When I was a child, Easter always meant Easter Eggs. Not for us the big chocolate eggs wrapped in colourful foil. We had our old rituals from a pagan past that had nothing to do with Jesus, the Church or for that matter Cadburys. A few days before Easter Sunday my mother brought out a big pan, filled it with water and eggs and placed the pan on the gas stove. The water boiled, bubbled and the pan rattled for fifteen minutes. Then the eggs were left to cool. The next morning armed with our pencils, pens, paints, paintbrushes and glue we spent hours drawing and painting strange colourful faces on the eggs, and then gluing on paper hair or moustaches. Once finished the eggs were lined up on the window sill for passers by to admire.
On Sunday morning while the dew was still wet on the grass we trooped to the nearest grassy hill with our decorated eggs, all arrayed in a big wicker basket. Once at the top of the hill we took our precious eggs and rolled them, not too gently, down the slope. The object was at least to crack the shell, but sometimes the egg fell apart and scattered yolk and white across the green grass. Of course, to a true pagan this was the best outcome - scattering the egg on the earth as an offering to Estre the goddess of fertility. To a child the eggs were for eating and a cracked shell was just enough damage to enable the shell to be pealed off cleanly and the soft hard boiled egg to be devoured. Never did eggs taste so good as on those Easter mornings.
However, eggs meant something different to my father's friend as I learned many years later. When the Second World War ended my father was demobilised from the Army and had to find work. He came to Edinburgh and met my mother. Needing steady work he applied to join the Fire Brigade. He was a very fit 30 year old with a licence to drive buses and heavy vehicles and an exemplary war record. After training in Edinburgh and at the Fire Brigade College he started work at the Stockbridge Fire Station on the edge of Edinburgh's Georgian New Town. He had a positive happy-go-lucky disposition and always made light of the dangers of the job. However, I remember well the smell of smoke from his clothes and the exhaustion in his face after he and his colleagues had fought a fire in a grain ship in Leith harbour for days, taking turns to go into the burning oven of the ship's hold wearing heavy breathing apparatus and hosing the smouldering grain. Well I remember the sadness and shocked expression he tried to hide after spending several hours cutting five dead children from two cars after a head on collision.
Once I asked him what it was like being a fireman and getting to drive those big red shiny fire engines.
He said that it was often quite boring. Mostly the firemen polished brass and boots, kept fit playing football and table tennis, did their shift and went home grateful for an easy life. However, he was always aware that when the bells went off lives were in danger. He said it was important to have discipline and work as a team as your life and the lives of others depended on taking orders and knowing what to do in dangerous and stressful conditions. Training and team work were essential. I asked him for an example and he told me the following story.
When he joined the fire brigade there was a leading fireman called Ernest Hodge who oversaw the new recruits and gave them a hard time. He was a disciplinarian and seemed to enjoy bossing and bullying the other men. At first my father didn't like him, found him cold and humourless but accepted his authority.
He was soon to change his mind when my father's team were called out to his first major fire. A bonded whisky warehouse on the east side of the City was alight. A small fire in a workshop had spread and ignited the whisky barrels in the bonded stores. By the time the fire brigade arrived the fire had taken firm hold. The firemen set about the battle. It was a hard fight sometimes the fire raced ahead, sometimes the firemen stopped its spread. Hoses snaked across the ground and water pumps ran as hard as they could. My dad and his mate were standing on a roof hosing the fire below when over the crackle of flames and the roar of engines they heard their leading fireman screaming to them. Jump! Jump! Jump down now!
NOW ! Instinctively my father and his mate jumped off the roof ...seconds later it collapsed and was engulfed in fire and smoke. The man my father disliked had saved his life and his opinion of Hodge changed after that incident .A strong bond formed. They became lifelong friends and Ernie often visited at our home.
On one visit, I recall my father and Ernie got to talking about their war experiences. By most standards my father had an easy war. Commando training in the Cairngorm mountains near Braemar then missions in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and from Normandy on to Berlin. Ernie Hodge was with the British Army at the fall of Singapore and spent most of the war as a prisoner slave of the Japanese working on the infamous Thailand to Burma railway known from the film Bridge over the River Kwai. Ernie was one of the few survivors of this horror inflicted on thousands by the Japanese. I remember my father asked Ernie “You must really hate the Japs after what they did to you.”
“Actually I don't”, Ernie replied.“Why is that?”, inquired my father, somewhat puzzled.
Ernie replied "Well, after 4 years of imprisonment, brutality, inadequate food, bad water, tropical heat, insects and diseases I was a walking shadow and finally my strength and resolve succumbed to fatigue and some kind of tropical fever. I collapsed and was put into the camp hospital. Hospital is misleading because it was only a thatched hut with makeshift beds, no nurses or doctors and really just a place to be left to die. At the time I thought death was inevitable and welcomed the prospect as a way out of that hell. All hope was gone. The night was terrible with the moans and cries of dying men and the terrible smells.
The Japanese guards were remorselessly hard and cruel or so it seemed. The morning light came and there, beside my cot was a small clay bowl with three eggs in it. I was so starved that I didn't hesitate to crack the shells and slurp the raw white and yolks. At first it didn't occur to me where the eggs had come from, I was only grateful for the food and liquid. I felt the eggs begin to give me strength. I survived the next day and the next night. Again in the morning there was the little bowl with three eggs which I quickly wolfed down. This gift of eggs, became a gift of life. The fever passed and I slowly recovered to carry on until we were liberated. I know that the eggs were left by a Japanese guard, I don't know who it was, I will never know. All I know is that he risked certain execution if he had been caught helping a prisoner. I owe my life to that anonymous Japanese. That's why I don't hate the Japs." Hodge concluded.
A Japanese, saved the life of Ernie Hodge and Ernie saved my fathers life before I was conceived. In a strange way I owe my existence at least in part to that Japanese and his gift of eggs. We all begin as an egg. That is why we Scottish pagans honour Estre the Goddess of Fertility with our painted eggs ...She who gives her name to Easter.