Thursday, 15 March 2012

Learning to be an invalid

Volume 2 – chapter 2 – part1

It was a warm summer day when I left Loggerheads, walking across the road to catch a bus at the stop near the gates. Along came the big red double-decker which would take me to Newcastle in about 30 or 40 minutes, and my adjustment to the real world began. To get a good view of things I decided to sit upstairs, but the rocking and swaying of the bus plus the over exposed view around me had me holding on to the seat for safety. The pocket of pressurised air in my chest cavity felt as though it was bouncing around, a very strange sensation, and the speed with which the scenery was rushing past was also disturbing. If I had known what to expect I would have coped much better, and when further effects came along I was ready, adjusting more rapidly to what was happening around me. When the bus arrived at its destination I alighted in the market place in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a busy market day. It was like a madhouse to my unprepared senses, with the roar of traffic and hoards of people rushing with what seemed to me break neck speed in every direction. I had to cross this minefield of activity to get to another bus stop on the other side of the square, a simple manoeuvre I thought until I prepared to make my first move. The problem was that everything was moving too fast for me, when I stepped from the pavement vehicles came rushing at me and forced me back.

Eventually I made it to my other bus which was to take me home, though it was not the home I had left at the beginning of the year. My parents had moved to a new council house on the far edge of a rapidly developing council estate called Blurton. Though I knew they had made this move because of their need for an additional bedroom, it had never occurred to me that the city council had recognised my return home as a more than justifiable reason for granting my parents request to move. Climbing the hill from Heron Cross the bus made its way over the crest and began to descend through Blurton on route to a more distant part of the city. Just over the crest of the hill I alighted at a stop opposite a side road called Hollybush Road which must have been 300 yards long, ending at open fields which ran on to a distant road from Stoke to Hanford. The last house on the right was number 84 my destination, where I would live for approximately the next two years.

Apart from the strange effects of the Artificial Pneumothorax I had, and the thoroughly unpleasant air fills I had to have twice a week to maintain it, I felt in normal health, I certainly did not feel ill. When I attended the chest clinic and faced those painful injections I had no doubt that I was still a sick man, but for the rest of the time I did not feel in need of special treatment. No one likes needles or injections but this thick hollow tube they inserted between my ribs under my left arm was even more unpleasant. I came to dread it and can still see myself waiting my turn and watching some other unfortunate sufferer getting the same treatment. The sweat used to flow from my armpits as I watched the tube going in, and the wire move up and down as they cleared the tube of any flesh that may have blocked it. But the point is that nature makes us forget these unpleasant experiences, and a young man of 19 years has a mind and body that wants, even insists, on physical activity. It was no easy task to obey the instructions of the doctors who said that I had to behave like an invalid, that I had rest at all times avoiding all forms of exercise. It was difficult enough when those around me knew and understood what I was required to do, but when others did not understand, it became almost impossible. How can you retain your seat on a bus when some elderly lady is standing and makes it obvious that she expects you, a young man, to do the right thing and relinquish your seat? Over the next couple of years there were many such moments, and eventually it led to my downfall when nature overcame my common sense.

Having me at home must have been difficult for my parents, all I could do to alleviate additional expense was offer up my small disablement pension, though it was never mentioned that I might have been an added burden to them. As usual my father took little part in family life; he was either working or doing the things he liked to do in his spare time. My mother ran our world though she never involved us in decision making, a state of affairs that had always existed and one we never thought of questioning or trying to change. Time ticked by and I did my best to fit in and adjust to the limited way I had to live; I could have taken up some study or even a hobby, but I had no idea what it should be. From an academic aspect I had nothing I could make use of, the only asset I had to help me was my physical ability, which was now lost to me. For quite some time I could not even bring myself to think about the future, all I could do was thank my lucky stars that I was still here and still breathing.

Small things became major events when for the rest of the time you could do nothing. What an exciting day it was when a large carton arrived for me, and when I opened it I found the army had sent me a demob outfit. There was a suit including waistcoat which was a gun powder grey, with a white pinstripe, two white shirts and a tie, a raincoat, and a trilby hat. I had to try it all on of course, and was told that it made me look like a spiv or an American gangster. It was not the sort of outfit a young man my age would wear, though it did come in useful once shortly after it arrived. The Unemployment Exchange kept records of those who were disabled and unable to work, so I was asked to go along and register and submit my details. When I did so they told me that there was a scheme intended to train people like myself for future employment, they suggested that I should consider it. Anything was better than nothing so I jumped at the chance, which resulted in the issue of a travel pass by train to Birmingham where the training facility was located. In due course I travelled to Birmingham alighting at Snow Hill station, and finding my way to the address of this establishment which proved to be a small workshop in a larger factory building. Here I found a group of mostly young men who were being taught how to repair clocks and watches; there they sat with their heads bent over their work, saying not a word. No one looked up or spoke to me and I just stood there watching them for a few minutes; how damned depressing I thought, could I imagine doing that for the rest of my life? Before I departed a man did speak to me for a few minutes, he appeared to be some sort of foreman or supervisor, and he said that if I decided to attend this workshop, I would have to move to Birmingham. The training period would be at least 18 months or even 2 years, after which time I would be able to seek employment as a repair man. There would be a small wage which I would use to obtain lodgings, and that was the sum of it. Once again what I needed was some good advice, some friendly guidance, some encouragement, but there was nothing like that forthcoming. There appeared to be little to attract me to this proposition, it appeared to be dismal and depressing, so I departed with no wish to have any part of it.

