Feature: Millicent Ivy Vetterlein 1905-1994.
Feature: Frederick Charles Vetterlein 1908-1983.
I have three “images” in my mind of my father, that from before WW2 (1935-40), the war years themselves, including the immediate aftermath (1940-1946), and the remainder (1947-1983).
The first image is of a man of contrasts, on the one hand a loving husband and father, on the other a man of egotistic tendencies and of violent temper.
FCV - the youthfull optimist
The second image presents a man coming to terms with the reality of his situation—that of a conscript. The third image is of the broken man re-building himself following the ravages of the war.
The early man was one of enthusiasm fired by much talent stultified through his social position. These natural talents included, above all, a remarkable singing voice, a tenor that could fill our house with song and passion. His other two major interests were chess and photography, in both of which he excelled. There were others that included cycling, electrical engineering, gardening, swimming and the great outdoors coupled with a thirst for knowledge generally.
Although, as I have indicated, all this took place against a background of relative social poverty, we were in fact far from the bottom of the pile. True, my father’s wage as a shop assistant at the Co-op met the demands of day-to-day living, but it hardly provided for much fat—two annual holidays in five years are all that I can recall of what might be regarded as luxuries.
My father was the second youngest of four, having an older brother (Ernest) and sister (Marie) and a younger brother (Max). In the early years we saw much of Marie, together with her husband (Birch) and daughter Margaret, who was a few months younger than me (see: Gemini in Retrospect). Up to the commencement of the war, Marie and family lived not far off at Buckhurst Hill, whilst Ernest, together with wife Connie and son Richard (a few months older than me), lived at Ewell, Surrey. I am not sure, but I think Max bided with his parents at Selby Road, Leytonstone. (Ruckblick II is dedicated to the memrory of Max.)
The box room in our small terraced house at Redbridge had been kitted out as a darkroom. I was the subject of my father’s photographic interest throughout the early years. I was allowed into the darkroom on occasions to witness the developing and enlarging processes at work. I would stand on a low stool and watch in the darkened ambiance as papers came to life when they were swirled in the large white, shallow “developing” dishes.
Father & Son - at Exmouth 1939
Outside the home my abiding memories from those times are of being taken to symphony concerts and of long rambles with both parents in Epping Forest. Inside, the house would ring to the sound of music either from my father’s singing or from recordings of Wagner and Beethoven. All this came to an abrupt end with the declaration of war.
My father went into the Royal Air Force. We saw little of him throughout the period of the war, from September 1940 to the time of his demobilisation in September 1945. During the early stages of the war my father would send me short stories he had written and which my mother read to me, often with tears in her eyes.
For the Normandy offensive in June 1944, my father was assigned to ground control. His craft was torpedoed halfway across the Channel. For a period of close on three weeks, so far was we were aware back home, he was missing presumed dead; but he survived. (See the Storey of No.1192615 facsimile account of the D-Day crossing).
This man was sent to war in a silly hat,
given a number, together with a line to toe;
he did his duty to the letter;
on D-Day, along with his mates,
ended up in the drink,
his eardrums blasted,
his body intact,
his nerve severely tested:
he saw it through to the end,
celebrated victory with the rest,
went back to having sex,
and took up life somewhere
along another line:
thirty years on
and that’s the story
Following his rehabilitation into the Armed Services my father was dispatched to Denmark to assist in mopping up operations, as they were called.
The period merging from the second phase to the third phase, the year ending 1945 and the early part of 1946, has to be the most distressing of my life. In Denmark my father had fallen for a Danish lass considerably younger than himself. It was his intention to make a new life with this lassie, abandoning my mother and myself to whatever fate might befall us. It was part-dream (more a nightmare), of course, and nothing came of it, but the wounding followed us through for the rest of our lives together.
To "celebrate" father’s homecoming my mother gave birth to my brother, Robert, in January 1946, an event which brought her close to death. (Considering the events of the time within that short interval, I am perplexed as to how it was managed!)
For a while my father attempted to pick up the threads from his pre-war past: lawn bowls, chess and gardening, but no photography and certainly no singing. In fact I cannot recall him singing a single note ever again.
Taking up the threads after the war
By degrees my father took up some of his old interests,
chess and lawn bowls;
I accompanied him on his tournaments,
I sitting alone on hard wooden seats in the lukewarm, summer light,
watching the slow course of each black globe make its way,
first this end up, then the other . . .
there was something cathartic about it,
watching my father strolling up and down,
it was as if the strain of war were slowly draining from him.
[From: War ISBN 978-14259-7448-0 (hc)]
Then, in the following January, we moved to Brentwood and phase three started.
At first I didn’t much care for my new home but by the summer I would not have wished for a finer place in which to grow up. The quiet countryside all about and the dark skies above more than compensated for the loss of comrades I had left back in the old place.
It took some time for my father to settle on a means of employment that would satisfy him, and at the same time provide for the running of our new home. Eventually, following a number of years of struggle and turmoil during which my mother was obliged to work as well, they both settled on a florist business at Grays, about twelve miles south from Brentwood.
Both my parents worked extremely hard to secure the business. Eventually they established a reliable clientele and money worries became a thing of the past. Moreover, when my brother joined them, it became possible for my father to take up photography again.
Resulting from his return to photography (this was pre-digital, remember) were two portfolios of photographs from his visits to the St. Kilda group of islands off the Western Isles of Scotland, together with five volumes of photographs of Essex chinches.
It gave me untold pleasure when both mother and father were able to use Hafod y rhiw in the Carneddau, North Wales, for holidays. (See: In the Carneddau, Spring Ast LIX.) Thus, in one sense, my father was able to revisit the haunts of early manhood, for he was passionate about the land of Wales.
Nearing the end - in the garden at Brentwood
The end was swift. Having been diagnosed with leukaemia in his early seventies, my father died following a fall in hospital the day before his seventy-fifth birthday. A post mortem confirmed what I had feared, a rampant spread of cancer throughout the major organs of his body. His fall had blessedly terminated an active life that might otherwise have continued in torment for months to come.
Extracted from: The Boy at My Back—in lieu of autobiography, JCV
"Chicks" - the young FCV