A little tale. One day, a few months back, I found myself in Somerset killing time after a three-day hike across moors and dells. I visited an antique fair where ladies with purple hair sold things that smelled of mothballs and the shoppers looked like a crooked-toothed host from Antiques Roadshow. It was perfectly quaint.
I just chatted a bit. A lady heard my accent and said, “I’ve saved this for you.” She grabbed my arm and dragged me to her pile of plastic boxes behind her stall of war memorabilia. “I promised I’d offer this to the next Australian I meet,” she said handing me this tatty little book…
Padre Gault was an Australian Methodist minister who wandered the trenches in World War I providing guidance and solace. His Stunt Book was a collection of wisdoms and witticisms geared at providing solace to soldiers. I accepted the book, and paid her a few pounds for it and have been reflecting on it, sharing it with friends, since.
My favourite bits are where Padre asks the soldiers a question about life. The responses are so raw. He asks them about the sky:
“Why don’t they keep the moon for a dark night?” – Anon
And being a man:
“If the Australian soldier could attain a moral standard equivalent to his fighting abilities, it would approach closely to ideal manhood.” – Digger 17th Bn.
I provide a few more scans:
It’s a display of male beauty. Unfortunately we don’t get to see it enough these days, in part because we don’t recognize it.
A lot of the dialogue is about how their previous worries pale in the face of war.
I’m reading a book about anxiety at the moment that notes a study with soldiers who entered the war with a clinical anxiety disorder. During the worst of the fighting, their symptoms completely disappear and these anxious men actually prove to be the most fearless. After the war their neurosis return.
One soldier says that storming Normandy was less stressful than a panic attack. The point is made: faced with real fear, their fight or flight mechanism kicks in as it should and things kind of flow.
I keep reflecting on this. I have many thoughts. But one is this (an oldie):
In hardship we dig deep. When we’re at our depths, we fend and we thrive and we can but look up.
To finish, these final words from the Padre:
It makes me cry every time…