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Margaret Jane Purslow

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A Boy, A Man, A Hero
By Margaret Jane Purslow
Saturday, August 08, 2009

Rated "G" by the Author.

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This is NOT a fictitious story, this was life during the war years in Manchester in the 1940's, that was not just any boy.

Did I know when I walked beside the rippling stream and made acorn leaf boats float buoyantly down; when you took my hand, guiding me between the autumn leaves with your words of wisdom echoing in my soul, when we laughed and sang songs of yesteryear? Did I know that you that man beside my side, my father, my dad, was that same boy who made boats upon the rippling stream and sang songs significant of patriotic lives, while Solomon's words sounded through your mind. Yes I knew, then and I will always know of the hero that you were and the hero that you will always be to me.




There is darkness, darkness, black consuming black all around. Peace, quietness, silence. I open my eyes, my eyes become familiar to objects jutting out in this smog of darkness and there isn't peace and quiet, for outside I can see flashes tearing the night apart in shreds. I can hear crashes like thunder in the distance, except there is no thunder. Instead there are searchlights spotlighting the clouds to reveal the image of some German bomber creeping through the clouds, and then the hollow sky will roar as the gun emplacements obliterate the images of the enemy.



It is quite late tonight, everyone is in bed asleep, or perhaps they are awake like I am, listening to the shells firing. We did not go to the shelter tonight when those frightening, nerve-wrecking sirens sounded. Tonight, like most nights, we decided to leave our fate in the hands of God and remain inside.


The air-raid warden came round earlier and with his echoing voice he checked that all lights were out, although by now we were used to being cut off from the outside world with our blankets strewn over the windows hermit-ting us inside.


So now I look upon the hollow night sky and I am filled with emotions of hate and awe; and my mind is consumed with memories: the dominant strain I felt being uprooted from my accustomed family,
my gang of friends and the niche of comfort in the misbehaved "goings on" of a ten-year-old, when in 1939,  I was evacuated from Harpurhey, Manchester, my home.


Before the great secret departure took place, I remember only snippets of events and flashes of expressions. I remember my mother's grim face as she carved the names of her children on the governmental forms, the names of her children that would be separate from her, separate from the conspicuous industrial areas to the hidden coves of the country. Although part of her was being torn away she knew that it was for their safety.


I remember how our childish faces were engulfed behind grotesque gas masks, like some picture out of a horror movie. Yet at the same time we probably felt our childish belonging and the importance of owning our individual gas mask boxes slung over our shoulders.


It was a terrifying morning in 1939. All knew that war was imminent.

However, there was doubt in our little minds and in the experienced minds of our parents whether we would become one again.



It was so formal:


"Boys and girls in two groups, please."

"The boys of Boardman Street gather here please."


That was my street and there was my neighbourhood friend moving towards the group. But as for me, I didn't want to say goodbye to my mother, to my sister, to my wild childhood joys, and I didn't want to see my mother's tears as she waved goodbye. I didn't care for the packed delights that were given to us for our journey: the biscuits,   chocolate and bully beef that would have normally assured importance. I didn't want .to go to discipline, properness and the coldness of a temporary adopted family. The train dragged on, I couldn't stop it; I couldn't stop this war.


Preston in Lancashire was beautiful. I never had the delicacies of nature like this in Manchester. Life was hard in Manchester. Chimneys smoking, how my mother and sisters had to clean the hearth out, it was such a tedious affair, and now how I longed for it. Yet there we were, Bill and I, in one of the picturesque parts of England but my goodness, if only our adopted parents were as picturesque.

Well, the woman of the house was an epitome of discipline. We weren't used to this kind of strictness.  Our lives had run wild; we were used to the freedoms of our gang


The introductions were all very proper, and already in my mind I had prominent plans of an evacuation of my own.


Throughout the journey we had munched on our biscuits and comforting chocolate which were minute solaces to the bitterness in our hearts. Yet once all niceties were over, I can still hear her austere voice sirening, "I'll take those, thank you"; and then we knew this was not going to be any picnic.


I guess being a boy; one appreciated a man’s company more in this time of patriotism and guardianship and my adopted father was just like an adopted father for me. As my stay progressed, he was to play a prominent role in soothing those war wounds in my heart. He understood more somehow. I guess he too knew that for a lad, war was something brewing in your soul. I will never forget him. 


