The Burning Soldier (1) “Trial by Fire “
Posted on August 3, 2009
August 3, 2009
I wrote this a long, long time ago. It’s amazing it survived. Moldering away on some old computer drive…
I’ve always thought that, as stories go, it was a long, rambling, confused, hurt, incredibly poorly written, misshapen eunuch of a thing.
Well, Katie has been long pushing me to ‘tell more’. I looked at this ‘thing’, and I don’t know what to say. Reflections of old confusions…
And, probably, if I was to be honest, one of the many sources in my life of an all-consuming distrust. Distrust of people, distrust of authority, distrust of culture… I love solitude, my motorcycle, books, music, scribbling my usual nonsense, or flying alone over the waves. That part of life makes sense. People? Well…
I’ve met some great, kind, incredibly inspiring and warm hearted folk.
Gentle people. Good people.
Unfortunately… the same cannot be said of a great many others.
Often – not always- people tend to disappoint. We expect it from politicians, and our ‘Great Leaders’. We don’t always expect it from our fellow Man.
THE BURNING SOLDIER
I was on a business trip in Northern Ireland.
Over in the Fintona direction, Donegal way.
I had a lot of business associates in Northern Ireland.
Business was pretty good. The same could not be said for the political situation in Northern Ireland.
Things had really… blown up again. There had been some violent sectarian murders (situation not abnormal), and some pretty ruthless tit-for-tat bomb and gun attacks on Loyalist/Republican pubs.
I was just a simple fellow, and I couldn’t understand any of it. It was astonishing to me that people could be so bitter. For a long time of my ‘growing up life’, I was simply nonplussed. I had driven motorbikes all around Northern Ireland. Loved parts of it for the spectacular scenery. I had blasted along the Antrim coast road many a time, and it was great motorcycling country. Great views, sweeping bends, sea air. Many a night I had spent in little hotels or bed and breakfasts, or at friends’ houses, and often woken up to the peaceful quiet of the Northern Irish countryside. Beautiful.
Especially in the quiet of the morning. Just birdsong. No cars or trucks or planes. Just peace.
How could people fight over such a beautiful country?
Then I would visit some of the trouble spots.
So shabby, run down.
And the people…
There was rhyme nor reason to them.
You could go into a shop, or stop and ask for directions.
The welcome could be as relaxed and cordial and warm and typically Irish as you could hope to get anywhere.
In Armagh I once chatted for ages to a charming Protestant lady in a shop. There couldn’t be a war on outside the peace of her little business. Couldn’t be. It was all so ‘normal’.
Yet, when I stepped outside her door, I bumped straight into a British soldier humping a huge rifle. He was one of a platoon, strung out for safety, and the noise of the accidental ‘bump’, ‘oops’, ‘sorry’ (from me), had the others swinging around quickly, warily, suspiciously. He just looked at me for an instant. Said nothing. Eyes devoid of expression. Looked tired. What would he have been? Middle twenties? Looked tough. Looked as if he could handle himself.
I apologized. No reaction. For or against. Nothing.
After the momentary hiccup and pause, the platoon marched on. I watched them disappear, their equipment bags swaying on their backs. Rifles at the ready. Unsmiling. Cautious. Fed up. Did they WANT to be there?
All sad. I also had different reactions. Like one day, near Randalstown, a predominantly Protestant area.
I was lost. Stopped. Walked over to chap working in a field. Addressed him across a low hedge.
“Hello there! Nice day! Can you help me? I’m looking for Jo Millar’s place… “
My accent would have betrayed my years in Dublin. Although I was actually a pukka pure bred pedigree mongrel. As some would say: “Look it this way:….. “
Mother: Irish, descended from French (Catholic) Huguenots who had fled the religious persecutions in France hundreds of years before. You could argue that maybe it wasn’t such a smart thing to have ended up in Belfast…
…(out of the frying pan) but I’m sure they weren’t to know. She could remember how her Daddy had a chemist’s shop in Belfast. When she was six, they had found ready for use petrol bombs left outside the front door. Gentle hint… but they had stayed put. Then the men had come into the shop. Two of them. She had told me the story with real tears. She, only six, in the shop with Daddy; the Daddy she loved and worshiped. Two big men, one with a shotgun. They had leveled the gun across the counter at her Daddy.
