My Pal

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When Dad was 14 he got a job at The Northampton Electric Light and Power Company in nearby Northampton. He fixed fridges and stoves, well pumps, installed wiring in houses that had never had electricity until then and wired up runway lights at Northolt Aerodrome so the allied bombers could land at night. World War II was raging in Europe at the time. Northampton, not being of industrial importance, was unscathed by German bombing raids. Dad remembered seeing from where he lived 20 miles away in Lower Harlestone the night glow of the manufacturing centre of Coventry burning from German bombs.

Dad could wire up anything. When I was growing up if any wiring needed doing around the house such as installing a light or electrical switch Dad would take care of it. I helped and he showed me a few basic things such as how to properly connect two wires. But on the whole Dad was left to do it. As a kid I accepted that this was Dad’s job. As an adult, and especially after Dad died, I wish I had learned more from him when I had the chance.

I listened as he told me about the people he met on his travels around the district to do various jobs. Roger, the butler of one of the houses Dad wired up sat him down at the pantry table when he had finished and said, “Here, have these.” Dad looked at the plate of different kinds of chocolates in front him that was unavailable to most people during the war.

“Where did you get these?” Dad asked.

The butler replied, “This is too good for those people,” referring to the Lord and Lady of the manner.

An elderly man in Northampton, Mr. Thomson, called regularly to have something fixed. He often asked specifically for Peter Spare. Dad showed up to fix the stove or whatever Mr. Thomson needed doing. Usually there was nothing wrong with it. He just wanted someone to talk to and he liked talking to Dad. All the jobs were timed so they knew at the shop about how long it would take him to return. Dad said, “I have to go they’re expecting me.”

“Oh, tell them the kitchen light and the fridge needed fixing as well,” Mr. Thomson was lonely. He had the money to pay for the all the work and having Dad’s company was well worth the expense.

One afternoon Dad arrived at what should have been another routine job. A Mrs. Jenkins had a problem with her space heater. He knocked on the door. No reply. So he opened the door a little and called in. Dad listened and heard a faint, ”Help! Help!”

Dad went in to discover Mrs. Jenkins elderly mother in bed with the bed clothes on fire. The space heater had shorted out and set the fire. Mrs. Jenkins mother was bed ridden and couldn’t get out. Dad pulled the burning bed clothes off and threw them outside before the flames got to her. Mrs. Jenkins had just gone to the barn when Dad arrived and would not have been back in time to help her mother. Needless to say both women were very grateful.

When he wasn’t telling me about his days in Lower Harlestone Dad talked about his time in the Royal Air Force and his posting to India. Dad volunteered for the RAF when he was 17 rather than be drafted into the army at 18. His Uncle Ted was an engineer in the RAF stationed in Dayton, Ohio, developing the jet engine with the US Air Force. Ted was Dad’s idol and the reason Dad wanted to be an engineer. But that would have to wait until after the war. Dad wanted to work with radar – the new technology of the day. The RAF wasn’t hiring for that position but they needed people in the medical lab. So Dad changed his plan. It turned out to be his life’s career.

When Dad was signing up the officer taking down the personal information asked the Irishman in the line in front of him, “Name?” then, “Occupation?”

The Irishman and his friends had been smuggling goods across the Irish Sea. When they realized that the authorities were catching up with them they decided to enlist.

“Smuggler,” the Irishman replied.

“A what? I can’t put that down,” said the astonished officer.

The Irishman turned to his friend further back in the line, “Seamus, I’m a smuggler, right?” Seamus confirmed this. The Irishman looked at the officer who thought for a moment and then wrote transportation.

The new recruits were sent to Yorkshire in the north of England for three months of basic training and to life in the RAF. All kinds of people from every walk of life were thrown together to work as a team. Some of the men in the unit couldn’t take it and broke down. Dad’s non-judgmental nature allowed him to accept people as they were and to make the best of whatever situation he was in. It enabled him to both endure and prosper by seeing the good side of whatever he did, wherever he was, or whomever he was with. Throughout his life Dad could see the humanity in people that made them who they were and accept them for it. He would find people who were interesting for what they knew. But moreover he liked people because of their character that made them different in some way. It’s what I learned to like about people too.

Dad and the other recruits were each issued a riffle and taught how to use it. Then they were ordered to board a Lancaster bomber for the long flight to Karachi which was in India at that time. The men sat on hammocks strung over the bomb bay doors that didn’t quite close. Their hammocks were strung low enough that when they sat on them the men could put their feet on the bomb bay doors and watch the land or sea go by through the crack. They all hoped nobody opened the doors. In Karachi they helped to run the RAF #10 base hospital.

The war in Europe was coming to an end so the hospital’s main function was to treat British casualties who fought the Japanese in Burma along with receiving British POWs held by the Japanese. Dad squeamishly talked about the huge jungle sores he saw on the casualties and the emaciated state of the POWs. The jungle sores and other injuries were treated and the POWs were fattened up before they were allowed to return to Britain. They also provided medical treatment for the local people.

The RAF brass regularly ordered the British lab staff out on a route march. A sign was posted on the bulletin board giving them notice: ROUTE MARCH WEDNESDAY 0900 HOURS. Dad’s commanding officer, who was a physician, called to head office, “Look, we don’t have time for this. We’re trying to run a hospital.”

A note to state that the march was cancelled was later attached to the bottom of the sign. The RAF brass didn’t catch on. They kept ordering route marches and Dad’s CO would be on the phone to get them cancelled.

After four years in Karachi Dad was sent back to Britain. He always spoke warmly of the Indian people and his time there. Although Dad never went back to Karachi a part of him never left.

Dad returned to Lower Harlestone and to the job he had before he left. He now wanted to become a Clinical Chemist and work in a hospital. The regular program in London at the University of London was full. So Dad worked full time during the day and took evening courses in Northampton set by the University of London for four years to earn his degree.

After a full day’s work Dad often came home to find that he had been volunteered, usually by his mother, to repair the stove or a light for a neighbour. Everyone helped each other in a small village. He had to squeeze it in between supper, going to class and/or studying. By the time he graduated Dad was tired of being Mr. Fix-it. Uncle Ted told Dad that he couldn’t stay where he was if he wanted to get ahead in life. Dad decided then that he would leave the UK.

In 1952, when Dad received his degree, he took a job as assistant Clinical Chemist at Hillingdon Hospital in Uxbridge in Northwest London. Before he left to go to London his father, Pop, advised Dad, “Son, if you need a helping hand you’ll find one at the end of your arm.”

Dad never forgot it and it influenced many decisions he made throughout his life. He would do things by his own device rather than seek help – an ideal that also influenced me.

One Saturday morning close to a year before he died Dad reminisced about his boyhood years in Lower Harlestone. He looked straight at me with an expression of sudden realization on his face and said, “You and I would have been good friends.” I have no doubt we would have.

Instead Dad and I enjoyed a close friendship as father and son. Dad called me Pal. I was his pal and he was certainly mine. My heart ached when I realized I would never hear him call me Pal again.

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