Month: November 2016

Generations of Courage

Nice to read and hear so many stories over the past few weeks about the resilience and courage of citizens at home and abroad as they face man made terror or natural disasters of floods, volcanic explosions or major earthquakes.

But I am not impressed with the tone of the reporters worldwide who report with a note of proud surprise that citizens of the world, circa 2016, can be so brave in adversity and so caring for each other in their fight for survival and recovery. I do not question the veracity of their stories, but am constantly amazed that they write as though the terrors are new with the united courage to face them happening for the first time.

I can only assume the stories of self-sacrifice and neighbour helping neighbour are being told by post Second World War baby boomers and the X,Y,Z generations following them; generations that had never listened to their parents or grandparents. Or if they had listened, had paid scant attention, dismissing as boring, old stories of nightmares lived through, of courageous survivors and neighbours who cared and shared in times of duress.

For some the old wartime catch phrase “keep calm and carry on” was recited with a hint of laughter as funny as the now old codgers who once proudly recited the words as they stepped from air raid shelters into smoke filled dawns to look on devastated homes but kept calm and carried on.

Not an easy thing to do, then or now. When confronted with destruction of hearth and home tears and despair flow easily. But so does the calm joy of survival and the need to take courage, to clean up and start rebuilding. It’s the way we were, the way we are, the way I hope we shall always be in time of trouble.

I remember my mother standing in the doorway to her always immaculate kitchen and weeping as she watched rain water cascading down a stair case before mixing on the scrubbed flagstone floor into a black sludge with soot bomb-shaken from a fire place chimney. The slate roof to our house – and our neighbours’  houses – lay shattered in the street. Rain had started to fall as the air raid all clear sounded.

She shed brief tears, ordered my sister to find a broom, shovel and mop. The cleanup had started. I was dispatched to check on an elderly couple living next door: “Make sure they’re alright and if they need anything … and then run up the street to see if Hannah Towers and her baby are alright and if they need anything and then run to meet your dad walking home from night shift to tell him we were all okay.” Mother didn’t want him turning a corner and fearing the worst when he saw a row of ruined houses.

My mother was not unusual. She was just one more among millions of mothers to whom “keep calm and carry on” was more than a catchy saying. It was an essential reaction when disaster, whether man made or by nature, brought  unprecedented harm our way. And it’s comforting to know the genes of chivalry are still alive and well capable of surviving the cruelest of blows man or nature can deliver.

I just wish media in all its twittering forms would be less breathtaking in its reporting and, well, just “keep calm and carry on.”

I’ll Unpack Tomorrow Or Maybe Later

Not much fun packing for moving day from house to retirement lodge. Transition is what they call it – a polite and efficiency sounding word meant to ease the stress and comfort the minds of old folks facing the downsizing they’ve been putting off for years.

Even at my most ruthless I ended up with boxes of stuff I haven’t used in ages and will never use again but couldn’t bring myself to toss. Silly.

I’ve pledged, but only to myself, to whittle them down a bit at a time over the next few months. A sort of slow withdrawal program rather than cold turkey.

I moved into Berwick Royal Oak, Victoria BC, on November 14 with the aid of three stalwart sons – Stephen, Andrew and Nicholas – and one magnificently organized daughter-in-law Buni – Andrew’s wife. She and Andrew were the prime organizers; Stephen provided muscle and technical support, Nic more muscle, computer programming expertise (delivered in the rapid fire style of the 21st century and almost totally incomprehensible to my ancient ears) and his Paramedic and St. John’s Ambulance training. The latter were not needed but are always comforting to have on hand.

When I asked what my role would be on the transition day project-manager Andrew was precise in response: “Dad, just stay away until the jobs finished.”

Having always found it easy to follow such simple instructions I did just that staying well away from Berwick until late in the afternoon when I found my new living quarters nicely arranged, pictures hung, the bed made, the computers working, flat screen TV hooked up and functioning, a toaster, coffee maker and electric kettle ready to be of service.

So here I am at weekend, not fully settled in but fortunate and comfortable enough to know I’ll be kept warm, dry and well fed as I wait for the last train “to the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

Before it arrives (hopefully not for a few more years) I intend to go through those boxes the transition crew sighed over then stacked away. Maybe I’ll even start tomorrow – or the day after. Soon, anyway.


It’s Happened Before

It’s happened before, you know. And some of us are old enough to remember when the people of one of the most stable nations in the world fell under the spell of a crowd- pleasing orator and followed him almost to annihilation.

In his thought provoking essay – History tells us what may happen next – Tobias Stone (  describes that leader as a man appealing to citizens who were feeling they had lost control of their country and what they regarded as a proud destiny; an electorate feeling betrayed and looking for scapegoats.

Then along comes a charismatic leader who quickly captures the public mood and targets their scapegoats. “He talks in rhetoric that has no detail and drums up anger and hatred. Soon the masses start to move as one, without any logic driving their actions – and the whole becomes unstoppable.”

Stone was describing the rise of Hitler, the man who promised to make Germany great again after World War One and convinced the nation purification of race was essential to achieve that goal.

With a cabal of leaders of like mind, he set about cleaning out anything and anybody he considered to be threatening to the Germanic gene pool. In his thousand year Reich there would be no Jews, gypsies or any religions preaching love and understanding. He appointed like-minded or subservient judges to the courts to make sure his laws were upheld.

