I've never posted any verse on this blog but, just for a change of pace, here's a poem. But wait! It's not some soppy Moon-in-June jingle, but something I wrote only a few years ago as a memory of the Nazi Blitz on England during World War II.
In the early 1940s I was about ten years old, living in farming country in the south-east England county of Kent. The Kent coast was only 21 miles across the English Channel from Nazi-occcupied France, and we were on the most direct route for German bomber planes on their way from France to their devastating raids on London.
That place was paradise,
there were owls at night, and foxes barked.
By day we walked among the orchards
under leafless apple trees that smelled of tar,
their fresh-sprayed bark a milky blue.
Too late now to search the lush grass
for mushrooms big as dinner plates.
At other times we’d stroll through empty woods,
ankle-deep in crispy autumn leaves.
High in the leaf-lorn trees hung empty nests,
the crows’ a careless mess of sticks and,
lower down, the neat painstaking weavings
of more patient birds.
Elsewhere stood dormant hills of wood ants,
three feet high, like miniature volcanoes on the leafy floor.
But we always stayed close to home, for things could
happen suddenly. One never knew.
We were at war when, bound for London,
German bombers ran the gauntlet
of Spitfires and Hurricanes like angry hornets,
and sandbagged batteries of guns.
Mostly they came at night, but sometimes,
staring into a summer sky, we saw it black with
bombers heading west, always in orderly formation,
their escort fighters twirling and
weaving on their flanks
When they came at night we’d hear the banshee
siren call. Rising, we’d drag on warmer clothes,
and pick our way unsteadily down unlit stairs.
Out in the chilly garden, we headed down the gravel path,
between the cabbages and Brussels sprouts,
to clamber down our shelter’s narrow steps,
and heave open the heavy steel door.
Once inside, our father, fumbling with
damp matches, lit a candle.
It was frigid in that little cell, with its
floor of bare cement, and an arched ceiling
of corrugated iron. Two double-level bunks,
fashioned from unfinished pine,
stood side by side.
We’d sit, two-and-two upon the lower bunks,
our shoulders draped with blankets,
facing each other across the narrow space
David, my older brother, with my father,
their faces blanched in candle light,
and me with Mother.
She talked incessantly, part because of nerves,
and part to occupy our minds.
Yet we were safe enough, ten feet down
in solid Kentish chalk, under a concrete roof
topped with earth, beneath a neat rock garden.
Out there, beyond the bolted metal door,
we knew that searchlights pierced the late night sky,
their beams swept, crisscrossed and swung apart.
First came the sound of Nazi planes.
“Those are Dorniers!” my brother said,
his pale face turned upward.
So distinctive were their throbbing engines
that even a child could tell their signature.
And then we’d hear the anti-aircraft guns,
first some single sighting shots, and then
when the sky was full of spot-lit silver planes,
a crescendo of thumping, pumping volleys.
On and on the firing went, at wave after wave
of planes, until the sky was quiet again.
Then we’d wait an hour or two,
taking edgy naps, awaiting their return.
They’d fly faster on the homeward run,
having spent their bombs on London, lightening their load.
Or else, harassed by gunfire,
seeing their comrades plunging to the ground,
they’d turn about and flee,
and jettison their lethal load like ballast
on towns and villages, or empty countryside
-- our woods, our orchards.
Finally, we’d hear the reassuring all clear sound.
(Sixty years on, it’s still here in my head.)
Unlike the warning call, the siren played a single,
constant note, mournful, note
carried over frosty fields.
So we emerged, breathing the fresh, early morning air.
In the garden, jagged silver shrapnel lay around.
As time passed, often, playing in the woods,
we’d find a fallen plane, unguarded, its crew gone,
buried or imprisoned.
We’d scramble in, awed by the alien language
on the cockpit’s controls and dials,
with little swastikas and eagles.
Crouched in the pilot’s seat,
we’d re-fight the battle, yelling oaths
and orders in invented German.
One village boy, finding an airman’s damaged glove,
slipped in his hand to find a putrid severed finger.
So life went on: the autumn plowing; the pruning
and spraying of the last fruit trees;
the drone of tractors in the fields; convoys of
horse-drawn carts clopping to market,
loaded with beets and turnips, and baled hay.
And the last geese, in orderly formation,
this time flying south.