In a way, my father was a lucky man. When Britain went to war against the Nazis in 1939, he was the manager of the smokehouse of a meat packing company. The smokehouse became very busy supplying smoked pork products to the NAAFI, the organization that fed the armed forces of Britain. He was in 'essential services' and so he remained a civilian. But, though the manager, in 1941, he still worked beside his men and every bit as hard as he did before he got the well earned promotion.

In those days of food being severely rationed under wartime rules, once a month on a Friday night, he would take a long sharp knife and from one of the now golden carcasses, he'd cut two pieces of the smoked bacon, each as big as his two fists, wrap them in brown butcher paper, and drop them into the deep pockets of his overcoat. Once home, he would slice each chunk into two pieces; one for us to eat and one to trade on the black market. The other piece was for Nan, the old lady that we three boys knew as our grandmother. Nan had raised my orphaned mother from babyhood.

The illicit packages were never called "bacon". They were always referred to as "the Doin's"; and on the Saturday, it was my job to go downtown to deliver Nan's "bit o' doin's".

Nan lived almost on the corner of Fitzclarence Street, which is quite gone now but it was just before the tramcar descended the hill to Shaw Street. Built in the late Victorian years and one of thousands of decent dark-brick houses, long ago turned black with city grime, her house was at Everton Terrace. The top end of Everton Terrace, two hundred yards from Nan's house, was known as "Everton Brow " and there, perched on the edge of one of the highest points in the city, was tiny Prince Rupert's Park with its turret-like low tower at its center. From there, one could stand and view, not only a vast area of the downtown of Liverpool, but way out across the Mersey River estuary and out toward the west and the Irish Sea. It was said that J.M.W. Turner painted sunsets from that spot. Down in the dock area, wide columns of thin smoke rose from ships still burning from the attacks of the Nazis on the night before.

The tramcar would let me off right outside Nan's house but the tramcar stop to go home was up on Everton Brow, the hill too steep for the trams to stop closer. I usually spent the afternoon visiting Nan. I loved Nan but her house wasn't a very good place for an eleven year old boy. However, I'd learned how long I was supposed to stay to avoid complaints from her about 'rushing away' and had pretty much given up on having Saturday afternoons for myself. Inside, number 8 Fitzclarence was rather dark and gloomy. Lace curtains six inches apart dressed the tall sitting room windows, heavy dark drapes on each side. There was a vague smell of vinegar, the cleaner of choice for glass in this grimy town. High on one wall beside an immense sideboard, there hung, steeply angled on its chain, a remarkably heavy carved frame with a faded brown photograph of a rather handsome old man with a white moustache. This was John MacMurray, Nan's late husband, who I did not remember but who I was assured had adored me - except for my name.

“What kind of a name is "Eric" for a boy? That's no name for a boy! His name should be Jack! Jack is a lad's name. That's what I'm going to call him. Jack!" And so, to please my foster-grandfather, I was named Eric John.

Through the back window of the kitchen, one looked into a backyard that was no more than ten feet square. High walls of wine-colored brick and a floor of ancient polished grey flagstone led to a painted and latched wood door which would open to the cramped back alley that ran behind all the houses on the street. Two rope lines across the yard held limp damp laundry, hung to dry in what weak sunlight could reach through to the backs of the little houses. To the right, another painted door. This was the toilet which took up almost a quarter of the tiny yard. Inside, a four foot long plank seat was bleached white and impeccably clean but at its center was a foot wide hole, far too big for my tiny bum, and I'd sit with fingers tightly gripping the front of the too-wide seat which held my legs out in front of me as I tried not to imagine what horrors were below my chilly bare cheeks.

Shortly after I'd arrive at her house, I'd go with Nan to her church hall, walking painfully slowly as she negotiated the hilly area. Up past the tall black facades of the houses with their Irish lace curtains and gloomy aspidistra plants in their windows, I would leap and jump on the crooked chalkmarks of faded hopscotch games on smooth blue sidewalk flagstones, and Nan followed, all in black save for a bright magenta flower on her black straw hat.