It sounds an easy task to do nothing but I did not find it so, the days were so long with the world going about its business while I stood by with no part to play in the activities. Because I had so little to do I can still recall the insignificant things I spent my time on, such events would have been long forgotten under normal circumstances, but for me they became important. I dug out my BSA .22 calibre air rifle and spent hours target shooting in the field by the house. At short range it was quite effective and reasonably accurate, though it was not as good as the one I had before it, which had been a BSA .177 calibre weapon. The smaller calibre had a much higher muzzle velocity, more punch and superior accuracy to the rifle I now had, but such knowledge was of little value to me in my circumstances.

I spent quite a bit of time playing with the younger of my two brothers Douglas who was six to seven years old at this time. This is why I can still remember with some amusement something he said to me one day when we had been playing with a ball in the back garden. He had thrown the tennis ball to me with a lack of accuracy and it went over the fence into the field bordering on our garden. Climbing through the smooth wire strands of the fence we went in search of the errant ball, but though it had not gone far, we found it difficult to locate the ball which had landed in the long grass. We tramped through the knee high growth for some time and had no success when Douglas turned to me and said: “Do you think that God know where the ball is?” To which I replied: “I suppose he must do.” After a moment’s thought he then said: “Well I wish he would tell us where it is because I’m fed up with looking for this silly ball.” I thought this comment from a six year old highly amusing at the time, and I still do though a deeper consideration of this childish comment suggests a more profound inference than he himself ever imagined. The bible itself suggested within its contents that: ‘Out of the mouth of babes and suckling’s comes wisdom beyond our expectations’ The deeper implications of my little brother’s innocent remark I leave to the reader to ponder.

Music also continued to help smooth the path I trod; it has always meant so much to me and provided happiness when all else has failed. Quite often I would pass my time playing a small number of 78 rpm records I had collected on a small record player we had. Being favourites I never grew tired of listening to them, and even tried to share some of the feeling and beauty I experienced with my little brother. I still have a memory of sitting with him listening while I held his hands and looked into his eyes, trying to awake in his soul the emotions I felt as a result of the music. I am not sure that I succeeded, but I could certainly see some sort of awareness as he gazed back at me; Douglas knew that something important was happening but maybe he never knew what it was. What was the music that stirred my feelings so much? It was two of the most outstanding arias in opera both being sung by the supreme and incomparable tenor Jussi Bjorling, they were ‘The stars were shining brightly’ and ‘your tiny hand is frozen.’ In later years I tried to arouse the same emotional interest in music in my own son when I tried to make the ‘Sorcerer's Apprentice’ live for him. You might try such things but success is only possible if the vital spark exists within the person you are attempting to communicate with.

It is understandable that unimportant events remain in my mind from this period of my life, which is why I can describe 5th November and how much I enjoyed it on this occasion. Like most people I have always entered into the spirit of the occasion when the Gun Powder Plot was celebrated, after all it is usually so colourful and exciting, occurring at a particularly dull and depressing time of the year. Because of the enthusiasm of the children and their habit of lighting fires all over the place, this year the council decided to organise a large bonfire on the open ground near our house. The idea was to attract all the people who lived on the nearby estate so that the celebrations would take place in one safe locality. It was a good idea and to a large degree it worked well, with few small fires among the houses and the mayhem of exploding fireworks mostly contained within the one small area.

Several factors contributed to the success of this particular Guy Fawkes Night, firstly, and most importantly the weather was kind, with a still cold night and no rain. Next the large bonfire met with general approval from all who attended; a number of Guys being placed on it by different families before it was lit. There was a good attendance with the grownups standing around well protected from the cold weather in their winter coats and other warm clothing. The children and younger people had no trouble keeping warm, what with the blazing fire and much running about with fireworks which erupted in a violent display in every direction. Another ingredient that added to the spectacle was the improved variety and quantity of the fireworks available. All the old traditional fireworks were in good supply, such as Catherine Wheels, Roman Candles, Sky Rockets, Jumping Jacks, Little Demons, and others, but also there were new ones with names we had never heard before. With colourful and lurid labels and wrappings we were presented with Air Raids, Depth Charges, Mighty Canons, Flying Imps, Flying Saucers, and a host of others. With everyone doing their bit to add to the display it was almost as if the war had returned for a while, with flashes and bangs occurring all over the field and all around the bonfire.

