Wandering Thoughts

August 10, 2009

Soil and Sand

I’ve seen devils coming up from the ground
I’ve seen hell upon this earth

Give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves

~ Harry Patch

Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier to have fought in the Trenches in World War 1 died last month. He survived the battle of Passchendaele to live to be 111 years old. Radiohead released a song for him, using as lyrics words from an interview Patch once gave. Have a listen.

A couple of years ago I took a tour out to the end of Farewell Spit. As our four wheel drive bus bucked and bounced over the track onto the 26 kilometre long bow of sand, our guide told us the story of Jack Ashford, another Passchendale vet. Jack had been gassed in the trenches there, his lungs ruined. Returned to New Zealand, and advised by doctors that he didn’t have long to live, he sought work in the supposedly curative salt air. He became Farewell Spit lighthouse keeper, and the first person to traverse the length of sand regularly in an automobile.

As I sat out at the lighthouse that day, eating my sandwiches under the sighing marcocarpa trees, staring at the folding swash of the waves out off the shore, I made believe a story. I sketched Jack Ashford in my head, wheezing softly, sitting beneath younger trees, on an afternoon when the seabreeze was light and the ocean no menace to ships. And I imagined him, on that day, finding in the sun and space an antidote of sorts to the doom of trench warfare.

I was doing what everyone does, of course: making up stories to avoid staring the horrors of World War 1 in the face.

But maybe…Jack Ashford did live to be 99, afterall.

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