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A Shout From The Attic: A Hard School

When it comes to re-igniting a fire which is on the point of going out do not, whatever else you try, follow the example of the Brays, father and son.

Ronnie Bray continues his life story. For earlier chapters please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

How does that old saw go? Experience keeps a hard school, but fools will learn in no other. Most proverbs have some truth in them, being largely based on the accumulated wisdom of mankindís history, and I can vouch for the veracity of that piece of antediluvian perspicacity.

My father was not unintelligent. Now, as soon as you hear that, you can rest assured that you are going to hear something that controverts it. He was a master cobbler, a self-taught pianist and a poet and songwriter, who wrote, it is told, over five hundred songs, of which he was responsible for both the lyrics and the music.

One of these was Christmas Isnít What it Used to be.

I heard a little boy say to his mother,
As I chanced to pass their door one day.
This Christmas doesnít feel like any other
Since my soldier daddy went away.

Christmas isnít what it used to be!
The toys are missing from the Christmas tree.
Though Iím just a little laddie
Iím entitled to my daddy

But theyíve taken him away from me.
Now, what have I done wrong Iíd like to know?
Why did my soldier daddy have to go?
I wrote as note to Santa but he didnít answer me.

Whilst obviously enjoying some cerebral gifts, he was lacking in several other important areas. These include, but are not limited to, interpersonal relationships, and the inappropriately named common sense. In both these areas, his deficiency was conspicuously manifest.

After my mother divorced him in the late nineteen-thirties, he joined the army. This was not a conscious decision. Rather it was a whim at the mercy of a caprice. He was a member of the Territorial Army, Britainís military reserve force. Why he was a member, I cannot tell. It seems to run counter to his disposition to resist authority. However, he was so attached.

During a snooker game, he wanted only the black ball to win the game. Settling down to his cueing position, he remarked to his opponent, also a member of the ĎTerriers,í If I miss this, Iíll join the army! He missed and went straightway to the Army Recruiting Office.

He was recruited into the Corps of Royal Engineers, who built roads, bridges, and all manner of impressive structures to assist the army to advance and to reconstruct area infrastructure after the damages of war. They did other things at that time, having a responsibility for maintaining transport and equipment of all kinds.

Came the war, and in time, he was posted to the Eighth Army, then fighting the German forces under command of Rommel in the Western Desert of North Africa. The army had taken notice of my fatherís creative mind and assigned him to a field kitchen where he fed several hundred men. The quality of his cuisine remains unknown to me, but one incident that almost cost him his life, shows the fine reckless spirit that marked his progress through life.

Field kitchens were equipped with a variety of stoves. There were highly explosive pressurised paraffin burners; ranges built of bricks, imaginatively constructed oil-burning devices, and cast iron cookers with coal fires and doors. Father had the cast iron kind in his canvas kitchen.

He noticed that the fire had gone out. Fire out and dinner time an hour away. This called for quick thinking and father, hardly stopping to think, came up with an answer. Opening the fire door as wide as possible, he removed the cap from a Jerrycan of petrol and hurled its contents towards the opening. His plan was to liberally apply petrol to the dead coals then light the fire and in a couple of minutes he would be cooking with gas, so to speak.

The petrol went in with unerring accuracy. The fire not being quite out at the back of the fire-hole, superheated and came straight back out with the venom of a flame thrower and engulfed my father in its many licking arms. He was taken to the British Military Hospital in Durban, South Africa, probably by aeroplane, where it was thought he would die from the burns.

However, he did not die, but recovered and although he had scar tissue on his torso, he had no other ill effects to slow him down on his whirlwind rush to insignificance.

Thirty years later, I served as a church building missionary for the LDS Church, working on the Ipswich, Suffolk, and Southampton, Hampshire chapels. The Ipswich site was an old orchard with a brick-built house in the grounds. During construction, we used the house as an office, shelter, and storage for building materials. I started on the site in late spring of 1963. It had been a hard winter with record snowfall over the whole of the country.

One cold and wet day, I went into the house to make sure that the fire was burning brightly so that at dinner time we would have a warm place to eat our packed lunches (Oh no! Not bologna again!), and dry our sodden clothes. I looked into the small fireplace. The fire was out.

I am not unintelligent. Now, as soon as you hear that, you can rest assured that you are going to hear something that controverts it. Whilst obviously enjoying some cerebral gifts, I am lacking in several other important areas. These include, but are not limited to, interpersonal relationships, and the inappropriately named common sense. In both these areas, my lack of basic skill was conspicuously manifest.

Fire out and dinner time an hour away. This called for quick thinking and, hardly stopping to think, I came up with an answer. I removed the cap from a plastic container of paraffin and hurled its contents into the fireplace. My plan was to apply paraffin to the dead coals then light the fire and in a couple of minutes, I would be cooking with gas, so to speak.

The paraffin went in with unerring accuracy. The fire, not being quite out, superheated the fuel, which then produced voluminous clouds of white vapour that billowed into the room before exploding in a blinding inferno. The force of the explosion opened the door to the room and the outside door, besides blowing the window and the boards that nailed it shut completely out. My ears rang with the blast but I was, otherwise, unhurt.

I have taught all my children to exercise extreme caution when igniting dead fires. I have also told them that experience keeps a hard school, but fools will learn in no other. Why, I wonder, do they smile when I tell them that?

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