Everyone was enjoying the noise and the excitement and the element of danger added to the overall effect for most people. It was the real thing, you were right there in the middle of the action, this was not a movie on a flickering silver screen, this was colour and movement you were creating yourself. Of course the excitement made some go a little crazy, with young boys lighting and throwing Little Demons and the other exploding variety of fireworks, which inevitably resulted in a few fingers being burnt and otherwise damaged. There were no serious injuries though I recall that there was one moment of anxiety, when a Flying Imp zoomed under the hood of a pram and exploded, sending out a puff of smoke which convinced most of the bystanders that the baby inside had been blown to smithereens. I am glad to report that they were all wrong, when the mother and those who rushed forward to help discovered on peering under the hood that the baby, who was well wrapped up in many layers of bedding, was still asleep and totally unscathed by the missile. Today this sort of adventurous and admittedly risky entertainment is no longer available to us; it’s been made almost totally non-existent by the many do-gooders who believe they have the right to protect us from ourselves. Much more could be said on this subject but now is not the time, nor is it my intention to try to influence or change the opinions of those that might read these words.

A final adjunct to my account of fireworks night comes as I confirm that my brothers and I had a supply of fireworks, most of which were ignited on the big night by Paul and Douglas. There was one very large rocket however which was used for another purpose; putting fireworks to a use for which they were never intended which was all part of the fun, though it was rarely sensible I must confess. Our harebrained scheme came about when we were admiring the collection of fireworks together, and wondered whether our very large rocket could be made to fly horizontally rather than vertically. My brothers were very enthusiastic about such a project, so I agreed to make the rocket into a plane by fitting wings and a tail to it. When it was ready we chose a day when the coast was clear and placed our rocket plane on a cardboard launcher at an open window on the landing at the top of the stairs. This window faced out towards the fields at the side of our house, so we had a clear field of fire so to speak. Lighting the touch paper we stood back with our fingers crossed, and to our satisfaction we were rewarded with a successful launch. Our luck did not continue however because the rocket proved far too powerful for the wings I had designed, and after about 50 yards of flight they folded under the pressure and our lovely V1 dived into the ground and exploded. Reading this account it reminds me yet again how true it is when they say that ‘The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands.’

Slowly I was learning to have patience and to pace myself, at the same time I was beginning to realise that I had to hide my past history. The society in which I lived had an understandable fear of the disease I had, it was a killer for which there appeared to be no cure. Anyone thought to have TB was treated as a leper, there may have been some sympathy but that was not enough to make people risk their lives. It had become part of my nature to be truthful and follow the rules, but now I was beginning to face the realisation that my survival depended on being deceitful. I had learned to be an invalid, but after something like 18 months it was becoming a burden too great to carry, I had no money, no future, I had to do something about it. My first step into deviousness and dishonesty was a decision to get a job without revealing what I was doing to the medical authorities at the chest clinic. I was already riding my bicycle which I was not supposed to do; now I began to look in the local paper for employment and immediately realised that it was not going to be easy. I needed non physical work like a job in an office, something clerical which required no physical effort. It was an impossibility I had no previous experience or qualifications, what could I do that was within my capabilities? Then one day I found something that called for no previous experience, training would be given to a suitable applicant, you know the sort of thing they say in these job adverts. The Longton branch of a country wide chain of shoe shops wanted a salesman and I imagined that was something I could do.

The company had the unforgettable name of Freeman, Hardy, & Willis, Co Ltd., so off I went for an interview and initially all went well. The manager liked the look of me, and gave me to understand that the job was as good as mine, I was feeling very confident that I was about to join the work force when he asked me: “Where are you working at present?” It is easy to imagine where the interview went from there, with me having to confess that I was presently unemployed. Then when asked for details admitting that I had been in my present state for over a year, and that previously I had been in the army. This all looked very suspicious and after some further questions the manager had the full story, which changed everything, including the look on his face. The position now became one where he had a considerable number of applicants to interview, and that if I proved to be lucky enough to get the job he would let me know. I knew the job was not going to be mine, and so it proved to be, another lesson in the disadvantages of being truthful.

The process of changing my approach to life and how to deal with it proved to be slow and gradual; from hiding the facts I graduated to telling lies, and another tool I learned to use was bluff. It would have been about the spring of 1953 that I made use of this newly acquired tool in my ever increasing armoury of deceit.

