Maybe it was the blue moon over Nashville but I woke up last night around three a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. Do you ever have those nights when you fall asleep straight away, sleep heavily, wake thinking it’s morning and you’ve had a great night’s sleep, only to discover you’ve been asleep just for a couple of hours? And then you can’t get back to sleep.
I went over a conversation I’d had yesterday with our neighbour Nick about parents and residential homes. Britain is one of the worst countries for putting our elderly into homes. I don’t have that problem, I’m an orphan! I joke about that but the reality is, I am, having lost both parents.
My father died at the same age I am today. His father, my grandfather, passed when my Dad was only nine. I keep checking my pulse!
My father was the most remarkable person I have ever met. I have spoken about him before and I know most of us think our parents are the best, and of course they are, but last night I thought about some of the things my Dad had done.
In 1942, aged seventeen he left school early, lied about his age and joined the R.A.F. Two months later he found himself on the Queen Mary headed for New York to train as a pilot. The R.A.F. couldn’t train pilots in Britain as the Battle of Britain was going on so they sent potential pilots abroad – South Africa or in my Dad’s case, America.
He had to stay in New York for a few weeks waiting for his transfer, living on Central Park but the Harlem end. He used to frequent a few clubs in Harlem, jazz clubs.
He was then transferred to a United States Air Force base in San Antonio where he did indeed learn to fly with the USAF.
Like most people who have experienced war, my Dad would never talk about his experiences but did once tell me about an incident that happened. The plane he was flying in Texas developed a fault and he had to eject. He landed in a field, and hurt his ankle. Luckily for him a man was working in the field and he helped my Dad, taking him back to his own home. The man was black, and the home was basically a one-room shack. My Dad remembered cartoons being on the wall as wallpaper.
The man’s family were there. They fed my Dad and let him sleep. When he felt better the man helped my Dad back towards the town but would only accompany him so far – blacks weren’t allowed any further.
My Dad thanked him and started to walk back. As he turned a corner he came across the body of a young black boy hanging from a tree. This was real, not a film. When my father got back to town he found out the reason – the young boy had deemed to talk to a white girl.
Have we progressed since then? Yes, but not enough. Two days ago someone actually asked whether ‘blacks’ were allowed to use the swimming pool – not, you understand, that she was racist! Right!
My Dad returned to Britain and became a pilot for the R.A.F. flying Lancaster bombers. I’ve often thought of the responsibility he must have felt, not yet twenty. He had a crew of six other men and they flew bombing missions over Berlin, Hamburg and other German towns. He was one of the lucky ones, he survived the war, or did he? It stayed with him for the rest of his life, regret, guilt perhaps, and I do believe it was the cause of his early passing.
In the last year of his life he and my Mum went to the old air base in East England where his squadron was based.
My father was a very emotional man, one thing I’ve inherited, and I remember when we went to Germany he deliberately tried to face his demons, visiting the towns he had flown over in that Lancaster, towns that were destroyed, life’s taken and lost. I remember him crying, and I now in turn at that memory have tears in my eyes as I type.
He was also a passionate man. Another thing I inherited from him was a love of fast cars; the difference is he knew how to work on them, I know how to turn the key and put petrol in! Well, maybe a bit more but not much. He was an amateur rally driver, racing around Wales and England at weekends, with my Mum often as navigator. Unfortunately my experience of my mother as a navigator is not a good one, she sent us not to the wrong town but the wrong country when we travelled around Europe one year.
That was another example of my Dad. In 1967 he packed my Mum and a very young me into his beloved new Ford Zephyr and took us around Europe for four weeks. In those days you were only allowed to take twenty five pounds, forty dollars, in cash!!!! The rest has to be in traveller’s checks.
There was no internet, no mobile phones, no sat nav, but, even with my mother’s ‘help’, he managed to get us through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, Italy and France.
He was passionate about politics, being the agent for two Cardiff Members of Parliament, Ian Grist and Stefan Terlezki. He was a strong believer in free enterprise. On election day our house became Battle H.Q. I remember our dining table would be covered by the local election roll which listed every single person in the area that was eligible to vote. As the day progressed, with information obtained at the voting stations, people’s names would be crossed off as they had voted. By late afternoon any potential Conservative voter who hadn’t yet voted were visited and asked is they needed a lift to the polling station. My friends and I roamed the streets of Roath Park knocking on people’s doors, trying to encourage them to come and vote. I used to love election days.
