students who are willing to fling themselves into the fray in the name of God, president and country.  It’s all too reminiscent of those equally innocent boys who threw themselves, during my parents’ lifetimes, into the defense of God, king and country.  One way or another, those boys were not innocent for long.

What amazes me is how surprised some of us are by all this, and I’m including myself in the “us.”  I shouldn’t be surprised.  After all, my parents survived two world wars in Great Britain and described the horrors of the second in vivid detail.  I think, though, it’s only been since September 11, 2001, I’ve truly understood what my parents experienced.  The stories they told me when I was a child enthralled me, kept me spellbound as they recounted them to me.  But I, too, was innocent.  The stories were family saga, not reality, shrouded in the mists of mythology for me.

My parents described the adventure of sailing to South Africa from England in 1942 during the month in that war that saw the second highest number of ships sunk by enemy torpedoes.  They left Southampton in a convoy of 204 ships, and were on one of only four ships to reach its destination. 

Theirs was a Free French vessel, a cargo ship with only enough room for 50 passengers.  By the time they reached Cape Town, there were 300, the extra 250 having been rescued, pulled up out of lifeboats in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  I have a photograph taken by my mother of one those lifeboats approaching the salvation of my parents’ tiny ship.  They were at sea for a month, dodging torpedoes, changing route to avoid submarines, and arriving in Cape Town with no drinking water. 

They washed in seawater and drank vin ordinaire, the worst deprivation being no water for a cup of tea.  My mother developed claustrophobia on that voyage – she was trapped below decks in a bathroom, unable to unlock the door during a torpedo alert, while my frantic father had to be physically restrained from going below decks to find her. 
I believe I was conceived on that voyage.

Why on earth would they have taken such a voyage at such a time?  It’s a strange and wonderful story.  My father being a Congregational minister, his denomination’s central office never gave him orders to go to a congregation.  Individual Congregational churches, when they need a new minister, send out “calls” to men or women who they believe will serve them well.  My father had received two such calls in 1941.  One came from British Samoa, the other from Durban, South Africa.  My parents chose South Africa, fortunately for me, because the man and woman who went to British Samoa were met by Japanese soldiers on the docks and beheaded on the spot.

Of course, that still doesn’t explain why they would consider going anywhere.  I’m not sure I have the answer, but I think it may have been because my father couldn’t watch anymore boys die, and my mother knew he would die of overwork if they didn’t leave England.  They were living on the Salisbury Plain in a town called Codford St. Mary’s where my father was an army chaplain. 

They were there during the rout of Dunkirk.  As I said, I’ve only just begun to understand what my mother was telling me about that time.  It was a heroic time; it was a tragic time.  Codford was one of the towns where those British civilians who took their rowboats 20 miles across the English Channel to rescue the boys on the beaches at Dunkirk, brought what was left of those boys.  They laid them in the field in front of the parsonage, and my parents moved amongst the soldiers and comforted the dying and the catatonic.  Many of the dying were calling for their mothers.  Others were mercifully beyond memories. 

My mother described the German planes flying over every night on their way to Coventry. (The English rather than putting a person in the doghouse, put that person in Coventry, in hell.)  It was where the British munitions factories were.  The night skies glowed every night as the bombs dropped and the fires burned. 

Two old ladies, refugees from London, were living with my parents, and one of them cursed the planes and tried to tear her clothes off and run outside to shake her fist at the bombers one night.  It would have been quite a sight – she was from the East End of London, where, even as late as mid-century, people sewed themselves into their clothing at the beginning of winter and didn’t bathe until spring.  My parents, of course had to restrain her, in spite of her fragrance. 

And there was the food or lack thereof:  one egg per person per week, no other protein to speak of; white bread, potatoes; and the newly invented margarine, at that time, snow white. 

I believe my parents were tired.  I understand the European and British public’s reluctance to go to war.  They, too, are tired of the loss of innocents, of the night skies illuminated by fires.

Why should I be surprised it is likely to happen again, and happen here as well as in Europe this time?  I don’t know.  I know war can happen and it can happen to us.  I know madmen and egotists, like the poor, will ever be with us.  I know the innocent can die at the whim of madmen and egotists.  And I know we are, once again, dealing with both .


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Category: Culture, Good and Evil, Politics, Psychology Cognition, War

About the Author ()

Chris Van Mierlo is a South African of British descent who left the country with her family in 1960 when her father was in danger of being arrested by the white government because of his anti-apartheid activities.

She has lived in the St. Louis, Missouri, area since 1969, and previously lived on Cape Cod, in Boston, and in Syracuse, New York.

Chris teaches and tutors English at St. Charles Community College. In addition to her English degree, she has degrees in music, which she has also taught. Her home away from home is Montana where she and her husband hope to retire in the not too distant future.

Chris is the mother of two sons, one of whom lives in St. Louis and the other in Missoula, Montana. She is the grandmother of two girls, 10 and 16.

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