In our early teens, my brother and I got into a bit of trouble.
It wasn’t anything that unusual for boys our age, and at that time, but we were held up to a different light by our teachers, our clergy, and most of the townsfolk.
And so when the news of our arrest spread through our little culchie-cauldron of a town, there was much excitement—rejoicing, even—amongst our teachers, our clergy and most of the townsfolk.
“Oh, they think they’re so high and mighty, what with their cordless phone and “the” central heating! We’ll see what they say now, with two of the three boys in jail!”
(No one said that, but I know they were thinking it.)
We were in jail for a few hours only, which was very good. But it was our mother that came for us, and that was very bad indeed. She had (and has still) that very special power that Irish mothers have of inflicting soul-searing guilt with just a look. It works something like this; your mother arrives at the police station looking her natural age, maybe a bit younger even. She pauses, and a wind whirls around her; she is transformed into a piteous, trembling crone. She enters the station, looking at the policemen with a look that says, “Surely it wasn’t my boys that done it? Oh, Jesus how I’ve suffered in raising them, giving them all that I had, so I did! And this is how they repay me? Surely the judge will show them mercy, at least the young one, there?” And the policemen stare at their shoes and shake their heads sadly, and for a moment you think, Well, she’s torn to shreds, which is bad enough, but at least we won’t be punished at home. But by Christ you are ever so wrong, because once you are outside said police station, the whirlwind comes back and transforms your mammy into a wrathful demon that doesn’t care if you’re sixteen and taller than she; she grabs you by the ear and whispers that she knows you were the instigator, and as such will bear the full brunt of her anger—here she pauses and says in a cold piercing whisper–“And your father’s, too!” All the while your younger brother is dancing wildly behind her back and making faces and pointing at you and you’re trying not to laugh and/or piss yourself with terror.
(Individual experiences may vary.)
What made all of this so much worse is that my father was recovering from surgery at the time and was in a weakened state. (Actually, in retrospect that was probably a good thing.) And so when we arrived at home, instead of receiving the beating of a life time, my brother and I were ushered into a room where my father sat behind his desk. He looked unbelievably weary. My mother left and closed the door behind her. For a moment I wished I was still in jail. My father stared at us for a long time. Finally he pointed behind us, at a plaque on the wall that bore our family name.
“Do you see that name?”
We nodded mutely.
“That’s my name, too.”
Knocked the breath right out of me.
He dismissed us, and that was that.
A few days later, he came into my bedroom with a paperback book. He handed it to me.
Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo.
“I want you to read this.”
“You need to read this.”
Johnny Got His Gun is a book about a young man who is hit by an artillery shell on the last day of WWI. He loses his arms, his legs, his powers of sight, speech and hearing. He has no way of communicating with the outside world and is forced to live out the rest of his life drifting between dream, memory and reality. And just in case that isn’t bad enough, there is a special surprise for Johnny at the end of the book—and you’re invited!
After a day or two, I’d finished it, and knew why my father had wanted me to read it in the first place.
“Finish the book yet, soldier boy?”
“Still feel like playing soldier, soldier boy?”
“Nah.” I felt wretched after having read it, but at least seeing me so lifted my father’s spirits.
There are some things you can learn a little about from books, but you don’t really know until you’ve experienced them in real life.
One of those things is war.
Another is love…
(to be continued…)