We call him Papa. He is not actually my paternal or maternal grandfather, but he has been so close to our family that many people think he is related to us. He has been retired for almost twenty years and is living off his pension, with some support from his two sons who practice law. Before he retired, he was working as an assistant security manager in a local company, where he trained new guards. He got this job after a brief career in the army.
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He was only ten when the Second World War broke out, hence he lived with the vivid images and war stories that returning soldiers brought back. I chose to talk to him because he is a very talkative person with interesting stories. Except for the fact that I have known him for a while now, it is very easy to dismiss him as a creative storyteller because of the intriguing stories he tells. What I have come to realize is that they often check out.
Papa enlisted in the army when he was nineteen. By then the war was over and veterans were trying to find jobs locally to keep up with the new demands of life. Very few people went to look for a career in the army because of the high number of people that the army discharged after the war.
However, for Papa, the war stories had gotten the better of him and he decided to find his way to the army. No one had served in the army in his immediate family because he was the first-born child. His father was unfit for service because of poor sight. However, as he puts it, everyone was involved in the war effort at the time because almost everyone had a friend or a relative serving in one of the fronts at the time. Some came back and others did not.
Growing up in the fifties was not as complicated as growing up in the new millennium. Papa thinks that it was quite clear for him and most of his peers what career opportunities to pursue. The degree of specialization was not as complex as it has become. Back then, technical skills landed you a job in a factory and if you excelled academically, you would end up pursuing a white-collar career as a lawyer, a doctor, or maybe a writer.
Options were fewer and clearer. He says at the time, law was just law. It was not common to hear people say that they are specialists in criminal law, or corporate law. For him, he considered a career in the army as the highest form of duty that any citizen could aspire to. That is why he enlisted as soon as he could.
His life as a young man was typical army life. He speaks of the difficult days as a recruit where they had to endure terrible training officers who as he puts it, “were hell bent on taking us to hell”. In particular, he described a time when he failed to report to the parade on time because his commanding officer sent him off barracks to buy a packet of cigarettes that were available within the barracks.
Thinking that he had a good reason to be late, he reported to the parade only to find the same officer leading the parade drills, asking for him. He received severe punished for his lateness from the same officer. He refused to tell me what the punishment was. He speaks fondly of the strong bond that he had towards members of his squad, and how he could always trust his fellow soldiers to watch his back.
The radio was the in-thing back then. There were very few television sets and they had a very limited range of programs. The color TV was still in the labs and seemed to be the next wonder the world was waiting for. The radio was the means through which people learnt what was happening in real time. At the army, it was a privilege to have your own set as a junior officer so they all huddled together to catch the latest happenings in the world whenever they could find one.
When he compares what the radio was then and what it is now, he says that it was like a flickering lighthouse lamp on the shores of a troubled ocean, while now it is like the stage lights of an opera. The variety is simply overwhelming. One of the things he eschews is the number of commercials that run on the radio today. He says, “The commercials are so many that you can easily miss the program while it is running”.
Letters had a very important place in life back then. It was the only reliable way to communicate what you had to say to people a far off. He says that he always looked forward to receiving letters from his mother, and later on his girlfriend.
His father never wrote much. While the radio kept you abreast with national and international events, letters kept you in touch with your family and friends. It was the only way to know what the people you cared about were going through. Mail arrival was the best time among the army officers. It meant that you could get a glimpse of what was happening back home without the mediated lenses of the media.
Naturally, dating formed a very critical part of the social life then. After joining the army, he realized that his fellow soldiers talked a lot more about their girlfriends and wives than any other one subject, when they were discussing personal issues.
He says that they played a great role in keeping the morale of the army up. It was not once that he heard commanding officers charging soldiers to fight for their women and children. It legitimized the difficult life of a soldier because it gave them a truly personal reason to stay in the army and fight for the people they loved.
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After all, love is the most powerful force in the universe. One of the paradoxes he remembers is that it was easier for a soldier to get a girlfriend because of the macho image. However, soon after, almost all the girlfriends wanted their men off the army because of the risk that they might loose their lives. Papa said, “It is like falling in love with a mermaid then asking to take her on a vacation to the desert!”
Papa always looked forward to getting a wife of his own. Many soldiers married while still young. He did not know that he would find a wife while serving at the army. Maria was a mailroom clerk at the barracks. One day, as he went to send a letter to his mother, she asked him why he always sent letters to his mother.