As usual I was at home when young Douglas came dashing in to tell me that Paul was in trouble down at the canal which was about half a mile away across the fields. Paul fancied himself as some sort of cockleshell hero, and his first step in that direction was to buy a rubber dinghy which he had been learning to use on the canal. Paul at the time was 12 years old so he could do little when three youths in their mid teens came along and decided the dinghy looked like good fun and took it off him. Under normal circumstances I would have been quite confidant in taking on three bully boys, but in my present condition I would have little chance against them. Like it or not I had no choice in the matter, I had a duty to do and no matter what the risk I was going to do the right thing.

Jumping on my bike I set off for the canal and a short time later saw my brother on the tow path watching the three youths diving into the canal from his rubber boat. Riding as a brisk pace I rapidly approached the offending party who saw my approach when I was still a couple of hundred yards away. My appearance must have looked very threatening to them, and I certainly looked as though I could not wait to get my hands on them; they may also have been feeling some pangs of guilt at their own behaviour. Whatever their feelings they were not about to risk what I might be able to do to them, so they left the dinghy and swam to the opposite bank where they felt some safety. Collecting Paul we recovered the boat while the trouble makers retreated further away from my presence, with me giving them threatening looks that promised all sorts of punishment if I got hold of them.

Pulling our little boat behind us we set off back towards home, putting more distance between us and the opposing party, who then plucked up more courage as we got further away and swam across to our side of the canal. Hearing a distant shout I turned to see that their new found bravery had prompted them to follow us, which made me realise that they could still be a threat, which called for a further demonstration of my aggressive feeling towards them. Telling Paul to continue on his way, I mounted my bike and set off back towards the trouble makers, demonstrating quite clearly that I still liked the idea of a confrontation. My belligerent demeanour was more than enough to dispel their growing confidence which resulted in their final departure from the scene. I was more than a little relieved I have to confess that I had got away with a colossal bluff, which taught me that such a ploy could be used and sometimes did work.

With little success in my search for employment I slowly widened my enquiries to include more manual activities which I knew would be taking a risk. I had reduced my visits to the chest clinic to one a week which convinced me that I could get away with more physical work, I was feeling almost back to normal or so I told myself. How easy it is to convince oneself that a thing is possible when considering something one really wants to do. When another advert came to my attention I answered it determined that I would take the job no matter what it was, this time it was firm in Stoke that manufactured tarpaulins used mostly by lorries to cover their loads. The job offered was a physically demanding job which included handling large bolts of canvas which were sewn into sheets of various sizes, the last job in the world that I should have considered. By this time I was prepared to do anything to become employed, so I took the job and tried to show some enthusiasm for what was a semiskilled life of drudgery. Most of the work required little skill but not all of it, it was also my job to insert holes in the canvas sheets and press metal trim into them. Then tie rope were inserted and braided into permanent loop using the old nautical procedure called splicing. It did not take me long to learn this old fashioned technique, but it was hard on the hands working with thick stranded rope which had to be prised apart with a marlin spike.

Finally I had a job, not a good one, or a suitable one, but it was a job of sorts, though it never felt right for me. I do not remember how long I had this job, but it was not very long, maybe six or eight weeks would be my guess now. In a way it came as no surprise when it all ended suddenly; but how it ended was far from ideal, giving me no opportunity to resign or even bid my employers farewell. Using my new found deviousness I had adopted my bicycle as the cheapest form of transport, and once a week I cycled from my new found job to the chest clinic to get the thoroughly unpleasant air fill needed to maintain my AP. I was always careful to hide my bike before approaching the clinic, so that they never discovered what I was doing. After the treatment we were expected to rest for a while before making our way slowly and carefully home to continue resting. I had found a way to sidle out of the building and mounting my cycle I would disappear from view; with the impetuosity of youth I had ceased to listen to the advice I was given to ensure my continued survival. The ‘I am bullet proof’ syndrome had returned with a vengeance. My behaviour was foolish in the extreme and some would say that what happened to me as a result was an appropriate punishment, but even my harshest critics would agree that death would have been too harsh punishment for the level of my offending.

That was nearly the outcome but not quite, I can now describe what occurred but at the time I had no idea what had happened to me. Apparently the hollow tube used to introduce the additional air pressure to my chest had punctured a vein or artery which had resulted in a haemorrhage into my chest cavity. The fact that I then rode a bicycle and did heavy work for the next few hours ensured that the blood continued to pump vigorously which enlarged the puncture wound. By the time I arrived back home that evening I was feeling strangely giddy and light headed, shortly afterwards I went to rest on my bed but became unconscious in the bedroom falling with a loud thump to the floor. The next thing I remember was awaking in the operating theatre at the chest clinic where the staff was working hard to revive me. Having found me unconscious my family had sent for the ambulance, the crew on discovering my medical history decided to take me to the chest clinic.

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