I am a war child. Not the usual kind you see in ads hoping for money to support modern-day children whose families have been ripped apart by war, hunger, pestilence, etc.
I hope to shine a little light on what I mean by saying I’m a ‘war child’. My father, as those who know me and have seen or heard, was a WW2 Canadian Forces Spitfire pilot who flew 239 missions in that war. His nickname among fellow pilots and CO’s was, “Lucky”. I guess so. His last mission – the 239th – was his worst and his luckiest. He survived it.
His was one of 14 planes that left their base on the Allied side of the border going into German territory, and his was the only plane that didn’t get shot down that day. He watched two of his best friends die in the explosive dogfight that day, and I believe he went insane at that point. Thus, he was sent home in early 1945. I was born about a year and a half later.
I can attest to the fact that he was deeply disturbed by his war experience. He drank and smoked excessively, and often ended up in verbal and occasional fights with relations or friends.
They hoped to bring some sanity, some peace for him. It didn’t work, and it didn’t take long for our family to fail, first when I was five, then a short stint hoping to repair the marriage when I was 10.
I didn’t see him much until his final few years in his late 70s. We did finally connect, at least a little in understanding and love just before he passed.
So, how does that make me a war child?
The non-physical damage WW2 surviving military members sustained left no choice but to cope with the spinoffs of an appalling, mind-numbing experience we family members didn’t cause. We, too have suffered, hoping to counter such a totally paradigm-changing experience.
It’s not possible to fully estimate what a world conflict did to those military men and women. They would rather have been with their families, doing whatever jobs or careers or pastimes would have pleased them and made them happy, well-adjusted citizens. But hopes and dreams, in most cases, weren’t passed down from them to us.
Other stuff was…
Some returning veterans were able to simply take off their uniforms, shake their heads and start fresh, but it’s well documented that many, or even most, didn’t. Their children and their children’s children are war children, because we are the ones who grew up inside a chaotic continuation of mental and emotional stress, of the results of what those soldiers experienced with every scary event and every harsh day they survived.
Once home, four or five years after the war ended, night after night my father re-flew memories as this or that snippet of memory bombed him. After enough drink, I can only guess that he expected friends, family, or neighbours would be clamoring to know how it felt. I doubt they actually did.
So, alone in his anguish, he would lift a beer in his right hand and kind of fly in over those German towns on orders to shoot, bomb and destroy buildings, strafe people on the ground, take out rail yards, depots and vehicles – or survive attacks from the air. Those occasions ended with him drunk, angry, and leaving those around him, including his four year-old, me, afraid of what he might do.
Once he took the family car, followed by pleading friends, for a long straight stretch of road between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat at over a hundred miles per hour, getting several miles out of town before he lost control of the vehicle, rolled it several times in a farmer’s field, and walked away relatively unscathed.
No matter which war or what these returning war vets experienced – whether in or around active combat – they would be, and in most cases were, forever eradicated from the relative innocence of ordinary daily life and the citizenry of the towns, farms and cities they grew up in. They returned changed, no longer who they once were, and we, the children of these heroes and heroines never knew whom they might have been.
We war children know what it’s like to grow up in a war family, one torn by pride, guilt, death avoided, death dealt in combat, of the terror of not knowing when “it’s” coming.
We can attest to the helplessness of witnessing once-normal psyches turned sizzling deep in alcohol and/or drug-induced pain and anger from what was taken and lost forever.
We war children were there, too, by the collision of environment and intimacy denied. PTSD– an unknown term and condition in the years after WW2, was real and even those who seem to have survived it all relatively well are now acknowledged to have suffered severe trauma.
A strong case can be made that, as a species, we have learned little or nothing at all because the conditions that preclude, lead to and sustain war on any level are still prominent, still cooking, still there, and as a soon-to-be-dispossessed American president said when, in 2016, was asked if he would use nuclear weapons, “Well, why did we build them, then?”
Eli Bryan Nelson, Langley City
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