Volume 2 – chapter - 2 - part 4 - post 46
I cannot say exactly when I returned to the Potteries it might have been the end of 1953 or early in 1954, but return I did thanks to the shaky state of affairs at Rhyl. My treatment continued and the chest clinic continued to insist that I should not work, unless I could obtain none physical work such as an office job. I could have done such work of course but who was going to give me a chance to prove it? Here I was back at Hollybush Road again with no idea what I should do, with no prospects to look forward to. In the meantime things were going from bad to worse for my Aunt and Uncle who were now forced to leave their cosy guest house in Bath Street, and move to a semi-detached house across town at Weaver Avenue. With the promising future destroyed and their affairs at an all time low, they were a far from happy couple. Mrs Slater senior died but her husband was still with them and still carrying on a running battle with his daughter in law.
When the feelings of safety and security disappear from people’s lives they become vulnerable, it is at this point that they are susceptible to offers of a way out of their dilemma. Such an offer came knocking on my Aunt and Uncle’s door quite literally not long after they had moved to Weaver Avenue, it came in the form of a door step evangelist representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Being in a state of stress, like Pavlov’s dogs, they were wide open to the message of hope offered to them and became instant converts. Some months later a similar messenger came knocking on my mother’s door and she also joined those that believed in the JW message. Like every religious group the JWs made every effort to follow up the original contacts, and the usual brainwashing technique was used to ensure that those converted were kept away from outside influences. It is not easy for those caught in such a snare to break free, first of all they have to want to get free and even then it can take years. The effects of these religious conversions were to play a great part in the future, but at the time they happened we were not aware that this would be the case.
In the meantime I continued to mark time, fighting against the temptation to be active; the very thing that nearly cost me my life some month before. The seasons marched inexorably onwards into spring and the desire to run and jump like the spring lambs became too much for me. Nature will not be denied which resulted in me joining a group of others in an impromptu cricket match in the field next to our house. In for a penny in for a pound, if I was going to play I would give it my best shot, which resulted in me bowling vigorously and enjoying every minute of it. It is my belief that this action put me in jeopardy once again, because a short time later I became feverish and was found to have a chest full of fluid. My condition was serious and I found myself back in a sanatorium called Stanfields which was in a large open area of ground close to the main road from Hanley to Burslem. On admission I was told that the body makes a liquid that lubricates the chest which is in constant movement, in my case the mechanism involved had responded to some outside irritation which had caused the fluid to be produced in excessive amounts.
The fluid could not be allowed to remain because of the danger of infection and because it was causing pressure on my collapsed lung, it had to be drained off which meant more of the unpleasant aspirations. The drainage tube was inserted sometimes in my back and sometimes in my side and always it was painful and hard to sit still under. Like all painful experiences it is the length of time it takes that makes it hard to bear, I was not going to embarrass myself by showing fear but how much could I stand? Each aspiration took a differing length of time but it was always more than twenty minutes in duration, and it was the number of them that I had to endure that eventually broke me down. I withstood several in the first few days at Stanfields but to my horror the fluid continued to fill my chest which meant there would be more until it had stopped. Maybe it was the fifth or sixth time when my nerve broke but it was an experience I shall never forget, losing control and not being able to do anything about it. I was sitting upright on a chair with my head resting on my arms on a high trolley, the aspirating tube was in my lower back and the fluid was being sucked out with a large syringe. Suddenly I began to shake uncontrollably and do what I might I could not stop it, gradually the shakes became more violent, and I heard the doctor who was sounding my chest say that my heart was fibrillating and that was the last I remember until I awoke in my bed.
Can you imagine how I felt the next time they approached me with the dreaded equipment which was now all too familiar to me? My knees were knocking without a doubt, but I am glad to say that the uncontrollable shaking did not return, my self control and consequently my dignity remained intact. Shortly afterwards the fluid ceased, all that remained was the outcome, what was to come next. I had not had my AP for the full three years but it was no longer sustainable, there was no option I had to face the outcome no matter what it was. It was like waiting for a death sentence, when my lung expanded if the cavity had not healed I would have to face major surgery. The options were either a thorax operation to remove part of my ribs which would provide a permanently collapsed lung, or it would be a lobotomy to remove the damaged lobe. An x-ray would provide the answer, but until my chest had dried out nothing could be seen. Each day I had a new picture taken and waited with baited breath for the verdict, and each day all they could see was a fog. It must have been a week before the answer finally came, though to me it seemed like a lifetime; the doctors and their entourage approached down the ward doing their daily rounds and I knew that the moment of truth had arrived. The news this time was good, my lung had healed my treatment was over and in a few days time I could go home.
