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Belfast Child Chapter 8, Part 3 – Uncle Sam

As the first 12th of July since dads death approached, I felt mixed emotions and none of the joy I normally associated with the celebrations of my culture. After dads death the girls of the band decided to keep going in dads memory and the band was renamed the “John Chambers Memorial Band” Although I took great pride in this fact, it saddened me to watch them set off on a march without dad being present and we no longer saw the point of following them out of the estate. On a more positive note, Uncle Sam & Uncle Jim had arranged to have Wee Sam and I join the orange lodge and for the first time ever I would get to march to the glorious field in Edenderry. As usual I joined in the hunt for firewood and guarded the bonfire when it was my turn, but my heart wasn’t really in it, as I was still struggling to come to terms to life without dad. When the 11th night arrived I went along with some of the family watch the bonfire being lit and the pope go up in flames and that did raise a cheer from my broken heart.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and Gerry scrubbed wee Sam and me, and got us dressed in our outfits for the day. We both wore dark trousers, white shorts and blue tank tops and the crowning moment came when Uncle J Sam placed our sashes around our necks and we were officially members of the orange lodge. After breakfast we were out the door, met up with Pickle and Uncle Jim and were on our way down the Shankill in a taxi by 8:30. When we got to Sandy Road there were thousands of people already milling around and Uncle Sam lead us into the Rangers Club, which was opened for business and jammed packed with early morning drinkers and die hards whom had spent the night there. Singing a litany of top loyalist anthems. After getting the drinks in, we all settled in the corner and whilst Uncle’s Sam & Jim socialised with friends and acquaintances, Wee Sam and I watched the drunken antics of the adults around us. And it wasn’t even nine o’clock.

The time for us to meet up with the band and other lodges arrived and we all made our way down the street, around a few corners and came to the house of that years master, which is traditionally the gathering and starting point of the march and as such had to supply drink and refreshments for all those taking part in the march. Eventually we took up our positions and Wee Sam and I were to carry the strings of the banner and this was a great privilege. The Band that was leading us was a well known flute band, which had one of the best leaders around and they always got a huge cheer wherever they went. I felt proud as punch as we began to march and I thought of dad and how I wish he had been there to share this special moment in my life, but I knew he was watching me from heaven and this eased my heartache.

We made our way to the Ormea Road, where we joined with thousands of other lodges and bands off every description and started on our long walk to the field. At first I felt like a super star marching in front of hundreds of thousands of people lining the route and swinging my piece of string to the same rhythm with Wee Sam and the other strings boys. All along the route we kept our eyes peeled for someone who knew us and our hearts swelled with pride as we heard our names called out from the crowds and turned to wave at pour adoring public.

By the time we got to the field my legs were killing me and I had huge blisters on both feet and if it wasn’t for the joy and excitement of being there, I would have laid down and gone to sleep. This was the Field, I reminded myself. A holy temple of our protestant heritage and I wasn’t going to miss it for the world. The march into the field came off a hill and when I got to the top, I stopped and held my breath. Thousands upon thousands of people swarmed around the field around me and in every direction I looked there were vans and lorries of every description, selling everything from fish and chips, loyalist paraphernalia and every alcohol known to man. All the bands arriving were allocated a particular spot and when our band came to our resting place, we along with everyone else sank onto the ground and rested our exhausted legs for a while. Uncle’s Sam & Jim went to the nearest bar tent and told us not to go too far and to be back by 3: 30, when we would begin the journey home… Our first stop was something to eat and after picking up a hotdog each, we decided to go for a walk… All around us was the sound of people celebrating and as far as the eye could see Union Jacks and loyalist flags fluttered in the gentle breeze. This was our day and our field and the event was opened solely to the protestant people of Northern Ireland and those that supported us. I drank in the atmosphere proudly and felt safe surrounded by my own people.

