Cigarettes & Spotter Cards (Dad’s war, 2)

When the Nazi air attacks began in earnest, every aspect of life in Britain became channeled into the war effort. Theirs was a small island nation with limited resources facing a military/industrial colossus with the entire provender of conquered Europe at its disposal. Desperate measures would be called for in order to survive. Brits were encouraged to grow their own food, re-use everything and build bomb shelters in their backyards. The government sponsored a war bond drive, collected scrap metal for use in fabricating weapons and carefully rationed consumer goods. The talents of the advertising industry turned to creating posters reminding people that loose lips sink ships and even the space on cigarette packages that normally advertised tea, tinned cakes and beer was used to reinforce the information everyday Brits needed to survive.

I remember one thing about my father that always struck me: his uncanny ability to identify aircraft. We would be sitting on the couch watching a TV show set during the war and he would immediately identify any plane that appeared onscreen: Corsair, Mustang P-4, Spitfire. These were fairly common allied planes known to most people, but dad could name them at the briefest glance. This was impressive enough, but it was the German aircraft he knew best: the Heinkel, the Junker-88, the Stuka, the Messerschmitt 109. He could identify these by silhouette, tell you each one’s effective operational range, crew complement, armament and the kind of engine it used. I assumed he knew these things because he liked aircraft and had studied them for fun as a boy. But I later realized that, as a Blitz kid, my father’s motives for learning about German planes had nothing to do with enjoyment. It was a matter of survival.

My Grandpa Joe, who worked in the shipyards, smoked. A lot of men did back then, but the war took a toll on the tobacco supply so Grandpa took to storing tobacco and old butts in the pocket of the coat he would wear to work each day then hang on a coat tree by the door upon his return home. My father confessed to me that he would occasionally raid that pocket for half-smoked cigarettes and scraps of tobacco that he and his friends could roll and share. Like a lot of Blitz kids, dad started smoking early.

The cigarettes my grandfather could buy when they were available included cards, similar to modern-day baseball and hockey cards. In pre-war days, these contained images of sailing ships, sports personalities or historical figures. But with the war, cards were repurposed to convey reminders and tips about the skills necessary to survive bombardments and gas attacks. Cigarette cards showed the average Brit how to turn his living room into a bomb shelter, help a child put on a gas-mask or extinguish an incendiary bomb with a garden hose. These cards were intended to convey as much information as could possibly be fitted into a tiny space. They also contained images of planes.

Airplane cards often featured an attractive illustration of the airship in question on one side and a list of specs on the reverse: engine make, top speed, crew complement, ordnance – the works. Men who smoked would sometimes keep these cards. Grandpa Joe gave his to my dad. Too bad we lost track of them, because they’re worth a fortune today on e-Bay.

I imagine my father collecting and studying these cards, trading them with friends, one-upping each other on how well they knew their facts. In such times, a boy’s natural fascination with machinery and war would have been tempered with the knowledge that some of those beautiful machines he admired were being sent to kill him. Some ‘spotter cards’ (for so were cigarette cards of airplanes called) featured silhouette charts, enabling an observer to tell whether the plane above was a fighter or a bomber. Deciding what to do with such knowledge meant the difference between life and death in an air raid. Such was the brutal calculus of war and the basis of my father’s impressive knowledge of Nazi airplanes.

Unfortunately, my father’s career as a big-time tobacco thief had one built-in problem: getting a light. Grandpa used a lighter, which my dad could not very well pinch. “And your grandmother watched every wooden match in the place,” he complained to me once.

“So how did you get a light?”

Dad smirked. “Gas street-lamps. We’d roll a smoke and then send one of the kids up to light it from the gas jet.”

I had to laugh. Life during war-time. Kids always find a way.

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My Father’s War

My father never spoke much about the war. He was born and grew up in Leith, an exurb of northern Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth. When the Battle of Britain began, a great many middle- and upper-class children were evacuated from the cities and sent to live in places in the country. But my father’s family was solidly working class and poor. Grandpa Joe labored in the shipyards on the Firth of Forth as a blacksmith. When war came, the family stayed because that’s where work could be found.

