My father, Bombardier Byron C Estey, Service Number G4094 Units: 1st Anti Tank Regiment: 90th Anti-Tank Battery was on the crew of an anti-tank gun, similar to the one shown above. His job was to plot the trajectory of the shells, so perhaps he would have stood in the same position as the fellow closest to the camera. The photo is taken during the Italian campaign in 1943, so my father was in the area.
Dad talked about the war, but rarely about the bad parts. He was full of amusing antidotes and descriptions and the tales of how people would act. He met my mother in England and it was love at first sight. He rarely neglected to add that he met her “…while searching for the ruins.” Those ruins were Hadrian’s Wall and my mother was also visiting them – with her boyfriend. So it goes.
My father was stationed in England for nearly three years. Canadian soldiers were positioned around London in case of a German invasion. Though such orders were never directly given, it was understood that the Canadians would ‘take no prisoners’ in the event of an invasion. My father had no problem with that.
He landed for the Invasion of Sicily and fought up through Italy. He was in what is classed as one of the bloodiest battles Canadian forces encountered, The Battle Of Ortona, called “The Italian Stalingrad”. He spoke little about these eight days, which included Christmas amongst the blood.
Dad was never wounded (though he once stood up in his slit trench to see what the “funny noises” were and had his battle tunic shredded with shrapnel). He also contracted malaria, and the day the hospital tent was sweltering and he dragged his mattress beneath a tree, two doctors stood over him. They thought him unconscious and debated his condition. There was a new medicine for malaria and they discussed whether Dad was too near death to waste it on him. Since I am writing these words you may conclude they decided in favour.
I regret not talking more about the war with him, though he did not welcome such intrusion. I did once ask how close he actually got to German soldiers. He said: “Close enough to kill them.”
There are ghosts behind the ghosts.
There are legions of the dead,
Lined up to peer
Over my shoulder.
They breathe with satisfaction,
Upon the hand
That writes the word
The millions of departed,
Disturb the air enough,
To stir the hair,
On my moving wrist.
They keep a place in line,
For me to join them.
Halloween is a night for ghosts. Real ghost, also.
It is the night of Samhain, when the ancestors of the Celts walked the pathways between the living and the dead. The living were not so sure that the Dead might not want to take them back with them.
So, this is a true story for All Hallows’ Eve, although it did not happen on Halloween.
I was visiting the Bay of Fundy island of Grand Manan. I had booked a room in a bed and breakfast and arrived mid-evening. I went elsewhere for a meal, but did meet the owners, and noted there were a couple of others staying there. I returned around eleven, chatted to the owners and one guest, then went up to bed.
The room was top of the stairs and across a landing. Comfortably rustic with a radio. The bed was fine and I was not long getting to sleep. In the dead of the dark (no streetlights here) I was awakened by the touch of hands on me. I was sleeping on my left side. One hand was over my groin and the other on my chest. There was also the weight of a body next to me and the pressure of an arm across my side. I was initially surprised and confused but not frightened.
Time probably stretched but it seems to me I lay like this for ten or fifteen seconds. Then, the very first coherent thought which came to me was that someone laying behind me could not have both arms over my body. There could not be two hands placed on the front of my body. I got out of bed very quickly and did indeed experience fear. I turned on the overhead light but saw nothing. I heard nothing. The temperature was not unusual. I was frightened and certainly uncomfortable, but I can’t say that that aura was present.
I went to the bathroom across the landing. The house was silent. I returned to the bedroom, thinking both of leaving the light on and turning on the radio. But then I thought that that was just giving into fear, and might encourage the fear instead of ease it, so I did neither. I did not seem to take very long to get to sleep.
The next morning I went downstairs for breakfast. I heard the owner talking to two other guests as I approached the kitchen. Just as I entered she interrupted her conversation and turned to me. She said: “Let’s ask him. He’s the one sleeping in the haunted room.”
I don’t know if they had been talking about ghosts or if something else had happened in the night. I relayed my experience and the owner then told the story of the house. As with many buildings on the island it had been a farm house, with the owners also fishing. It was a century or more old and left to a daughter. When she herself got old and could not look after it, her family forced her to leave, something she fought against. The present owners then bought the building and started taking in guests. However, whenever they attempted renovations, they were discouraged by having paint cans overturned, new wallpaper peeled from the wall, ladders moved, hammers and such hidden.
