It was the mid-1950s and I remember, as a small child, holding my mother’s hand and looking up the curve of a tall ship at my father and some sailors smiling and waving from the deck. We had been walking along the Port Adelaide docks, our destination for that week’s Sunday drive in our almost new Vauxhall.
My father had called out something to a sailor on a Japanese ship and suddenly a crowd of sailors appeared, waving and inviting him on board. My mother and I kept walking while my father joined the young Japanese.
I didn’t know much then, and it didn’t surprise me. The war was just a handful of trinkets sent back before the fall of Singapore.
Then there were the fraught souvenirs from later on, when my father was (as he and others put it) a guest of the Japanese emperor: his rice spoon, which became our custard spoon, worn down to half its capacity from years of scraping out the last remnants from the bowl, and the razor strop into which he had neatly incised records of significant events within the prison.
His body bore the shrapnel wounds. And as for his mind, there were days when he just sat and my mother told me not to bother him. I would smile at him from a distance (disconcerting, I should think) and wish I could help. On the brighter side of things, though, I was the only kid in my class who could count from one to 20 in Japanese.
When I was a little bit older, I asked my father what the Japanese were really like. He thought for a bit and said he supposed they were just like us — some good, some bad. I must have looked dissatisfied because he added, “You must treat everyone with respect, because if you don’t, you don’t give them a chance. The Japanese were no different.”
I have since wondered how the inner suburbs of Adelaide produced this quiet and courteous man who “didn’t take to schooling”, a characteristic he ruefully attributed to his primary school being staffed with men fresh from the trenches of France. He was a man who had malice towards none.
Recently, decades after my father’s death, a young relative researching family history contacted me. She had found out that my father was mentioned in dispatches. Did I know? (I had asked my mother once but she didn’t know, and it was too late to ask him.)
Apparently, according to some record, while in Changi prison, in an act of great personal courage, Arn Crabb (an NCO) had put his life in grave danger by standing up to a Japanese officer. I shall probably never know the full story — would he have told me even if I’d asked? — but respect might have had something to do with it. Self-respect.
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