“Get out of Belfast you Fenian Bastard before you’re carried out in a coffin. This is your last warning! “
My Mother had stood there, helpless. Too frightened to scream.
Were they going to shoot her Daddy?
How she must have cried afterwards. And cuddled her Daddy. What an impact on a child’s life. How did THAT one shape her character?
The family left Belfast… (What year? 1920 or something? It’s going on that long? Longer? Oh…?
But was there not a trace of Belfast in my accent? So people said.
And what did this man, staring across the hedge at me, think? What did he decide my accent was? Where I came from?
Father: originally an English Protestant. All his stock were. Northern England. Hartlepool, Durham, Morpeth. Border country. Our roots went back to the Armstrongs. A Scottish border clan. Not famed for their lawful ways. Apparently ostracized by the other clans. Not without reason. The Armstrongs were fond of rape and pillage. Murderous bunch. Probably sent their share of Protestant settlers to Northern Ireland, thus displacing the native Catholics…
Did THAT lot feature in my accent?
Try and untangle that pedigree, Mister friendly staring across the hedge human being…
But you couldn’t know all that, could you? No, you just heard traces of Dublin, and you recognized a Dublin registration on my motorbike. Enough for you, my fine friend, wasn’t it?
So you just stared.
Straight in my eyes.
Hard. Hard, cold eyes.
No need. The hard stare said it all.
And muggins here? Being so naive and THICK, didn’t even realize at first, did I? That’s because I attribute to people values I cherish myself. “Be nice to strangers “,is one of those values. So, it sounds funny now, looking back on it, but I actually repeated the question.
And he let it be known that my presence was not required…
He never spoke a word. I never heard his voice.
I turned around, walked quietly away, and drove off, and I still never heard his voice. That human instrument, capable of warmth, and kindness, contact, and compassion.
He just hated me…
His eyes, the cannons of his soul, a window into the darkness, delivered a broadside, a screaming, cursing volley, with a greater impact than mere bullets -or words- could ever have.
You blind, prejudiced, bigoted, SILLY little man.
You hurt me. That is what you wanted.
I drove off. Somehow, not QUITE so naive any more. I had LEARNED something. Difficult to put into words. But a greater understanding of…bigotry.
I can still remember those eyes. What a look of hate…
Unprovoked, blind, indiscriminate.
* * *
Time had gone by, and here I was, once again in Northern Ireland, on a business trip, over in the Fintona direction, Donegal way. I’d started out going out with a man I shall call Terry. I did a lot of business with Terry. A Catholic, in his mid-forties, he was big, a bit overweight, with a strong face, a little too red perhaps, and a very determined jaw.
I liked him. He was alright, was our Terry. A bit silly when he’d had too much to drink, but alright. Straight. Very straight. Honored his word. If you were in trouble, Terry would get you out. He’d probably give you a hard time verbally, but he’d bend over backwards to help. Good heart. No harm in Terry, I always thought.
Yes, I’d started going out with Terry, for a drink. But we had gathered up quite a few characters enroute.
And somehow, somewhere, a little warning light had clicked on in my brain. A warning light that said:
“Ease off on the drink, Meyrick-me-lad. You’re the only one that isn’t heading for alcoholic oblivion. SOMEBODY’S gotta drive… Take it easy. “
So I did. Merry I was. Blotto I was not.
As the night progressed, the same could not be said for Terry. Or his many mates. A good old fashioned Irish pub crawl got going.
At each pub, we picked up more members. Until in the end there was a good half dozen drunks in our little party.
I was driving. I chauffeured where I was told.
And listened to the talk.
They were an angry team.
Bobby Sands had not long died. He was a famous IRA gunman, who had eluded the British troops for a long time. He had in the process become something of a legend.
And had died, not in a shootout, or an SAS ambush, but slowly, as the result of a hunger strike…
I had followed events in the papers and T.V.
Can you NOT wholly believe in a cause and then die for it? And die so horribly, so slowly, by your own hand?
The impact of Bobby Sands’ campaign was enormous. There were other hunger strikers as well, but I think he was the one who really gripped people.
Terry’s emotions were a mixture of the angry and the sad.
He had started out angry. Furiously denouncing the British, the troops, the Queen, and everything orange. The drunker he got, the sadder he got. And the quieter. Which was a bit of a blessing.