Wee Sam and I took a longer than predicted walk down by the river and getting to the bottom, we were alarmed and shocked to hear a women screaming, in obvious pain in my opinion. Curiosity getting the better of us , we slowly made our way to where the sound was coming from and we were surprised to see four, not two legs protruding from under a bush. The woman was moaning and groaning that loudly now she didn’t hear us approach until I lifted the bush and seeing a man lying between her legs I asked her in a concerned voice if she was ok? Wee Sam being a bit sharper than me, let out a squeal of laughter and retreated behind a tree. Suddenly all hell broke loose and before I knew what was happening the man was up of the ground , chasing me and calling me all sorts of names as he tried to pull his trousers up and kept tripping over. When I got back to our meeting spot, Wee Sam was rolling about the ground in hysterics and the others began teasing me and calling me a peeping tom. I took it all in good taste and spent the rest of the afternoon messing about until it was time to leave or the March home. As we gathered and marched out of the field I couldn’t help noticing that quite a few of the men were walking a bit loop sided and I was glad I wasn’t in their shoes , as we sat off on the 10 mile journey home. The march home proved to be much harder than the inward march and for our efforts fewer people gathered to welcome us home. After a few beers in the master house, Uncle Sam & Jim gathered us up and took us home and we both slept like logs that night.

As was only the case after the 12th celebrations, the whole Chambers clan pack their bags and headed to the caravan site in Ballyferris for our annual holiday. That year for the first time we were travelling down in private transport, Uncle Sam had saved a condememed transit van from the scrap yard and assured us all that it was safe o travel in. This was the first time we had been to the Cavan since dad’s death and at first I couldn’t settle and spent a lot of time in doors and alone. Like the 12th, the yearly trips to the caravan were things I had always looked forward to and enjoyed with dad and that wasn’t now possible. Gradually I came out of my shell and began to let myself enjoy it and that was helped greatly by the fact that David and my sisters were also there, although we were all sleeping in different caravans. We done all the usual things that year , but I just didn’t enjoy it and when it was time to go back to Belfast for the first time I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to the place.

Back in Belfast we slipped into the routine of school and day-to-day life and slowly I began to start to come to terms with dads death. Nothing I could ever say or do would ever bring him back and I had to get on top of my grief, before it engulfed me and ruined any chance for happiness I held for the future. Like my brother and sisters my life would never be complete again and we would all have to learn to deal with dad’s death on our own and come to terms with it. From the moment dad died I missed him terrible and the pain has been with me in varying degrees throughout my life. But I knew that my grief was dominating my life and unless I dealt with it, I would never be happy.

Gradually I pulled myself together and through time I learnt to enjoy the 12th and caravan trips again, without dad’s absence tormenting me and evoking painful memories of better times. I had really settled into life with Uncle Sam and Aunt Gerry and at times I even felt optimistic about the future, I resolved to try and get on with my life and make the best of what little I had and started to enjoy life a little more.

Little did I realize at the time that fate had returned to toy with my destiny and once again my life was on a course of instability and unhappiness. The gods must have been in foul moods the day they mapped out my destiny. Before long I would be leaving the security and happiness of Uncle Sam’s house and my path would change again and only unhappiness and misery lined the route of my next journey.

Thankfully this was a short journey and as I entered my teenage years my life would start to improve and as time tick on I began to find I enjoyed life and although the pain of dads death and mums absence hunted me  the future was much brighter and I would go on to make the best of my shattered  life and in time I would find happiness, contentment and eventually be reunited with the mother I had long ago thought dead and gone for ever.

About John Chambers

Profile photo of John Chambers
John Chambers is from Belfast , but now lives in the North West of England. He is the author of Belfast Child, which is about his life growing up within the heartlands of Loyalist West Belfast and his life long search for my missing Catholic mother. He also blogs and posts articles mainly on Current Affairs, War & History and posts daily on key events in the Troubles and Deaths due to the conflict in N.I. You can follow him at https://belfastchildis.wordpress.com/

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