My friend Tom Easton has won the MBE.
I have two very different feelings about it.
A lot of people get the Order of the British Empire, whether as Members, Officers, Commanders or Knights. A new list comes out every six months, and this time the MBEs alone ran close to 400 names.
Of course I think it's wonderful news. When Tom was up for the honor two years ago but was passed over, he wrote bitterly, "People like me just don't win that award." I am delighted that he was wrong.
My other feeling was: Why did he have to wait so lont?
Thomas Easton, MBE, is 81 years old. He lives at No.1, Aged Miners Cottages in Choppington, 15 miles north of Newcastle. He was listed as chairman of the Northumberland County War Pensioners Committee, but there are so many things he could have been honored for: his rise in the miners' union during his 52 years in the pits, his election as one of Northumberland's 27 aldermen, his service in two wars.
You don't hear the work "reliable" so much these days. But that's Tom. He seemed almost driven by it: to be the perfect son, the perfect father and husband, the perfect friend. To be, not merely good, but worthy. At the time I wondered: worthy of whom?
(He showed me group portraits of his unit in World War I. "Look at those officers, those faces. A man would follow 'em." And his stubby finger would pass down the row as he called the roll: "Dead . . . dead . . . wounded . . . leg off . . . missing . . . made it . . . killed in the pits . . . dead . . .")
Maybe that's a good place to start, with the first World War, his enlistment into the Tyneside Scottish in 1914, a year underage. Except for two 10-day leaves, he didn't get home until 1919, when he was released from a German prison camp. He saw action in all the great battles on the Western front, and historians still interview him about July 1, 1916, the terrible first day on the Somme.
That day, 120,000 soldiers were ordered to cross No Man's Land at a slow walk, and 60,000 of them fell - two men per yard along an 19-mile front - for a negligible gain.
Tom was one of the handful that actually reached the German lines.There was no leadership, most officers having been ordered to stay behind. All day, he rescued the wounded, dragged them into a dugout, tended them and finally trudged back to own lines, pulling his gravely injured sergeant on a tarp.
The Somme offensive was to stretch on for more than four futile months. The loss: half a million men. The gain: five miles.
A nondrinker, Tom frequently was the only member of his unit who could be relied on to carry messages (he was a signalman) or lead men to safety through the muddy wilderness of Passchendaele, the obscene swamp of Poelcapelle. When he was captured at Nieppe in 1918, his unit was still fighting a hopeless rearguard action.
He ended the war as he had begun: a private. No citations.
The second war was a different era; the system had more give to it: He was made a captain for his work in organizing the county home guard signals unit. Until issued a motorcycle, he bicycled thousands of miles all over notheast England, training, drilling, rallying his forces, when he wasn't working overtime at the mine.
He started in the mine at 12, in his native village of West Sleekburn, after the colliery undermanger spotted him loose in the streets and ordered him to work. He showed up in his boots and a hat that came down over his ears.
His father was a miner - died at 84 after 61 years in the pits - and so was his grandfather, which was as far back as the family could remember. The two-room house where how was born, the third of six children, stood 50 yards from the shaft.
"I used to fall out of bed into the pit, mornings. You could hear it start, a week, and in winter we'd never see the daylight all the week. Sometimes you'd come home so weary you'd lie down on the hearth mat after dinner, still black - as they say, you wouldnalist - and your mother would put a pillow under your head."
The mines are shut down now, most of them, in northern England, and many pit villages have disappeared. West Sleekburn is a meadow today: his old street, the school he quit at 11, the slag heap - all are covered with thin grass. The mine itself is capped, and when we stood there we could hear the soft rush of air from the chambers below.
The seaside hamlets that survive are not charming. The air smells, not of salt, but of coal dust. The beaches are piled with slag. You can't swim there.
Nearby is the River Wansbeck with its salt grass marshes where a century ago some miners met secretly behind the dunes to organize the first unions. One had to be careful in a pit village. The vicar was named by the mine owners, the merchants, the schoolmaster too.
Tom never made more than 12 pounds a week. In 1952, his best year, his salary totaled 623 pounds. Sometimes he worked a 74-hour week. Horses were used in the pit until it closed in 1962.
When he worked the German mines as a prisoner, he found them decades ahead of the British in mechanization, efficiency and safety. His diary tells what happened when he came home to be offered an inferior nightshift job and informed the manager that Britain was 25 years behind the times: "He nearly jumped over the desk at me. I began then, giving the details, for it mattered little to me whether he gave me a job or not, for had not come back home to begin to beg for anything. I felt it and I knew it - I owned then NOTHING, nothing whatever . . ."
Over the years he gained recognition as a leader in the mines. It was not easy to be a union an idea what it days. To give you an idea what it meant, when the mines finally were nationalized in 1947 it was suggested to Tom that this aged father should dedicate the plaque celebrating the takeover. He rejected the notion, saying his father had done nothing for it.
His first food job came in 1921, the year he joined the union ("old Alex Mole came down the pit one morning and found he could not pee and had to return to the surface. He never came back, and I was asked to take over his work . . .")
He was never once late to work. "We were born in a time when if you missed something, you missed it* , Reliability counted for something."
