Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It should always be Memorial Day!

(I wrote this blog quite some time ago, planning to publish it on Memorial Day. As you know, a lot of my time has been taken up trying to write books, market published books, chase my kids, chase my tail, and then have a few spare brain cells to write an interesting blog! In any case, I do truly believe that every day is Memorial Day, so I am taking advantage of a few quiet minutes, and sending this out into the universe.)

Recently I had the pleasure of watching The King's Speech, with Colin Firth, for the first time. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I can only implore you to do so. Don’t worry, this blog is more than a movie review! It is an extraordinary tale that touches me personally and deeply. While the movie is about King George VI and his speech impediment, more importantly it is a beautiful tale about love and friendship.

Sidebar: As a lifelong over-the-top fan of Jane Austen I am a slave to any actor or actress who has brought one of her books to life. I doubt I am alone when I say that I carefully watched the scenes with Colin Firth and Jane Ehle in The King's Speech. I longed to see an elegantly aged Elizabeth gaze at a distinguished Mr. Darcy. How they kept the love from beaming out of their eyes as King George VI and Mrs. Logue I have no idea...

I committed myself to about thirty minutes of research into the movie for this blog and in that research I found three interesting facts.

The writer of the script, David Seidler, began voraciously researching the King in the late 1970’s as a result of learning that he and King George VI shared a speech impediment. Sadly, Seidler could learn very little about Lionel Logue, the King’s speech therapist. “Eventually Seidler contacted Dr. Valentine Logue, who agreed to discuss his father and make his notebooks available if the Queen Mother gave her permission. She asked him not to do so in her lifetime, and Seidler halted the project.” When the Queen Mother died in 2002, he resumed his research, received Logue’s diaries from his son, and built his story.

Apparently a fair amount of liberty was taken with the timeline, historical figures (such as Cromwell and Chamberlain’s presence in an outer room when the speech was delivered), and one I must admit I did find quite odd while I watched the film - when the Royal Family stands on the balcony at the end and waves to the crowd.

Though the film and actors received awards and accolades in the US and England, Prince Andrew of Britain took great exception, he didn’t like it. Considering Andrew's antics and constant bad press, I am hesitant to take his film reviews too close to heart. However, “Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning queen and the daughter of King George VI, was sent two copies of the film before Christmas 2010. It was reported that she watched the film in a private screening. A palace source described her reaction as being "touched by a moving portrayal of her father". Seidler called the reports "the highest honor" the film could receive.

As the final credits rolled I found myself wondering how my family, living in Lowestoft England, took the news that September 3rd evening in 1939.

My Great Grandfather, Ernest Grint, had served in WWI. From his first marriage he had four children. His second wife, my Great Grandmother, Elizabeth, had been married to a solider during WWI, with whom she had one child. He was not fortunate enough to return home. My Great Grandparents had five children together. If you add them all up, there were ten total.

Were they sitting around the radio, listening with their nine sons, full of worry? Worry, I presume that word to be an understatement.

My mother would have been nine months old. My grandfather, Edward, was Ernest and Elizabeth’s oldest child together. He was a mere twenty years old.

After the nine boys had signed up with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, and Royal Army, the house, which surprisingly still stands on Normanston Drive, was left in solitude to my Great Grandparents, my Great Aunt Beryl (fourteen years old), my Grandmother Dorothy, and my mother, Daphne.

Lowestoft for many centuries was a blip on the map. The most easterly point of England, where villagers fished for survival. In 1831 the harbor at Lowestoft was created, where the Grint family proudly owned a fishing trawler or two. In 1847, railway entrepreneur Sir Samuel Peto built a branch line to Reedham, joining the mainline between Norwich and Great Yarmouth. This immediately opened up markets inland for fish. Lowestoft grew from a small fishing village to a thriving market town.

Stories about the fishing heydays of my family are quite entertaining to listen to, all sorts of mishaps, battles with the North Sea, and “the one that got away.” My Great Aunt Beryl tells the story that upon arriving back at port and emptying the bowels of the ship to the local fish merchants, my Great-Grandfather was greeted with the news of her birth by a friend working on the docks. “Great News!” He said, then everyone disappeared into the pub to celebrate, leaving my Great Grandmother to wonder about his whereabouts.

In the summer of 1939 the Admiralty purchased 67 trawlers with a further twenty newly constructed vessels at the outbreak of World War II. I have yet to uncover if my family’s trawlers were some of those purchased. I’m curious about that. Mostly because these trawlers served as Mine Sweepers, on which my Grandfather served as a member of the Royal Navy.

My Grandfather told me that after having been at sea for quite some time, searching for bombs the Germans had dropped, food supplies were depleted and the men were hungry, so they dropped one of their own bombs. Soon enough all kinds of fish floated to the surface. They ate well for a time, having put what fish they could into the food storage area.

