Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pater Familia: Tales of Dukinfield: Yanks

The Yanks are Coming!

I saw them arrive. The Americans came into the village in a quiet procession of just three cars, yet stretching the length of the block. The cars didn’t sound like cars; In fact, they didn’t so much make a noise as suggest it; a hint of a rumble from the hood and tailpipe, overlaid with a shushing of tires. In length, they were absurd, yet impressive; in width, they took up more than half the street. Not with arrogance, but with a confident assurance that Dukinfield would adjust to them and not the other way round. For the first few days, we thought maybe they could fly, with their enormous tailfins and rear lights that could well be retro rocket thrusters; their backs lit up like Blackpool illuminations, all the way across the car; and their flashing lights for turn signals, instead of the little amber arm that sticks out from normal cars.

They set up their heavy equipment on Platt Street, opposite Grandma’s pen, between the railway sidings and the Suttons’ row of houses, hiding it from Astley street. I learned their names, just by hovering around their little group. They didn’t seem to mind. After a while, I approached them.

“Where do you come from?” I asked no one in particular, half expecting a declaration of peaceful intent towards all mankind.

“The Great State of Texas, son.” Answered the lanky one named “Tex”.

“Is that why you’re called Tex?” I asked again.

“Yup.” He answered, just like real T.V. and cinema Americans talk.

“Doesn’t it get confusing,” I inquired, taking this opportunity to ask questions I had pondered for years. “if you’re all called Tex, how do you know who your mum is calling?”

“No, son. We’re only called Tex by outsiders.”

“So what does your mum call you?”


“You mean, the Cincinnati Kid might be called Irving at home?” I was slightly stunned and would need time to absorb this revelation later.

“Why have you come to Dukinfield?”

“We’re here to dismantle the Allied War Machine.” He said, with pride. I said “Tara” and walked away as calmly and slowly as I could.

“Bloody Hell!” I yelled to my brothers in the safety of our den. “There’s a fluckin’ Allied War Machine here in Dukinfield and we’ve never even noticed it!”

Tex’s simple statement shook us to our shoes and set off a week-long search for The Allied War Machine. We knew the ins and outs of every building in the village, including the location and type of every machine and yet we’d somehow overlooked an Allied War Machine on our own bloody doorstep.

“Maybe it’s disguised as a cotton loom” said Kenny Hodgin “or a compressor.”

“Nah, it’s got to look like a gun” said Derek.

“Steel lathes look like guns” said Steve.

“Yeah, but they’re still steel lathes”, I said, growing exasperated.

“We’re going about this the wrong way.” I said. “Since we’re always seeing things as guns; sticks, clothes poles, our fingers, we would have noticed a stray Allied War Machine hanging around. So if it isn’t here now, they must be bringing it in somehow. The question is, how?”

Later that day, Grandma arrived with other news.

“Edith, t’ Suttons have done a moonlight flit.” Lots of people were leaving their condemned homes with rent in arrears nowadays. As soon as the renters left, the town council’s Compulsory Purchase Order came into effect, leaving the landlord with neither income nor property, just the pittance paid by the council for the seizure.

“Good God, Mother, you’ve got enough in your hands. Here, let me give you a hand. Neil, Steven, come and help your Grandma.”

“Sure thing, ma’am.” We drawled.

Grandma came through the front door sideways, not entirely because of the shopping bags full of stuff she had looted from the Suttons’ house. She always came in sideways, partly because of her ample girth and partly because it was easier to keep her balance that way as she stepped up and over the stone threshold. We took the bags with glee and began to rummage through them.

“Here, leave that alone. I’ll show it to you when I’ve caught me breath.” She wheezed.

“”Sure thing, ma’am.” We drawled.

“Would you like a cup o’ tea, Mother?” asked my Mum, according to ritual.

“Ooh, yes, please, love. I’m parched.” responded my Gran.

“It won’t be long, I’ve just put t’ kettle on.” Added my Mum, to nobody’s slightest surprise.