"I was too forceful with people," he admitted. But his drive for perfection gave him a certain hardness. "I smoked a little, you know, a clay pipe. It wasn't allowed in the pits, but many did it on the sly. One day I had a confrontation with a guy. He'd just given me a scare and I told him to look sharp, or he'd kill someone through his careless ways nnd it would probably be me he killed. So the guy came back at me. Threatened to report me for smoking. I said, 'You'll never have another opportunity.'" The voice: cold, level, deliberate. "Istopped, right there and then. Never smoked again to this day."
In his prime he stood 5 feet 6, a broad slab of a man, close to 200 pounds of bone and gristle. Hands: square, with short but articulate fingers. On the left wrist is a scar made by a chisel which drove to within a millimeter of the artery. (That time, holding the pressure point, he managed to stumble from his workshed into the house, slip on a jacket and walk up the street to the doctor's house without his wife knowing a thing. He was pleased that it didn't cost him a day of work.)
His mother died in 1949, his father in 1952. Year after year he chopped firewood for them, watched over them, took children to see them. He held his family together even when the mines began to fail and people scattered.
It was Tom who found a job for his young son as apprentice to a watchmaker and later supported him in his own shop, ending at last the long bondage to the mines. It was Tom who hired a lawyer for his oldest child Ethel, who had married a young farmer in haste (in the diary the bridegroom's name declines swiftly from Billy to Wm. to Him) and later, after years of stormy separation, took Ethel's two children into his own home to rear them for 12 years.
Tom and his wife, Edith, whom he married in 1924 (". . . She became my girl, and I never had any other . . ."), have four children, four grandchildren and at my last count two great-grandchildren.
The tiny house in Choppington stands at the head of the row and car-Over." It was supplied by the government, rent-free. The living room is bookshelf: Dickens, Churchill, Lloyd George, war memoirs bound by Tom himself, encyclopedias. Some religious artifacts.
Tom was raised in the Church of England, but after his searing experiences in the first war, religion was a thing far more direct and urgent for him than what any church could give.
He seemed to feel he was literally living on borrowed time. Of course, death is your neighbor in a pit village, and Toms diary is filled with it: mine accidents, death in childbirth, the passing of his friends one by one ("our village schoolmaster Joe Lenthard died while lacing up his shoes on Christmas morning . . . served with the Tyneside Scottish . . .") But gradually I realized that for Tom it was more than that . He was living for all those others, for all the young men in their thousands, so long dead.
We visited the Somme together in 1975, staying at the home of Lysiane LeJeune, granddaughter of a man Tom had met during that war, the mayor of LaBoisselle. The hamlet lay in the path of the charge of July 1. Lysiane and her architect husband put us up for several days in nearby Albert.
We saw a lot of people Tom had met over the years, for he returns to the Somme often, walking the country roads, stopping at estaminets and private homes, generating in spite of his protests great hilarious impromptu parties, with wine and homemade brandy and whatever food is available and excited talk. His French was terrible. But he used it, waving his arms and he connected far better than I, with my six years of grammar and all.
Once we stopped at a rundown cafe on the Bapaume road, where an old blind woman sat in the rear room. She didn't know him until he caressed her hair and cheek and repeated his name. Then she wept. She was 87 years old, she said. For a half-hour they sat almost without speaking, occasionally touching hands.
Mostly we visited the cemeteries. Tom had found his comrades in this one and that one and he would put his hand on their patina-ed headstones and greet them cheerfully enough.
"My life," he wrote me once, "has been spared and given to be used in the interests of others, for whom thousands of my soldier friends gave their lives, and as I sit in Becourt Cemetery in the quiet of the early morning, not a mile from where they were swept into eternity, I can find solace by visiting their resting place, line upon line of them, and always come out with fresh dedication to this end. For they never grow old, as we who are left grow old . . . I do remember them."
It was remembering this that had made me angry. Why did he have to wait to be 81? What if he had died at 80? Or 60, for that matter?
The depts of love should be paid quickly, quickly.
I left Tom in Albert on a hazy June morning and drove back toward the coast, up the Bapaume road past the Bapaume Post Cemetery and the cemeteries at Ovillers and Pozieres and the Sunken Road, and across the hills I could see the Aveluy Cemetery, and Lonsdale, and Blighty Valley, and the Gordon Dump Cemetery, and as I turned West to Arras I saw the modest white-on black signs for the Grevillers Cemetery, and Warlencourt, and Gomiecourt South, and Ervillers, and Boyelles, and Warry Copse.
There is a map of the Somme area on which all the British military cemeteries are marked with numbered violets dots.The map is riddled with them. Some of these cemeteries have 4,000 or 5,000 graves apiece; some have only a thousand. The biggest is at the former military hospital in Etaples, with over 12,000 graves, and the smallest must be one of those grassy nooks you see tucked away here and there containing perhaps only five British headstones.
I counted 140 violet dots on my map of the Somme battlefield. You add another 100 or so for the Arras area. You can get additional maps showing Vimy and Ypres and Passchendaele and Mons and Chambrai and Poelcapelle and Armentieeres and the other places, and all of them are simply covered with these little violet dots.