Wednesday, 10 June 2009

A fitting tribute

I took my son on a field trip to Tesco's the other day after school....let me explain.
The RAF Veterans were there with their stall (tea towels, badges) and their plastic coin boxes. Old men, but still straight, proud in their multitude of coloured medals and old-fashioned formality (tie, shirt, suit, even for fund-raising, even for Tesco's). My Great Uncle- whose funeral I attended yesterday - had been a fighter pilot flying Spitfires, too. I'd lived in the house he shared with his sister, my Grandmother, for several years when I'd first moved to London, and I'd never once seen him without the shirt and tie, tweed jacket. Even at home, watching golf on TV. Pride: pride in formality and correctness was what they were brought up with.

I was proud, too, the other day. Amongst the hustle and bustle of shoppers (several fat, pierced, slovenly, hurried, dragging screaming kids, pushing, not a glance, not a coin in the pot: many of them an anathema to the society these retired servicemen grew up in) then stepped up a little man, aged 5 - my son. His small figure, in his school uniform, hair nicely combed, tie straight, jacket on, standing up nicely, refected theirs, in a strange way. "Excuse me, Sir!" he piped up (I'd prepped him with the 'Sir': if you can't call gentlemen who risked their lives to give us freedom 'Sir', then what have things come to?) and the old RAF veteran bent down to hear, adjusting clear plastic hearing aid beside salt-and-pepper hair. "Were you a pilot in the Second World War?...Did you fly a Spitfire or a Hurricane?...I hope it was a Spitfire, I love Spitfires!...and did you bomb down lots of horrid Messerschmidts?" (and, yes, being gifted at music my little boy pronounced it perfectly. He'd done his research - ever since he went to visit the Spitfire Memorial museum in Manston, Kent, with Grandparents at half-term - in tribute to Great Great Uncle - he's been poring over books at home, making medals and drawing planes.)

There was silence and the old man smiled and placed a gnarled hand on my little boy's shoulder. "I wasn't a pilot, I didn't fly planes, young man" he answered. The disappointment started to drop like a curtain over my son's face, visibly. "But I was the one who TAUGHT the pilots to fly!..." The smile on my boy's face was like the sun rising. He looked up at the old man with wonder and awe: Wow! The veteran looked down, with paternal solicitude, and spoke again, delighted to be faced with such candid interest: "And the Gentleman over there, well he was a pilot... and the other Gentleman, he was Ground Staff, which means he was the one putting the planes up in the sky and making sure they all worked perfectly - like an aircraft mecchanic! And here....look....I'm going to give you something special. When you become a pilot we say you 'Get your Wings', so here are your very own for when you become a pilot." With trembling hands he peeled off a sticker, in the traditional 'wings' design, but with the letters: "FUTURE RAF PILOT". My boy read the words and his eyes grew wide, beaming as he looked down at the label being carefully placed on the lapel of his school jacket. "Mummy!" he gasped. "I'm a real spitfire pilot now! Do you think people really WILL think I'm a REAL spitfire pilot? I think, they WILL!"
I was too moved to speak. A little boy's fascination was tribute indeed to these old men's sacrifice long ago, to the events and acts which gained them their jangling medals. Who are we, spoilt and affluent, even to imagine what they went through?

We bought some spitfire and Hurricane badges, carefully chosen. The old man reached into a battered canvas bag on the floor and found a series of aircraft pictures which he pushed into our hands, each one depicting a different modern RAF plane. A keyring followed. He didn't want donations. But I gave over and above, gave handsomely, my son popping pound coin after 2-pound coin in the pot. One for each item. A good - a very good - cause. I gave until the coins ran out.

We had words with each veteran in turn. Each was delighted. And then it was time to go. Clutching his bag of goodies, my little boy approached the first gentleman to say Goodbye.
"Very pleased to meet you, Sir!" he piped up, as again the old, age-speckled cheek leaned in close. "Thankyou very much!"
I do believe, beyond the wateryness of old age, I saw the old man's eyes grow moist: "Thank you, too, young man. Thank you. And very pleased to meet you too." And a little man and an old gentleman reached out a little soft keen hand and an aged wrinkled hand, and shook hands, and then the veteran saluted, and a little person copied and saluted back. And this time, my eyes were moist.


  1. So are mine as well. Reading this post made my today's problems seem so small.