I’m reading All Quiet on the Western Front and just got to the bit where Paul arrives home after a long time away at the front and suddenly, in my reverie, I was Paul, coming home from my first few months in the Royal Navy.
Paul’s journey home to Germany from the front in Flanders took several days. When he arrived he felt foreign, like everything had changed though he knew that, deep down, everything else was the same and that it was he who had changed. His relationship with his family and his friends was different and would be so for ever more.
I never went to the front. I was never in great danger during my six years in the navy. I did not watch my friends die. I was a sailor and not a soldier but, for a brief moment, I felt a bond across the 100 years and the cruel, ugly line that divides me from that German private soldier. A bond that connects everyone who has worn the uniform, even for brief time.
It was my first visit home after 10 weeks in the Navy for midterm weekend. It happened to be Speech Day at my school and I was going to be awarded a prize. I had been traveling all day to get home from my base in Cornwall and I knew I was slicing the time rather fine. No cell phones in those days but my mum was waiting for me as my train pulled into Sidcup Station and we raced down to the school, running into the assembly hall in time to see the last prize-winners crossing the stage. The Headmaster was already preparing to make his final remarks as rushed into the hall. After a 300 mile dash across the country, I had missed my brief moment in the spotlight.
Luckily Mr Hahn saw me striding down the aisle and was quick on his feet. In truth, it was hard to miss me as I was the only one in a navy blue uniform among a sea of purple. Mr Hahn recognized me, quickly grabbed the microphone and ad-libbed an announcement.
“And the prize for mathematics goes to Kevin Lawrence.”
The Headmaster looked flustered and wondered why a sailor was walking across his stage until someone thrust a certificate into his hand to make him understand. “Congratulations, Lawrence” he murmured and shook my hand. As I made my way to the other side of the stage, I caught Mr Hahn’s eye and he smiled and nodded.
Coming home that weekend, I knew that everything was different now. My friends were still school kids but I was in the navy and no one understood what that meant but me.