Responses ranged from shocking secrets to poignant tributes: 'I fancied the woman you had an affair with'; 'I’m pregnant and, yes, Dave is the dad'; 'The weird smell in your office wasn’t mice – it was me peeing behind the desk'; 'Dad, I know you are on Tinder'; 'Dad, I voted Conservative'; 'I’ve tried to find a husband to match up to you and failed.'
It got me thinking. I know someone who might want to confess to peeing behind the curtains in the assembly hall of a certain Holywood Grammar School; someone who snuck out and went to a night club when her parents thought she was in bed; someone who sat in the cinema every afternoon instead of going to Tech; someone who was not allowed to go to the pictures so said he was visiting a friend called 'Bugsy Malone.'
But that would be telling tales. My own confession?
'I took off all my clothes for the boy across the road for comics.'
You see we couldn’t afford comics and it seemed a fair exchange to my eight-year-old self at the time. Looking back, I was fortunate that my naughtiness didn’t end in tears. Well, actually it did. I never got the comics! What amazes me to this day is how my father knew to come over the road just after the event and why he told me never to play there again. I thought he was totally ignorant of the bad influence.
Experience teaches that parents know rightly, although I am still uncovering secrets from my own offsprings' pasts. I found out years later that when my eldest daughter burnt her hand on the way to her first A level exam, it was not in fact her sister’s fault. An accident with a box of matches was blamed when the minx was actually smoking in the car and caught a falling cigarette in her palm
I am in possession of a Book of Dad – my dad. A few years before he died he wrote down all of his war memories and I typed them up into a treasured volume which we called 'One Man’s War.' He was a wireless operator flying in Lancaster bombers and his account includes details of no fewer than thirty-two bombing missions over enemy territory.
Stuttgart, Kiel, Paullae, Stetten, Russelheim, Frankfurt, Leeuwarden, Essen…he records a long list of European towns where he and his crew dropped bombs. Although their targets were mainly in industrial heartlands, however I think of it I cannot escape the fact that my father was responsible for the deaths of many people. When you drop bombs on someone’s head you cannot even call it 'indirectly' responsible. He did it and was proud of it.
On one occasion he bailed out of a burning plane – thankfully not over enemy territory. Sitting on the edge of the hole he promised an invisible God that if he got out alive he would become a believer and serve him for the rest of his life. He survived and became a preacher and a fisher of men. We didn’t have a TV for most of my growing up and when we finally did get one we were definitely not allowed to watch the silver screen on the Sabbath. Yet I can recall coming home late one Sunday evening when I was in my teens to discover my father glued to the box. He was watching the film The Dambusters and reliving his days of terror seated high in the Astra Dome with 100 Squadron.
What strikes me now is that my father was only 18 when he joined up. He spent the next four years flying both during the war and afterwards in India, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with Transport Command. Most wars are fought by teenagers – they give their best years when others are going to university or starting careers. When he was demobbed he left with his civvies, a meagre gratuity and memories of comrades lost.
I still meet people who found life through his preaching and his loving pastoral care. He died too young 30 years ago, but he is still my hero. In the words of poet, Wendell Berry, I am 'the inheritor of what I mourned.' My dad has shaped so much of who I am and he is still here in every moment when I struggle to overcome and to become who I am meant to be. I wish I had half of his courage and determination, but he is always before me as an example of what it means to fight the good fight and finish well.
So what would I say to him now, on Father’s Day? Thank you for fighting for me, long before you met my mother or knew my name. Thank you for surviving and for showing me what it means to be wholly dedicated to hope. Thank you for being such a shining example of godly kindness and generosity of spirit. Thank you for introducing me to Jesus, in whom you now sleep. Oh, and I did find a husband to match up to you – another wonderful dad.
'We are what we have lost.' (Wendell Berry)