I taught my son Dominic to ride a motorcycle when he was four and tried, as much as possible, to give him as long a leash as I dared in the hope he would develop at an early age a sense of responsibility which, largely, he has.
Like all growing boys, though, he has on occasion muddied the distinction between what strictly speaking is right, and that which to us in the know is definitely wrong; youthful curiosity and sheer mischief backing him up on the sticky wicket of feeble excuses and inevitable retribution.
Like the time he was pinched by the local police driving my Range Rover, aged nine.
Or the time, wishing to prove that eggs can bounce, he raided the neighbour's hen coop and stole all her eggs to augment those he and his friend had already emptied from my fridge in a continuing and ultimately futile attempt to get eggs to ricochet off sun baked African soil.
He doesn't ricochet too well off hard sunbaked soil either but he'll learn not to go nuts on his 'bike. He does look sorry for himself, though, doesn't he?
As a kid if I stepped out of line, or merely into the sights of unbridled frustration, I would get a thrashing with the length of bamboo my mother used to stuff the laundry down into her top loading washing machine. With the pain and, moreover, the indelible impression of fear, humiliation and sense of betrayal this branded on my soul (and sore bum), I swore I would never lay a hand on any of my children. And I never have.
This does give me a problem, though. Sometimes, all kids, especially boys, get up to things which push even the most reasonable adult over the edge; beating the little beggar a welcome salve, ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’, that sort of thing. Crude retribution eliciting only hatred and deceit rather than the respect the thrashing demanded.
I live in Angola, a country half the size of Europe but with a population only half the size of London so the chances of him hitting anything were fairly remote but, nevertheless, the car incident did warrant a stern talking to, an explanation of the folly of his actions, my disappointment that he would try something like that without asking me first. Deep down I knew he could drive but what if something unexpected had happened? An out-of-control water tanker hurtling down the hill or, God forbid, a toddler running across the road after a ball. He was only going around the block, his first solo so to speak. He now realises the awful anguish and grief he could have caused if his inexperience had allowed him to lose control of two tonnes of V8 powered Solihull steel. He accepts, if he wants to drive, I can take him somewhere safe so he can practice. By the time he is legal, he should be a lot more mature than the average first timer.
See? He knows what he is doing.
The ‘Eggscapade’ was a little trickier. This time he had caused loss to another citizen, a now extremely irate citizen. When kids hide behind you and cling to your legs, you know they have been up to something.
The eggs smeared along the road represented future broilers, the sale of which provided income for the plaintiff, a dear old lady. She was also our neighbour, part of a community to which we all belonged. Naturally, once she had confirmed that the bandits responsible were my son and his friend, she had every right to call the police. Instead, she accepted a heartfelt apology from Dominic. Dominic's friend, I noticed with dismay, was too chicken to admit his role in the crime.
Now this was to me a heinous offence. I replaced the lost eggs with all the fowl from my own stock, depriving us of eggs for the forseeable future, but Dominic could not possibly get off with something as light as an albeit honourable confession and apology. After I smoothed ruffled feathers, I went back inside to discover the boys calmly watching Disney Channel as if nothing had happened. A sort of 'Let Dad sort it out' attitude. A beating was surely the only option.
And this is where a tight community identity comes in. Instead of whipping the delinquent within an inch of his life, I went to see another of my neighbours, the Commander of the Presidential Guard, and explained the situation to him. He was as one of the leaders of our community, all for a quick solution. Justice had to be seen to be done without invoking the blunt instrument of the law. The Community would sort its own problems out.
I went home and told the boys that despite my best efforts, the Egg Lady was going to call the police. That would mean they would be arrested and taken to the local police station and would probably have to spend at least a night there until their case was heard by a magistrate the next day. I would try to provide them some clean drinking water, maybe even a bit of food but God knows what the punishment handed down would be as, I couldn’t help pointing out, everyone hates thieves here.
Well familiar with the local gaol, a Dickensian horror they passed every day on the way to school, both boys had involuntary bowel movements and went pale as sheets.
Looking suitably ashen, as a concerned father should under such circumstances, I told the boys to take their last bath in freedom and dress in clean clothes. In the meantime, I said, I would try to work something out.
