Lower Harlstone

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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Saturday Morning Chats With Dad

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The next morning, Saturday, when Dad and I would have had our chat, I sat at the kitchen table and looked at Dad’s empty chair. I imagined him sitting across the kitchen table from me just as he and I had done for as long as I can remember. From topic to topic we expressed our opinions. We were mostly alike in how we saw things, but we appreciated each other’s points of view when they differed. We sailed the seas of each other’s thoughts knowing we would never be judged or refuted. Everything was interesting to us. Because our minds were very broad we discussed all sorts of things – be they world events, past or present, the projects we were working on, people we met or just to be there to listen with a sympathetic ear. Dad and I had a natural curiosity about people and places and had an insatiable appetite for learning new things.

Dad’s views were staunchly conservative – a stand-on-your-own-two-feet and a cash-on-the-barrel stance. Although I shared Dad’s conservative nature I was more liberal in how I saw things. My reality was that we all need support at some point in our lives.

Our Saturday morning chats were times for us to find respite from an often crazy world. We found solace in sharing our thoughts even if it was just for an hour. For the last few years of his life Dad‘s mind narrowed in scope. I found this disheartening but our comradery more than made up for it.

Dad often recounted his days as a boy and young man. I loved to listen to these stories no matter how many times I heard them. As Dad reminisced he roamed the streets of the village where he grew up and I was there with him.

Dad was born Peter Dennitts Spare on October 27, 1926, in Lower Harlestone, England. It was a village of centuries old sandstone tenant houses owned by the Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s family. Young Edward John (Johnnie) Spencer, the future 8th Earl Spencer, Diana’s father, was a few years older than Dad. Dad got to know him as well as someone from the village could get to know one of the Spencers. Johnnie liked to escape from Althorp, the Spencer family manor, to go have a pint with the boys at The Fox and Hound (now The Dusty Fox), the local pub. It wouldn’t be long before his father sent the chauffeur to bring him back. Dad’s sister, Jean, who was considered prim and proper enough by the Spencer family, was invited to Althorp from time to time to have tea with the young Anne Spencer who later was Diana’s aunt.

Lower Harlestone was a community where everybody knew everyone and all about each other’s business. All the adults looked out for each other’s children. The house Dad grew up in was next to the blacksmith’s forge. Dad told me many times about blowing the bellows of the furnace while Mr. Smith, the blacksmith, heated a metal rod in the flames to shape it or helping Mr. Smith shoe a horse. Dad told me about the time when he and his friends found some small tires, a wooden box and other parts in the village dump to make a go cart. Then they rode it down the shallow sloping road past the blacksmith’s forge. When Mr. Smith saw them he called out, “You young devils, you’ll break your necks!” He put brakes and a proper steering mechanism on it before he let the boys use it again. Of course Dad and his friends knew Mr. Smith would do this and that’s why they rode it past his forge.

One time they found an old motorcycle in the dump. They cleaned it up, put some kerosene in the tank and got it running. Another time they found a mold for making lead musket balls lying on the edge of the garbage pit. They scrounged up some lead and melted it down to cast musket balls for their sling shots to shoot rats. Dad said he couldn’t hit a moving rat but his friends got pretty good at it. Lead was much easier to come by in those days since it was used for plumbing and to shingle roofs.

The village was laid out in a large square with the houses facing inward. Behind them stretched farmland and pastures. The kids spent summer days romping through the fields. They seldom went hungry. If they wanted something to eat they pulled up a carrot. Often they went scrumping in the vicarage apple orchard. The vicar said they could eat the fallen apples. If there weren’t any apples lying on the ground they gave the trees a good shake.

In the 1800s Dad’s family was silversmiths and quite well off. A couple of alcoholics in the family drank the business and had drained the wealth by the time Dad was born. Luckily living in a village where everyone looked out for each other they seldom wanted for anything. Crime was unheard of. No one locked their door – even if the door happened to have a lock on it. Parents only worried about their kids when they weren’t home for supper.