Grandpa balanced with his forge and tongs on the great scaffolding that rose around the ships, pouring and cooling bolts that would be used to tighten the hull-plating, screwed in by riveters while still slightly warm so they would contract as they cooled and so tighten the seal. The men at the dockyards worked incredibly hard. Over the course of the war, the shipyards on the Firth built 42 vessels for the Royal Navy, 14 merchant ships and repaired or refit nearly 3,000 war and merchant vessels. On average, a ship was repaired every day and a new ship launched every six weeks.

Leith’s importance to the war effort is best illustrated in the fact that it was the target of the first Luftwaffe airstrike on Britain. On the 16 October 1939, British fighters engaged a bomber squadron in an action now known as the Battle of the River Forth. The Battle of Britain would officially began the following summer, but it came early for my father and the residents of Leith. From that point forward, bomb shelters and night air raids became an everyday fact of life. Leith was critical to the British war effort and so the Luftwaffe showed it no mercy.

As my father got older, he waxed nostalgic. Not for the war, but for the memories of his boyhood. I suppose that was when I first began to catch glimpses of the world he knew growing up. There were two films in particular that he loved. One was Empire of the Sun, which recounts the experiences of a young Brit held prisoner along with his family in a Japanese internment camp in the Far East. I could see my father’s absolute veneration of all things American mirrored in the young protagonist’s worship of the Americans in the film. But it was Hope and Glory, the story of an urban child, that perhaps gave me the clearest view of what life was like for Blitz kids.

My father would sometimes mention the fires, the ruined buildings. The Luftwaffe were fond of dropping these incendiary devices that would simmer fitfully for a while before exploding and blasting a fiery, napalm-like substance in all directions. Incendiaries were devilishly hard to extinguish, requiring use of a specialized hand-pump and an air warden like Grandpa Joe who was willing to stand out and brave the bombing to water the ordnance with the necessary patience extinguish it. The bullet-shaped nacelles were set atop a brass base embossed with a swastika. My father and his friends used to collect and trade these like hockey cards. Gutted buildings, freshly pummeled by air raids, afforded a playground containing a wonderland of things to smash and shatter (always an intoxicating prospect for young boys). I’m sure that my father and his friends, like the protagonists of Hope and Glory, busted up their share of wardrobe mirrors, crockery, porcelain sinks and toilets in the wreckage of displaced peoples’ homes.

But aside from the occasional allusion or reference to a scene in one of those two films, my father said very little about those years. Until one day aboard an airplane we were taking somewhere. I forget where or when or on which airline, but I remember you could still smoke. My father asked me for a cigarette and I lit one for him, then waved out the match before lighting my own.

“Not two on one match,” he said. “You remembered.”

“Yeah. You taught me that. A World War II thing, wasn’t it?”

He nodded, smoked and said nothing for a minute. Then:

“You know they used to make us sing?”

“Who?”

“The grown-ups. In the bomb shelter.” He turned and looked me directly in the face, something he rarely did. “When the air raid sirens would sound, we’d break like hell for the shelters. You had to get in there right away before they filled up. We’d close the door and then we’d sit and wait. You could hear the bombers approach. A low drone. It was horrible. The bombers cave in waves. So when we heard the drone, the adults would make us start singing.”

“Singing what?”

“Oh, anything. Football songs. Christmas Carols. ‘God Save the Queen.’ Anything. They did it to keep us from getting scared.”

“Oh, sure!” My mind went back to every World War II movie I’d ever seen. “You mean the sound of the bombs, right? They whistle as they drop.”

“No. Not the whistling. The silence. The whistling meant the bomb was going wide and wasn’t going to hit you. It was the sound of the air against its spoilers. But if it was coming straight down right on top of you, there’d be complete silence. Silence was frightening. We never knew if it was the end of the raid, a pause between waves or curtains. So they made us sing.”

“So you couldn’t tell if a bomb was ever coming on top of you.”

“Sure. What difference would knowing make anyway?”

It was the first unique memory he ever shared with me about the war.

I have been thinking about World War II a lot lately. The nationalist upheaval in the United States bears a frightening resemblance to the growth of Nazism in Hitler’s Germany. Much is being written in periodicals and discussed on social media regarding this unexpected development. A great many concerned, politically-active people from across the social spectrum are uniting to oppose it and I, for one, thank them – particularly the young people. For as the son of a Blitz survivor and all that entails, I can never hear the word Nazi without picturing shattered buildings and fires, and imagining my father wandering the wreckage. For me, there is no separation between the idea of Nazism and the inevitable destruction it wreaks. In the absence of any coherent ideology or logical goals, fascism inevitably leads to social violence which, in turn, leads to war. Those opposing the Nazi movement in America today are involved in taking the necessary preventative steps to deflect that possible future for us all.

