"The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long."
-Duke of Albany to conclude King Lear
At 37, he gave me life. An accountant, veteran and sportsman, Dad gave me a work ethic based on loyalty to employer, a sense of humor with an edge, and an example of a happy, long marriage.
His devout belief in fair play, replaying a tennis point rather than have an unhappy opponent, probably spurred me to become a soccer referee. My C in mathematics, however, precluded a comparable career; my B in English demanded journalism, not academia. Never a soldier, though with an appreciation for those who serve, my life's battles have been so minor in comparison that Albany's quote from Lear comes to mind
Unlike Lear, Dad is still kicking. But only just. He turned 90 in mid-March and we gathered in his brick three-bedroom duplex south of London to share a weekend of gaiety that exceeded his regular chocolate quotient but exhausted a worn, curved body that has survived civilization's leap from horse-drawn buggies to space rockets.
From working-class beginnings, Dad was a scholarship boy who attended a minor private school, endured England's Great Depression, helped defeat Hitler (at a cost), then settled into middle-class suburbia, with a daily train journey "up" to London, and four decades crunching numbers for the power company.
Growing up in a family of two parents and two sons, four years apart, my Mum's sewing prowess was the centerpoint of our existence, followed closely by sports, as spectators and participants. We learned to lip read the telly amid the rumble of the sewing machine that accompanied British life in the 1960s and 1970s, the era of The Beatles' music and haircuts, Twiggy's fashions and dreadful accent, and, regrettably, "bovver boys," shaven-headed thugs who fended off diversity with knuckledusters.
Dad gave me my first nickname, "Titch," a moderately polite but demeaning variation of runt or short-ass, until I "fined" him sixpence each time he said it. That gradually weaned him off using it. Sixpence won't buy you a Milky Way now, but for a grubby nipper then it was a fortune.
Tennis and more sedate lawn bowls filled his later years, but Dad was always a keen sportsman, a finesse badminton player who made his opponent scamper, a fullback in soccer, and a spin bowler in cricket, an unglamorous position akin to a baseball closer. As a batsman, he once had scored 47 runs when his team reached the tea interval. Despite Dad's pleading, his captain declared the innings over, so he never reached the coveted milestone of 50 runs.
For cricket, he wore a green-and-white batting glove with a metal reinforced left thumb, and that was probably the only way we boys found out about his war wound, other than Mum making sure any horseplay didn't get out of hand.
Basil Fawlty's catchphrase, "Don't mention the war!" was the watchword in our household. For more than 40 years, the only two fragments I knew about Dad's World War II experience were comments while watching a weekly history TV show called 'All Our Yesterdays.' One was the joy of eating watermelon in the desert and once he let slip an inadvertent remark about the choking smell of soldiers' bodies in burned-out tanks.
Dad was part of England's version of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" who kept the Germans from repeating the success of Romans, Vikings, Celts and Normans who invaded, shed and diluted our Saxon blood. Dad was wounded during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. Salerno doesn't get the press of Normandy two years later, but by jingo it still hurt.
The Queen's Regiment, the "black cats," found themselves celebrating Christmas Day 1942 in Kirkuk, protecting Iraq's oilfields from the Russians. They then took part in the longest wartime land movement of any mechanized army, south and east across North Africa, eating the dust Rommel had chewed shortly before.
From Mediterranean bases on the desert shores, their landing craft assaulted heavily-armored enemy positions south of Naples in September 1943. Some souls didn't make if off the beach.
A small while later, high in a church tower, Dad's life changed forever. A sniper spied a radio operator with a handset to his ear and went for a headshot. Instead, the bullet passed through Dad's left hand. His buddy regaled a regimental reunion with his reaction: he held up his left hand, gushing blood from two places, said "Oooo, look!" then fainted. In the parlance of generations of Tommies fighting overseas, he had "copped a Blighty," a wound bad enough to be sent back to England. He would never again hold a rifle.
Three years later, almost to the day, after convalescence and a return to his accounting job, he married my mother, a perky office girl five years his junior.
The wound is not visible, but it forever affected his confidence, and meant he was like the character in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" who won't tinker with mechanical stuff, a characteristic I learned by example.
A neighbor used to tease him about the "walk that does you good." Now Dad walks with a frame, when he walks at all. He fought against installing a chairlift for the narrow staircase; now, life would be impossible without it.
His deafness, and the memory demons that pluck at his once-sharp mind, are as painful as the spasms in his legs that send him tumbling to the bathroom floor. Every time my phone rings, I?expect the worst.
Each sunrise heralds challenges. Getting up, shaving, washing and weeing. Mundane survival is life's goal. The carers who dress him are from Estonia and similar exotic locales. Complete strangers minimize the indignity.
The decades have taken a toll on this old soldier.
The Daily Astorian's Patrick Webb and his wife live in Long Beach.