While they were trembling in the shower, I nipped back to Colonel Henriques' place where he gave me a tumbler of scotch and introduced me to the 'Military Police' (some of his men dressed up for the part) so we could brief them.
By the time I got home the boys were spruced up and perched on the edge of the sofa clutching school bags stuffed with a pathetic selection of essential belongings looking as if they were about to faint. After all, with less than an hour's notice of being banged up for life, what comforts would you pack? As far as they were concerned, this was far more pertinent and frighteningly more immediate than idle supposition on Desert Island Disks.
I asked Dominic if his friend wanted to call his father.
'He hasn't got one' Dominic said simply.
Turns out the boy is the illegitimate offspring of a long since absent expatriate. His Mother then? No good either. He was too scared to admit to his mother he'd been up to mischief so had instead resigned himself to his fate. How awful that a little lad would rather face certain incarceration in preference to calling on his own mother for help, trusting instead a friend’s father, a man now guilty of cruel deception. Again I was ready to wilt; the frantic looks of hope, the utter faith in me, that I would sort this one out and make it all go away. It was heartrending. And all because of a bunch of eggs.
'OK boys', I told them, 'this neighbourhood being under military jurisdiction, I have managed to persuade the Egg Lady to allow you to be dealt with by the Military Police, not the Civil Police so you boys sit tight, they are on their way. At least this way, if you do have to spend a night in jail, Col H can ensure you don’t get beaten and I can bring you food. When they come, please don't lie, you are just going to have to accept what's coming'
In due course, the 'Military Police' arrived. Goodness, they deserved Oscars, they were brilliant. They waved handcuffs at the boys, sat them down at my dining table and took full statements. Col H put in another Academy Award winning performance speaking up on their behalf and stating that although I was a foreigner, I was a solid member of the community (how I managed to keep a straight face I have no idea).
The boys were told they could stay under house arrest in my charge but would have to attend a Military Court Martial the following day, a tribunal populated by the community and held at Col H's place. Released from the threat of a mosquito ridden cell, I told them to go to bed.
They never slept a wink. Dominic's friend did a lot of crying and I could tell that Dominic was scared because his voice was trembling while he comforted him. I know all this because I couldn't sleep either, instead standing outside their room all night wondering if I was taking things too far. Both boys were essentially decent. I liked Dominic’s friend and now understood why he was so desperately insecure. With no Dad and a mother he was too scared to call, he must have died a thousand deaths.
I firmly believe that it is terribly hard for just one parent to bring up a well adjusted child so am immensely impressed by those who succeed and can understand, though not condone, the remainder who perhaps overwhelmed, allow frustration, even desperation to overcome good judgement. Children need both parents. Death is occasionally a tragic check to this and abuse invokes essential institutional separation but under normal circumstances, fathers and mothers are essential.
Imagine, though, growing up knowing your father couldn’t even be bothered. As far as this little lad, Dominic's friend, the poor little Tike sweating in a strange bed in a strange house was concerned, in his father's eyes he didn't exist. And now he was going to jail. Aged ten.
Sometimes, the reasons for abandoning a child are economic and I have embraced two young children into my family for that very reason. You would have to have a heart colder and harder than Dartmoor granite in winter to turn a child in such need away from the warmth of your hearth, the bounty of your table or, more importantly, the sense of belonging a family environment brings in preference to any material desire you may have entertained. Parents who divorce yet cannot reconcile their often acrimonious differences in favour of harmony when it comes to decisions regarding their children are just as selfish.
I felt very sorry for Dominic’s friend but realised that no purpose would be served if I let Dominic off scot free just because his friend, through no fault of his own, lacked the parental guidance all young kids need from an early age. The theft of a bunch of eggs may seem chicken feed to those accustomed to knife wielding teenage Hoodies terrorising old pensioners and stabbing each other to death outside Tesco’s but it is a worrying start. If they get away with minor offences now, who knows what they will be up to in five year’s time? Swift retribution for the theft of something as minor as eggs, right now, while they are still young and impressionable, could just be the opportunity to instil a respect for fellow citizens and their property.
Once, as a very young man, I went skiing in the southern Bavarian Alps. Apré Ski, walking through forests glittering under their burden of snow bathed in the light of a full moon and with a gutful of locally brewed beer, I was really impressed with the cleared pathways and routes well posted with hand carved wooden signs screwed to the trees. I just had to have one as a souvenir.