Me and my brothers went back to playing with our toy cowboys on the table, knowing that nothing would happen until after the tea ceremony.

“Now the Suttons have left, there’s almost nobody to play with, pardners.” I said, quietly.

“Yeah, that whole block’s vacant, now.” Murmured Steve.

“Hey, pardners, that means we can play there!” Shrieked Derek. You see, we weren’t allowed to play in houses near where people lived.

“Ma’am, can me and my sidekicks go out to play?” I asked, as innocently as I could.

“All right, but remember the rules: no playing near the Conservative Club, or in houses near where people live.”

“We won’t Ma’am. Thank you kindly ma’am.” We drawled, as deeply as we could.

In our most innocent saunter, we went through the back ginnel to Mill Steet and up the block and across Astley Street, where we stopped and surveyed our new territory in awe. We had an entire block of row houses to play with and the back bedroom of each house overlooked the wasteland where the yanks had set up camp.

Methodically, we crept in and out of each house, wary of redskins or bushwhackers, checking each yard, toilet, kitchen and living room. We whooped and danced around imaginary camp fires in the bedrooms, throwing trash in the air and watching which way it fell, a sure-fire way for the spirits to show us which bedroom would make the best wigwam. Being used to underground dens, we needed the guidance of the spirits. We couldn’t decide by ourselves.

“It would be great if we could have them all as dens.” Steve pondered.

“We don’t have enough stuff for that many dens.” I said. “Besides, we’d have to keep climbing up and down the stairs to get to each den.”

“Too bad there’s not doors between all the houses’ bedrooms.” Mused Derek. Me and Steve agreed.

The railway hooter blew noon, so we set off for home, passing Dave Combs and his mates, knocking down the yard wall of Mrs. X’s old house with their sledge hammers.

“They could knock holes in the bedroom walls.” Realized Steve.

We explained our idea to the big kids, after getting them to agree to share the place and not kick us out. When we came back out after dinner, they had already knocked holes in the walls joining three of the seven houses. By teatime, they had done the whole row.

We ran back and forth through the holes in the walls, from house to house, free from the eyes of the outside world. We were lions, jumping through hoops, we were escaping prisoners of war, we were cops and robbers, we were happy. And there were no grown ups to stop us. We played this way for a week, always keeping an eye on the yankee varmints out the back windows and anticipating the arrival of The War Machine.

Looking out of an open front bedroom window one day, Steve lobbed a chunk of plaster into the back of a passing truck. That became the game and when we ran out of chunks of plaster, we used cans and bottles. Then there were no more trucks and I tried to lob a rock on to the roof of a passing car and hit the windshield by mistake. I just hadn’t been thinking. Until, that is, I saw the look of panic, followed by anger, on the face of the driver.

The windshield wasn’t damaged, but he skidded and squealed to a stop and leaped out of his car. He dashed into the first house and up the stairs. We bolted behind the blanket covering the hole and right to the end of the row, across the street and home to safety.

I couldn’t believe I had done something so stupid and sat with my heart pounding for quite some time. I wanted to undo it. I conjured up pictures of what might have happened and couldn’t sleep that night.

After breakfast the following day, I felt a little better. Better enough to realize just what an effective escape route we had created. That morning, we covered all the holes with blankets, tarps and rags, so that we could enter any house in the row and vanish immediately. The covers would slow us down a bit, but not by as much time as we would gain from the confusion of any pursuer.
If we were fast enough, we could get to the upstairs windows and watch which house the enemy entered and go back downstairs in the house next to him, leading him in circles.

We were practicing such a maneuver when we were stopped by a roaring of heavy engines and a clanking and grinding that we had never heard before. We rushed to the back bedroom windows and watched in silent awe as a column of immense tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled out of the railway sidings and past Grandma’s pen to the wasteland opposite, right up to the back yard gates of the houses we were standing in.

“The Allied War Machine,” Derek muttered, in awe.

“Our secret.” I declared.

“Cross my heart and hope to die.” Swore Steve.

“In a cellar full o’ rats.” Vowed Derek.

