This is a fairly short blog because I have had a certain amount of difficulty writing it. It’s a bit more personal than my usual offerings. Some people go through life never having seen a dead body let alone touched one. Some people have never been in a situation so stressful that they will remember it the whole of their lives let alone give them sleepless nights, I envy them!
I don’t know what it is about me but when I look back at my life it seems rather like a broth of chaos. Before I was sixteen I stood on an armed merchantman in Korea as the ship unloaded equipment for our UN troops while the US fleet were offshore pounding seven bells out of the enemy in the hills above us. I stood mouth open watching shells that seemed the size of a double-decker bus streaking over our heads before erupting in huge explosions into the jungle. I won’t say I was scared, I was bloody terrified.
That same voyage I visited Hiroshima in Japan just a few years after it was decimated by “Little Boy” the atomic bomb dropped by an American Superfortress bomber. That introduced me to man’s inhumanity to man!
Later on, I stood on the bridge of a frigate, next to a shipmate, the ship rolled and a loaded Very flare Pistol slid across the chart table and accidentally fired. The phosphorous/magnesium flare shot him in the stomach. We helplessly watched him die in agony. The nightmare continued when we had to relive it through several Boards of Enquiry.
Another time I had to pull a close friend’s body out of his crashed glider. He had been training for a stunt glider competition and failed to complete the performance. My life carried on, unlike his. At one time I had to pick up a severed human head and all I could think of was how heavy it was. On two separate occasions I have picked up a severed leg to remove it from the road. I just made ghoulish jokes to hide my horror.
Fifty years ago in 1966 I went with my team to give what help we could to what is now known as the ‘Aberfan disaster’, we got there two days after the tragedy and relieved some of the exhausted rescuers in their hunt for survivors at the Pantglas Primary School which had been totally engulfed by a coal slag heap that had towered over the town until it slipped down into the town. 85 children died in that school, in total 144 people were killed in the town that horrendous day, 116 of them were children. There were no ghoulish jokes, just anger and blame being thrown around. I had a few sleepless nights after that catastrophe but my life carried on.
I seem to have developed a hard casing over the years that has helped me put these sorts of memories out of my mind. I hardly ever talk about them and normally seal them up in my “not wanted on voyage through life” bag, perhaps to be stored in our loft or somewhere equally out of sight and out of mind. Last week another tragedy occurred, this time it was an earthquake in the mountains of central Italy, where the death toll was 240 and rising. Modern communications being what they are such scenes are becoming commonplace. Some manmade like Aleppo in Syria and others natural disasters like this one and we are possibly becoming inured to them.
I was watching on TV at the rescue efforts continuing in Amatrice hoping to find survivors; suddenly I watched the footage as a 10 year old girl was pulled alive from the rubble and I stopped breathing for a moment. In my mind saw the children’s bodies in Aberfan. A little boy and girl aged about six years’ old, holding hands even in death trying to comfort each other. The deputy head teacher was found dead, he was clutching five children in his arms as if he had been protecting them. I just burst into tears and began blubbing out my memories of Aberfan, just saying “the little boy and girl were holding hands”. My wife rushed across the room to hug and comfort me as I sobbed.
There are tears running down my cheeks as I’m typing this a week after my breakdown. Perhaps I should have kept this all to myself but I thought telling you might help to rid me of the Devil. Can someone suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder fifty years after the event? Don’t be daft! It’s just weakness in old age. Age shows no mercy.