Meal with Heroes

Meal with Heroes
830 words
About 2 minutes 45 seconds to read.

It was a Bank Holiday Monday and everyone I knew was ‘off work’ – apart from me. It was in my early days as a country doctor, and I still resented the long hours on duty, at the beck and call of some 20,000 patients. Looking back, I realize now just how considerate most of my patients were, but at that time I was somewhat paranoid and felt very vulnerable as a new and inexperienced G.P…
It was mid-morning as I recall when I was asked to see an old farmer. The farming community was accustomed to a very good service from their vets, who obeyed their every request with alacrity, and charged them accordingly; understandably the same service was expected of their G.P.s and this enhanced my resentment as I finally found my way down a farm-track to the patient’s home.
The patient had followed my instructions and was obediently waiting undressed and in bed for my examination:
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” said the old farmer, “it was the family who insisted we send for you”. I did not return his smile.
The history and examination were fairly trivial and truly did not warrant an “emergency” call, re-enforcing my feelings of being ‘put upon’. I gave them my opinion and instructions with the family gathered around the old man’s bed.
“We were only worried because of his age, doctor: he is eighty one you know.”
Now, just at that time I had been studying the First World War – “The great War” as they had called it, and had been totally horrified by what those young men had been through. My very latest readings had been about the German snipers:
“Were you in the first war?” I asked the old man indifferently.
“Oh yes” he answered. I remember distinctly the thoughts going through my paranoid head: ‘Oh yes, what were you then, a military ice-cream man!’ It sounds so unkind now, but bear in mind the state of my paranoia.
I interrupted him:
“Did you have any experience of German snipers?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he replied, “In fact one nearly killed me as the bullet past just in front of me, tearing through the front of my tunic and killing my best mate”.
“Really” I said, sitting down on the chair by the bed and rapidly changing my opinions of the nuisance call:
“You weren’t at the Somme, were you?” I asked, having studied the horrors of that particular disastrous battle. I think he could hear the horror in my voice when I said the words ‘The Somme’.
“The Somme was not so bad” he replied, “as we had proper trenches; at Ypres we were just sitting waste deep in mud in shell-holes.” I lapsed into a stunned silence.
“I was gassed you know!” he added, and slowly he began to reveal some of his war experiences to me. Maybe it was to ‘appease’ me for the house-call request that he spoke so freely, but for whatever reason, the arrogant resentful young doctor was quickly reduced to a state of humility and admiration of this wonderful old farmer.
He agreed to let me speak with him again and I wrote down his telephone number.
I left the home, chastened and polite – even to his relatives – and resolved to meet up with this war hero on a future occasion.
Most of our old soldiers from the First World War were dead, but I did manage to find two more survivors of those horrors.
As their doctor, I was an important person in their lives and maybe because of this they each agreed, a little reluctantly, to let me take them out for a meal at a local pub. The reluctance seemed to come from the fact that so many of their fellow soldiers had been killed in the war, and it was they who deserved the appreciation, not the lucky survivors.
They each had the wonderful quiet dignity of men who had been through hell and survived, with a brave and deferential: “There were others who did so much more than I did.” I don’t remember much of the conversation, as their interests seem to focus on the names of their regiments, and where they had been located rather than the physical brutalities and hardships they had endured. I think they all enjoyed the evening; they were certainly delightful company and perhaps felt the bond of old warriors who had survived a hell on earth.
In a few short years all three of them were dead leaving me to reflect on their wonderful courage and dignity and shudder at my own thoughtlessness and arrogance that had presaged my insight into the worlds of these quiet heroes; the meal with them at least allowed me to express my admiration for what they had done and to say my own farewells.

Bernard Shevlin