Fiction: Magnesium

James Bates

- James Bates

“You would not believe the it,” my friend Eddie told me the first time we talked about it. “The way those bombs came down was like having the world’s biggest fireworks display dumped right in your lap.” We were sitting in the common area of the Orchard Lake senior living home. The sun was shining through the window, warming the room, but he still had a throw blanket over his legs. His hand shook a little as he sipped his tea, shivering, not from being cold, but in still remembering the terror of the bombing of London. “I’ll never forget it.” 
I didn’t blame him. I’d grown up in the Vietnam War era. Back then, the number of times I thought about what anyone from World War II went through you could count on one hand and still have a few fingers left over. But I was older now, and maybe a little wiser. 
Eddie had been eight years old during the first raid and was hiding with his grandparents and younger brother and sister in the basement of a church in their neighborhood. His dad was a pilot in the RAF and stationed north in Kirton in Lindsey. His mom was working for the government. That night she hid in the basement of her downtown office building. 
“The light from those flash bombs was so intense we could see it under the door leading up to the sanctuary,” Eddie continued. “They were so bright, one of my friends was almost blinded from the damn things. I guess they’d used magnesium in them.”
He told me this a few years ago, shortly before he died at the age of eighty-seven. Flash bombs rained down on the citizens of London not only during the day but also at night between September 7, 1940 and May 11, 1941, and young Eddie was right in the middle of it. 
“Yeah, we got so used to it, we each had a sack called our ‘air raid bag’ that we could grab and take with us. The bombing weakened the church so much we began staying in the Aldwych underground tube station. It was only a block from my grandparent’s apartment where me and my mom and siblings were living. It was pretty cramped, but Dad was gone and Mom’s work was close by, so we made the best of it.” 
He took a sip of tea and looked out the window, remembering god only knew what horror he’d seen. After a minute, he set his cup down and continued, “The worst was twelve nights in a row in the spring of 1941.” He shook his head. “My grandpa died of a heart attack during those raids. It was too much for him.”
I had moved near the Orchard Lake senior living facility so I could easily visit my Mom. Eddie was there when she moved in, and, both of them being alone, they became friends. That’s when I first met him. Mom and I used to go out back where there was a wetland area and sit in the sun and talk. He liked to wheel his wheelchair outside and watch birds through his binoculars. Sometimes after Mom went back to her room, I’d stay with Eddie and we’d chat.
“He was such a nice man,” Mom told me at Eddie’s funeral. It was held right there at the home. “So polite.”
“I can’t believe what he went through during the war.”
“Did he tell you about losing his father, the RAF pilot?”
“Yeah. I guess he got shot down in France in 1944.”
Mom shook her head. “So sad.”
“His mom made it though.”
“Yeah, she survived and she and Eddie’s grandma stayed in London and raised the kids.”
“He told me his mom once considered sending him and his brother and sister to a farm family in the country so they’d be safe from the bombing.”
Mom nodded, “Yes, that was something that families did back then. Can you imagine?”
No, I couldn’t. Eddie told me they not only had rationing during the war but for a number of years afterward. ‘I still get carvings for chocolate’ he told me once. After that, I made it a point of always bringing him a chocolate bar every time I visited Mom. He seemed to appreciate it.
A few months before he died, we were talking and he said, “You know, the worst part of the war were those bombings when I was a kid. The damn magnesium flash bombs. Buildings destroyed. People killed every night. Dirt and dust everywhere.” I reached over and touched his arm in gesture of compassion. He was startled, but he smiled, “I wouldn’t want to wish it on anyone.”
“At least you survived,” I said, just for something to say.
“Yeah, at least I survived.”
We were quiet, then, looking out at the wetlands. His binoculars lay unused in his lap. 
After a while, Eddie closed his eyes and nodded off to sleep. I prayed his dreams were peaceful although I am afraid they were not.
Mom and Eddie had been friends for two years when he died. He’d outlived his wife by five years. They’d never had any children. In a way, his life died with him.
But I hope not. 

Mom and I walked to the back of the building. I looked out over the wetland, not seeing much, thinking instead of what it must have been like to live through the kind of bombing young Eddie and his family lived through. I think I’d have been a nut case afterward. But Eddie was a kind and gentle man. He became a teacher. He taught chemistry. I’ll bet he told each one of his classes about those flash bombs and how magnesium was used to make them so brilliantly terrifying; told them so those young people would know of the horror of war. And, hopefully,  would never, ever, forget.

Bio: Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in many online and print publications. His collection of short stories, Resilience, is scheduled to be published in 2020 by Bridge House Publishing. All of his stories can be found on his blog:

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