"If you're trying to change minds and influence people it's probably not a good idea to say that virtually all elected Democrats are liars, but what the hell."
Friday, November 11, 2016
Kim du Toit
he died, late one night, there was no fuss, no emergency, no noise—he
just took one breath, and then no more. He died as he had lived,
quietly and without complaint. From him, I developed the saying, “The
mark of a decent man is not how much he thinks about himself, but how
much time he spends thinking about others.”
Charles Loxton was a small man, no taller than 5’6”, and
was born in 1899. This means that when he fought in the muddy trenches
of France during the First World War, he was no older than 17 years
old—Delville Wood, where he was wounded, took place in July 1916.
Seventeen years old. That means he would have been a little over
sixteen when he enlisted. In other words, Charles must have lied
his age to join the army—many did, in those days, and recruiting
officers winked at the lies. After all, the meat grinder of the Western
Front needed constant replenishment, and whether you died at 17, 18 or
19 made little difference.
did he do it? At the time, propaganda told of how the
evil Kaiser Wilhelm was trying to conquer the world, and how evil Huns
had raped Belgian nurses after executing whole villages. Where Charles
lived as a young boy, however, the Kaiser was no danger to him, and no
German Uhlans were going to set fire to his house, ever.
Charles lied about his age and joined up because he
felt that he was doing the right thing. That if good men did nothing,
evil would most certainly win. It’s not as though he didn’t know what
was coming: every day, the newspapers would print whole pages of
casualty lists, the black borders telling the world that France meant
almost certain death. The verification could be found in all the
houses’ windows which had black-crepe-lined photos of young men, killed
on the Somme, in Flanders, in Ypres, and at Mons. He would have seen
with his own eyes the men who returned from France, with their missing
limbs, shattered faces and shaky voices. He would have heard stories
from other boys about their relatives coming back from France to other
towns—either in spirit having died, or else with wounds so terrible
that the imagination quailed at their description. He would have seen
the mothers of his friends weeping at the loss of a beloved husband.
Perhaps it had been this man and not his father who had taught him how
to fish, or how to shoot, or how to cut (from the branches of a peach
tree) a “mik” (the “Y”) for his catapult.
Charles, a 16-year-old boy, walked out of his home one
day and went down to the recruiting center of the small mining town,
and joined the Army. When years later I asked him why he’d done it, he
would just shrug, get a faraway look in his blue eyes, and change the
subject. Words like duty, honor, country, I suspect, just embarrassed
him. But that didn’t mean he was unaware of them.
Charles joined the Army, was trained to fight, and went
off to France. He was there for only four months before he was
wounded. During the attack on the German trenches at Delville
was shot in the shoulder, and as he lay there in the mud, a German
soldier speared him in the knee with his bayonet, before himself being
shot and killed by another man in Charles’ squad. At least, I think
that’s what happened—I only managed to get the story in bits and
pieces. But the scars on his body were eloquent witnesses to the
horror—the ugly cicatrix on his leg, two actually (where the bayonet
went in above the knee and out below it), and the star-shaped
indentation in his shoulder. The wounds were serious enough to require
over a year’s worth of extensive rehabilitation, and they never really
healed properly. But Charles was eventually passed as fit enough to
fight, and back to the trenches he went. By now it was early 1918—the
Americans were in the war, and tiny, limping Private Charles Loxton was
given the job as an officer’s batman—the man who polished the captain’s
boots, cleaned his uniform, and heated up the water for his morning
shave every day. It was a menial, and in today’s terms, demeaning job,
and Charles fought against it with all his might. Eventually, the
officer relented and released him for further line service, and back to
the line he went.
months later came the Armistice, and Charles left
France for home, by now a grizzled veteran of 19. Because he had been
cleared for trench duty, he was no longer considered to be disabled,
and so he did not qualify for a disabled veteran’s pension. When he got
back home, there were no jobs except for one, so he took it. Charles
became, unbelievably, a miner. His crippled knee still troubled him,
but he went to work every day, because he had to earn money to support
his mother, by now widowed, his younger brother John and sister
Josephine. The work was dangerous, and every month there’d be some
disaster, some catastrophe which would claim the lives of miners. But
Charles and his friends shrugged off the danger, because after the
slaughter of the trenches, where life expectancy was measured in days
or even hours, a whole month between deaths was a relief.
he had done his duty, for God, King and country, and he
never regretted it. Not once did he ever say things like “If I’d known
what I was getting into, I’d never have done it.” As far as he was
concerned, he had had no choice—and that instinct to do good, to do the
right thing, governed his entire life.
age 32, Charles married a local beauty half his age.
Elizabeth, or “Betty” as everyone called her, was his pride and joy,
and he worshipped her his whole life. They had five children. Every
morning before going to work, Charles would get up before dawn, and
make a cup of coffee for Betty and each of the children, putting the
coffee on the tables next to their beds. Then he’d kiss them, and leave
for the rock face. Betty would die from multiple sclerosis, at
young boy, I first remembered Charles as an elderly
man, although he was then in his late fifties, by today’s standards
only middle-aged. His war wounds had made him old, and he had
difficulty climbing stairs his whole life. But he was always
immaculately dressed, always wore a tie and a hat, and his shoes were
polished with such a gloss that you could tell the time in them if you
held your watch close.
Charles taught me how to fish, how to cut a good “mik” for
my catapult, and had watched approvingly as I showed him what a good
shot I was with my pellet gun. No matter how busy he was, he would drop
whatever he was doing to help me—he was, without question, the kindest
man I’ve ever known.
1964, Charles Loxton, my grandfather, died of phthisis,
the “miner’s disease” caused by years of accumulated dust in the lungs.
Even on his deathbed in the hospital, I never heard him complain—in
fact, I never once heard him complain, ever. From his hospital bed, all
he wanted to hear about was what I had done that day, or how I was
doing at school.
he died, late one night, there was no fuss, no
emergency, no noise—he just took one breath, and then no more. He died
as he had lived, quietly and without complaint. From him, I developed
the saying, “The mark of a decent man is not how much he thinks about
himself, but how much time he spends thinking about others.”
Charles Loxton thought only about other people his entire life.