Sunday, November 23, 2008

Backtracking a bit-Nov 14

November 14
I got up at 0530 in order to leave early enough to get Leslie and make all the stops we had lined up for that day. Under the planned itinerary, this looked to be the hardest day, but turned out to be one of the easiest and most enjoyable, albeit tight timewise. We even added an unplanned stop, but an unplanned detour later on took a little of the luster of the journey. The proposed day was to start with me driving from Tonbridge to Godalming, about 55 miles, in order to pick up my cousin. From there we were to drive 200 miles across the country to Cornwall, the site of the regimental museum of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, Leslie's father's regiment, where we were to meet an 85 year-old survivor of the battalion. From there we were to drive to Portsmouth, another 120 miles or so in order to catch the ferry, but not before stopping in to visit the author of several WWII books, a couple of which deal specifically with battles in which Uncle Alan fought. Leslie showed he had inherited much of his father's mettle by sitting uncomplainingly in the passenger's seat whilst his American cousin bombed along the motorway in an unfamiliar car on the opposite side of the road than he was used to. I had wondered what we were going to talk about for 5 or 6 days, as we only talked to each other a couple of times a year, and had last seen each other nearly 10 years ago. This proved to be an unfounded fear, as we talked almost as furiously as I drove. I tried to fill him in on what the agenda would be, and who we would be seeing. As we were tearing along, he casually mentioned, "There's Stonehenge". And, true enough, there it was right in front of me in a wye in the road, and I thought "I am not driving past Stonehenge", so I whipped the car to the exit and drove to the parking lot, which had traffic cones in front of it. We drove past then came back and asked the guard what was going on. In a rich Cornish accent came the reply that they opened at 9, but if we would hang on for a couple of minutes, he would open a little early. He was a man of his word, and we pulled into the car park. We then walked to the entrance gate and again were met by Keith the guard, this time telling us that the site itself would not open until 0930. He told us that they had caught someone just the night before intent on carving his initials into one of the stones. Whilst chatting with him, we also discovered that we could not actually go up to the stones, so we just walked up the road and looked at them through the fence. We decided not to stay until opening, finished shooting a picture or two and continued on to Bodmin without further ado. I had only that morning remembered that although I had agreed to meeting Frank Grigg, the war veteran on Friday the 14th, who was to make a special trip from his home in Penzance in order to meet us, I was also to confirm the time when things were clearer about when we would be there. Therefore, I sent an email at 6 am on the 14th, saying we were on our way, hoping for the best, but since we had to go to Portsmouth anyway, it was worth the risk of Frank not showing. Evidently he sent an email back to Andy wondering where we were when our ETA of 1100 passed. Upon our arrival at The Keep, as it is called, I suggested to Les that he park the car while I went in search of Frank. I saw through a window in a door a group of people, obviously a meeting, and my heart sank a bit as I thought that he had never showed or had come and gone. But there, to my right, through another windowed door, sat a smallish man with a shock of snow white hair and eyes sparkling elvishly. Upon entering, I said, "Are you Frank?",to which he replied in the affirmative, cheekily followed by,"I am glad you showed up, I was just beginning to cuss you, as I had to drive in from Penzance and have to go to a regimental dinner tonight." I excused myself and went to get Les. Introducing the two, I again stepped out in order to get my backpack full of books. When I came back, I set up the camera and prepared to let it roll whilst Frank reminisced. Frank was the signal sergeant of the regiment. He ran wires between the companies for communications purposes and was often in harm's way. Prewar he worked at the Odeon Theatre, I presume in the Cornwall area. He is mentioned a couple of times in the books, as he is a natural entertainer and was a regular participant in regimental variety shows. Indeed, he is still much in demand, it would seem, as we were interrupted at least 3 times by people who had business with him, and at the last he was busy receiving several family histories from a man whose father and uncle had served in the Regiment. He has made several returns to battlefields, representing the DCLI in divisional as well as regimental reunions. As Frank dealt with another inquiry from a different quarter, then went to make us a very good cup of tea ,we wandered round the room that Frank has set up himself. It is dedicated to the 5th Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry and contains much memorabilia that Frank has acquired. We searched in vain for evidence of his father in any of the pictures then spent the first part of the time with Frank sorting our who was who. It seems that there was another two Waddingtons in the regiment, and he knew that one of them placed flowers on the grave of the other on their regimental returns to the battlefields. Alas, to our knowledge, neither were related to Leslie. Having negotiated that hurdle, we settled down to Frank's recollection of the battle in which Uncle Alan was killed. It was a joint operation, meant to capture a crossroads town in southwest Germany, which started out reasonably well, but deteriorated due to a variety of things. Alan was killed the first day of a 4 day battle during which his company achieved their objective but subsequently had to retire due to lack of support . Frank remembers it as very bad, lots of wounded, and as being lucky they only had 10 or so deaths. At which point he paused and said, "Well not for them", which was exactly what Leslie was thinking at that moment. After our time with Frank, we toured the museum, learning some of the illustrious history of the regiment. Of particular interest to me was George Washington's Bible, captured during the Revolutionary War. Later we printed out a copy of Alan's picture from the blog, thanks Debbie, then bought a copy each of the regimental history. There remained only to thank Frank with a small, 750ml token of our appreciation, which we did, and then prepared for the trip to Portsmouth. We called Ken Ford, who warmly greeted us, and told him we would be there in 3 hours or so. He replied that would be true if we were lucky. We weren't. Sailing along the motorway, with Les driving, we decided to stop for a sandwich and a drink, thinking we would hop back on the motorway. For some reason known only to TomTom, possibly it was one of THOSE exits that does not have an easy return, we were directed to continue up the road. To condense a torturous detour into a few sentences does not do justice to just how hair-raising the trip was, as night had fallen, a mist or light rain was present predicating a need for the wipers but only on intermittent, which only had three settings and none of which were the correct intermittent. As a result we were looking through either a totally clear windscreen or at oncoming headlights sparkling and diffusing through the buildup on the windscreen just before the wipers stroked. The wiper adjustments would be the only thing I can think of that I would change on the car, but change them I would. There was the one swipe wipe you get by pushing up on the wiper lever, but Les was far too busy to worry with it as he dodged oncoming traffic on a road that was obviously built to be just wide enough for horses, and semi-starved ones at that. At last we reached the motorway after what seemed like days but was more like an hour, and proceeded to Ken Ford's house witout further ado. Ken greeted us warmly, offered us a beer, which we accepted gratefully. I had not imbibed for 6 months, preferring to wait to have one with Les in honor of his dad, and this seemed like the opportune moment. We chatted about Ken's history, how he got started writing, he gave us some suggestions on how to approach a publisher, and then we discussed where we going and what we planned to do. We could have stayed and chatted for hours, but we needed to push off. Ken thanked us for coming and apologised for rabbiting on(of which neither of us thought him guilty), and said it was because it was not often that he could talk on that level with people who were as interested in the subject as he was.This made us feel quite good, I must say, to be told that by someone as esteemed as Ken. Thanks, Ken. We had arrived around 8, planning to leave at 9 in order to give ourselves enough time to check in with the ferry, but Ken was so cordial and engaging that we did not leave until past 9:30pm, and then only reluctantly, Which made for a few anxious moments for me that I kept to myself. I could see the SatNav and the ETA on it and I didn't like how close it was to the time of departure for which we were booked. But we motored on, arriving without detour at the ferry terminal, obtained our pass, got in line at 2005 hours for our scheduled 2030 departure, and waited until 2400 before we loaded. Then we did not actually depart until 0145. But, the important thing was, we were on the ferry and heading for France.

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