I’M SORRY, LORRAINE. Your big brother and I mocked you because you couldn’t make the right gun noises. In hindsight, your “Kish-kish” was probably fine and no less authentic than our own blams, pows and other military onomatopoeia. The real problem was that you were a girl, and the ‘Boy Rules’ state that we shouldn’t really have let you play war with us at all.
World War Two was only two decades behind us when I was at primary school, and it was a big part of boy culture. Our doodles were of planes dropping bombs and firing dashed lines of machine gun tracer across the page. If you leaned closer to the artist, you’d hear him quietly adding the sound effects: “Eh!-eh!-eh!-eh! Tat-tat-tat-tat. BOOM!”
The queues at the ticket booth for the Saturday Matinee were always full of boys if the movie was something like The Cruel Sea, The Dam Busters, or Sink the Bismarck. New Zealand boys devoured British comics like Beano, Lion, Commando, and Tiger, which always had illustrated war stories. From them, we learnt how to speak German: you say, “Gott in Himmel!” when you are shot and, on all other occasions, you say, “Achtung!” (When I travelled to Germany, I found this very useful.)
From all these sources, we learnt our history – basically, that the British are the good guys (and we all knew back then that New Zealanders were even better at being British than the British) because … actually, I cannot remember what the ‘because’ was – possibly because we played football or something. Anyway, we won.
War was entertaining, heroic stuff, and it was only the baddies that got shot.
Dad was a World War 2 veteran. He got wounded – twice. But I don’t think he was a baddie. He did not explicitly say my boy-culture understanding of war was wrong. Actually, he didn’t say anything at all. But I could ‘feel’ that his experience of war was very different from the Tiger and Beano version.
One of my earliest memories is attending an ANZAC Parade with Dad at Piha. I marched with him and the other stern-faced, very serious men. During the service, I stood protected from the wind and rain, tucked inside his greatcoat, which smelt of tobacco, whiskey, and Dad. Even as a little kid, I sensed this was something very sad and very important to him.
Occasionally Dad would tell war stories – usually about the hi-jinks and crazy stuff he got up to, but never about the fighting.
Much later, I was watching TV news coverage of the Falklands War with my dad. It showed a young soldier, seriously wounded, being carried by his mates. Dad blanched. “That’s real war” was all he said, and in my head was created a vivid distinction between the glamorous war of fiction and real war which hurt real people and could make my dad look sick and pale at the thought of it.
And when he died, I got his war diary. One incident amongst many: he could see an enemy soldier machine-gunning Kiwis in the street, and Dad knew he had to shoot him, and he did. The diary records the man cried for a while before he died. They never showed that in the war comics. Dad had vomiting and diarrhoea for three days afterwards. We boys never did that in our war games. The war ended in 1945, but I think my dad was in World War 2 until the day he died.
We are all aware of Ukraine, but according to Google, there are 32 ongoing conflicts in the world right now, including terrorist insurgencies, ethnic conflicts, and civil wars. I am proud of our little country, that it ‘did its bit’ in the great conflicts of last century, but I am even prouder that nowadays we are known more as peacekeepers than warriors. I enjoyed them as a kid, but I really don’t mind if war comics get thinner and duller and then vanish altogether.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.