I have written elsewhere about the thread of history connecting us to World War II. The Holocaust Survivors were crucial in reminding us all of the importance of continuity and memory. As their generation passes, along with that of the veterans of the war, I find myself in the unaccustomed position of being a custodian of our family’s connective thread to World War II. Since my father’s death, I am the only one left with these memories. So I will share them as time and opportunity allow. Please know that I am only a steward of these tales; they are not my own, but rather come down to me through my family. I think there is value in sharing them here. Because I think it’s important to underline that, no matter how desperate things got during the Blitz and no matter how invincible they seemed, the Nazis lost in the end. If you had told my father that as he played in the wreckage he would not have believed you, just as there are those today who are convinced that white nationalism’s emergence as an enduring political force in America is assured. But we know from history that wherever such movements emerge, good men and women inevitably rise to oppose it. It’s never easy, but it’s absolutely necessary. Because somewhere, children are singing in the bomb shelter.

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Daddy Loves His Work

I was saddened by recent exchanges with two writers, both of whom expressed dissatisfaction with their careers. One says she no longer wishes to write at all while another, frustrated by a lack of commercial success, speaks frankly of killing herself. A third friend with a book coming out has complained to me privately about how the publisher is handling the release. And a fourth lamented that he still does not consider himself a “pro” (whatever that means) despite a very impressive set of publishing credits. All four of these are writers I respect a great deal, and who have achieved more than I with their work, and yet they are unhappy. Understandably so. This is a tough racket, and many writers have walked away …

I can’t.

I would not consider myself a particularly visible or well-known author, even within the genres (SFF) to which I have devoted myself since 2009. I am no great commercial success, by any means. I can’t live off of what I do (although I have hopes it may supplement my retirement income nicely). But the option of walking away is just not there for me. It never has been. The prospect of life without the words is as unimaginable to me as losing  eyesight or hearing and just as terrifying. Laura Dern explained it so beautifully in THE WEST WING episode “The U.S. Poet Laureate”: “This is how I enter the world.” The act of writing is, simply, how I experience and process my existence on planet Earth. I would still be filling notebooks and cranking out fiction even if I never sold a thing because I simply don’t know any other way to live.

Two new projects are reminders for me of the real joy I take in the process of writing and publishing.

My short story “Mr Johnson & the Old Ones” will appear in the forthcoming anthology from Martian Migraine Press CTHULHUSATTVA: TALES OF THE BLACK GNOSIS. This is my first piece of Lovecraftian horror fiction, and is the point of departure for the next stage of my career, which will focus mainly on writing mystery and horror. The story combines my twin fascinations of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Johnson and has the two meeting in a jook house in 1930s Mississippi under surreal circumstances. I found the process of exploring that world so fascinating that I am now adapting the short story into a full length novel. Meanwhile, it’s been a real pleasure working with MMP C-in-C Scott Jones to bring the short-story version out and get it to you. Look for CTHULHUSATTVA to drop in late May.

I am also engaged in contract negotiations with Amazon for GAVIN’S WOMAN, a sequel to GAVIN’S WAR which came out last year. Although we’re still ironing out the details, the project as been green-lit and we are a go. GAVIN’S WOMAN picks up four years after the events of GAVIN’S WAR and features the return of known characters Iris and Salazar along with several new ones. Researching the piece has me learning much about the BC coastline, various types of military helicopters and the U.S. Army’s famed Nightstalkers. I imagine the novella will see daylight some time this summer. Stay tuned for further details on that front.

Recent events in the United States have caused me to reflect on World War II. While watching the mini-series FLEMING: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE BOND, it occurred to me that I’ve always wanted to write a story set during the Blitz, an event that had a great impact on my father’s family. The time has come to write that story and, in so doing, perhaps come closer to an understanding of my father, a man with whom I had a complex and very uncomfortable relationship. I’m not entirely sure I really want to explore that region of my past and psyche … which merely serves as confirmation that I must. Again: writing as my way of processing life on Earth.

And so the words roll on.

Mishima once said that life is a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.

I have to agree.

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