I was in a water cooler conversation today when the discussion meandered to how our fathers had influenced our careers. My knee-jerk reaction was "Not much." My dad was pretty useless when it came to science and technology. I think the best he ever managed was to change the fuse in an appliance plug. But then I started to think...
I believe my dad began to suspect I had "the knack" when I was very young. He used to work for an engineering company (more about this later). When I was around six years old, he started bringing home discarded pieces like plastic blocks with lots of nuts and bolts and pieces of metal attached. I would happily disassemble them (keeping all the parts carefully organized, of course), clean everything up, and then put things back together again like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. I had no idea what this equipment was for; I just liked working with all the bits and pieces.
Dad was the middle of three brothers, with just a year or so between them. The oldest was Cyril (Syd). Then there was my dad, Reginald (Reg), and finally Percy (Pug). I'm not sure how they got into it, but they took up dancing and became very good at it. From a young age (as teenagers), they spent most of their time on the road in a series of variety shows at the top theatres. I always think of this a bit like one of those old black-and-white musical films where someone excitedly says, "We're putting a show together."
At this time (circa the early 1930s), there were theatres all over England. Even a small town would have some sort of theatre; large cities like Sheffield would have two, three, or more. A show consisted of a variety of acts, including a singer, a comedian, and a dance act. There would be hundreds of such shows travelling all over the country, each playing a week in a different town before moving to the next venue.
My dad and his brothers were part of an act called "The Three Dancing Dudes and Rita" (there were several Ritas over the years). My mom found this video clip of them on the Internet. She's a little diva these days when it comes to her iPad. Syd is on the left. My dad is in the middle, and Pug is on the right.
They must have been really good. England has a Royal Command Performance once a year. Basically, the reigning monarch commands the best actors, musicians, and entertainers in the country to appear for a special performance. The Three Dancing Dudes appeared in such a show in 1937, when King George VI was on the throne. I have a program signed by all the performers.
Here's a scan of a page from a scrapbook dad put together. In all of the images my dad is the one in the middle (the "Dennis Boys" in the caption associated with the upper-right image was another of their stage names)
(Click here to see a larger image.)
My dad was the organizer of the group. He kept all the records, such as itemized lists of expenses, which we still have to this day. He also collected posters from all the theatres they played. My brother and I are now the proud owners of these artifacts. The photo below shows two framed mid-1930s posters on the wall in my breakfast nook. One of my current hobby projects sits in the foreground on the breakfast table.
Can you imagine the life they led -- three young men in the theatre travelling from town to town without parental supervision at a time when most people grew up, grew old, and died within a few streets of their birth? Each brother was earning about twice the wage of the average working man. They shared a room to save on costs, and they sent some money back to their parents. They must have been a little like their age's equivalent of rock stars.
Then came World War II.
Since the brothers were such a famous act, they could have joined the Entertainments National Service Association, which was set up to entertain British military personnel during the war. Instead, they opted to fight.
Syd ended up in the Desert Rats fighting under Montgomery. My dad was in a reconnaissance unit of the 15th Scottish Regiment. Pug -- due to his command of languages -- ended up in charge of a prisoner of war (POW) camp in England.
Syd was taken prisoner at Tobruk and sent to a POW camp in Italy, where he was beaten by the guards. His wounds went septic, causing his death. My dad was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Being in reconnaissance, he spent a lot of time behind the German lines, where (eventually) he was terribly wounded.
I'm a little fuzzy about the details, because Dad never talked about the war. I heard most of this stuff from my mother, who can make even the simplest story last for months. But my understanding is that an 18-year-old girl dragged my dad into the cellar of her grandmother's house and took care of him until the Allies took control of that area. Had they been caught, she and her grandmother would have been executed. The girl later wrote a letter (which my family still has): "Dear Tommy. You was the first British Tommy that I seed. And when I seed you, all covered in blood and mud, I kissed you." If he had been conscious at the time, I might have ended up a Belgium boy.
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