Staggering from one pub to another, we accidentally bumped into his wife, who was returning late from a baby sitting expedition. She was not surprised. Terry was well on at this stage. Tried to hide the half empty bottle of brandy behind his back. Didn’t fool her. Succeeded only in performing an unwitting adult imitation of an errant schoolboy. Just a little devil found out.
Silly cheesy grin. Sly cackle. Honestly thinks… she hasn’t found him out…
“Heh-heh, Maureen, Heh-heh! Juz owt for a lil’ DWINK wid da boys…
Not a very convincing performance, Terry my boy. One of the many odd things about drunks is they often think they’re fooling everybody else. I know, I’ve been there.
No pioneering tea-totaller, me. Had my own troubles at times with the juice of the barley.
It is probable that my being ‘not unfamiliar’ with the various stages of intoxication, gave me an edge in assessing Terry’s state. It takes a sober drunk to run a critical eye over a sozzled drunk, I suppose.
To perform an accurate assessment.
On a scale of ten in the inebriation stakes, by the time he met his missus, Terry was climbing up rapidly past six. He still could walk. But there was that funny little duck’s waddle that gives the game away. When the drunk tries to walk so perfectly, that he stiffens his back; and there then appears in his gait something unnatural. Something that makes heads turn, not because he is staggering around, but rather because he is walking TOO perfectly, holding himself just that bit TOO erect.
Anybody glancing casually at Terry walking along might have then looked at his facial expression.
Too controlled, Terry…
Too much of the “I am in control and there is nothing wrong “.
Can’t fool people, Terry…
You might as well wipe that supercilious smile off your mug, lad. Your missus ain’t fooled…
“An’ Fwancis here iz drivin’ the car. So DON’T you worry a THING, I’ll be fine. “
His long suffering wife looked at him. And the merry band of ruffians he had in tow. And at me.
With years of experience, she knew better than to argue.
There was this quiet; “Oh, Terry… “
But it was said softly, without rebuke or female hysteria.
She glanced at me. The look said it:
“Are you going to stay sensible? “
“I’m okay; no more for me. I’ll do the driving. “
I knew she believed me. And I knew I was okay. I had downed three pints of Lager Shandy, mixed half and half. So one and a half pints of beer. That was okay.
Maureen departed sadly.
And off we jolly well went.
Soon I was doing the listening. Not much talking. Listening to the talk. They were all Republicans. A few questions had been asked about me. Terry had satisfied those. I was ‘in’.
Why are the Irish so extreme? There is in the Celts a great history of Culture. Of learning, and gentleness. Of insight, and ‘Feeling’. There is a so much good in the Irish.
And then so much bitterness. For me it was hard. The soft core inside me shriveled up a bit when I heard the talk of hatred.
And suddenly I was very sober…
The deployment of the ‘B Specials’ was being discussed. They had been a civil reserve defence force. I knew a little about them from first hand experience. Rough… experience. And they no longer existed. But I had heard plenty. A sore that would run and run.
Many Protestants would tell you that the ‘B Specials’ were a reserve civil defense force composed of good, hardworking honest working people. Called upon only in emergency to protect ALL the communities from rioters and arsonists.
The Catholics would tell you a different story. That the ‘B Specials’ were entirely a Protestant force. That entry was immediate, provided you were a Protestant. That they were virtually untrained, undisciplined, and bigoted. That they had guns, and were frightened of a Catholic uprising.
That they were thugs.
Who was right? Or were both parties wrong?
Uncomfortably I listened to the stories. What government in its right mind would have unleashed onto the streets of Belfast or Derry a black uniformed armed militia, consisting entirely of Protestants, in such an inflammable situation? How could such untrained men, even assuming many were sincere, have been expected to cope with hostile Catholic crowds?
It wouldn’t have taken much. One foray into a Catholic enclave, like the Bogside, would have done it. And there was evidence. I had seen the newspaper pictures. There was evidence. There was evidence of the RUC, the regular trained Police force as it were, invading the Bogside. Followed by Protestants. All baying for blood. And so the Catholics had lost confidence in the RUC, The Royal Ulster Constabulary, the regular cops. But if the regular cops, the ‘bobbies on the beat’, were unable to command the trust of the Catholics…
If the Catholics suspected the REAL Police of Protestant bias and sympathies… what chance an untrained militia?