It was obvious that this place would be declared off-limits the moment our Mum and Dad found out about the War Machine. We went to the front bedroom to see if anyone on Astley Street had heard or seen anything. Dave Combs and his mates were throwing knives at a telephone pole. I opened the window and shouted to them. Meeting them at the front door, I made them swear the solemn oath, then led them upstairs.

“Fuckin ‘ell” said Dave, hungrily. His mates agreed. We plotted for awhile and, one at a time, went home for provisions for the gang. We sat there for hours, till the yanks went off for dinner. Then we descended on their camp. We found some gum and cigarettes, but not much that we could move. Then Dave got into an armored personnel carrier and started it up with a tremendous roar. I don’t know where he found the keys, but we all piled in.

It took Dave awhile to sort out the gears, but we were all thrown to the back when he got it going. I had always thought tanks and other tracked vehicles were slow, but this thing flew! Dave demolished the back yard and toilet of one of the houses before he figured out how to stop and turn it. He backed it up and aimed for two big, steel ramps the yanks had erected. He hit them square on and we zoomed up the ramps, sailing off the other end and crashing down on another vehicle. Now the yanks had been working on this second vehicle and had almost removed the heavy machine gun mounted on it. The machine gun popped out of its turret and lay beckoning us from the broken glass and cinders.

We scrambled out of our tank and went to pick up the gun. We couldn’t budge it. Everybody ran home to get their grappling hooks and heavy ropes. Derek got our bogey, a go-cart my Dad had welded out of steel, that ran about six inches off the ground. We hung pulleys from the ramps and swung the gun up and on to the bogey. We tore down a blanket from one of the holes in the wall and covered the gun.

The bogey didn’t show the slightest strain, but it took all of us to push it up Mayers’s Brow and down the embankment to the dens. If it hadn’t dug into the ground at the bottom of the banking, it would have rolled right into the canal. We hid it in the dens for over a week, because the yanks were frantic and looking everywhere. But we had to move it because it took up too much space. So we moved it early one morning to our house, since they’d looked there first and often. We mounted it on a dustbin in the ginnel, to show my Dad when he got home from work.

“Enemy approaching!” Called Steve, as my Dad pedaled down the street, black faced and tired.

“Enemy approaching!” I called back to Derek, on gunnery duty.

“Halt! Who goes there?” Challenged Derek as my Dad rounded the corner into the ginnel, squarely in Derek’s sights.

“Bleedin’ ‘ell!” Shouted my Dad, falling off his bike in incredulous terror, his eyes wide open and his voice quavering an octave higher than usual. “Get out from behind there. You could get killed, or kill somebody else!”

“Budda, budda, budda!” Shouted Derek with glee. “I got ‘im! The filthy Nazi’s down!”

Me and Steve jumped on him with our bayonets. “Get the bloody ‘ell off me! I’ve told you them bayonets aren’t bloody toys!”

“Budda, budda, budda!” Squealed Derek, having the time of his life and lobbing bean bag hand grenades on to the filthy Nazi’s head. “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

“I’ve told you, now. Bloody well stop it, or I’ll bloody well hit you!” Repeated the filthy Nazi.

“Budda, budda, budda!” Repeated Derek, bravely refusing to surrender until his machine gun nest was overrun by the filthy Nazi and then running into the kitchen to hide behind my Mum. He forgot, though, that my Mum is a filthy Nazi sympathizer, a collaborator, a traitor who handed him over for torture.

Me and Steve sidled in and made ourselves as small as possible. We ate our tea, washed, brushed our teeth and quietly went to bed. We didn’t talk much, for fear of attracting attention to ourselves. Derek came up and joined us at the foot of the bed, smirking, but he wouldn’t say why and we didn’t feel like torturing it out of him.

Y’know that dizzy, falling sensation you get sometimes when you’re falling asleep? Well, that’s where I was when, with a frightening roar, the filthy Nazi rushed into the bedroom with the coal scuttle on his head (which was, in fact, a bronzed Nazi helmet) and a rolled up newspaper in his hand. He scared the wits out of us, but then we laughed as he pretend-thrashed us with the newspaper. Derek sat up at the bottom of the bed and laughed at us till he almost had an asthma attack.

