Saturday, November 11, 2006

We Need a Fallible God

I'm always overwhelmed at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

When I was young in smoky old Brum, the cream and navy double-decker buses at the end of Stockfield Road stopped at precisely two minutes to eleven on Remembrance Day. People stood still and silent in the streets. Two minutes is a long time when you're six or seven. At eleven the factory sirens wailed and the church bells rang. It was OK to move again.

If you moved before, a man in a black double breasted suit and gaunt face would reprimand you. Once he took out his glass eye with a mangled hand and tried to explain. At the time it was frightening, so you joked about it later.

On our street Mr. Plenderleith darned his own socks, neatly folded his own laundry. My mother told me "he was in submarines. He had to do everything for himself." Mr. Plenderleith rarely spoke.

Uncle Bill rarely spoke (he wasn't really my uncle, but you had lots of those kinds of uncles in those days.) He would sit for hours in his garden shed next to his RAF uniform hanging neatly on the wall. He did hundreds of ops over Germany as a tail gunner in Lancaster bombers. He told me about white hot tracers spiralling up towards you. It sounded exciting but I don't think it was.

My dad stayed home but stood on ladders raking white hot incendiary bombs off the roof of the munitions factory where he worked. He was payed in something called "post war credits" - worthless by the time they were redeemable. I recently discovered his enemy aircraft recognition charts in a box of black and white photos but they crumbled when I touched them.

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row"

Remember the end of the movie "Oh what a lovely war?" The camera pulls back from a small group of women and children at a picnic in the country to reveal crosses stretching away in every direction as far as the eye can see.

There were picnics at Gettysburg. There were children on the hills of Gaza this week watching the smoke of the tanks.

I always have difficulty imagining what large numbers of war dead look like. So I think of the Oakland coliseum filled to the brim with A's fans. Sixty, seventy thousand maybe.

How many coliseums for the Great War? WWII? Korea, Vietnam, Suez, Kosovo, Congo, Algeria, the Falklands, Malaya, Lebanon, Cambodia. Ruanda, Darfur, Iraq?

And those are just a few of the hot wars. What about the cold? What about labor camps, refugee camps, death camps, Srebenica?

I used to think we would get better. That progress wouldn't just be scientific and material - it would be social and international. That we would all end up in the same tribe.

Until we do, we can only say thank you to dad and uncle Bill and Mr. Plenderleith and the man in the black double-breasted suit who took his glass eye out with a mangled hand on Remembrance Day.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will try to remember you.