The forces of Law and Order… blatantly prejudiced? Surely not. Surely there were lots of good guys on the side of the RUC.
Personally, I don’t doubt it. I don’t doubt there were and there are good solid peace loving Protestants in Northern Ireland. Plenty. Plenty… And also in the RUC.
But… Trust is a fragile thing. You lose it once, and you’ll see how hard it is to get it back.
There were extremists in the RUC, unfortunately. A tiny minority of Hotheads. Religious bigots. And the damage they did was to hurt the cause of their own side as much as it did that of the Catholics…
I listened to the stories. Stories of religious taunting. Stories of RUC and B Specials throwing petrol bombs and beating up folk. I could believe it. Some of it. The start of it all. Doubtless it was blown up. Exaggerated. Richer in the telling…
But there was some truth there.
In the same way there was truth in what I had heard from the other side. The off duty paratroopers I had met whilst free fall sport parachuting in England, at Peterborough.
That had also been interesting…
The wariness… when they heard my accent.
The suspicion. I had pretended not to notice it. Knew the symptoms. Just chattered on. I’m good at that. When nervous, just chatter on about inconsequential stuff.
Break the ice.
I was there for a week. After a few days, they asked me where I was from. As if they didn’t know.
We got chatting. Then they opened up…
A lot of hurt. A lot of hurt…
They wanted to tell me all about it. We went to the pub, got drunk. Me and three off duty paratroopers. Ex Northern Ireland paratroopers. Ex ‘Bloody Sunday’ paratroopers?
I wondered what they knew of that day. But I didn’t ask.
Waited for them to tell me what they wanted in their own good time…
All about the boredom. The fact that they didn’t want to be there. About the cramped quarters. About the fear. About being hated so much, when they meant well.
They were soldiers… not nursemaids. When they were stoned, they could have ‘taken the guys out’ very quickly if so ordered. But often the orders were to just stand there. Take it all. Ward off the bricks and stones with their riot shields. Ignore the taunting. The abuse. Just hope their tormentors would get tired, give up and go home.
You could imagine their thoughts:
“For God’s sake you silly little Catholic f….
Why don’t you just go home and leave us in peace. We could put five bullets in you, mate, before you could say
‘Up the IRA’.
We’ve got the rifles, we’ve got the ammunition, we’ve got the training. But we have not got the orders. So we are just standing here, lying here, sheltering here. Listening to you, you clown, because we are unfortunately in range of your vile mouth. Why don’t you just shut up. Give it a rest, and go home. Go and watch Telly or something. Have a beer. Just leave us alone. It’s bad enough being posted to this Godforsaken hole of a country without having to listen to your crap into the bargain…
Give it a rest… ”
Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the soldiers’ restraint outlasted the patience of their tormentors. Sometimes…
The taunting… all the paratroopers agreed the taunting and the verbal hatred in Northern Ireland was something else. Had to be heard to be believed. All about what their wives were up to back home in England. What had happened to the guts of the soldiers at Warrenpoint. What was going to happen to their guts.
It hurt these tough guys, these tough soldiers. These crack paratroopers. They were human as well. They didn’t like it.
Yes, I listened. And I learned. Good guys. Very interesting to listen to.
Glad I can be a good listener as well as a perpetual mouth…
Bloody Sunday… 30th January 1972.
When the paratroopers shot and killed thirteen Catholics in one go, at the Rossville flats.
As Terry and his mates were discussing it:
“The murdering British Bastards executed our boys… “
“Tommy bastards got their come uppance though, didn’t they? At Warrenpoint? Eh? Warrenpoint? “
“Had their guts all over the place, eh? Eh? “
‘Warrenpoint’, 1979, had been a huge IRA success, killing more soldiers in one hit than they had for a long time. Eighteen of them. A massacre. Cunningly planned. Ruthlessly executed. Tactically brilliant. From the IRA’s point of view.
From Terry and his mates their point of view.