During the week Dad attended the small two room village school. The four to eight year old children were taught in one room and the nine to fourteens in the other. The lavatories were outside enclosed by five-foot-high walls but no roof. The urinal in the boy’s washroom was a long, gently sloping, shallow trough on the floor with a small stream of water running down it. The boys stood at the trough and instead of peeing into it they had competitions to see who could pee the highest much to the dismay of Mrs. Miller who lived next door. She had an ongoing complaint to Mr. Derbyshire, the head master of the school, about the spouts of urine arching over the wall onto her rose bushes. Dad laughed, “Little boys can pee a long way.”

Dad’s favourite teacher, Mr. Guest, had a gentle way about him. He instilled within Dad a love for learning. Mr. Guest could demonstrate practical applications for everything that he taught his students in class. He took his students for field trips around the village to show them things such as how to estimate the height of a house or tree using trigonometry. For memory training he got them to memorize and recite poetry in class. Years later Dad could still recite many of the poems. Wearing a broad smile he recited “Leisure” by the Welsh poet, William Henry Davies because the sixth line, “Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass,” made his best friend, Ron, laugh uncontrollably.

Dad said Mr. Guest could make anything interesting. He would have classes after school for the brighter students who wanted to learn more. He believed in teaching his pupils as much as they were able to learn and Dad willingly learned everything Mr. Guest could teach him.

Dad and his sister, Jean, visited their Grandmother on Saturday mornings to help her bake. Their Grandmother gave them each a lump of cookie dough to shape. She took the well-worked dough shapes blackened by active young hands that needed washing and put them in the oven to bake with the other cookies. Then she sent the two children off to play. Amazingly their cookies came out of the oven baked all clean and well-shaped like the others. Another reason Dad and Jean liked going to their Grandmother’s house was because she was completely deaf. They could make all the noise they liked and it didn’t bother her.

On Sundays Dad assisted with the church services as an altar server, singing in the choir, pumping the bellows of the church organ or, Dad’s favourite job, chiming the bells in the church tower. From Dad’s description of St. Andrew’s you would think it was a big church and to Dad as a young boy it was. When I saw it years later it was a small village church built in the 1400s made from the same sandstone from the same nearby quarry as the houses. In the churchyard cemetery I found headstones dating as far back as the 1600s.

Uncle Arthur and his wife Lillian were two of Dad’s favourite relatives. I know very little about Uncle Arthur except that he was a man of his convictions and faith. One evening he went out in the rain to help neighbours fix a wheel on their cart. He caught pneumonia and died. Arthur’s wishes were that half his ashes be scattered over the moors and the other half among the firs. The first part of Arthur’s final request was carried out. But Aunt Lil couldn’t bear to part with the remaining half of his ashes. Uncle Arthur in his urn, or rather half of Uncle Arthur, went back home with Aunt Lil and took up residence on the mantelpiece of the fireplace in her bedroom.

Aunt Lil sailed to America annually for some years after her husband died but, in a sense, never alone. Arthur in his urn travelled with her. When she got back home Arthur went back in his spot above the fireplace. When Aunt Lil died Dad took Uncle Arthur’s urn from the mantelpiece. His remaining half was interred along with Aunt Lil’s ashes in the family plot in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Lower Harlestone.

Dad told me about Dr. Churchouse who was a portly old country doctor with a low, gravelly voice who thought highly of himself. He visited Lower Harlestone once a week and ate his midday meal at Dad’s house. “And boy could he eat!” Dad said. His round figure was testament to his healthy appetite. The doctor’s remedy for everything was to prescribe a laxative. Each winter Dad got the flu which gave him an upset stomach and diarrhea for two weeks. When Dr. Churchouse came by on his weekly visits he would inquire about young Peter. Hearing of Peter’s ailment the doctor gruffly pronounced, despite the diarrhea, “Give him California Syrup of Figs.”

Dad hated this and put up a valiant fight by clamping his mouth shut. His father held him still and pinched his nose so he would have to open his mouth to breathe. When he did in went a spoonful of the mixture his mother had waiting for him. Dad promptly ran outside to throw up. This happened regularly but to Dad’s parents the doctor’s order was beyond question.

California Syrup of Figs: A fruit laxative containing Senna leaf and fig extracts in syrup.