In my imagination, a black and white image of a barely visible small boat waits as fish breech and then plop on their sides. Fish of all shapes and sizes, lying still on the seas calm surface. Why this image instead of others? Perhaps the possibility of adding color makes the idea of my Grandfathers experience too real, too frightening.

I believe my Grandfather served aboard three Mine Sweepers that were blown out from underneath him. Leaving him and the other survivors praying for help and swimming towards what they hoped was land. Once he washed up on the shores of Norway and was taken in by a fisherman and his family. He couldn’t remember how long he stayed there, but the last time I visited with him, he still had the sweater the wife had knitted for him.

I came upon this quote, “After about 18 months I was recalled to Lowestoft and drafted to an anti-submarine trawler in Iceland, in the most inhospitable seas and weather possible, working into the notorious Russian convey routes (although we did not go all the way there, being coal-fired, would not be able to make it).” Ronald Fredrick John Hearn

Back to Lowestoft, and the house on Normanston Drive. My Great Grandfather died of lung cancer at the start of the war. This left four women, Great Grandmother Elizabeth, Auntie Beryl, my Nana, and my infant mother, alone. The house was built directly alongside the railroad tracks that Sir Samuel Peto built through the town. The garden was long and narrow and had to be given over to soldiers encamping.

Lowestoft, being on the sea and the most easterly point, was the point of departure for boats crossing the English Channel to France. Apparently the streets teemed with soldiers and tents were pitched on every empty piece of ground. Naturally this drew the attention of the Germans, who regularly flew over the town, the railroad tracks, and harbor, shooting up and bombing everything from time to time. My mother grew up knowing how to run in a zigzag pattern to avoid bullets. How to lie flat on the ground to make her a less visible target.

So many stories and which to share?

Oh, this is a favorite! Once I was looking through old photos with my aunt and I noticed that her wedding dress looked similar to my other aunts. Upon closer inspection it turned out that their cakes were almost identical. The town had essentially one or two dresses, which the women would carefully tuck and pin to make it look like it fitted. The cake was made of cardboard tubes, and the families would pool their sugar and butter ration coupons so that frosting could be made. Since weddings often happened on short notice, they couldn’t worry about whose looked like what, they made what they could.

So, the wedding’s ended up mostly looking same. A small price to pay to get to marry the person you loved.

One lovely summer day in 1991 my aunt told me a great story, still makes me chuckle! My Aunt Beryl has an infectious laugh and a fabulous sense of humor, but I think that laughter is part of her survival toolkit, so she tells this story while she’s belly laughing. My aunt and Nana were returning home from spending their ration coupons on what was available when the Germans flew directly overhead strafing the road with machine guns and dropping the occasional bomb. The two women jumped into a hedge for protection. While standing in the hedge she realized it wasn’t deep enough for them to be enclosed, so she started laughing about how only their backsides were visible, and how odd this must look. Apparently my Nana, was a feisty itty bitty thing and she was plain old fashion pissed that her one good dress was probably ruined.

The Normandy landings, codenamed Operation Neptune, were the landing operations of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord. The landings commenced on Tuesday, 6 June 1944 (D-Day), beginning at 6:30 am. In planning, as for most Allied operations, the term D-Day was used for the day of the actual landing.”

The best story of all… My nine uncles (my Aunt Beryl married my Uncle Len during the war) and grandfather landed on the beaches of Normandy and all survived.

According to the Director of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in Bedford Virginia the number of casualties range between 2500-5000 soldiers. Remains are still being recovered. 12,000 citizens of Normandy died during the invasion. 14,000 Allied Soldiers died between April and May of 1944, while performing tasks that would allow for D-Day to be incredibly successful or disastrous.

Whenever I visited Lowestoft I would inevitably end up at the Sparrows Nest. It is a lovely old building with a large sweeping green lawn. Here we would attend concerts and picnics, and my Grandfather and Aunt would see friends who’d weathered the storm of World War II with them. The music was quaint and time seemed to move slowly, but there I looked into the eyes of people who had struggled and won a hard fought battle. It was only today, during my thirty minutes of research, that I learned that the HMS Europa, was known as the Sparrow’s Nest. It was the Central Depot of the Royal Naval Patrol Service, located at Lowestoft, and then the closest British military establishment to the enemy until decommissioned in 1946.

“For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war.” When King George VI spoke these words he wondered how it was possible to have two such wars in one lifetime.

If someone you love has been a casualty of war, my heart goes out to you. I know that my family’s survival is extraordinary, and though the stories they told could make my heart standstill, I heard them first hand. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do pray every day for all those affected by war. I pray for quiet days. I pray for parents to be able to provide their children with food, shelter and safety. I pray that the sound that breaks the silence is laughter.

Thanks for reading!