When I got back to my Grandparent’s place in the Black Forest, my Grandfather noticed the trophy as I unpacked and asked me how I had acquired it. I could see he wasn’t impressed.
He explained to me how the local community funded such improvements by themselves, not relying on government funds but doing it solely to improve their own lot. How each citizen, blessed with his own particular skills, gave freely his labour for the benefit of the community as a whole. A sort of ‘Cameron style Big Community’ but executed with Teutonic efficiency. He didn’t shout at me, or give me the belting I deserved. That wasn’t his style. He had painted a picture in my mind, a utopia that ungrateful Oiks like me destroyed. The man was possessed with a vast intellect. He did not need to resort to something as vulgar as violence.
Once, I admit, he gave me a boot in the pants, launching me out of his office and into the corridor because I couldn’t keep my loud gob shut while he was receiving a phone call but that was about it when it came to battering kids as far as he was concerned. There was the time he shouted at Granny in front of us, an event so exclusive, it had us kids glued wide eyed to the sofa, all because I had eaten all the marzipan balls from Granny’s not-so-secret hiding place and then been sick as a result. But he cooled down immediately when she calmly explained that in England, they did not have anything as civilised or decadent as Lübecker confectionary and I had merely been showing good taste. So long as Germany won at something, he was happy and I continued to be awed by my Grandmother’s sange froid and eloquence under fire.
Realising that the frosty paradise I had so recently enjoyed was the fruit of altruism, a community spirit sadly now alien to us in UK, I felt terrible. Even worse was knowing I had disappointed my grandfather.
When the war started, he was studying to be an architect in Berlin, following in the footsteps of a father who had designed many of the great buildings in that magnificent city. At nineteen, instead of calculating loads and stresses, he did his part to squeeze the British out of Dunkirk (he once showed us the mile marker in France behind which, gut shot, he had crawled for cover), before being posted to the Eastern front. His war ended not in that desperate spring of 1945, when the German high command thankfully threw in the towel ending a decade of tyranny, but in 1947 when after two year’s of evading capture by the Soviets, he led what was left of his unit south through the Balkans and then north back through Austria and onwards towards his beloved Berlin. The indescribable horrors he witnessed left him with a polarised view of right and wrong and a clear sense of the futility of unbridled violence as a solution. He was highly decorated but his medals, including an Iron Cross, remained ignored except by me, in the bottom drawer of his desk.
He went on to design the Mercedes factory in Sindelfingen near Stuttgart (or ‘Daimler Werks’ as the old hands who’d been bombed to stupefaction during the war insisted on calling it). As a kid, I and my brothers had free reign and used to run through the factory and had loads of lifts in the brand new cars leaving the production line to the railway sidings from which the very best of German automotive engineering departed to their new owners all over the world. We had the authority of our grandfather but we still addressed the labourers as ‘Sir’ and did as we were told.
Crawling with shame, I offered to send the sign back but, as he pointed out, it now bore the scars of having been brutally torn from the tree that had supported it. Once a faithful indicator of safe passage home for travellers lost in an unforgiving winter landscape, now rendered useless by my vandalism. How many innocent people had died a cold, lonely death on my account? I would willingly have perished on the spot but youthful vigour let me down, my lungs refused to stop breathing and my heart continued to beat inexorably. Instead of blessed oblivion, I was justly rewarded with a forehead dripping with perspiration under the cool gaze of a dispassionate observer upon whom, at the same age I was then, had been forced the privations and stark discipline of a Prussian military academy. No sympathy there then.
He reached for the phone on his desk and asked to be connected to Sonthofen Police Station. A few minutes later he handed me two addresses, one for the police chief and another for the Mayor of Sonthofen, the village I had so recently violated. He suggested, as he placed paper and pen on his desk, I might like to write them a letter. It took me all night. How many ways can you say Sorry? The next day, both letters went into the same envelope along with a cheque from my grandfather.
A few weeks later my grandfather called me into his study and gave me an unopened envelope. It was a reply from the Mayor of Sonthofen. In it the Mayor expressed his admiration for the courage needed to confess to such a misdemeanour, how pleased he was that I had enjoyed the beauty and hospitality of his town, and how fortunate I was to have a grandfather like Ernst Günther Diepenbrock von Borken.