The River Ribble was the greatest thing for our "Sherlock" minds. We constructed our boy scout fishing rods with twig, cotton and those wiggling worms (we loved thrusting our hands into the oozing muddy ground and plucking a worm out of the rich anchorage of the earth), and "voila" our proud fishing expedition began.


We'd make boats and have races to see which boat would pass the winning line first and which boat would end up capsizing first. I'm proud to say mine usually did win, and yet through all this glamour as our boats drifted down the gurgling brook, so our minds kept drifting, wondering when we would return.


The nights were similar to my nights in Harpurhey now. They were still as quiet and subdued except the flashes in the dark were the flashes in my mind, and the drilling of shells was the drilling of discipline and aloofness which rang through the semi-detached house. The neat, clean, cozy rooms with their learned books and sounding radio could not erase our need for coziness and nourishment which we longed for from our mothers.


I suppose it would not be right to judge the lady of the house, too much, because I presume it was as much a strain on her as it was on us. I mean, we weren't exactly angels! Perhaps not having children of her own, she lacked the understanding and knowing that a mother of her own child would have. Yet she tried her best to see that we lived healthily and clean.


She was unaccustomed to our muddy faces and clothes as we emerged like two mud-monsters from the river, sharing our naughty giggles.  Perhaps we gave her something she never had and perhaps this frightened her.

So naturally before the main evening meal we had to see that we were respectable and on our best behaviour before we approached the table. Our naughtiness was limited and we had to comply with being as nice as possible to her.


Her manners were impeccable, mine deteriorating and Bill's deteriorated and demolished. He would chew his food laboriously like some crane hoisting rubbish from a rubbish heap, opening and closing his mouth like the jaws of the crane which opened and closed mobilizing the rubbish from one heap to the next. It was quite amusing for me, but for her it was astounding, improper and not tolerated. She rang words of horror:


"Bill, close your mouth, your manners are shocking, and you eat like a pig!" Bill did not hesitate to obey.


In a way she molded us into more humane beings. We did not have to become soldiers in a world war to become men. This whole strict, foreign and strained outing into the country transformed us into "little men" learning the mysteries of life.

For a man in his thirties, my adopted dad had a treasure chest of wisdom carved in his soul. He did everything with me, everything a -, father would do with his son. Perhaps I was like the son he never had. We went for many walks and I became educated with Penworthen fairly well.


We went to the local railway station and sat watching trains go by, listening to the grating sound of the heavy engines scouring the tracks. I. looked forward to this, for often he'd buy me a "penny-chocolate" out of a machine. We spent many outings by the park, river and canals. On Saturday mornings we would look inside the shop windows in town. I was envious of what I could not have.


Later on we attended that dreaded place - the country school, but our minds never stayed on school work. Instead these outings became an echo for me of what my life had been like before the war.

The town reminded me of my own town with my neighbourhood gang. I laugh now when I think of how we used lamp posts as stumps for cricket and how we roared when the wickets fell. The outings in the park reminded me of Heaton Park: our expeditions of stealing neighbourhood apples, playing "whip and top", looking for golf balls and the greatest amusement of all - flying kites! We were geniuses. Any child could master this with ease: tissue paper, cane built into a cross, flour and water, newspaper pieces for the tail, and then any kind of kite imaginable soared the skies.


Life in Penworthen became increasingly dull. I hated school and I could not stop my mind questioning the progress of the war and the progress of my family. Despite my mother's visits and visits to my sister in another part of Penworthen, I became so homesick that nothing amused me. I was sick of this way of life. This was not my life; my life was in Manchester, in the core of the devastation of the war. I wanted to see the war for myself, to experience it, to live it. I wanted to be on home-ground again.


Now a couple of years later, with the country experience embe dded in my soul, I feel experienced too as I glance at the vast expanse before me.


Ah, the sky is clearing now, yet still the searchlights search the clouds and the night air is becoming colder, crisper. I can't help wondering, imagining, that one of our R.A.F pilots is also flying over some forbidden land, living momentarily, dreading the moment when death meets him face to face. He will be a hero fighting to save his country from Germany's thrashing jaws. Men like him impregnate a feeling of victory and pride on little boys' minds, who become enraptured with an adventurous romance of the whole war. Little boys become sleepy: drooping eyelids, nodding heads, drifting and transporting them to another time when all will be free.