Then my Dad sat down on the bed.

“Guns have only one purpose, to kill. I’ve told you that. That gun can kill dozens of men in less than a minute. You only have to see one man shot to know that guns are wrong. Where did you get it? From t’ yanks?”

“Yes, Dad.” We said.

“Well, I’ll have a word with them tomorrow.”

“But they don’t know we’ve got it, Dad.” I objected.

“It makes no bloody difference. You don’t leave ordnance lying around, especially when there’s kids about.”

“They didn’t leave it lying around, Dad. It was attached to an armored personnel carrier.” I grimaced with honesty.

“How did you get it off, then?”

“Well, the yanks had it part way off, then we dropped another armored personnel carrier on top of it.” It was a relief to get it all out.

“On top of it?” He yelled.

“Well, there’s them ramps, you see, that you can drive up and off the end.” I explained.

He muttered something under his breath and sat there, shaking his head.

“We’ve told you everything, now, Dad. There’s nothing else to come, except we’ve had the gun for over a week and the yanks looked very hard for it. They couldn’t have expected anyone to drop an armored personnel carrier from the sky to get the gun off. They’re nice blokes, Dad. Really nice.” I pleaded.

“Yanks are nice blokes.” Said my Dad. “Very nice. Except in their love for guns and their hatred for colored people. I’ve seen shore patrols come into a bar and beat the crap out of colored blokes with their clubs and the colored blokes were doing nobody any ‘arm. And the gun crime in America. Any nation with any sense at all would outlaw gun ownership. They have more murders in one city in one day than all of England does in five or ten years. I don’t understand how such likeable people can be capable of these things.”

“But they helped us win the war, din’t they, Dad?”

“1939. That’s when World War Two started. And we had to fight Hitler alone until 1941. Then, just when we had the Germans beaten, the bloody Yanks came in and took all the credit. Y’know, we once got a shipment of American supplies, underwear, mainly. You never saw the like; polka dots, bloody stripes, you name it. You never saw such fancy underwear in your life. We were dancing around in it and really having having fun. And you should see their uniforms. All of them had bloody stripes on their sleeves. If you ran into a real officer, it’s a wonder he could lift his bloody arms up, for all the bloody brass. But they looked bloody smart. That’s why all our women fell for ‘em, but then again, that’s bloody women for you.”

“Were they good fighters, Dad?”

“Once they got the knack of it. They took a right bloody pasting in the D-Day landings. Y’know, we told them how to fly their Flying Fortresses in formation and at night, but they wouldn’t listen, till they lost a terrible lot of men. Just like Pearl Harbor. We had listening stations that warned them the Japanese were going to attack, but they’re a bit big headed, see and if they don’t find something out for themselves, they ignore everything from everybugger else.”

I think my Dad was still talking to us when I fell asleep. I love to listen to his voice as I fall asleep.

Everything got smoothed over between us and the yanks. We apologized and promised not drive tanks or other vehicles and not to remove any weaponry. Even with these restrictions, we would say “hi” everyday and, when nobody was around, we’d climb into the vehicles and pretend, since that wasn’t forbidden.

Then, as abruptly as they came, they left, while we were at school, so we didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to Tex and his friends. I felt let down and I scuffed my shoes across the wasteland, trying to kick up anything to remember them by, but they had cleaned up thoroughly. Despondent, I stomped slowly up the stairs of the first row house to the bedroom we had made our den.

I plonked myself down on the old mattress, laid back and studied the ceiling. For awhile, I had had a link with the outside world. Not just outside the village or outside Dukinfield, but out there, where life was like on T.V. And now it was over. I rolled over, about to cry, but the mattress was lumpy, so I put my hand underneath, to smooth it out. I pulled out a stack of paper. Superman comics! And at the very bottom of the stack, a Playboy magazine! Thanks, Tex.