From my point of view… I had been motorcycling as usual, driving aimlessly for long, quiet hours, some good books in my bags, and poetry in my simple heart. Just enjoying the Northern Irish countryside. I was only a few miles away when the massive bomb erupted.
and I’d wondered what the hell was going on. It was Mick, a friend of mine, who explained to me what had happened, when I pulled up noisily outside his house in Forkhill, South Armagh. His face, flustered, breathless, excited, told me the news, that was being beamed around the world. I… was shocked. I wasn’t on either side. I was… perplexed. I didn’t have that kind of hate in me. In all my life, I never have. Anger, yes. Hate? No. It’s a suicide emotion.
It corrupts Man…
I listened to Terry, downing the Brandy, swearing about the British. One of his mates, very cold eyed, quietly powerful. He scared me.
What was it about Cold Eyes?
He had brains, that one. He was the one who had asked most questions about me.
He didn’t say much. Just looked. But what he said, hit home.
He was tall. Slight moustache. Elegant. Good looking. I could imagine women swooning over him. And his eyes. Powerful. A leader.
I wondered for the hundredth time in my Life about the real effect of alcohol on a person. I had seen in my time a lot of stupid behavior excused on the grounds that the perpetrator was ‘drunk’.
I had mixed feelings about this.
Alcohol for me certainly lowered my inhibitions. But it didn’t switch off my conscience.
I would do things happily when I was drunk, that I would not contemplate when sober. I went through a phase of climbing lamp posts for a while. I would shoot up the pole, on occasions wearing a business suit, and hang out the top, defying death or serious injury, singing lustily. Impervious to pleas to descend, I would only do so when I got bored, hungry, or thirsty.
But the conscience was still there. I might be silly. I might be childish. I might be downright daft. But I still knew the difference between Good and Bad.
I might talk big. Talk rubbish. But even then… I would say only so much.
Conscience still worked, even if Body did not.
Like the time in York, when I went into a reasonably posh restaurant cum pub, with four friends for a drink and a meal.
I got smashed.
I decided to eat with my fingers. I could not be bothered with the knife and fork. Fingers rule okay! Only trouble was I’d ordered roast beef and gravy.
I told jokes. Had the place in hysterics. But on occasions slightly nervous hysterics.
“Oh, Gosh, what’s he going to say or do next? “
A true drunk is aware when he achieves a degree of power over his audience. Especially when the audience is composed partly of friends. When the true drunk sees the concern in their eyes. They are laughing, but worried.
The fertile drunk’s mischief making imagination can now turn to new avenues of entertainment. There’s James, wearing a suit and tie.
“I (hic) hate your stoopid tie, James, … it’d… it’d look better (hic)… with a knot innit….(hic).. “
And the drunk can now reach out and tie a knot in James’ tie. Laughter. James is half laughing, half embarrassed, but what can he do? Try and fend me off? I’m pretty big and determined, and there will be a struggle. Better just humor the guy, let him tie his silly knot. But, oh dear, what is he going to do next?
I quite remember that night. I was drinking so much I was visiting the loo regularly. This expedition involved circumnavigating, with the greatest of difficulty, all the packed tables and chairs. On top of that, the bar was on two levels, and there were five steps down half way along.
After a while my swaying, unsteady, tottering figure became known to the other diners and drinkers, and my progress was increasingly watched with amusement by some, concern by others, and probably disdain by the snobs.
And there were quite a few of those about.
In particular, there was a mixed group of five or six, standing more or less at the bottom of the steps, with two of the men wearing white dinner jackets.
Well dressed, well spoken, drinking gin and tonics and Martinis, their unspoken thoughts (within my earshot) were mirrored on their faces, as I slowly and carefully commenced my usual approach and descent down the five steps.
It was getting progressively more difficult. I could manage the steps alright, if only the stupid bar would stop moving about. I was trying to align my eye with the top of the bar, to maintain the correct flight attitude as it were.
It was while I was on my fourth cross restaurant hike, that I somehow tripped going down the stairs. I went flying straight into the elegant group, knocking one chap right off his stool, clawing haphazardly at a lady’s bosom as I went down, spilling drinks everywhere.
CRASH! BANG! WHALLOP!
Everybody was sent reeling.
I picked myself up with difficulty. Faced a chap in a white dinner jacket with tomato or something all down the front. My friends at my table froze. My girlfriend clapped her hands in front of her face.