The next day was a day I will never forget, because it eradicated little pieces of my boyish perception of the war. It made me realize that I and the R.A.F pilot were kindred spirits. We both missed the spotlight of death's grip. I wasn't the R.A.F pilot who held his breath whispering a prayer as he passed over enemy land. I was the boy who gasped as my mother and I walked numbly down the road to the house - so close to mine - which was now a heap of smoldering rubble, due to the effect of a parachute bomb. THIS was war.


War was a little girl's doll with its mass of golden blonde hair covered with ash, distorted under the remains of what living room had once been.


War was the horrified expressions on neighbouring faces, the uncontrollable flow of tears of relatives and friends.

War was the total loss of life built into a dream house with reminiscences of photograph frames of cracked glass, mirroring the happy times a family shared.


War was the thoughts my mother had transparent upon her face, thoughts of thankfulness combined with emotions of fright and despair, by bravery and strength to keep her children calm.

I watched her turn and walk away towards Mr. Mottershead ' s Bakery, Mr. Odel's Green Grocer and the ever-welcome “fish and chip” shop (another time I would have whooped for joy) .


War was a time when rations were the order of the day. Yet my mother always managed to provide a meal for her children, to build our strength and character to face the onslaught the war presented.

The afternoon on the day of the parachute bomb, we rounded up our neighborhood gang and embarked to roam the streets. It wasn't long before our faces were covered in soot as we sifted through the rubble, seeking treasure that would make one captain for that day.

It was thrilling to find shrapnel and shells but this was merely common treasure, one could say like bronze. It was magical to find pieces of guns; one immediately soared to higher rank of importance amongst the boys - silver. The “captain hero fighter” was the boy who found a regimental badge and this was gold! I found one like this.

It was mine, mine to polish, to shine and to admire - it was out of this world, it was a hundred times better than my shrapnel tins!


Fear contorted peoples faces, laughing faces became those grief-stricken with death and hardship. Fear consumed their actions, feelings and routines. Soon it became common for people to carry torches in case of blackouts, soon funny kennel-like establishments hounded backyards and gardens. It was fascinating to watch block by block of concrete stones erect a shelter, supposedly not penetrable to German bombs. Peoples' lives became a frenzy as many evacuated to the underground railways when sirens blurted, knowing that their lives stood a better chance there. The war dragged its plague on and on; infecting all human life in its path and no one was immune anymore. My mind and my friends' minds became hypnotized by this war.


I continued my schooling at Burgess Street and my lessons were text booked by the sinking of the Ark Royal Carrier and the H.M.S Hood and very studiously, with my classmates, we constructed images of submarines and battleships underneath our desks.


Naturally, this conscientious behavior constituted my regular receiving of canes especially from Mr. Cosser (my very strict music teacher). He did try to distract our minds by taking us to the park, we each received allotments for growing vegetables, and we also made flutes out of bamboo pieces.


Mr. Potts was another teacher who would frequently arrive on his motorbike and would receive an explosion of giggles.


Oh, how life slips by unknowingly. I was becoming a man and soon I was no longer interested in counting how many German planes had been shot down. I had responsibilities to protect the ones I loved. I was fourteen and in my mind I was a man.


Often I'd stay with my elder sister at night, while her husband served in the National Fire Brigade, killing the murdering flames of bombs, as the final terror of war drew to a close.


Yes, those years were difficult ones for a boy, but it enraptured a romantic adventure every boy dreams of in the past or the present.

I was important, I was part of history, I was a hero too.


Although I didn't meet my fate in the clouds in one exciting moment, I experienced the pain and sorrow, the effects the war rained down. This was war. I felt it, I breathed it, and I was part of it. It wasn't easy being apart from the ones you loved, to be strong when you wanted to be weak, wanting to be held while you wiped away the tears, to be a man, when all you wanted to be was a boy.                                                                                                                                  END.




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Reviewed by Regis Auffray 9/19/2009
In my humble opinion, you write very well Margaret. Thanks for sharing your story. Love and best wishes,


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