My granddad is nearly ninety. He was a badass in the Second World War, and I love him.
He joined the 24th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery when he was 17. Not long after, he found himself on the wrong side of the Channel, and he was evacuated from Dunkirk along with his friend. The friend couldn’t swim, so my granddad went back to the shore and dragged him into a boat. When they had both flopped in, an officer in the boat told them that they made too many people, and they’d just better flop out again. My granddad, bleeding from one ear, growled at him to bugger off; the officer left them alone after that.
Later he was in Africa, fighting Rommel. Not hand to hand, of course: they had Sherman tanks and 105mm guns. It was a much smaller foe that nearly did for my granddad, but malignant malaria came at an inconvenient time for the RA as a whole, so he just had to sit tight and sweat it out. In the middle of the desert, my granddad shivered, suffered, hallucinated during fire-fights, nearly died; then eventually recovered and bloody well carried on.
From Africa the RA carried on into Italy, and helped to take Anzio. Unlike the Kentish hoax which led to German troops concentrating in the Pas-de-Calais, what became known as the Anzio Abscess was both a diversionary tactic and a real military operation. After the attack at Monte Cassino, they helped to liberate Rome while other troops were landing in Normandy.
It was a hard battle and, just like soldiers the world over, when it was over they had earned a bit of time to see the city. Wirh friends, and with their shared, awful Italian vocabulary, he toured Italian bars. It would sometimes take a while to convince the waiter that they really did want a bottle of vermouth each, not just a glass. And he’s always said that he had enough tomatoes during his time in Italy that he doesn’t care for them any more. It was only ever a short break, though, one that he and others earned, and some had paid for with their lives; yet people called them the D-Day Dodgers, all because they had done what they had been told to do, and it happened to work a treat. But my granddad knows better than to believe any of that.
While he was recovering from Dunkirk in hospital, he met my grandma, and they married shortly afterwards. Until her death over eight years ago they were a complementary pair: she canny, shrewd, loving and obstinate; he grumpy, curious, and occasionally, surprisingly frivolous. They argued about pennies and sat side by side in two identical rocking-chairs. After she died, although initially completely at sea, his personality moved over a little, to fill up some of the space she left. Now he’s now a loving, lovable, kind, self-sufficient old gentleman. An absolute gentleman, only ever showing a little, occasional sadness.
But he was a badass once. He joined up because he felt it was the right thing to do, and history proved him right. And now that the shrapnel that, somewhere along the way, he caught in his back—mark that, Chuck Norris: in his back—means he can no longer parade in the November rain with his few remaining old friends as far as the cenotaph; someone should be able to do it on his behalf. I told him I would.
Nobody should be forced to wear a poppy because, as my granddad always says, a volunteer is worth ten pressed men. Poppy-wearing is a public act, almost a viral of remembrance; a poppy on display is a reminder to others, just to pause and remember. Even when he buys a poppy, my granddad could no longer parade for long enough to have performed that very public act. So I do it for him: I carry his medals and (though I’m a pacifist to the last) the poppy I wear is red, like the one he himself would choose; after all, I wear it on behalf of my badass granddad.