At the church hall, I'd be given a copy of her church's little newspaper and I'd sit doing children's religious quiz pages and the crossword puzzle until Nan was ready to go home. Once back at her house, I particularly liked the rice pudding that always followed the canned salmon sandwiches and tea that Nan made for me. Always the same High Tea but I liked it. And I've never had rice pudding that good anywhere else. Nevertheless, I would start to suggest that I should be going home about an hour before Nan finally said okay.

On May the 3rd, 1941 the usual routine was changed. Since France had fallen, new German airports in the north of France made it possible for the Nazis to fly west, out over the Atlantic, turn north and then east, invading Eire's air space, and then to sweep in over the Irish Sea to attack Liverpool - out of those spectacular Turner sunsets. They were working on the destruction of her seven-mile dock system, one of England's few lifelines to America. The Nazis had been sending bombers raiding over Liverpool for months now but since the 1st of May, the attacks had become particularly heavy and brutal.

I was finally released from Nan's dark house and trotted up the hill ahead of her to the tramcar stop on Everton Brow. As I waited for the old lady to catch up with me, I stood in the golden light and looked out over the town. I always took the number 14 tram home. That would drop me at St. Teresa's at the bottom of the street where I lived in the comparative safety of the suburbs of Liverpool.

This night, however, no number 14 trams came. What we didn't know was that in the firebomb raid of the previous night, burning buildings had collapsed across London Road, bringing down the trolley lines that powered the trams. The number 13 trams still went up Islington, a block away, and they were coming to the stop at the Brow, but Nan wouldn't let me get on those. I tried to explain that it was only a short walk from the Broadway terminus near where I lived but she refused to let me go that way.

Then the air raid sirens sounded. We could hear them going off across the city below us. Still there were no 14s. Nan cried out plaintively to a 13 conductor, "Where are all the 14s?" The conductor yanked on the bell to his driver. "Underneath!" he said and the last tramcar to come that way that night lurched away up the hill, squealing as it made the cobblestoned turn on the rails up Prince Rupert's Hill to Everton Road.

We stood there for about 15 minutes. The sirens had groaned down to a quiet moan and then stopped. The sun sank lower. And then the Germans came. There were about thirty Heinkels in the first flight. You could see more waves far behind. I was horrified at how fast they travelled. They were like gulls, low against the sun when I first saw them and, seconds later, they were on the city like lions on a prey. Airplanes I'd only seen in newreels came across the estuary and wheeled like soldiers at the mouth of the river. Planes split off with their bomb bay doors open and formed lines to plunge in over the docks. As they roared below us, watching from the hill, we could see bomb after bomb after bomb leaving the planes and see white shock waves and red fire as they found ships that firemen had risked their lives all day to save.

We turned quickly away in fear. Started to hurry down the hill to the old black rowhouse. A Heinkel bomber with black crosses and swastikas roared deafeningly right above our heads as the pilot fought to reposition for another run at his targets. The plane was no more than twice the height of the houses as he climbed the steep hill of the Brow. The sound was shattering. Nan staggered and then, half crawling up the steps, we slammed the heavy door shut behind us. Nan was completely unnerved at what we'd just seen. I was terrified and thrilled in just about equal measure. At 11, I didn't quite believe in death but I knew that I was in a very dangerous, very scary place. I was badly shaken at actually seeing the Germans doing things I'd only heard about.

The raid raged on and Nan was totally confused. She couldn't sit still. I frantically said that we should go to the basement. We started to go down there but when the door opened, I became adamant that I was not going down into that damp black chamber. Now Nan came up with a really alarming idea: "We should go to Mrs. Purvis'." Mrs. Purvis, a fellow church member, was a friend of Nan's who lived about 7 blocks away on Kilshaw Street... I couldn't believe that Nan wanted to go out into the street. "What about the shrapnel?" I cried. "We could get hit by shrapnel. The Germans machine-gun people!" But she wouldn't listen. She wanted to get away from that house.

