The Familiar Stranger In Military Uniform


I nearly went into the military.

The order, the structure, the formality appealed to me at eighteen in a way that the alternative university options of all-night parties, self-study and finding my own digs did not.

I don’t come from a military family but military life as always lived at the fringes of mine, one way or another.

When I was a little girl around 7 or 8, I often stayed with my Nanna in the school holidays and because she had been a young woman during World War II, there was always the sense the clock had stopped right there.

My grandparents lived in a mid-terrace house in Cambridge, England. Cambridgeshire was one of the destinations for many children who were evacuated from London during the worst of the bombing. It was also home to some of the many RAF airbases dotted all over the UK during WWII.

Each time we drove to my Nanna’s house, we would pass the American Cemetery where 3,812 American servicemen and women are buried. Every time we drove by, my Dad would point it out.

My grandparents house.

Had three bedrooms, a formal front room that was almost never used, and a back parlour where all the living and eating went on.

Before the house was modernized, they just had a scullery, a tiny room where they cooked and washed up and pulled out a bath when necessary. The ‘outhouse’ had a flushing mechanism but a chamberpot sufficed at night.

I stayed in the spare room that was unheated. Bare boards on the floor in a time when it wasn’t a fashion statement. A single bed with a crunchy mattress but lots of thick blankets and padded quilts to keep me warm.

The often freezing cold English mornings meant I wasn’t too keen to get up. But the porridge with brown sugar and Camp coffee  (a form of instant) my Nanna and Grandad made specially for me was sufficient enticement every time. I felt treasured.

And I was.

In the spare bedroom, there was a photo. Of a handsome man in a military uniform. He looked like my uncle, my father’s brother. He had the same deep set, intense dark eyes, the sharp bone structure, the wide smile. But I didn’t know this man.

Eventually my curiosity got the better of me. Nanna replied that it was a picture of her brother. But I’d clearly asked enough.

So later, I asked my father.

He was a pilot.

Killed in action. I still don’t know his name. He was mentioned only briefly, in passing, no dwelling. In that British way that is designed to protect, to deflect, to quickly move on.

It breaks my heart to read roll calls of young servicemen and women killed during military service. I look at their photos and my heart sinks as their good-looking faces gaze back at me. Just as my great-uncle’s had done forty years prior.

I may not agree with all the decisions the politicians make about wars they decide to partake in on our behalf. I may be repulsed by the nasty, brutal business of war. But I always choose to support those who put themselves in uniform.

I wear my poppy proudly.

And will never, ever forget.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet DeVito November 11, 2010 at 9:12 am

Very touching. Straight to the core. Every American should feel like this. Thanks for sharing!
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Alison Golden November 11, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Thank you, Janet. I don’t mess around when I mean something. 🙂


Galit Breen
November 11, 2010 at 11:54 am

allison, i think this was your most beautiful read so far. seriously well done– touching and had me hanging on every word. love it! well done, mama!


Alison Golden November 11, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Thanks, Galit!

It took me hours to write this last night and then again this morning, but I’m very proud of it now it’s done. 🙂


Mary E. Ulrich
November 11, 2010 at 5:31 pm

The British people suffered deeply during the war. I’m sorry your great uncle died, it is difficult to understand that your family would honor him with his picture on the wall, but then not talk about him.

I watched the soldiers, parades and memorial services on TV today, the old veterans, the young kids dressed up in fatiques. I saw some soldiers getting their free meals at Applebees. I appreciate their sacrifice and give them honor.

I remember the English story of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (one of my favorite musicals) and think we need reminders of the horror of war. Then maybe we will stop it and not glorify it. Maybe we will spend our energy on trying to build a strong peace?
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Alison Golden November 11, 2010 at 5:38 pm

The Great British stiff upper lip evolved largely as a way to deal with repeated waves of tragedy and grief. So much death occurred in the two World Wars that it was the only way to cope and keep going. So I’m not surprised. And see the value and purpose of it. And I agree. Let’s not glorify war. It is a nasty, brutal business.


