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Open Features: Coatbridge's Daughter - Part Five

Linda McLean continues the story of her father, who was wounded while fighting in Italy during World War Two.

While recounting her father's story Linda weaves in her own experiences, producing an unusual and compassionate autobiographical narrative.

To read earlier chapters of this intriguing work please type Linda's name in the menu on his page.

The Expanding Horizon

JULY, 1943

The months in Africa passed. Progress had been made, although at a much slower rate than expected. It was hot: very, very hot.

With the Germans finally defeated at Tunis, the war on this particular continent was now at an end. Word came that there was to be a landing. Rumours were circulating like bees round a honeypot. There was a massive effort to keep the destination secret, but nobody could not think of where else they could be going, other than Sicily. They were shown maps and aerial photographs in which the names of towns had been changed to Bristol and Seattle, and rivers to the Mississippi and the Ganges. Again and again a plan was explained. Eventually, all those briefed to take part knew everything there was to know about the landscape. They committed to memory landmarks, roads, fields. even dried-up streams.

When their commanding officer said “Right, let’s just go over it one more time,” there were multiple intakes of breath. Men who were melting in the heat tried to hide their frustration at being asked to learn yet again what they already knew.

Their destination was revealed in July, and of course it was Sicily.

The landing went well. The men relaxed as they travelled north without meeting opposition. However that was to change on the outskirts of Francofonte. Wee Robbie realised that he and his men were under attack, but they could not see the enemy. Big Robbie's company was working in the same area. Together they made several attempts to dislodge snipers, but the enemy were clever, moving from one place of concealment to another. And there was much more cover to protect snipers than there had been in Africa. There the dunes and hills offered little by way of concealment. Here there was an orchard.

It was generally believed that only a handful of snipers were engaging them though the situation was increasingly confusing. Firing continued after nightfall. Then a shell fired by a British gun rebounded from a tree, exploded, and both Robbies were wounded.

Wee Robbie had a flesh wound above the knee. Big Robbie had been hit in the neck. There was a huge amount of blood. He could not move his arms and legs.

“Shoot me, Robbie,'' the big man pleaded.

Wee Robbie was shocked.

“Don’t be daft, man. You’ll be fine when you’ve seen the medics.”

“I can’t move a muscle. I don’t want to be like this.''

Big Robbie had to be evacuated, and quickly.

“Get me a Bren gun carrier, corporal.'' Wee Robbie commanded.

“But, sir,'' the corporal protested, "we're not allowed to use Bren gun carriers for casualties.''

“Soldier,” Wee Robbie insisted, steel in his voice, "get me a Bren gun carrier now. I’ll think about a court-martial later. That is an order!”

A carrier arrived. The two Robbies said their goodbyes. They both knew that Big Robbie's war was over. They did not know when, or even if, they would meet again. Big Robbie was a popular officer. His wounding had a profound effect on his company, and of course on his friend.

And still the fight to remove the snipers continued. Even though wounded, Wee Robbie led an attack which failed. Other troops then came up to reinforce the attackers, and eventually the position was taken.

Wee Robbie had felt no pain while he was fighting, but suddenly he was overwhelmed by it. Other men had told him of similar experiences, but this was the first time that he had kept going on adrenaline. Half an hour ago he had been climbing a hill. Now he could not lift his injured leg, so great was the agony.

The shrapnel wound needed attention. He was taken back to a field hospital for treatment. There he encountered the bliss of clean sheets, and good-looking women to tend him. He could rest and sleep.

It was there that he met Peggy, a lovely girl with auburn hair, blue eyes and an infectious laugh. She nursed him, cheered him up. She was also from Scotland and re-awakened memories of home in Wee Robbie.

It was also there that he encountered an Italian prisoner of war, the first he had met. "He was thrilled to be a prisoner,'' Wee Robbine recounted much later. "He was soaking his feet in a basin, and merrily announced ‘Prisoner of war, now, all a prisoner of war!’” This cheerfulness aroused great amusement, confirming that the Italians had no appetite for the war and were more than happy to be unable to continue the fight.

Not long after rejoining his commrades, Wee Robbie's battalion was sent home for rest and recreation.

The men had been in the front line for more than a year.

*

Coming Home

Sailing up the Clyde aroused strange feelings after being away for so long. It took a while to accept that they were in their native land. The men were struck by how green everything looked after so long in the desert. It had obviously continued to rain in Glasgow, and they had begun to believe that the whole world was bone dry and made of sand.

Wee Robbie thought he had known and remembered his homeland, but some things seemed utterly amazing. Trams for instance. Great machines which bore the names of familiar places. To eyes which had become used to seeing ox-drawn carts, trams were an astonishing sight. Wee Robbie had seen his share of mirages. These trams could disappear, as if in a mirage, and an old man leading an ox would then appear round the next corner.

The most exhilarating experience was to re-encounter the air of Scotland. It was not hot, dry and brittle, but moist, almost caressing. How could he have forgotten such a simple delight?

Then there was the amazing wonder of a boiled egg and toast. The homecomers were recognising that it was simple pleasures which they had most missed.

Of course some things had changed. His parents were older, and somehow smaller than he remembered them. They would also be thinking that he looked much older.

After some time he made his way to Helen and asked why she had removed her engagement ring. She told him that if she went out for a social evening no one would ask her to dance if they saw the ring. The easy thing to do was to take it and have a good time. Could he not understand that?

No, he could not.