Fate had been kind to me I was to survive but not in perfect condition, so I was told. The lung would stick to the plural wall of my chest and be of little further use to me. When I was allowed out of bed I was moved from the inside ward to an outside one where the front wall was made of continuous folding windows which were opened during the day. In this new location I met a young man who I took a liking to partly because he was quiet and unassuming, had a polite manner and for a while had little to say for himself. Gradually we got to know each other and were soon enjoying each other’s company sharing something of our background, we also found ourselves revealing our feelings and our impressions regarding the way life had treated us. I cannot recall his name but I can describe him, he was probably in his late twenties, tall, at least six feet in height, handsome, with black hair and brown eyes. Due to his condition he had little flesh on him, though I could tell by the width of his shoulders that he had been a very strong man. After leaving school my new friend had become a coal miner and had remained one until he had fell ill some few months before. He described to me how he had discovered he was sick one day when he was walking up a steep hill. Finding himself breathless about half the way to the top, he had been forced to stop to get his breath back; he then knew that something was wrong.
The poor fellow was dying and probably did soon after I departed from him; he had both silicosis (the coal miners’ disease,) and tuberculosis which was eating away his lungs. With lungs set rock solid like lumps of coal there was nothing they could do for the TB which was rapidly killing him; I felt greatly for him because he was a fine chap, and what is more a hero. Coming from a mining family I was interested to hear his experiences as a miner, and among other things he told me without boasting of an incident when he had saved the life of one of his work mates. I cannot prove the story true, but I have no doubt he was an honest man and I for one believe every word he told me, anyway why would a dying man lie?
His shift was working at the coal face which was a thick one, being maybe five or six feet thick; they had removed all the loose coal and were busy preparing to blow down another section from the face. Having undercut the seam they were drilling holes in preparation for the explosive charges, when a large section broke away and fell towards the man who was drilling. The block of coal was the size of a small car and must have weighed several tons, if it had landed on the unfortunate miner he was have been killed instantly, but it’s progress had been halted by a wooden pit prop. The trapped man had fallen on his side with the massive piece of coal hanging above him, the wooden prop was groaning a sure sign that it was about to give way. (Wooden props were always preferred by miners for this very reason; they always gave some warning before they gave way, whereas steel props would spring away without prior warning.) The horror of the situation was that the trapped man could not move because the bottom edge of the huge block had trapped his steel capped working boots. The young man telling me the story then told me the bravest thing you could ever hear, and not in a boastful way but in a down to earth and unromantic fashion. The only thing that could be done was to crawl under the threatening block of coal and cut the laces of his mate’s boots, thus allowing his feet to be removed. Pulling the trapped miner clear the men retreated down the tunnel to safety and a couple of minutes later the pit prop gave way and the enormous block of coal collapsed with a roar.
It was such a situation as this one that started me down the path of disbelief in the concept that God really existed. If ever a man deserved something better from life it was this young coal miner who was going to die before very much longer. I had never felt such a desire to help someone as I did at this time, my emotions made me foolish and finding that he liked music I tried to share my love of it with him. He was not well versed in the beauty of arias from the operas and I tried to sing some of the better known ones though I knew very few of the words. Standing out on the veranda with the windows wide open we looked out at the stars on a tranquil night, and I made up some words on the spot to sing to the love song from the opera Samson and Delilah. From memory I conjured up something like this:
When you go away I feel so sad, and Oh so lonely.
I love you dear I love but you and you only.
Never would I miss just one tender kiss,
I am yours for ever I’d leave you never,
Though my heart be broke in two.
That is the way I remember it and though it does not look good on paper it sounded right when sung to the music, the sort of sentiment Delilah might have expressed to Samson.
