Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Blue Max Badge

I mentioned before that I have happy memories of Cobh and also much more vivid memories than I do of my life in Roundwood in Co. Wicklow. I think this is because I have blocked out some of that time as it was when I was first aware of things not being right.

We moved to Roundwood so my father could be closer to Dublin and the literary scene there and also so he could get to London more easily by plane instead of taking the ferry from Cork to Swansea. At this point in his career, he was very successful financially and so they bought a huge house. It is still there, situated about a mile or so from the village of Roundwood, on the road to Glendalough. It stuck out in those days and people in the village referred to it as 'the big yella house'. It was actually a sort of creamy white colour with three large gables and a balcony on the front, set in several acres of bushy grassland that my mother battled against for all the time she was there. For us it was an enormous change; living now in the countryside in a huge house with the whole countryside to play in. Again, my recollection is that my father was not there much.

He was very much there though in about 1965 I think it must have been, when he was the scriptwriter for The Blue Max, a film set in the 1st World War about the first German pilots. It starred James Mason, Ursula Andress and George Peppard and was about the class difficulties experienced by the George Peppard character. You can still see it on TV from time to time. It was all filmed on Calary bog not far from our house, where they built what we called 'The Wooden Village' for many years afterwards. In fact, every time we drove by, we would point it out and say 'There's the wooden village' as though it were the first time. I don't know why we did that but perhaps because it recalled the excitement of the time. I still look for where it was when I drive past now! It was a replica of a French town that was bombed in the war.

One day, a helicopter landed in our garden and it was John Guillermin, the film's director,coming to pay a visit. Another time, my sister, Patricia, got to meet George Peppard and came home with a brown bag full of peaches that he gave her. I have no idea why he gave her a bag of peaches but it was really exciting at the time!

On that film, each of the main people on it, the producer, director, scriptwriter, lead actors, cinematographer and some others, were given a small replica of the Blue Max badge, in silver, as a memento of their time on the film. When I was about 9 or 10 years old, because I was doing so well in school, my father gave me his Blue Max badge as a reward. It said 'Pour le Merite' on it ( curious for a badge that was for the first German air aces). I treasured it for many years until it disappeared from my room when I was about 15 years of age. At that time, we had a carpenter in the house who was splitting our larger bedrooms into smaller ones so we could each have our own room. My father always wrote at night time so he slept till about 1pm each day and so this workman could lounge around and do what he wanted while my father was asleep and we were at school. We came home one day and found him asleep on one of our beds. We tried to tell Daddy about it but he just dismissed our concerns. On top of the crooked wardrobes that never got their top coat of paint and the glue that seeped for years from the joins in the linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor, I believe he stole things. I am almost sure he stole my Blue Max Badge. The reason I am sure about this is that several years later, when I was about 19 or so, I was at a party somewhere in Wicklow and I ended up dancing and chatting with some guy who told me that he had a Blue Max Badge. I was very suspicious as I knew only about 7 were made for the key people on the film so I questioned him obliquely about it and it turned out that he also happened to know the sleepy carpenter! I did not feel I could say to him that it was my badge, at the time. Now, I wish I had confronted the situation as that was such a precious thing to me.

When I turned 40, I was having a beautiful ring made for myself in Bath, Somerset. I got to know the people who ran the jewelery shop quite well and one day I told one of them about my Blue Max Badge. It turned out that they specialised in finding unusual antique jewelery for people and so they found me a replica of the actual badge. It is almost impossible to get the real thing as there were so few made so a replica, of which there are also not many, was also quite precious. When it arrived at the jewelers and I opened the box, I was surprised to see how big it was compared to my original piece in silver. It was also in gold. I was delighted to have it again and kept it safe at home and took it out now and again. About 5 years later, when my gorgeous niece, Telche, was doing really well in school, I gave it to her for the same reasons my father give me his originally. I think it was only years later that she understood the significance of it. I hope she has it safe and passes it on to her child or someone she loves as much as I love her. Thus we can keep it as a family tradition as I never had children of my own.

A little bit of information on the badge itself:

Recipients of the Blue Max were required to wear the badge, which was a blue Maltese Cross with eagles between the arms, and the royal cipher and the words ‘Pour le Mérite’ on the cross, whenever in uniform.

Notable recipients included Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the ‘Red Baron’and Erwin Rommel, the famed “Desert Fox” of WWII. The last living holder of the Pour le Mérite was novelist Ernst Jünger who died in 1998 and who, at the age of 23, was the youngest ever recipient as well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Remember My Brother's Death

I am skipping forward many years at this point. When I was about 28 or so, I was in therapy in California, dealing with the fallout of my family dramas ( of which I will write in other posts). My therapist was a great woman called Anne Gildersleeve who had a huge impact on me and helped me make some sense of the traumas I had experienced. She suggested, at one point, that I try what was then a new form of therapy called EMDR ( Eye Movement Desensitization and Re-Processing). It had been developed for Vietnam Vets originally as it was discovered that it had a great effect on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was one of the very first non-veteran patients to experience it. My older sister, Javine, has since used it with enormous success in her psychotherapy practice, particularly with people who have been abused in some way.

The first time we used EMDR in my therapy, without going into all the details of how it works, I was able to remember things from before I was verbal; so from the time I was born to about 2 years of age. The remarkable thing with it was that I had visual memories that I could then put words to. On the second session, I remembered my brother's death. I later verified some of the details with my oldest sister as I was worried I had remembered things that had not actually happened.

My memory was of standing in my cot screaming crying, in a wet nappy. It was dark outside and there was a cold breeze from somewhere. My mother was holding a child in her arms whose skin was sort of grey and who was covered in dead leaves and with water dripping onto the ground. My mother was screaming and screaming, hysterical. I only remember that fragment but I remember also, very clearly, the terror I felt. I was obviously too small to understand what I was seeing but I know I was terrified at my mother's screams and knew something terrible was happening. With the therapy, I was able to put that experience into a place where I could handle it like a file that is replaced in it's proper place. It did help me to understand some of the anxiety I often felt but could never explain and, to this day, it colours my sense of abandonment. In that moment, as a very small child of only about 8 months, I 'knew' on some level that my mother had left me somehow. It has nothing to do with real abandonment ( which came later) but with the sense of security a child should feel with it's mother. It shook the core of my small being, making me aware of being alone in the world. I was not using verbal language at that point so I had no words to describe that later on and, in fact, was not aware of the experience until I had this therapy session. It put a picture and words to the feeling I had long held but had never understood.

I often think of children who are traumatized in wars or disasters or, indeed, abuse and how much damage can be done just by being witness to the terror of others but most particularly the terror of a mother or father. I think it does permanent damage to one's sense of security and trust. For me, being able to voice it and see it in this type of therapy helped enormously as I was able to make some sort of sense of it and can now write about it without having any ill effects.

I will never know really how my mother and father felt about that terrible death. I can only imagine it. It doesn't bear imagining. I know for sure that a lot of blame was thrown around and it put yet another nail into the coffin that was their marriage. My mother had a tendency to shut off her feelings (which I learned well from her) and so, to our small eyes and ears, it seemed like she had got over it. As an adult, I understood that she never had. How could she? The pain may have lessened but I am sure that whenever thoughts of her beloved son came up that she must have suffered greatly.

After his death, we stayed in Greystones, Co. Wicklow for six months as they did not want to be far away from his small grave. Eventually, we all went back to Cobh and my parents went on to have another daughter a little over a year later and then twin boys less than 2 years after that. One of those boys was also christened Dermot, which seems to me to be a legacy too heavy for a small child.

My father was buried with our first Dermot in 1992. It makes me so sad to see both their names on that gravestone.


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