Dancing? Good times? He could not sympathise with such pleasures.

“I don’t think that’s fair” Helen argued. “This war has been going on for years, and there is still no end in sight. How long do you want me to hang around? I’m young. It is only natural that I should want to enjoy myself. Anyway, whoever told you what I was doing had no right to do so.''

“I needed more than anything to know that I could depend on my girl at home,'' he retorted. "I too don't think much of the chap who wrote the letter, telling me what you were doing. And I don't know when the war will end. They didn't issue us with crystal balls in our basic training. I understood that you would wait for me. I would like to know here and now where we stand. I can't go on like this.''

They parted.

It was a wrench. They were both still very much in love, despite the years and all that had happened. She pleaded with him. She would try to do better. He took the view that since she had let him down once, she could do so again.

Two hearts were broken.

But there was something to cheer up Wee Robbie. Big Robbie, though still in hospital, was slowly recovering from his terrible wound. He had regained the use of his arms and legs. The wound had been deep. He had been told to expect severe scarring. But if that was to be the only legacy of that terrible day in an Italian orchard, he could live with it.

All too soon, Wee Robbie was ordered to re-join his Battalion. He was about to be involved in one of the most carefully planned assaults in the Second World War.

*

Peter’s Homecoming

1987

His last weeks in hospital were fraught with tension. He employed several delaying tactics to keep him from being sent home.

These issues usually involved a wheelchair. The chair had not arrived on time, it was not working properly... Then there was a world shortage of commodes!

In the six months that he had been a patient his mother had not once come to visit him, and now he was very concerned about the reception awaiting him when he returned home.

“It’s so odd,” he eventually confessed. “I never thought that I would worry about going home.''

“Yes, it is strange.'' she replied, carefully considering her words. "When people have been in hospital for months they begin to feel safe there. It is natural for there to be fears about re-entering the world outside hospital. For some patients the move from intensive care to a ward can be almost as traumatic.''

“Really?” he asked, apparently taking comfort from the fact that his feelings were not uncommon.

“Yes, really,” she replied, pleased that her story seemed to produce a positive effect.

He was apprehensive at the prospect of re-entering the hurly burly of everyday life. There were places where he would be unable to gain access in a wheelchair. He would be unable to keep up with his friends.

He seemed unable to voice all his fears; unable to express the extent of his apprehensions.

“Write them down, then,” she encouraged. “Try turning them into a poem or a story. It will help pass the time before you leave and help you to get rid of your worries. The poem doesn't have to be brilliant. So long as it expresses what you are feeling right now.''

For the next few days he diligently set down words. He could hold a pen, but he had to be very careful not to drop it, because then he would need help to reinsert it between his thumb and fingers. Not wanting to be a nuisance, he balanced the pen with the utmost care. Even so, it did escape from his grip.

“Can you put the pen between my fingers?” he would ask, and most people would gladly oblige. She alerted as many people as possible to keep an eye open and be ready to help him with his simple needs. He developed a flourishing relationshp with these "helpers''. In their turn they were impressed by the extent of his need, and also his resolve.

These people became his friends and they kept in touch with him down the years.
Their friendship went into the poem which captured all that he had been unable to say. He insisted that his poem should be called Wheelchair Bound, deriving joy from the realisation that some would consider this to be politically incorrect. He thought the title summed up how he felt about himself, but he was aware that other people had to cope with circumstancases - social, financial, psychological - which were even more desperate than his own.

Home was not quite as it had been. His physical problems were obviously also taking a toll on his parents, and he felt limited in what he could do. There was transport to take him to work. He was a telephone salesperson, and good at his job. He had the voice for it. However, he was unable to go out in an evening. Friends no longer offered to take him with them. Lifting him was heavy work. Managing both him and the wheelchair was more like attempting an assault course than having an evening out.

Because of the amount of physical help he required, he had never tried to manage on his own. Now in his mid-thirties, he was terrified of going out into the world alone. He was going to have to re-assess his life, to decide what was achievable and what help was required so that he could achieve his goals.

Of one thing he was certain. He was never going into care. He wanted to live in his own home. He would find a way, no matter how hard the fight.

He had to work out a plan.

And he needed an ally, someone as determined as he was in overcoming his difficulties.

This was going to be some fight!

*

Wheelchair Bound

It just doesn’t matter how often I say,
“It’s really not fair things have happened this way.”
Frustration’s the name of this new game I play,
Continuously, tediously, day after day.

It’s boring and wearing and getting me down.
At times I just yearn for a hole in the ground!
Occasions and seasons keep going around
These depths of despair I know shouldn’t be found.

There’s anger to cope with and fear of rejection,
There’s pain and discomfort and fighting dejection.
I feel left behind, or some kind of exception,
But have to accept and learn not to question.

Yet, blessings abound, and I’m grateful for these:
Good people who care for me, friends who can please,
I still see the sunlight or feel the soft breeze,
I laugh, talk and listen with consummate ease.

I have food, warmth and comfort, perhaps more than you
I even have work, though complain of that too!
You think I’m dissatisfied? Nothing’s more true!
My freedom’s restricted – and not least by you.

For you have no hassle with kerb, step or stair.
You can’t know how wretched life is in a chair:
To plan every action – the how, when and where,
The problem of transport for getting me there.

So, please think of me as you all dash about
In that lovely, big world, where I long to get out.
My movement’s restricted – my feelings are not.
Give thanks for your freedom – it cannot be bought.

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