My father had four sons. I’m one of them. I was son number two.
Sometimes my father would take my older brother and me to school in a tiny three-wheeled car. I’ve still got a photograph of the car; my father is standing in front of it. The photographer had this thing about guillotines so you only get to see my father from the neck down.
The car was white and it was called a Messerschmidtt – the same as the German warplane. I used to think it strange to go to school in a car that had the same name as a warplane.
The Messerschmidtt didn’t have any doors. It had a transparent glass top and my father would lift it up so that my brother and I could clamber in. He would sit in the front of the car whilst my brother and I sat, pressed together, on the narrow rear seat.
Once we got going he stopped being just a father and we stopped being just schoolboys: He was the pilot and we were the tail gunners.
The Messerschmidtt went really well with the war comics that we bought with our pocket money. I loved getting my war comic for one shilling. The comics had brightly illustrated covers and each issue had tabloid-style titles like, ‘No man’s land’, ‘Close range’, ‘Breaking point’ and ‘Zero Hour’. The comics told us how to be heroes. They told us all about the glory of war and (sadly) they taught us to fear the foreigner.
The war comics traced our flight-path through the heavens and whilst my father flew the Messerschmidtt we practised shooting the German planes out of the sky. And the tabloid comics taught us terrific German words to go with the dogfights: the Germans would shout things out – like ‘Himmel’ or ‘Achtung’ or ‘Schnell’. They’d rant about the ‘Britisher pig dogs’ and were forever yelling ‘Donner und Blitzen’ – and, all the while, we would blast away at them as we flew above the lanes of southern England.
Whatever the weather we would look about us, alert to the bandits at two o’clock – ready for the diving Stukas – waiting for the ill-fated Heinkels – and my father would pilot us through the gorgeous hell of comic book land.
But every once in a while it seemed tedious to be shooting Messerschmidtts out of the sky so we had skirmishes with Spitfires too: sometimes we won and sometimes we lost. I suppose we had a vague sense of fair play but whether the war comics had anything to do with that I don’t know.
When my father got us to school we’d bale out of the Messerschmidtt and come floating down to earth. Moments later we put up our hands as the register was called: ‘Himmels’ were put on hold; ‘Achtungs’ were silenced; machine guns were transformed into pens as the school day began.