In her words: Childhood chats lessons in history

Kathleen Savage

I wouldn't have the knowledge I have today if video games existed when I was a child. Actually, there weren't many children my age to play with. Herein is my story:

My father was American and Mum was English. Dad was a diplomat, so I grew up in Europe -- six years in Paris and nine in London. My English grandmother lived in Worthing, a little retirement beach town on the south coast of England with very few children. My only entertainment was to get chummy with the elderly and be willing to listen.

I remember balancing on a pile of phone directories on one side of the kitchen table. Each morning, the ladies would chat over milky coffee. I was seen and not heard, and spoke only when spoken to.

The ladies usually consisted of my Gran, her maid, Dorothy, and my mother.

The conversation usually turned to

the subject of war -- either the first or the second. It never occurred to me that other children weren't also listening to the same conversation. The ladies would carry on as if I wasn't there until they wanted to get a serious point across.

"Oh, those buzz bombs were the end of me! Mark my words, child, it was a terrible thing!"

I remember Gran's stern look in remembrance. I returned my best concerned look and felt so grown up for being included in this serious discussion.

The kitchen chitchat was a history lesson of sorts. The same issues that my teenage son mulls over after his World History class were presented to me firsthand. I learned how many boys were lost in WWI, including Dorothy's fiance. She became a maid only because there were no other options after he died. There were just not enough men to go around. I was a sounding board and I listened.

I remember the throngs of elderly women strolling arm in arm on the boardwalk -- very few elderly men to be seen.

The first war had great significance to my Gran as well. She received a lucky break and filled the shoes of a young man who had been sent to serve in the Great War. She found a job working in "The City," London's equivalent of Wall Street. She eventually married my grandfather, her boss at the time, who was not able to join up because of a childhood bout of polio.

Gran's cousin, George, however, got to see action. He told me stories of being among the first fighter pilots. I pictured him flying along with Snoopy in search of the "Red Baron." He described himself as a lad with a thirst for adventure and not enough sense to know better. My little coffee clatch was quite proud of him. At my young age though, it was just Uncle George and Snoopy.

Fast forward to WWII. My Uncle Bob and his mates had a hobby of jumping on their bikes in search of any downed German planes. He wanted to see a dead "Jerry" for himself. To this day, I ask him to describe his misadventures. However, in those days, it was my Gran's voice I heard.

"I always worried he'd come across a live one. Imagine what could have happened."

I think the tale that most affected me was my mother's near miss. On her way to school one morning, she heard German planes passing over. Hearing the sound of gunfire, she dropped to the ground, and bullet rounds were emptied into the stone wall beside her. I can find the bullet holes to this day.

At 16, she joined the Women's Royal Navy. It wasn't until I was in my 20s when she told me she was sent to Bletchley Park to assist in deciphering Enigma, the German code that ultimately was broken.

I may not have appreciated it at the time, but my childhood mornings with Gran, my mother and Dorothy were a lot more entertaining than a hand-held video game!

Kathleen Savage lives in Mount Pleasant.