Dad was the best people’s person I’ve met. I used to see people go out of their way to talk with him, judges, barristers, politicians, mechanics, engineers, and of course musicians – he could talk with anyone. I can remember as a young teenager walking through Cardiff’s main street and these guys with really long hair, tattoos etc., stopping him and talking to him. I was scared but then amazed to see them all laugh. It turned out my Dad and Mum would frequent a club of one of his clients. The Revolution was a drug den in Cardiff, playing heavy rock, but had a late licence, and live music, and that’s where he and my mother used to go!
They also used to go to The Fantasia, which was owned by another of his clients, (and my godfather), Annis. It was known to allow ‘gays’ be themselves openly, at a time when it was still illegal in the U.K.
Towards the end of his life, emphysema struck and he found it had to walk far. He used to have a portable oxygen tank in the car and would have to slowly walk from the car to wherever he was going. He had three favourite haunts – the Royal Air Force Association club in Cardiff; the Pegasus flying club at Cardiff Airport and the Captain’s Wife in Sully.
His big passion though, that he shared with my Mum, was music. He was a huge jazz fan, loved Sinatra, swing. The only person I have ever asked for an autograph was Woody Herman. It was my first visit to the States, I was seventeen, and I went to Disneyland, and Herman was performing there, with his band, The Herd – not Peter Frampton’s band I hasten to add! When I got back to the UK I showed my Dad when Herman had written – it was to my Dad and Herman congratulated him on raising a son who obviously had great taste in music!
I’ve said before about my Dad taking my friends and I to concerts, Oscar Peterson comes straight to mind, but I in turn introduced him to the music I was listening to – early Springsteen, E.L.P. and Marc Bolan. He was with me at the day long concert at Cardiff City’s football ground, (the headliner was Bob Marley!) when I met my idol Bolan who was there because his wife Gloria (Tainted Love) Jones was performing. He and Bolan talked about Elvis of all things.
He was also there when I met Davy Jones of the Monkees for the first time. We were at the New Theatre in Cardiff, and Davy was in a play. They had a long talk about session musicians. Davy was a genuinely lovely person. I remember that that night was the first time I was asked for my autograph!
Finally Dad came with me to Swansea to see The Who at Swansea football ground. We stood in the wings at the side of the stage watching them, Moon on drums was amazing, and on form. A few weeks earlier my Dad had taken me to see Buddy Rich in Bristol, another great showman. Rich used to come on from the wing, playing his sticks along the floor until he reached his kit. It took him ten minutes to actually sit behind his kit.
I had also taken my Dad to see Emerson Lake and Palmer, again another tremendous group of individual musicians. I’ve since met Carl Palmer on a number of occasions and I remember him telling me a great story just a few years ago. Carl had I believe started seeing Buddy Rich’s daughter. Carl, even though he was Carl Palmer, was in awe of Rich, not just because he was his girlfriend’s father, (which is bad enough), but because he was, well, Buddy Rich. Carl had visited the house on a couple of occasions and had met Rich obviously but they had not really talked about music, or drumming. Then one day Carl went and Rich came in to the room and simply said, “So, you wanna play Carl?” Carl called his outstanding solo album exactly that. Nice story.
I digress; my Dad had his faults, his weaknesses, women being one of them. As a parent though I think of him and wish I could be more like him. If there is one thing in life that we are not prepared for, it is being a parent.
He never shouted at me, he might raise his voice but that was it. He never hit me, and I was never afraid to go to him whenever I was in trouble. I look at my own kids, in the crazy, pressurised world they are growing up in, and wonder how he’d handle a situation? Eh Bailey???
He also helped my friends, one ‘friend’ in particular, who was in trouble with the police on a number of occasions – his parents never found out, nor his then girlfriend, now his wife. The one time my judgement of character has let me down.
He taught me to be independent, believe in myself, follow my dreams. It is fair to say I would not be the person I am if it wasn’t for him. He was so open with his emotions, as I am, have always been.
My Dad also taught me that life is so short, so precious – his passing so young a constant reminder for me of this. Live for the moment, make mistakes but have no real regrets. My own saying – you can’t have the highs if you don’t have the lows.
Life is indeed what you make it. We all have ghosts, and that’s what I realised early this morning before finally getting back to sleep. My father’s ghosts killed him. I have never really written a song for him, but the ghosts of Berlin and Hamburg haunted my Dad for the rest of his life. He followed his heart, fought for what he believed in, in his country, but the cost to him was high and one that was never really settled. He would have experienced conflict within himself, conflict that he kept to himself. It makes me appreciate our forces so much more.
More than anything though, those few hours early this morning, and the ghosts and spirits and memories that occupy those dark hours before daylight, simply made me appreciate my father even more than I already did and made me realise just how much I owe him.