My father was a Spitfire pilot in World War II. He had stories that were carefully guarded, his internal gatekeeper unable to expose what would lay him open like a wounded soldier and the inevitable blood loss that would come with speaking those words out loud. He often would say that war was not to be glamourized in response to our incessant cries to hear more about what happened when he was shot down. Even at the age of 5, I could see the shadow that came across his eyes before he firmly closed shut the door to his inner thoughts.
It wasn’t until last year that I found out the real story of his dogfight with two Nazi’s and his subsequent struggle for his life as he narrowly escaped being captured in a field in Italy by some very determined German soldiers hungry for some Spitfire haul. At one point, as my father lay submerged in a filthy ditch, with high grass reeds hiding him, he looked directly up to see a Nazi soldier spearing the tall grass with his bayonet. My uncle claims that my dad had eye contact with the soldier and yet, he moved on without killing him. What must my father have felt in those grappling seconds, weighing who would strike or not?
Later, after three days of crawling through fields on his belly, he found an Italian farmhouse and in it a small family. I can only imagine the fear, the stink of it, pouring out of every fibre, as each eyed each other and speculated as to whether there was an enemy in the room and who was going to kill it? In those days, there was a lot of leverage to be had from handing over an Allied pilot and who knew if this small Italian family had the courage not to?
As the son pulled a gun on my dad, there were no more doubts as to what the outcome would be. My dad spoke quietly, calmly, and played on what trust there could be, in a small farmhouse, in the middle of a war, with a handful of people just trying to protect what remained of their lives. In a split second, my dad seized the gun and turned it back on the young man. In hearing my uncle tell the story, one I’d never known, I was shocked but also smiled in recognition: If nothing else, our lineage was one of survival.
Being my father, and being a spiritual man, he did not kill anyone in that family nor did he take advantage of the trust and acceptance that they gave him. My father had a lifelong friendship with the mother and when I was in grade three took my mother back to Italy to visit her. We always felt his connection to that faraway time, and knew there were roots as deep maybe as the family he’d raised around him.
Remembrance is an act of love. It shouldn’t hold us in the past but rather, give us pause to honour what was given, or sometimes, what was taken. In remembering my father, I’ve come to understand, long after he’s left this world, the risk he took in loving his wife and his eleven children, despite the battle scars that might have stopped an ordinary heart from loving. I’m so thankful he was brave.