“Gee, I’m su-su-sorry ’bout that. Clumsy me-me-me. Heh-heh-heh… “
They were very good about it. Very British. Hardly a word was said. Although they were obviously not very pleased. Drink stains on various garments, and ice cubes gone to places where they were not wanted, did not combine to make me very popular. But no unpleasantness ensued. They were very sporting about it…
And this is where my conscience comes in. Although I was drunk, maggotty drunk in fact, my conscience was still working.
I felt bad…
As I did my business in the loo, I felt an apology was in order. I had spilled all their drinks, sent them flying, and caused drink stains on their immaculate attire.
I owed them an apology. And an apology they should receive. I would pay for the drinks as well.
The whole thing was all the worse because they had been so nice about it all and not even insisted I replace the drinks.
Slightly shamefaced, I staggered out of the loo.
Towards the stairs.
Approaching from below. I looked around for the little group. At first I thought they had gone, but my beady bloodshot eye soon located them. They had realized their vulnerability of the position at the bottom of the stairs, and had wisely retreated to the top. That way I could no longer crash down on top of them.
“Good thi-… thingking, Ba-ba-..(hic)..Batman… ”
I staggered up the stairs.
My heart was full of apologies. I started to say:
“I’m really su-su- SORRY ’bout that, fo…folks, I… “
I thought I was doing well.
I had their attention. They were all looking at me. Fresh drinks in their hands. Wary, slightly sullen expressions. But they were listening to my apology. I was doing well…
And then I tripped over the top step…
CRASH! BANG! WHALLOP!
Impacted straight into the same man AGAIN. Drinks flying everywhere, hands clutching frantically for support where they shouldn’t…
And they were slightly less good about it the second time…
The point of all this is… my conscience was still working. I felt bad about spilling their drinks, staining their clothes and groping their wives twice in three minutes.
Conscience… humanity. Still at work. The essential me was… still me.
And now… I was thinking about the restaurant fiasco, and listening to these guys talking murder and vengeance. Did they mean it? Or was it all talk?
Cold Eyes meant it. He made me nervous. I sensed somebody very powerful there.
Mean what he said about the murdering British bastards? That the only good soldier was a dead one?
A change of venue was suggested.
“Let’s go to the club! “
Everybody piled into the car again, and we headed off for what I thought would be just another pub. I followed directions.
After a while, we pulled up at a site which was very different from all the other pubs we had been to.
There was an extra high security fence, floodlights everywhere, and several men on duty.
From the posters and the slogans I gathered quickly that we had arrived at an out and out Republican stronghold. The closest you can get to an official IRA pub.
This time there were a LOT of questions asked about me.
I was nervous. I knew what happened to informers or those suspected of being SAS agents.
“Where are YOU from? ”
London now, Dublin before that.
“You a CATHOLIC? ”
“ARE YOU A PROTESTANT!? “
“WELL WHAT ARE YOU THEN? ”
I guess I’m just a Seeker. Y’ know, looking for God, sort of thing…
For some reason it sounded incredibly stupid to me.
They went off with Terry to one side. Asked him a lot of questions. I could hear him talking earnestly, presumably on my behalf.
“Don’t mi-mi-mind him. He’s a f… Fenian. His mother is as Irish as you and me. He’s all right. He’s all right. “
Cold Eyes was staring at me. Why did he make my skin crawl so?
We went in. A large pub. One very large room. Packed. Telly on. Posters everywhere,
“Ireland unfree shall never be at peace “.
Photos everywhere. Of riots. Of graves. Of men wearing black berets, firing volleys over coffins.
Newspaper cuttings. I was interested in reading everything, but didn’t want to stand out too much.
We sat down. I had half a shandy. The rest were now getting really blotto.
An hour went by, and I was reeling under the weight of hatred of some of the conversations.
Cold Eyes had suddenly found his tongue, and was holding forth at length about the low morale of the British soldier. ‘Keep pushing them’, seemed to be his motto.
He seemed extraordinarily aware. At one stage somebody mentioned the ‘Tyrone batallion’, and something about Donegal, and received such a furious stare from Cold Eyes, that he instantly froze up.
No loose talk here, boys… Gotta stranger amongst us…
The night wore on. Terry was reduced to monotone statements.
“They murdered Bobby Sands… “
“Poor Bobby, the bastards murdered him… “
There was no mistaking the grief in Terry. To him, a loved one had been taken away. Not a vicious terrorist.