Looking out from the above mentioned veranda was a favourite pastime once I was up and about, I would gaze across the open ground towards the houses that represented freedom and the real world. If you could return it meant not only freedom but the suggestion of a normal and healthy life; a figment of one’s imagination of course, but very real to me at the time. Another attraction was the large expanse of sky one could see; I never realised just how much time I spent looking at the clouds and the blue sky, until one day I saw an unusual event. By sheer coincidence I was looking at the very location where a falling mass appeared and for a few seconds streamed across the sky leaving a trail of sparks and fire behind it. Today one would wonder whether it had been a returning space craft that was crashing to its doom like the space shuttle did, or maybe a large Russian satellite burning up on re-entry. But in 1954 we knew little of such things, and my conclusion was that I was witnessing the burn up of a large meteor or something similar. It certainly appeared to be a very long way away, there was no sound from it and it appeared to burn up before reaching the ground.
When your life if at a standstill, as mine was during the four months I spent at Stanfields Sanatorium, there are few momentous events to tell about. My memories are of small and insignificant things, but if I am to be true to my memories I must describe them without embellishment or exaggeration. I can recall feeling pleased that the minister from the Methodist church who visited once a week always stopped at every patient with a few kind words; why this pleased me I am not sure because I was no longer a practising member of his church. I had no particular belief in any religious doctrine at the time, but I was certainly not impressed by the Catholic priest who called only to comfort those of his own following. For their own the Catholics did much more than just visit, at least once a week they sent a couple of their parishioners with comforts for the faithful. These visitors would pass from bed to bed asking whether you were a Catholic, if you answered in the negative they moved on, but if you answered in the affirmative they presented you with a bag of goodies which included confectionary, and cigarettes. Those of us who received no such comforts were not impressed, the feeling being that we were all sufferers who deserved some kindness regardless of our religious convictions.
It was not easy to dismiss the seriousness of our situation, being confronted with a death dealing disease, which for most of us meant an end to life as we had known it. Even so there were moments of humour and comedy which brought a brief smile to our faces in spite of our grim situation. One such example of this began the day a new patient appeared; an old man who was both wizened and ugly, but who had much to say about himself. In a loud voice he informed the other residents of the ward that he was a born again Casanova, a Lothario who had suffered from more doses of VD than we had had hot dinners. To our amusement he would describe his numerous encounters in great detail, being ready each day to tell us more; we never discovered how much of his story telling was truthful or how much pure fiction, but it entertained us and helped to pass the time.
Then there was the day I nearly got caught smoking; most of us were smokers but it was not allowed, which was to be expected seeing we had lung diseases. For a modern day reader this would look ridiculous, the fact that we all smoked, but at the time it was not considered an unhealthy thing to do, if fact most people accepted the tobacco companies advertising. Smoking was said to be good for the nervous system, it relaxed you and provided a feeling of well being, it was admitted that excessive smoking might make some a little chesty, but in the main it was accepted that more could be said in its favour than could be said against it. So, when the staff wasn’t looking we all smoked, which is what I was doing one day when a staff nurse walked into the ward. Before she saw me I lifted my knees and hid my cigarette beneath the sheets; she had several things to do before moving on so I sat sweating it out until she finally left the ward. When she did I threw back the bedding and released an enormous cloud of smoke which raised quite a laugh from my partners in crime. Like any other group of people sharing difficult circumstances there was a bond of fellowship between us which ensured that we would stick together come what may.
Three times in three years I had faced serious health problems and each time I had survived to tell the tale, from 1952 to 1954 I had spent two weeks short of a whole year in hospitals. Would I ever escape from this fate that seemed to await me, would I ever move out of the darkness into the light, which would reveal some sort of way ahead? Sometimes the turn of events is sudden, at other times the change is a gradual process, which is the way it was this time. My affairs did improve little by little but it happened so slowly I was hardly aware that it was taking place. I was always going to be an invalid though I looked normal enough, which allowed me to deceive those around me. Finally the day came when I knew it was too late for such knowledge to cause me problems, and then I was able to be honest about myself again at long last.
I was still young but I was learning to live with my poor state of health, I was not going to die quickly but to go on I had to adjust to the need to live like an invalid. With no skills and now no good health it was a dismal future that lay ahead of me and I constantly racked my brains for a way forward. If ever I needed to paddle my own canoe my present situation now made it imperative; I had survived with the help of my parents but they did not deserve the burden I had become. There did not appear to be a solution to my problem but I had to find one or at least I hoped that fate would show me a way out of the unenviable position I was in.