The Main Thing WWII Taught My Dad

Battleship Burning2

My father was a gifted storyteller. If I was good he would tell me one at bedtime. My favorite concerned a troop ship anchored in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy. This is how it went.

He and his men were asleep; it was late at night and silent. (My dad fought through the entirety of WWII, he was a Major in the British Army and commanded the 2nd Parachute Squadron of Royal Engineers.) Suddenly they were awoken by a horrific explosion that caused the ship to burst into flames, throwing shrapnel in every direction.

He painted a picture of the madness in glowing detail, terrified men racing to get on deck before the ship sank, men torn open by flying bits of debris, screaming men whose clothes were ablaze, men leaping overboard into the cold water.

He described jumping into the sea and watching as the ship became engulfed in red, yellow, orange, blue, black and white until, in short minutes, everyone on it was dead. Then, he turned his gaze to the dark water around him, looking for anything he could use to stay afloat. Doing so he noticed a fellow soldier flailing his arms wildly and screaming for help. My dad swam to him and gripped his collar, hoping to keep the man’s mouth above water level.

But – (my dad always slowed down for this part and went sotto voce) – what he hadn’t counted on was that the man did not know how to swim and was in a state of irrational, hysterical fear. Madly, desperately, the man grabbed onto my father as if he were mere flotsam, and in so doing began pulling the both of them, by now entwined like doomed serpents, below the water.

At this point, my dad confessed, it was his turn to panic. He understood there was no saving this man, and attempting to do so would simply bump the body count from one to two. He described the complex moral soul searching that occurred in mere seconds before he bit the man’s fingers in order to break the death grip, finally separating the two of them. A few strong kicks got him far enough away to be safe; he watched the man’s hands churn water until at last he fell to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea and into an unmarked grave.

Then my dad would gently brush the hair off my forehead and whisper, “The best way to help the dead is by not being one of them.”

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Alistair McHarg

Alistair McHarg was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, moved immediately to Edinburgh, and three years later moved to Amsterdam. At 6 he settled in Philadelphia and for 16 years was confused by Quaker education; Germanton Friends School and Haverford College. A Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Louisville nudged him even closer to unemployability.

Convinced at an early age that fate had chosen writing as his calling, Alistair followed a characteristically slow and circuitous path. He has found work as deck hand on a Norwegian tramp freighter touring South America, Bureau of Land Management Emergency Fire Fighter in Alaska, guide at a Canadian wilderness survival camp, truck driver crisscrossing Colorado’s continental divide, and inner city cabbie.

Alistair has been arranging words on paper for a living since 1983.