A hero. A brother. A soul mate. Murdered. Murdered by the British…
The news came on. The volume was turned up.
Something had obviously happened. Something big.
Was that why they were celebrating? There was an air of jubilation about.
Shouts like: “Wait for it! Wait for it! “
A British armored car had been attacked. Covered with Molotov cocktails. A soldier climbing out had received a direct hit with a petrol bomb…
The evening news clearly, shockingly, showed him receiving the hit, and then bursting into flames. Even the sound of his terrified screams was recorded…
“PUT ME OUT! PUT ME OUT! AAARRGGHHH!!!! “
The power of Television…
The agony of a man burning…
Somewhere, a mother, his mother, maybe watching. His family, his friends, his loved ones…
A human being…
I stared in absolute horror…
I listened in absolute horror…
they had turned up the volume full…
but then it was drowned out by…
the bloodthirsty cheering,
the animal baying,
the high pitched hysterical gloating laughter,
the cat whistles,
the table thumping,
the feet stamping,
All together, some chanting, some singing.
“If you burn a British soldier, clap your hands,
if you burn a British soldier, clap your hands,
if you burn a British soldier, burn a British soldier,
if you burn a British soldier, clap your hands “.
Others were singing rebel songs…
All jumbled together…
Cold Eyes was on his feet. Clapping his hands above his head. Everybody rose to their feet. The noise was deafening, overwhelming, pounding.
It seemed the whole world had taken leave of its senses…
My face probably registered blank horror.
And suddenly, a hairy hand reached down, and grabbed me, roughly, by the shirt near my throat.
He yanked me to my feet. His face, wild, fierce, full of hate, distorted with indescribable fury, was shouting into mine. I couldn’t hear what he was saying. There was too much noise. But I could guess…
I could feel his spittle on my cheek. It felt as if he wanted to throttle me to death there and then.
I knew I was not going to dance. Or clap. Or cheer. Or pretend I was delighted. He could kill me. I didn’t care. I was not going to revel in his hate.
In a vague, dreamy, distant way, I knew with a quiet certainty that my life was in danger. This was not the place to display my current emotion.
It was the worst possible place to do so.
But… I didn’t care. They could do with me what they wished.
In a strange, bizarre, distant way, a limp, rag doll in his hands, I was, nonetheless, making my stand.
I could not, would not, join in their insane hate.
It was horrible.
Abruptly he let me go.
I sank back, dumbfounded, horrified.
I looked around…
At first I thought I was alone in my horror. I thought everybody was clapping, cheering, whistling, shouting…
I thought I was the only one who…
But I wasn’t…
There were others who were horrified. You could read it in their eyes. Glued onto the T.V.screen,
You could read their thoughts…
Their unspoken, instant, genuine, human reaction:
“Bloody hell… look at yer man!
He’s burning alive!
That must hurt!
Listen to him scream!
Is he going to be all right?… “
And… Terry. Bless him. Good old Terry. My mate. Sitting down, same as me, too dumbfounded to react. Eyes bulging in horror.
Not nice, is it Terry?
Do you still want to kill all the British soldiers?
See their guts spread out all over Warrenpoint?
* * * *
The events that night were to make a lasting impression on me. Certainly, the episode contributed to a period of ‘withdrawal’ that I experienced in later years.
An odd, self imposed Exile.
A degree of alienation from Man…
But there was hope there as well. There were plenty in that room that night who were horrified.
Is that what it takes?
Do people need to be taken away from their cozy little fireside ritualistic running down of the other side, and be CONFRONTED with the full truth of that which they ostensibly support so wholeheartedly?
Much has been written about Northern Ireland.
Many songs have been composed about the struggles there.
How about a song for ‘The Burning Soldier’?
And a song for the immediate human sympathy felt for him by some, who, not many minutes earlier, had apparently been busy condoning and encouraging the violence that engulfed him?
Is that where the hope lies for Northern Ireland?
A return to simple basic human values: sympathy for one’s fellow human being?
Dare I say it, without fear of being accused of BORING sentimentalism:
a little love?
My mind was hurt that night. Not by what happened.
That was bad. But by the reaction of so many.
How can people be so hard of heart?
So mind blowingly CRUEL…?
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on August 7, 2014, 12:55 am