Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Tall Tales and Derring Do - Real Treasure

I Wanna Tell You a Story

     Everyone has a unique story. I always think it's a mistake when I meet people who think that their story is either too humble or too uninteresting to tell. We each have our own experiences, opinions and value to add to the rich life experience of others.

     On a recent trip to the USA I met some wonderful people, all of whom had fascinating stories and offered me a new insight into a different cultural experience. My passion is history so whenever something pops up on the radar that falls into this area I now do my best to engage in a meaningful way. As an adult I can do this consciously. As an adult I value the interaction. But it hasn't always been like this.

Brief Encounters

     My dad. My hero.

     In some ways he was the perfect dad for me! This picture was taken at Christmas 1941. He was 16 and just about to head off into the Atlantic as a merchant seaman.

     His story was a fabulously exciting adventure for me as a child. He would tell me of his voyage on the ocean, how he was sunk by the Germans, of his internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for years and of his subsequent return to freedom. As a child I was engrossed but at a very superficial level.

     In my early teens my father had developed Parkinson's Disease to such an extent that it was no longer possible to have a normal conversation with him. He was addled with the drugs he needed to control spasms and various other symptoms. Ironically I'd lost interest in his stories. It's awful to say it but I no longer had the patience to listen for the hours it would often take him to produce one meaningful sentence.

     The stories he'd told me as a child no longer had their shine. I became lazy about my own heritage and preferred to spend time socialising or hell raising! In his more lucid moments he often tried to get me to sit with him and write down his story but I'm ashamed to say I had no interest in doing it.

Second Chances

     By the time I had rekindled my interest in his story I was working at the national archives in the UK. In my late twenties I would have given anything to sit with him and hear his story all over again with adult ears. There were no second chances for us, however. The moment had passed. Although I can still remember him telling me stories as a child, those stories are either distorted by my own childish memory or told from the perspective of a doting adult indulging a very young child.

Sense and Sensibility

     As a result of this lost opportunity I'm much more aware of the encounters I have with people. I value the stories people have to tell and I honour the effort someone makes to tell me that story. I remember a teacher at school once saying that if you ask a question you should at least have the courtesy to hang around for the answer. He was so right. Even now I see people ask questions and lose interest before the answer is complete. This is particularly important when dealing with those people to whom we owe a debt. When I say this, I mean in a very general sense. Some of the generations who have preceded us have fought wars and sacrificed their freedom so that we can live these lives today.

     So now I try to give my full attention to people I engage with. If I ask a question I attempt to engage fully with the answer. Often I'll write about it in my journal. A journal encourages self-reflection but also allows me a second insight into the experience.

Second Chances

     When I meet new people I'm always fascinated by their story. I don't mean that I'm humbled into keeping quiet about my own. Anyone who knows me at all will know that I'm more than happy to talk about myself. But when I meet someone who has a story to tell I'm so excited to hear it. Recently I met Jack, the 81 year old father of one of our hosts in the USA. He is a beautiful soul. He's so generous with his time and attention and we enjoyed his company immensely.

     One day Jack's son asked if he'd told us his story. When I probed a bit further it turned out that Jack had been a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne division at the time of the Korean War. My history radar started pinging. This was another one of those opportunities I now relish.

     When the appropriate time came - as it happened I was floating in a swimming pool and Jack was sitting in a sun lounger sipping a beer - I said to Jack,

     "Hey! We'd really like to hear some of your stories from your time in the 82nd!"

     The effect was magical. Jack literally swelled with pride. He tried to play it down at first but I insisted that we were really interested. I genuinely wanted to hear his stories. Jack shuffled his chair closer to the pool, leant forward and lit up with energy. And so with full attention I lay there in the pool listening to his experiences and stories. And they were great stories!

A Tale of Two Heroes

     There's no doubt in my mind that Jack is a hero in his own right. His stories convinced me of that. Isn't it ironic that I can now see that my father was a hero in his own right too? Every now and then I get little reminders of his very human story. Even today as I took out his photo to scan it in for this blog I discovered this written on the back.

      A Christmas message is written on the back in a very juvenile script. This makes his imprisonment at the age of 16 even more poignant. Through this he still seems so real. It's a reminder that although he's gone his story lives on. 

     When my father died I inherited a secret journal he'd written as a prisoner of war in Fukushima. If it had been discovered he would have been executed. The horrors he describes there show that his rendition of the story was censored hugely for my benefit. Perhaps he would have told me the uncensored version if I'd given him the chance when I was an adult. 

     Having seen the way Jack swelled with pride when I asked about his story, I just wish I could have given my own father the pleasure of telling me his story in more detail.

     Thank goodness I have learnt to value these encounters more. I can only mourn the missed opportunity with my father but I can make amends by giving my attention to the people I meet and honour today.