The new owners’ daughter lived next door, and looked after the house when her parents went away (trips to Florida in the winter). She inevitably had to come over to the house and close doors, turn off lights, put furniture back in place. The old woman who was forced to leave had the reputation of being a mean and unpleasant person. I don’t know if she was taking a liking to me or not.
It is Samhain, and we lay in wait for the dead.
Not to flee from them
Not to hide from them.
The moon is full and the trees are bare and the old year ends and they come to dust us with their cold hands. To seep away a little of our warmth. To have just a taste of the life they once had. Blood in their veins. Breath in their mouth. Tears in their eyes. From the cold.
Of course, we are fearful of their touch. We are told they might have the stench of the grave upon them. We are told their skin might slough off on our own. We are told their rotted clothes might fall from their bones, and we will see things to make us scream.
We are told the fresh decay of our parents and uncles and aunts and grand folk will be the worse. They have had their year in the ground and are beyond any excuse to linger. They are the most reluctant. They have the clearest memories of what it is like to live. They, more than all the others, want it back. They might wish, if they can, to suck life right out of us and feel warm once again.
It is best we disguise ourselves from them.
It is best if we hide our faces with masks and wear clothes not our own.
As a last resort we can fill frightening faces with flame and scare them away.
We are all prepared for that.
And when the day passes over into the night; and the full of dark, and the promise the cocks will again bestir themselves to start us into the cold of winter: we will light pyres of wood, and open the cask of ale, and have a feast with dance and song.
If we manage to get through the night.
I like Halloween, though I am more prone to appreciate its origins, and the additions imposed by those wily Christians, than either on its own. This blend with the new, upstart religion actually keeps alive the foundation of the old. Druids became priests and all’s well with the world. Amen and pass the hollow turnip.
I once had an apartment at the top of a darkened, high-ceiling flight of stairs. Even people who knew me, and came to call, commented that the entrance could make them nervous. It was perfect as an entrance for those trick-or-treaters who dared to try.
As the gates between death and life nudged open a bit, I replaced the usual light bulb with a black light. I spaced a few candles from midway up the steps. I had a prominent jack o’ lantern sitting on a chair at the top landing. I placed a speaker in the vicinity of the grinning pumpkin and favoured loud Satie, Night On Bald Mountain, Gregorian Chant, and like-minded music. I also had a nice bowl of treats at the top of the stairs, and all who reached it were welcome to take what they wanted.
I had few takers.
One year, when the weather was warm enough to leave the top door open, I sat and listened to the passing traffic of costumed trick-or-treaters. At one point four teens clustered at the bottom door. They were in conversation.
“OK. That’s spooky.”
“What’s that music?”
“Are there any other lights in the window?” [Actually there were – candles.]
“You going up?”
“You go up!”
“I don’t think so.”
And they didn’t.
During the Second World War, it was feared that Germany would invade England. Many of the Canadian soldiers stationed in England were spread in a wide circle around London. An outright invasion would be a do-or-die situation, and Canadian soldiers had it been known to them – without direct orders – that no prisoners were to be taken.
One of the areas put under guard was Stonehenge. Though less so now, at that time Stonehenge was surrounded by vast planes. It was feared that the Germans might use these open areas for paratroopers, and also gliders full of troops. Thus the area was defended.
My father was part of this protection, and it so happened that he stood guard duty near Stonehenge itself on Midsummer Day, and watched the sun rise over the monument. He was aware of the significance of both time and place, as many of his comrades might not be. Indeed, when he informed them that the Celts, at one time, sacrificed virgins on altars at Stonehenge, they expressed – in more earthy soldier language – what a waste.
Though I have not been to Stonehenge itself, I have written three novels about Celts and Druids, one of them set during World War Two. I’m happy to believe that, in the supernatural realm, there is some ethereal connection.
With Halloween upon us, and it having become a major festival in the last few decades, let us give thanks were thanks is due. With some grudging recognition to the Christians.