I was still too young and stupid to work out whether the good fortune His Excellency the Mayor referred to was the family connection that may have just helped me avoid a custodial sentence or a genuine respect for the guidance given by a wise old sage to an adolescent moron. Sadly, my grandfather died before I could tell him that the penny had finally dropped.
It was only a stupid wooden sign. But the Mayor knew that it was the crime that was stupid, and that the subsequent apology and compensation was a family matter. My grandfather had made amends as well as making me bleed. I would never let him down again. I am sure that my grandfather, ‘Opa’ as I called him, suffered the same then as I was suffering now at the thought of the mental trauma I was inflicting on these boys but if, without beating me stupid, he gave me a lesson I would never forget, then these lads surely deserved a punishment no less refined.
The tribunal convened, the Egg Lady was allowed to explain to the court how her livelihood had been ruined by the two boys standing before her and how insulted and disappointed she felt by the invasion of her property, compounded with the knowledge that the culprits were members of the same community. She laid it on thicker than an omelette. The lads had their turn and expressed, with total humility, their guilt and resultant shame. From their demeanour, all that was missing were the executioner's blindfolds.
The decision of the court, delivered in the presence of the community, was that the boys would collect all the litter from the streets of the neighbourhood and clean all the weeds from the Egg Lady's property and that I, as the father of one of the boys and temporary guardian of the other, responsible, therefore, for their actions, would work alongside them and provide the transport to dispose of the rubbish.
It took us a whole weekend.
Dominic and his young brother Alexander. Eleven year's old and already Court-Martialed, surely a record?
Look at it this way. Dominic wasn't beaten. He had the wits scared out of him in such a way as to give him ample time to ponder the consequences of his actions. He had time to reflect on how badly he had damaged a poor old lady's ability to earn her living. He realised, as I worked alongside him in the hot sun under the eyes of indignant neighbours, the shame he had brought both upon himself and his family, notably his own father. When it was all over, the streets were clean, the Egg lady had a smart yard, and she had a new flock of good egg layers. And hopefully, there are two less bandits in the community.
Dominic has never stepped out of line since and recognises that I, as his father, am equally liable to censure for anything bad he gets up to. It may have been a bit of a cruel trick but I think it was worth it. If more parents accepted joint responsibility for the actions of their offspring and could, most importantly, call on the support of their communities to help nip such anti-social behaviour in the bud, then maybe all of us could enjoy a better society without the need for ASBO's, youth detention centres and no-go areas in our neighbourhoods. And Fathers would not have to thrash their sons.
Dominic’s friend seems to enjoy his visits here, in spite of his scare, and is turning into a pretty mean fisherman. His mother, who really loves him dearly I am sure, still cuts his food up for him. Imagine how she would react if she knew I was giving him a razor sharp fillet knife to cut up bait fish.
I think it would spoil the effect if I confessed my deception to the boys. Dominic is convinced that only my amazing influence, the powers that every real Dad has, saved them from jail. His friend thought it was so cool that Dom's dad would slave alongside them in the sun for the sake of family honour which included him, a case of while you are with me, you are part of the family too.
So now that I have a well behaved son, with the help of Amish Tom and the unwitting encouragement of Raschman and SBW, I am going to get Dominic a hunting bow so that together, father and son, and the young lad without a Dad, we can track down, kill and eat the feral pigs that have rooted up the garden around my restaurant. A sport allowing me to both further instil in the boys a sense of responsibility (and piss their respective mothers off), as well as letting me settle a personal score with the evil little truffle hunters reducing my herb gardens to ploughed mud.
Dominic and his Dad. It's a Man thing.
By the way, which of us as boys never got up to any mischief? As a youth, I was a pyromaniac and in my day, every school chemistry lab shelf was groaning under the weight of everything we needed to wreak havoc. Iodine crystals, 0.88 molar solution of Ammonia, Flowers of Sulphur, Salt Petre, Pure Carbon, Nitric acid and in the groundsman's shed, sacks of fertilizer. My Dad would have burst a blood vessel if he had discovered the amount of home made explosives being brewed under the roof of his own house.
Which is why I found this reminiscence, the link kindly provided by Amish Tom, so bloody funny…
He's cool. Obviously he didn't get that from me.