Xavier Stenzel

© Copyright 2018 by Xavier Stenzel

Australian WW II poster.

My great grandfather was a good man. That word seems to be so trite a thing to call someone. A good man. A good person. In a way, it seems reductive almost, an unwieldy and cumbersome title ill-suited to employment nearly every time it is used.

I’ve generally always been of the opinion that most people known as ‘good’ are in fact nothing of the sort. In my own experience, these ‘good’ folk would be more suitably named as ‘nice’. Not good, not bad, just…nice. Perhaps it is merely that ‘good’ has become so over-used that it rings false in those instances where it is employed, almost shamelessly it seems.

Say that someone is ‘good’, and in general it means that they are a decent person, that they are friendly, or happy, or enjoyable to be around. In this context, ‘good’ becomes little more than a vapid shorthand for someone so inoffensive and milquetoast that one begins to wonder if they are a person at all, or merely some facsimile printed straight from a Target catalogue, always smiling and laughing and never ever once being so gauche as to be threatening in any way.

Fred was not such a man. He wasn’t a limp wristed gelding, such as the freaks being paraded these days as ‘new men’. Neither was he a caricature, stone jawed and steely eyed, ever unflinching in the face of adversity and laughing at the odds stacked against him. That last one seems to be the favoured image we hold of war heroes. I think that it helps us to forget the truth of it all by painting the past and those in it with two brushes, black and white, stripping everything of all nuance with a quick, deft stroke.

As a child, I can remember thinking how different he seemed to all the other adults I knew. Admittedly, that by itself was not a very wide sampling pool, given it consisted only of about a dozen family members and a few friends of theirs. It wasn’t a physical thing, for by the time I was born age had already bent his back and crooked his joints. Despite his infirmity though, I remember a sure man, a steady, if somewhat tottering codge, with quick eyes beneath thick-rimmed corrective lenses. Never once did he speak angrily, or even raise his voice above what could be described as a mildly irate huff. Whether that was thanks to his chest (a legacy of his war time) or otherwise, I cannot say for sure.

Most of what I know of him and his life is indistinguishable from biblical apocrypha, and I recall it in such a fashion, faded and seemingly ancient. The grey and white pictures we have of him suggest a strapping, smooth faced fellow, always with a cheeky grin lurking just at the edges of his mouth, entirely at odds with the withered old cove of my childhood. Yet there was clear continuity there, for there could be no mistaking that grin, or that sparkling delight brimming in his eyes. Youth may have fled him, but he was still the same old Fred.

He was born on the Gold Coast, right at the close of the First World War, a son in a fine old Anglican family with roots back in the Mother Country. Indeed, even at eighty, he still spoke with the same broad ‘Imperial’ twang so indicative of a middle class Australian lad, equal parts Oxford and Queensland drawl. It made him sound truly alien to a young fellow like myself raised wholly on the modern Australian dialect, stripped as it is of elegance and genteel affection. Of his actual childhood, I know little, save for stories of meals of bread and dripping and winters spent in tar-paper shacks, and a vague, fuzzy blur of youthful adventures in the hinterland.

A loyal lad, he was one of those proud and devoted sons of Empire who answered the call when war came calling in ’39. From Sydney, to Cairo, thence to Canada and then to Great Britain itself, he went halfway around the world and then some to join the war in the air above Europe. There are some pictures of him, standing in wide hat and drab fatigues at the steps of the Pyramids, and even a few of him sitting on them. I’m told that he left his initials carved into the stones, carrying on that great tradition of Aussie soldiers started in the first war. Someday I’ll have to go and find that little bit of stone, though I doubt I could follow in his footsteps and leave my own mark on Khufu’s legacy.

Gran showed me the knife he supposedly used, short bladed with its wooden handle varnished by age. She showed me the rucksack he carried, canvas and stained by salt spray from three oceans, with a list of countries inked upon it neatly. The knife and the bag are gone now, along with most of his hard-earned medals and awards, though where I don’t know. For being so small a thing, their absence pains me nonetheless, in a way which I find difficult to put into words.

