Belfast was only bombed four or five times during WWII but the worst one was on an Easter Tuesday, 1941 (so the records say) when 1,000 people died that night and thousands more were injured—aside from London it was the worst casualty rate for a night of bombing in the UK. A quarter of the 400,000 population became homeless in one night; that's when they started to evacuate the children. I don't know which of the bombings I remember but I do remember being pushed under the stairs while explosions were going on and in another raid I remember being crushed into one of the air-raid shelters close to our house and listening to people crying as bombs exploded.
Several of us went down to a farm (Dromore, I think). I remember that Alex and George and Margaret were there and I think Agnes was there as well. I was too young to be much use at working in the fields but the man worked the others very hard; including Alex who is only eighteen months older than I. He didn't like George who was about four years older than Alex and he pushed him around a lot. [There are many stories of profound and lasting kindness by those who took these children in—they were helped financially by the government, of course, and rightly—but the horror stories are many also.]
I was out in the field one day and a goat chased me—at least I think it was a goat; might have been a cow for all I know—but I ran to a gate, climbed up and fell over and broke either my arm or my collar bone. My recollection of the severity of the pain suggests it was my collar-bone; but then I was a bit of a wimp so it might have been my arm. I had to stay in the house a lot of the time and on a number of occasions the man tied me up in a bag and put me in a closet. I remember how dark it was and I remember feeling things scurry around and over me. I yelled a lot and cried (which wasn't unusual for me at the best of times). Nobody came to let me out—they were out working— until the man returned. I don't remember his face because I never looked straight at him; I was very afraid of him.
It was a dark and gloomy house and my sister Margaret who rarely says anything negative about anyone described him as an evil man. I can't vouch for what happened precisely—that is, I don't know if it really happened, or if it was some kind of trick he pulled—but one evening we were all sitting around in the big square gloomy "living" room and in the quietness the table in the middle of the room began to rise into the air. That I remember though I can recall no more about the incident; but talk about scary. I'll remember that if I live to be as old as the sun. Maybe that was part of what Margaret meant when she said he was an "evil" man. I don't know how long we lived there but I was glad when we all got to go back home. There had been a couple more bombing raids but they were more specifically targeted on the docks and the shipyard area.
Back home school must have started back up. I attended Ashmore Street Primary (first to third grade), with school starting for us at 5 years old (sometimes a little sooner depending on circumstances). It was just around the corner from our house, next to the ground that had been cleared of ruins and Mr. Porter was the headmaster. I didn't know it then, of course, but later when I first saw W.C. Fields do Mr. Micawber in the movie David Copperfield I realised I was seeing Mr. Porter again only Mr. Porter was much taller. He must have been about six feet four though I may be mistaken since I was so small compared with him. I would have liked him I think if he hadn't been an authority figure; they always made me nervous, and still do. But I notice when I think of Mr. Porter I feel a warmth and a sensation of pleasure so although I can't remember any specific history I had with him he must have treated me well.
I didn't care a lot for Mrs. Derby who struck me as an upper-class lady; at least she dressed that way and talked really posh. Maybe I didn't like her much because she made so much of my friend Freddy Craig and not enough of me. Freddy was a really handsome kid who grew into a handsome young man and who was always well dressed. Mrs. Derby used to croon over him in front of Mrs. Craig. Freddy and I got on really well but it turned me green when she'd say how "adorable" he was. Jealous little brat I.
(One day after school Freddy and I ran away from home. We were going to live in the wooded area several miles away—"the Glen"—and he was going to be Strang the Terrible (a character in The Wizard, I think; a boy's comic-book) and I was going to be Tarzan. We stole a couple of bottles of milk from some poor woman's doorstep on our way to our new home. The adventure only lasted two or three hours after we'd drunk the milk, climbed a few trees and started getting hungry.)
Later when we moved into fourth grade we had to go to North Howard Street School (maybe half a mile away). We called it the "big" school. Those were days when teachers used the cane and I got a few from several teachers. Mr. McQuay was the headmaster, an older man, who wasn't always sensitive; I think he was often tired because he looked it, and he used a thin cane. "Hold out your hand," he'd usually say and you held your hand out to the side of you, palm up, and he'd whack you. If Mr. McQuay had been more skilful I would have worried more since he used that thin cane. On the other hand, if he didn't think he got you a good one he'd often have another go. The trouble was—especially on cold mornings—a kid tended to wince when he saw the cane coming down and that meant his hand moved. I've had a few right on the finger tips as a result of wincing before the blow actually landed. Hated those! A few great actors would pretend he'd hit them when he didn't; they'd blow on their hands and grimace. It worked only once in a blue moon.
Mr. Best, who taught science (among other things), was a nice man who smiled easily but he was also stern. He used a thicker cane, which we thought a blessing; but he also knew how to inflict, which we thought a curse. He said nothing when he was about to cane you, just got himself ready, looked at you and expected you to stick your hand out. Some of us stuck our hands out but kept our palms at a steep angle so the blow would be glancing but Mr. Best would have none of that. Without a word, and almost elegantly, he'd put the cane under our hands to lift them to horizontal. He was patient and if he needed to do it again he did and didn't deliver until he was satisfied. Sometimes the punishment was more than one—depending on the "crime". A lot of us got three at a time. [I never deserved any of them, ever. Ahem.]
Some of the best acting I've ever seen was during those caning sessions. Kids who were barely hit would go into a convulsion as if they'd been hit by lightning; but not only did the teacher know they were faking, we all knew it. Tom Hanks deserved no Oscar for Streets of Philadelphia but some of those kids deserved Baftas as well as Oscars. Aside from some sweet little thing who simply couldn't watch such "cruelty" we all watched enthralled and later we'd discuss the technique and skill of this teacher or that. Occasionally they'd cane a girl and before and after the event it was high drama; Bette Davis could have taken lessons from these girls.
All in all, I liked school [it was nothing like what you come across in Dickens' Nicholas Nickelby]; but I was useless at Maths and utterly dumbfounded by algebra and such things, and I have retained my severe disability to this day. I never had much difficulty reading and always loved reading stories (though I don't recall we read a lot in school—we may have). The corner shops used to sell Boy's comics. There was the Hotspur, The Adventure, The Wizard and The Rover; they were devoured and passed around between us. They were all about heroes, the good guys and the bad guys, the gallant people fighting against great odds for the right. After we read them we'd tell each other about them and now that I look back on it I can still hear and see us; we did it with excitement and passion and laughter. I know about the bad things that were going on but characters like Alf Tupper, Wilson, Limp Along Leslie, Morgan the Mighty and Strang the Terrible did something for us. I know it must mean I'm very noble, don't you know, but I'm genuinely saddened by how embarrassed we are at that kind of literature in these days. It seems we can't have a hero without him being a real jerk whose "jerkhood" must be paraded and even grudgingly admired. Still, there's still Horatio Cain in CSI Miami, isn't there?
But it was the games after school that redeemed so many of us.