Friday, 3 September 2010

Uncle Pat

Let me tell you the story of my Uncle Pat. He was my uncle through marriage - he was married to my aunt Ilene, who was my mother's older sister. Pat was his middle name - given because he was born on St Patrick's Day - but he always used that and not his proper first name.

Growing up, I never knew any different but Pat was in a wheelchair so I accepted this as normal. He was a paraplegic, but it didn't seem to affect his ability to lead a decent life. My aunt and he moved to a bungalow near the sea in Bexhill when I was quite young, he drove a specially modified car, and they had grandchildren a similar age to my sister and me. To me, as a child, he seemed a jolly enough man, if slightly loud at times. He just had a chair to move him around instead of his legs.

As I grew older, I gradually began to understand that Pat had not always been in a wheelchair. I don't know how I came to know the story but I guess as I was old enough to understand about wars and so on, it was something that we got to talk about. I learned that he had been injured in World War II. Pat was 24 when war was declared on 3rd September 1939 and he had married Ilene shortly before he was conscripted to join the Armed Forces.

His injury, and the end of his war, happened when he landed on a beach in Normandy, and a German grenade was thrown at him which then exploded. I think that this happened at D-Day in 1944, but as that is 5 years after he joined up, it might well have been at Dunkirk, which happened less than a year later.

All this information came from my parents, and I am remembering this through the eyes of a child. I don't think I ever heard Uncle Pat talk about the war or his injury. Then again, they lived quite far from us - too far for day trips generally, we had to stop over - so we didn't see them all that often. My mother and her sister were 18 years apart in age and so they were not that close either. Still, we loved to go there as it was by the sea. To children living many miles inland, the place was paradise. Who we stayed with didn't really matter but our aunt and uncle were always welcoming.

To all intents and purposes, my uncle and my aunt were a couple living out their later lives near the sea. Everything was good, except that one of them had a disability. Well, that was how it seemed.

Our family often went on summer holiday to the West Country in late summer. This particular year, we were down in Devon, when my mum received a letter sent to our accommodation. It was odd; who would send us a letter on holiday? Immediately, both my mother and I recognised the writing as being from Ilene as she had the most appalling handwriting. (It must be a family thing as Mum's is bad too).

Mum opened the letter. I remember the words on that page as clearly now as when I first saw that letter. "Regret to tell you, but Pat was killed in a car accident on Monday." are the words my aunt used. It was actually written so badly, I remember disagreeing with Mum as she said the word "killed" said "injured". To me, the word was plainly "killed" although you could see that my aunt had hesitated during writing the word. My mother had to ring Ilene to get confirmation of the news - quite why she had not attempted to contact us via the telephone, I will never know. But yes, Pat had died in a car accident. My aunt had not been in the car so she was not hurt, but she was obviously grief-stricken.

What had happened was that on Monday morning, Pat had gone out in his car to fill up with petrol. The filling station was only a mile or so away from their house. It should have taken 10, maybe 15 minutes for him to do this but he never came back. I don't know if he even went there. His crashed car was found, wrapped around a tree, about 10 miles in the opposite direction.

Some time later after we had received this terrible news, I had a sudden realisation. Pat had died on 3rd September 1979, the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Much had been made of events to commemorate the anniversary in the press and on television during our holiday. The connection seemed too much of a coincidence for there not to have been a connection.

An inquest eventually delivered an open verdict. There was no evidence to suggest a definite cause - Pat had left no suicide note, and he had seemed in good spirits so suicide could not be proved. The circumstances of the accident were difficult to explain as nothing was found to be wrong with the car or the road, there were no witnesses and the weather was good. It seemed he just crashed his car into a tree. Nothing could be ruled out, but then nothing could be ruled in either. An open verdict was the only one that seemed appropriate. It is like a book that will never close on the story of his death.

We will never know what was going on in Pat's mind in the run up to that day. However little it appeared to have affected him, having a spinal injury is devastating, traumatic and permanent. I can only guess that he no longer wanted to live restricted by his injury, that the anniversary brought back terrible memories of the things he saw when fighting for his country, or that feelings of guilt for surviving where others didn't overwhelmed him. I don't believe he gave any sign of inner turmoil but then I was only 14 when he died. How could I know? How? I often wonder if he had been traumatised for all of those nearly 40 years since he went to war or was injured. Maybe someone could have helped him. Maybe.

So, today is the 31st anniversary of his death, and also the 71st anniversary of the declaration of World War II. I know we remember the fallen on Remembrance Sunday, but spare a thought today for those who come home from war, having seen terrible things or suffering severe injuries. Organisations like the Royal British Legion or SSAFA do incredible work supporting ex-servicemen but sometimes it is not enough. Whether the conflict was last month or 50 years ago, it is the same. The human cost of war is often beyond what we can see with our eyes. Pat's story taught me that.

RIP Hugh Patrick "Pat" Deadman 17th March 1915 - 3rd September 1979

9 comments:

  1. As I read this, big fat tears starting dropping onto my keyboard.
    Thanks for this timely reminder that there's usually much more beneath the surface than we see.

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  2. Lovely post that reminds us of something it is so easy to forget. Thank you for painting a great picture of a great man!

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  3. veryboredincatalunya3 September 2010 at 12:23

    That's a lovely post. It's sad that you'll never know for sure if it was just a tragic accident or suicide.

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  4. An incredibly moving post, written with such affection.

    M2Mx

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  5. Aw, Mandi, I didn't mean to make you cry! And no worries, thanks for commenting. :)

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  6. Aw thanks Julia. I don't think war veterans were given the opportunity to talk like they do now. Probably stored up loads of problems like this for years.

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  7. Hi, thanks very much. It is sad, but I guess it doesn't change what he did for his country and the person he was.

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  8. Thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time to tell me that. I love getting comments. :)

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  9. Beautifully written and incredibly moving too. My Great Uncle Reg also fought in WW2 and never ever spoke about what he saw or did, other than that he was torpedoed and a dutch sailor gave him his boots when they were both in the water (apparently they were your most prized possession and by giving them away, he knew that he wouldn't be going home). Uncle Reg was given an oak leaf for bravery and Mentioned in Dispatches, but would never ever tell us what he did - and still to this day we don't know. He wasn't injured like Pat, but isn't it sad that they couldn't/wouldn't talk about it.

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