We stepped outside to find that night had fallen. But now everything was bathed in a brilliant red light. The black houses around us were as though painted in blood. Above us, half of the entire sky was a raw orange that pulsated and was wreathed with smoke. Searchlights probed left and right. Bright flares dropped by the Germans to light their targets were suspended from tiny parachutes; they dribbled brilliant blobs of phosphorus and blue smoke as they hung in the sky like some horrifying chandeliers. The noise was deafening. Shrill fire bells rang all around us but the most terrifying sound was the blast of bombs exploding no more than ten blocks away. The crushing heaviness of the explosion was followed by the ground almost shaking me off my feet. I couldn't believe I was out here!

Nan started up the hill to our right. We were the only people on the street. Our black shadows hobbled up the scarlet sidewalk on the hill ahead of us. We got to the top of the hill. At least it was level from here on. As we hurried along, we could tell that the Germans were turning away from their targets in the docks and moving their attention to the city itself. The flashes and the crunch of the bombs was more off to our right but much closer.

We entered a street that had brick and concrete air raid shelters blocking half the street. The orange red light from the burning city was now almost all of the sky. Only well inland to the east was there any darkness left. Pleadingly, I pulled Nan into one of the shelters. We stepped around the double corners of the entrance and found at least four families in there. They had candlelight which lit up all the frightened faces in the bunkbeds lining the walls. They were amazed that we were out on the street during a bombing raid. And they protested loudly when Nan, who could not relax, wanted to leave again within ten minutes. There were a few moments when the fury outside abated and immediately Nan said, "C'mon, love. We have to get to Mrs. Purvis's." and she took me and, pausing for a moment in the doorway, she held my hand firmly. I looked up at the blood of the sky and then off along the street where we were to go. A man was running far away down the sidewalk, his shadow leaping ahead of him, off down the street. That image has never left my mind. There was so much terror in his movements, so much urgency. Children shouldn't have such images burned into their mind screen.

We stopped at one more shelter and were greeted in the same way by large amazed eyes glittering in candlelight and yet, within ten minutes, Nan wanted to move on. She seemed to be driven. We finally reached the door of an ancient little two-story rowhouse on poor little Kilshaw Street. My mother and father had moved into such a house on this very street shortly after they were married. My brother, Ken, was born in one of those houses. Even at eleven, I wondered if I was going to die here. That was a genuine thought as the Germans continued their onslaught over our heads and all around us.

In the next street was a huge old 1870s hospital. When we entered Mrs. Purvis's little house, we could see, through the kitchen window, the walls of Mill Road Hospital between her back neighbors' houses. Now, for the first time, Nan became calm. I never knew if she was anxious for Mrs. Purvis's safety or if she couldn't feel safe without Mrs. Purvis being around. In any case, Mrs. Purvis was every bit as frail an old lady as was Nan.

Mrs. Purvis made a pot of tea. We sat in the heavily curtained room, drinking tea and flinching when a bomb came frighteningly close. Eventually, pillows and blankets were brought and I was settled down in an old black winged Victorian chair in front of the fireplace. Nan and Mrs. Purvis assured me that everything would be all right. They both kissed me goodnight (this good night?) and they both went upstairs to go to bed together. My mother and brothers had no idea where I was. My father was out firewatching at the place where he worked. They had no real idea where he was that May 3rd, either.

Later he would tell how he'd walked down London Road and had stood by the gardens of St. George's Hall sometime during that night. He said, " I just stood and turned completely round and every single thing I looked at was on fire. The Walker Art Gallery. Picton Hall. The Assizes. St. George's Hall. Lewis' Department Store. The Haymarket. Everything was in flames. It was as though the entire world was on fire." At least he felt assured that his wife and children were safe at home.

I had had an exhausting several hours and, in spite of how the raid continued all across the city, I soon fell asleep in the chair on Kilshaw Street. Suddenly I heard the loudest sound I have ever heard before or since. I later found out that the Germans had dropped a stick of bombs right across Mill Road Hospital. Somehow, in the destruction of the old hospital where dozens died, only hundreds of yards from us, we survived.

Years later, now grown, I would take the same tram car to work and it would stop outside Nan's old blackened brick house. It was pulled down shortly before I left to emigrate to America.




This story was added on 8th May 2011

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