I recently read a post from the “Aircrew Book Review” that discussed the emotional road certain authors have ventured down in writing the biographies of veterans. By the nature of the relationship, the author can become very close to their subject and gain a personal insight into their war. This happened when I wrote ‘Down to Earth’, the story of RAF fighter pilot, Squadron Leader Kenneth McGlashan AFC. For me, the added benefit was the wonderful friendship that I developed with Kenneth and his wife. Doreen.
In writing my father’s story, the journey has been far closer to the bone. Initially, I felt that the research was akin to riffling through his sock drawer and part of me feared that I would discover deeply hidden truths and a man different to the quiet, honest chap that was my Dad. He had already shared so much with me, but now I was delving deeper into military records and combat reports. I had boxes full of artefacts; shattered goggles that he was wearing when his jet’s canopy was blown off in Korea….a Japanese water bottle that he had engraved with a darning needle when serving as a commando in New Guinea. There are log books, silk maps, jackets, helmets, medals and many more small tangible pieces of the puzzle. Then came the first-hand accounts from those that were beside him when the bullets were fired and these added graphic detail and colour as well as humour at times. This was the father that I knew and I was getting to know him even more intimately. However, there were also stories that he never told me.
There was the patrol to a village where he found his two mates dead, but they were more than simply shot. The old commando that was there on that day related the story to me in a whisper and only after he had sent his wife from the room. Tears welled in his eyes and he confessed to half a century of nightmares about what he and my father discovered in that hut.
Story after story emerged from New Guinea, Hiroshima and Korea and I no longer had to imagine what he had experienced between the ages of nineteen and twenty six on those foreign shores. Now I had the anecdotes, the reports and even pictures. Certain events he had related to me had trailed off when the details became too harsh for a son – now his mates completed the sentences. “First in” and “never a backward step” were phrases they used to describe him. I was proud, but piece by piece I felt for him as a young country boy, far from home and asked to do a man’s job.
As a son, I was equally in awe of the balanced family life that he built in the wake of the maelstrom. As an author, I became very, very close to the subject and it has undoubtedly changed me and my understanding of who I am and why. My father’s attention to certain details and anger at other frivolities now make sense to me. And why the smell of Frangipanis reminded him of blood.
For an author, sharing any veteran’s story can touch the emotions, but it pales into insignificance beside the impact felt by those who have been to war. Personally, I would not trade a single word shared about my father for the occasional late night that I have stared at a ceiling trying to imagine his world. Now I only hope that I am able to do his story justice as both an author and a son.