She added, “I have also noticed that she writes to you a lot, don’t you have a girlfriend?” Papa told her plainly that his mother was the most special person to him at the time. After Papa moved to another barrack, he started receiving letters from Maria. Two years later, when Papa was twenty-three, they took their marriage vows. “The army gave me a gun with a knife, a wife, a life, and a whole bunch of friends.” Papa quipped.
About their wedding, Papa chose a simple ceremony. He grew up as a Catholic so he had a small private ceremony at the army chapel at the barracks. When he described it, you can see the glow that the event left on him. He says the music at the wedding music was simple, played by an old childhood friend on the old organ in the chapel.
His guest list was very small. His parents, younger sister, and his favorite primary school teacher were all the people he invited. Maria on the other hand had enough guests to fill the tiny chapel, and some more. Their honeymoon lasted only three days before they both reported to duty. After Papa attained the rank of sergeant, Maria resigned so that they could start a family. However, his military career did not last much longer after he developed a lung problem that rendered him unfit for military service.
Entertainment played a critical part of Papas life. He loved music and dance, so he never missed an opportunity to attend discos and other road shows. He says the radio played some music, but there is a world of difference listening to the radio alone and participating in a full-scale carnival with live music. Gramophones were the in-thing then but they were too expensive for a junior officer.
Television was gaining ground as a means of entertainment but people preferred going to the cinema. Naturally, Papa played a lot of poker at the army because of the restriction that came with enlisting. He also enjoyed working on crossword puzzles from old newspapers whenever he could find them. Papa was a social drinker. He says he never liked drinking because it reduced his ability to enjoy the moment, and made it hard for him to work the next day. He quit drinking totally, after he left the army.
Considering that Papa seemed to have a strict Christian background, it was interesting to hear his views about the church at the time. Back then, he said, the church was a very powerful institution.
The church controlled much of the life of the community and contributed to its social life. It was easy to know who did not attend church because of the smaller communities. People could tell when one of their neighbors needed help. When children were born, the church made the christening ceremony very important to family and friends. The christening service was the official event for congratulating new parents.
Papa says that some of his most memorable moments took place around the church during Easter and Christmas. He got his first kiss from a girl they acted with on a Christmas play when he was twelve. Papa blushed as he concluded on that question, as he said, “It happened behind the pulpit”.
On the question of values, Papa had the following to say. “My father taught me one thing. You have to be honest and respectful with everyone regardless of whom they are. You have no right to cheat someone because he cheated you or to disrespect him because he did not respect you. If you do that, you will be sinking to their level”.
He said this with a strong conviction and then went on to say that it is appalling how everything is now subjective. He felt that it is not proper for a society to grow without a sense of right or wrong. He added that it was much easier to live with a code that said what was wrong and what was right, compared to living in the present society where something can be wrong or right depending on how different people see it.
On technological change, Papa felt that there is nothing inherently wrong with technology but it matters how it is used. He said that the internet, for instance, has made life much easier for everyone including bad people. The problem, then, is not the internet but the users. He finished off by using the often-quoted analogy of the power of a knife in the hands of a butcher and the power of the same knife in the hands of a surgeon.
From this interview, I could clearly tell that growing up half a decade ago was very different from growing up today. Postal services no longer carry any meaningful personal messages in the same way they did back then. There are many options now including email, text messages, and instant chat, among others. Secondly, the sense of community is not under the power of traditional institutions such as churches.
It has moved on to new platforms such as Facebook, and new organizations such as charitable organizations and community based organizations. There are some losses in this respect, because of the reduced mediation and destruction of authority structures, just like there are some benefits, which include having a choice in deciding on the people to relate.
On the other hand, I learnt that there are some enduring issues that characterize human life. Many people love music just as Papa did over fifty years ago. The way they access and participate in this interest is different but the love for music is the same. In addition, certain values such as those that Papa pointed out are still important.
Papa spoke of personal respect for everyone, just like we talk of respecting human rights and being tolerant with everyone. Papa spoke of honesty, today we speak of maintaining high ethical standards. The terminology is different, but they all come from the same human experience.
On the specific issue of love and marriage, people married while younger compared to today. At twenty-three, most young adults today are still making their way through college or figuring out how to pay their college loans. People wait until they are in their late twenties or older to settle down in marriage.