According to his war record, he flew near three hundred missions, in all the different types of machine that could fly. Shot down on several occasions, he spent time as a prisoner of war, though not for want of trying. From the stories my uncles and mother relayed to me, Fred ran cat and mouse from Gestapo, Luftwaffe, and French peasants alike, generally managing to evade them. One occasion though saw him captured, thanks in no small part to the work of a little French boy. Seeing Fred and his comrade airman hiding in his family’s haystack, the lad raced off, and called in the local garrison, ensuring their arrest.

Even imprisonment didn’t break him, for as duty compelled, so did he obey, leading and taking part in numerous escape attempts. Most were successful. A particularly intriguing family legend is that the Great Escape, of Steve McQueen fame, was based off Fred and his comrade’s own escapes from numerous Stalags in Occupied Europe. I like to think this to be true, that he is immortalised by that film, even if it is in a rather indirect way.

He was full of stories like that, though most of them I know only second hand, from mother, uncle, and grandmother. Fred never liked talking about the war. Oh, he would talk about his comrades, and their escapades at home and in the air. He would recount sparkling memories of dance hall evenings in the British countryside, when he and the other lads would slick back their hair and try their luck with the local girls. But the war itself, and what he did during it, were a quiet topic. Looking back, I know now that he didn’t need to speak of the war, for he bore it in his body till the day he died.

Chronic pneumonia was settled in his lungs, the bitter remembrance of a cold POW camp in the Polish countryside. Two of his fingers were out of joint, having been broken and then reset clumsily, never quite healing properly. He walked with a slight limp in his left leg, where a Gestapo man in a fit of pique had kicked him rather savagely after a rather magnificent escape attempt had failed. Perhaps it was because of this that he loved the character of Herr Flick in the British comedy series “‘Allo ‘Allo”, the limping Gestapo officer in his comedically over-sized black leather trench-coat never failing to make him smile or chuckle.

Beyond those physical scars, he bore deeper wounds. At night, he would fly awake, wide eyed and screaming, panicked as he searched the room for a tormentor that was no longer there. He would stare listlessly at the sound of plane engines in the distance, a far off look on his face as the sounds of dog-fights and bombing raids crept through the pall of ages to maliciously tease at him, and though he loved the movie itself, the shouts of ‘Schnell!’ and ‘Raus Englander!’ in the Great Escape always seemed to shake him to the core.

It shames me to say that in fact, I remember little of the man himself, for we only met on a dozen or so occasions that I can remember. A gulf of time separated us, a cruel trick for fate to play. Now, I have such questions to ask, so many things I wish to learn. Back then, all I was interested with were childish things, like food and wondering why I’d been dragged down across half the state to visit these old folks. Those thoughts shame me now, try as I might to reason them away.

He was of a rare breed, after all, the last of his kind in a way. Ever steady of hand and of word, he taught me that hidden truth of a man, to always marshal oneself and swallow up whatever fear and doubt may beset you and to get on with what needed to be done. He’d treat me, fat little idiot that I was, like I was his own son. His only children had been daughters, so I suppose that me and my uncles before me filled a kind of surrogate niche for him. It was a niche we were happy to fill.

He was not a perfect man, by any means. Who is, after all? But he never hated anyone (except for French peasants) even when he had good cause to. Despite all he had seen and done, and despite everything that had been done to him, he still endured. His mates and old comrades fell, withering with the trudge of years, but yet he remained. It is a testament to that endurance that in every single memory I have of him, he is always smiling. He was smiling when we had Easter lunch when I was four, he smiled when we visited them on the holidays, and he smiled when he lay in a hospital bed stricken with pneumonia.

That was my first encounter with death. Up till then, death had seemed a poorly defined, nebulous thing, a happenstance that befell other people. After all, my youthful reasoning went, he’s been alive for so long now, he won’t die to this. Hell, he survived the greatest war in history! What can a cold do to him that the enemy guns and fists hadn’t? He wouldn’t die. He couldn’t die.

But he did, and in so doing, taught me the last lesson he would ever teach.

As all men must, he died, and according to his wishes, we burned him. That is a fine way to remember him, I think, a goodly send off, swallowed by fire like some ancient king. If there was any man who deserved his final rest, it was he, and damned well-earned it was.

Fred was an honest man. He was a dutiful man, and a proud man. He was loyal, brave, courageous, and above all else, humble. But more than that, my great grandfather was a good man.

And I miss him.

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