To Hug the Shoulders of a WWI Soldier.

 

On December 8, 1916, Thomas, was honourably discharged, disabled in the Great War as a Private in Prince Albert’s Somerset Light Infantry at age 19. He had suffered in a gas attack in the notorious Somme campaign in France.

Fifty years later was when I first met him in Exeter, England and then for the second time in the summer of 1972 when I stayed with him in his house for a month. He was living alone at the time after his wife died the year before.

His house, named Rainbow’s End, stood at the bottom of Woodville Road where the train tracks ran, but mostly shunting activity occurred as tanker cars stopped and shuffled. Every time I smell tar, I think of that dead end street and that August we spent together. Though specific conversations have become foggy, my general memory of being with him is quite vivid. With eyes closed, I can still see the two of us in the kitchen, in the overgrown back yard or driving along in his less than roadworthy old car.

In those days, then in his early 70’s, Thomas also worked one day a week at the cattle market directing traffic in the car park. He was tall and stout, always clean shaved, a highly warm and sociable man, who would talk to anybody, any time about anything. Everyone he met seemed to give him the tip of a hat and he returned a quick two fingered salute and nod of his head.

On a day trip to Buckland Abbey, at one time the home of Sir Francis Drake, I wandered off while taking pictures and suddenly spied him at a distance holding court with two women whom he appeared to have great familiarity with, pointing out the features of the building and the grounds with the swirl and jab of his walking stick. When I asked him later who they were, he said, “I have no idea.”

After breakfast one day, he announced he was taking me to visit an old soldier friend of his, Charlie who was convalescing at that time in a converted old country manor house, Poltimore Hospital. Thomas dressed for the occasion, almost soldier like in his navy blue blazer, striped tie and gray trousers. Old soldier friends deserved as much.

In we went, and there I stood between Thomas and Charlie, mostly silent. Not once do I recall them speak of the Great War, nor did he ever mention to me those teenage years of his in a long ago war time. It was all about Exeter City football, family, the status of current post op recovery and all that was altered in town due to the roadworks that could have been done better based on the plan they soon hatched at the hospital bedside.

Salutes exchanged and back to town we went by way of the small village of Pinhoe, where he pointed out the last remaining local rag and bone woman. She no doubt knew him too. We had a number of rambles that month around Dartmoor and the Teign Valley where his stories amused my interest in days gone by with his combination of wistfulness and what I recognize now as slight exaggeration. Nearly fifty years on since then, I still see his mannerisms, hear his voice and appreciate his sense of duty and friendship.

Down to Exeter St. David’s station to see me off on the last day. Other family farewells on that platform waiting for the train to Paddington became emotional for many years after, but I can’t help thinking now, how special that particular day turned out to be, to hug the shoulders of a WWI soldier for the last time. Two months later in October 1972, Thomas, my grandfather passed away. I can still hear him say as he always did, whenever someone asked him if he was all right –

“Don’t you worry about me, mate!”

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