Tim Darley November 15, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Hello Alison,

Very nice post indeed. I have many UK friends, mostly former Royal Marines, Navy, etc, which I met through the military and over the past few years in the offshore oil and gas sector. During my travels (Kosovo Campaign, North Africa, Bulgaria, etc) at sea I have had the pleasure of operating with British forces on numerous occasions. The stiff upper lip has served Britain well and is a testimonial to her steadfast. A lesson for all civilized nations to emulate.

Thanks again for a wonderful post.

Semper Paratus
Tim Darley


Alison Golden November 15, 2010 at 8:54 pm

Hello Tim:
I would have guessed from your name that you have some English in you not far back yourself 🙂

You are right, the stiff upper lip served us well, although it is loosening up these days. When our backs are against the wall, it still prevails.

There are times, I think, when it is appropriate to soften a little. The challenge is knowing which approach to take in any given moment.

Thanks for stopping by and your kind words.


Tim Darley November 15, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Hello Alison,

You’re very kind, and observative! A member of the Darley clan wrote a very informative book on the family name in 1979. He has since passed on but we are very fortunate that he took the time (15 years) to do his research correctly. The first recorded Darley was born in 1034, Erle, Normandy. Here are some family locations I remember: Wistow, Yorkshire, England; Suffolk County, England; North Hill, Cornwall, England; the photo’s of Darley castles and knights is invigorating to say the least!

From there, the Darley Arabian came about; our support with the Norman Conquest (provided horses); the Darley family owned the shipyard that built the Mayflower and her sister ship, etc.

Besides the Mayflower, one historical note really stands out.

You can imagine the shock I received when I learned of the Darley participation at the Battle of Cowpens, SC, in 1781 and how LT Thomas Darley almost killed the nephew of General George Washington, Colonel Washington, but was shot in the shoulder just as his sword was about to strike the Colonel. A painting of this action hangs in the South Carolina Legislature (Darley, a ship captain for the Colonials, was pressed into service after being captured running guns along the coast). And speaking of naval service, nm father served in the Navy during WWII and his first ship was originally named “COWPENS”; I spent over 10 years at sea and commanded a ship. Here’s the kicker: our Latin motto on our coat of arms proclaims “By the Sea.”

Forgive the long note.

A quick comment – when studying recent British history, I’m always taken back as to actions of the voting public when they ousted Churchill after the war. American’s, to this day, have such an admiration for this gentleman, especially his ability to “take the English language to war.”

I realize people tire of such things and politics is politics. However, I do believe he was hurt beyond measure and carried those sentiments through his remaining years.

Rule Britannia!

Mary E. Ulrich
November 16, 2010 at 3:15 am

Thanks Tim. I always find it interesting when history comes alive in a personal story.
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Alison Golden November 16, 2010 at 8:00 pm

That’s quite a story, Tim. Thank you for sharing. You know far more of your family history than I do. I trust you approved of today’s news? 🙂


Alison Golden November 16, 2010 at 8:04 pm

BTW, to answer your question re. Churchill, I think they rejected the Conservative party (and what they stood for) rather than him. They couldn’t have him as PM with the Labour party as the ruling party because our system doesn’t work like that. But it must have been a kick in the teeth.


Tim Darley November 16, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Good evening Alison,

If the news you are referring to is about the engagement of Prince William and Ms. Middleton, I have to admit they make a nice looking couple! Let’s hope they’re able to enjoy their marriage whilst performing their duties accordingly. A tall order I’m sure.

It was a late evening the other night and I forgot about the new party that came in shortly after WWII. Quite correct in that they couldn’t keep Mr. Churchill – same principles here. The pain he must have felt as he departed. Eisenhower, Marshall, Montgomery, Roosevelt, etc., they all had a deep admiration for him. He was quite keen in his judgement of Stalin as well; we should have listened more.

Thanks Alison. Great website and conversation.



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