“Did you fight in World War Two?”, I once asked my Grandad when I was young, naive and uninformed. “No”, he told me, “I was a little boy back then”. If I had asked that question today I would have been laughed at for my poor ability to do basic maths, as my Grandad was 64 and the year was 1999, but at that time my juvenile mind could be forgiven for such a mistake. “Can you remember it?”, was my next question. “Only very vaguely”, he replied (I just nodded as I didn’t know what that word meant). He then went on to tell me a story. A story that had a rather profound effect on my young self. To the best of my recollection, it went like this:
“It was the year 1941 and I was five years old. At that time, England and Germany weren’t getting along very well. There were these people in Germany called the Nazis who wanted the whole world to be like them, but we said no. This made them very cross. Now you know when you throw a tantrum because you can’t have your own way?” I nodded, and I seem to remember my mum rolling her eyes. “Well, that’s exactly what the Nazis did! They flew planes over to England and dropped lots of bombs on us, and we called it the Blitz.
“During the Blitz, I was living in a small house with my mother. My father had joined the army and gone to help fight those horrible Nazis. My mother, your great grandma, found it very difficult to look after us both. All the food was rationed, which meant that everyone was only allowed a certain amount because our supplies were being cut off by the enemy, and we had barely enough to feed us. What made it even harder for her was the fact that I had the measles.” I gasped, as I had learnt about the measles in school and knew that it was very bad. “This meant that my mother had to be very careful not to let me near other people in case I passed the measles onto them.” At this point, an alarming thought hit me and I jumped backwards about a metre. “You’re not going to give the measles to me are you Grandad?!”, I asked. “No silly boy! I don’t have them any more!” He proceeded to laugh heartily as I sat back in my spot, ridiculed and disgraced, and then continued the story.
“One evening, my mother was walking back home from collecting our rations with me in her arms when all of a sudden she heard the terrible wailing sound of the air-raid sirens! The Nazi planes were coming to drop more bombs on the town, so my mother had to rush home as fast as she could so we could get into the bomb shelter and be safe. As she ran through the streets the bombs started falling around us” He made explosion noises for dramatic effect and all the time I was staring with wide eyes and an open mouth. “But when we got back to our house, we found that it wasn’t there anymore. A bomb had fallen right on top of it and it was now just a big pile of rubble” This revelation shocked me in a similar manner to the part in The Lion King where Mufasa is killed by Scar (one of the more traumatic moments of my childhood). I would have been on the edge of my seat had I not been sitting on the floor.
“What did you do? Where were you going to live?”, I asked. “Well”, he paused for a second either to maintain the suspense or because his memory had momentarily failed (as often happened when he was telling stories), “because we had nowhere else to go, we were taken to one of the special underground shelters that had been set up for people whose houses had been bombed”. This gave me an air of relief as I was deftly afraid that my infant grandad and relatively young great grandmother were going to be forced to live on the streets (I had seen people who lived on the streets and they weren’t particularly pleasant looking). However, the next word he spoke quickly dispelled the relief.
“But”, that infamous conjunction which always presumes to ruin everything, “when we got to the shelter we found that it wasn’t very nice. The ceiling was leaking, it was quite small and very crowded, meaning that everyone was all squashed together. This particularly worried my mother because of my measles, which was very contagious”, thankfully I had learnt this word in school just a few days prior so I didn’t have to interrupt him to ask what it meant. “If she took me in there was a very high chance that everyone in the shelter would catch it!” “Oh no!”, I exclaimed, momentarily throwing Grandad off track. “So”, he continued, “my mother, being the selfless person that she was, decided that we would not stay in the shelter after all and instead we were able to stay with one of the neighbours whose house hadn’t been bombed. The very next morning, as my mother was downstairs eating breakfast while I was still sound asleep in bed, she saw something in the morning paper that chilled her to the bone”. I prepared myself as I had a feeling I was in for yet another ghastly shock. “On the front page was an article saying that the shelter we had looked at the previous night had flooded. A water pipe had burst and the exit had been blocked by debris from the bombing, meaning that everyone inside had drowned”. My vocabulary hadn’t quite expanded enough to include the word debris but I knew perfectly well what drowning meant, and it didn’t take long for me to work out the implications of this development.
“But that means,” I began with confidence, “if you had stayed in the shelter, then you would have drowned too!” Exactly”, Grandad confirmed, “and if I had, then I wouldn’t have married your grandma and had your dad, and you would never have been born!” This revelation caused my young mind to spin to such a degree I almost felt dizzy. “In a funny way, me having the measles as a baby is the reason you are alive!” I let this sit with me for the rest of the evening, as we had dinner, watched a bit of TV and finally set off home.
After hearing this story of how a deadly disease saved my Grandad’s life and therefore indirectly assured my existence, I was perplexed. It is also vexing to think that so many people died and yet one was chosen by fate to survive and pass on his torch in the gene pool (although my philosophizing was of course not quite as deep at the time). I couldn’t help thinking to myself back then, and I still think to myself now: it’s a funny world we live in.
Posted by Frank Short