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.