At first there were prison camps for those who didn’t fit or challenged the new doctrine. When they didn’t work as efficiently as this shaper of the new Germany hoped, prison camps became death camps and at the end of it all the once proud nation became a nation of the shamed, its leader crushed by world response to his unleashed evil.

Tobias Stone thinks we are on the cusp of entering another era of “unstoppable destruction that could have been prevented if only you (people) had listened and thought a bit.” He notes the pages of history are filled with rise and fall of tyrants who created only end-game agonies for those who survive the unstoppable destruction their anger and hate had launched.

Optimistically he figures, however rough the path ahead may be, even if “hellish and beyond imagination humans will come out the other side, recover and move on. The human race will be fine, changed, maybe for the better.” For those who survive “another of those stupid seasons human’s impose on themselves at fairly regular intervals … we humans have a habit of going into phases of mass destruction, generally self-imposed to some extent or another…”

A grim picture for sure, created by our own willingness to be wooed by the rhetoric, to follow a pied piper we know we shouldn’t trust and thus create for ourselves another holocaust.

It couldn’t happen in the dis-United States? Wise observers of world affairs thought the same way in the 1930s. The New York Times suggested Hitler’s threats and promises were just posturing, not really meant. Many high ranking members of the British Government thought the same and the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain once claimed after talks with Hitler an agreement on a path to world peace had been achieved.

The Jews have a slogan, a prayer, a promise about the final solution holocaust that claimed millions of lives and left so many millions more scarred for life. It is posted in the old death camps of Europe: “NEVER AGAIN”.

I can hope they’re right, but fear they are not.


Warriors To Be Remembered

It took the hospital ship Llandovery Castle three days to discharge 644 military patients, replenish supplies, and refuel for a return dash across the Atlantic for another load of survivors from the battlefields of France.

The former Union Castle Line steamship had docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on June 17, 1918. On the 20th she was back at sea, reprovisioned, carrying her regular crew plus a team of doctors and nurses … in all  seven officers, 14 nursing sisters and 72 other ranks.

The weather was fine for the crossing; the voyage uneventful for the first seven days. On June 27 Llandovery Castle was 116 miles (186 km) off the coast of Ireland. It was 9:30 p.m. with the ship observing war time rules ablaze with light, its giant red cross clearly marking it as a hospital ship when First Lieut. Helmut Patzig, commanding officer of the German submarine U-86, ordered torpedoes fired.

Patzig waited and watched as lifeboats were launched and then searched among them hoping to find evidence that the ship now sinking had been carrying arms. Finding no evidence, he ordered his crew to prepare to dive while he and two other officers attempted to execute all survivors by machine gun fire and sink the life boats to eliminate any evidence of a war crime.

In the growing dark, one lifeboat escaped with 24 survivors who were picked up 36 hours later. All 14 nursing sisters were among the 234 who were executed. Their names are listed on a war memorial in Halifax.

Less than 25 years later, on the other side of the world, more than 40 Australian nurses were executed by machinegun fire as they stood waist deep in the ocean lapping Radjik Beach on Banka Island in the Strait of Sumatra. They had been ordered to walk into the ocean by a Japanese officer. They were all shot in the back. One nurse survived the massacre.

Nursing Sister Vivian Bullwinkle was a relatively new recruit in the Australian Army Nursing Service when in August 1941 she was posted to Singapore. Seven months later she was among 300 people jammed on board an already overloaded coastal tramp freighter Vyner Brook which managed to get out of Singapore harbour just before the Japanese occupied the city.

After two days of slow progress the Vyner Brook was spotted by Japanese aircraft and bombed and sunk off Banka Island. Survivors clung to wreckage to swim or be swept to shore – but not all to the same beach. Nursing Sister Bullwinkle and 21 other nurses made it to Radjik beach along with 25 British soldiers and a merchant navy officer delegated to arrange a formal surrender.

But white flags and surrender meant little. Official histories tell us a platoon of 15 Japanese soldiers arrived, marched the 25 British soldiers around a nearby headland, shot or bayoneted them and left them for dead. When they returned to Radjik beach they ordered the nurses to start their death walk into the surf.

In 1983, lone survivor Nursing Sister Bullwinkle recalled: “When I was hit I remember thinking ‘it’s like the kick of a mule’.” In 1946, testifying before the War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo she said: “I was toward the end of the line and the bullet that hit me struck me at the waist and just went straight through.” She had the presence of mind to “play dead” and when the Japanese troops left she struggled ashore to find one other survivor, Private Patrick Kingsley, a wounded stretcher patient who had been bayoneted and left for dead.

Official records note Nurse Bullwinkle’s first priority was to dress to Private Kingsley’s wounds with whatever materials she could find. For 12 days, with basic food supplied by nearby villagers they survived barely. It was Nurse Bullwinkle who decided to take another chance on surrender.

Both were confined to bare-bones prison camps – one for men, the other for women and children. Private Kingsley died three days later. Nurse Bullwinkle was reunited with 24 nurses who had been swept ashore a few kilometers away and captured by less brutal forces. It would be three-and-a-half-years before the survivors of the original group of 65 nurses got home to Australia.

Nursing Sister Vivian Bullwinkle Statham (she married in 1977) died July 3, 2000 at the age of 84. There are memorial monuments to her and her nursing sisters in her homeland and on Radjik Beach, Banka Island, not unlike those in Halifax for the Llandovery Castle nurses.

I just had the thought that with November 11 only a few days away, the red poppies we wear should remind us of other warriors so soon forgotten, so often unsung.