Family, History, Military

A Book Recommendation–From Sapper to Spitfire Spy–And Some Notes on Diving For Pearls

File:Chinese Fairy Book - A fisherboy dived into the water and brought up a pearl from beneath the chin of a black dragon.jpgFrom Sapper to Spitfire Spy: The WWII Biography of David Greville-Heygate DFC, by Sally-Anne Greville-Heygate is an endearing memoir of a father’s military career, put together and fleshed out by his loving daughter, and given life by that father’s vivid diaries of his World War II experiences combined with a large selection of family photographs, newspaper and military reports, and a smattering of personal letters.

David Greville-Heygate was one of relatively few men who served in both the British Army and the Royal Air Force. He found his brief army career unsatisfactory, from his first disappointment when his traditional cavalry regiment was “mechanized,” and he suddenly found himself manning a tank, instead of riding a horse; through his officer training course at Sandhurst and his deployment to the defense of Portsmouth and its naval shipyards on England’s South coast. Eventually, his persistence and determination to join the RAF paid off (with a bit of string-pulling), and he was accepted to training at Cambridge where he’d attended university and where, ironically, his army career had started out as well.

He found himself a much better fit in the upstart (only 21-year old, at the start of the War) RAF service, whose pilots were well-trained but allowed much more latitude and independence of thought than that required by strict army discipline, and he thrived, joining his brothers, both of whom had joined up with the flying service at the start of the war. His training is recounted in detail, and I found myself on the edge of my seat a few times, marveling that any of the young men survived it, and mourning the loss of so many of them as it progressed. It took a little while for Greville-Heygate find his calling and his mission, but he served with distinction and endured much, ranging from the excruciatingly dull to the hair-raising, from the comic to the tragic, surviving the war to mourn the loss of his older brother and Distinguished Flying Cross recipient, Charles (somehow, you just know that’s coming), and to make a life for himself in peacetime (Like his brother, David received the DFC for his “valor, courage, and devotion to duty”). I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Oh, I’ve read more polished memoirs. But rarely one more heartfelt and loving, and the wealth of fascinating contemporary detail provided by the subject himself is unparalleled.

I’m sure you’re wondering how I came across this little gem. (OK, maybe you’re not, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Buckle up; here it comes.)

I came across it in the course of doing what I do. Or, at least, one of the things that I do. And that thing is, two or three times a year, I noodle around on the Internet to see what comes up in simple searches and on public pages that can be easily accessed, when I put in my name or the names of family members. It’s not a scientific exercise; It’s purely informational, and I practice no “dark skills,” were it the case that I even had any. (I leave such things up to my world-famous brother.) And of course there are reputation management services, and identity monitoring products which can offer additional protection to you, and plenty more information as to what’s “out there” about any given individual, even if he or she isn’t you. And, if you’re really serious about it, you can always try to get your Internet-self forgotten or erased. Good luck with that.

However, when I’m doing my own proactive little check, I do almost none of those things. I don’t buy information, and I don’t make strenuous efforts to find things if they don’t come up on their own. But I’ve long held that people should maintain a basic level of awareness of what their online footprint looks like, and I’m always puzzled by folks who find it disturbing or irrational that a person would read and look at, things that were clearly written and posted in order that they should be looked at and read. I think that folks who don’t maintain that awareness generally deserve what they get when something ugly vomits unexpectedly to the surface, sometimes in a personally or professionally bothersome, or even a devastating way. Forewarned is forearmed, I always say, although I’m not entirely sure if that concept originated with me (lol).

I know a a few people who’ve been affected professionally by what’s been said about them online (truthfully, untruthfully, appropriately, inappropriately–openly on public sites that anyone can see, and yet they don’t know about them); and I know a few families whose lives have been turned upside-down by revelations that others, including sometimes the parents, and sometimes the children in those families have inadvertently run across in the course of doing other stuff on the Web. So I wonder sometimes what  currently twelve-year-old granddaughter will find out about me, if she innocently puts my name in a Google search one day to see what the world is saying about her beloved grandmother; and I try to make sure that my posts and comments will reflect the sort of person she knows, and whom I’d like her to see.

As I’ve been checking up on myself and my family over time, there have been a number of eye-opening revelations, a couple of them quite serious. Several years ago, I discovered that our granddaughter’s full name and hometown were listed on a professional photographer’s site, along with some delightful photos of her, each with substantial embedded EXIF and geolocation information (she was three or four at the time, and her mother had won a photography session in a charity drawing).** I informed her mother of my concern, and she sorted that out right quick. In 2014 or so, I was searching my own name, and I found the bill of lading for a crate of Dad’s belongings that my sister had put together and had shipped to me. On it, in very visible print was my name, address, phone number, PA driver’s license number, and UK passport number, in plain text and easily searchable through Google. (That took rather more sorting out. Fortunately, I still had the letter I’d written the company when I sent them–under protest–the requested information, and their response, assuring me that the identifying driver’s license and passport information would not be recorded anywhere, but was simply required for “export.” I’d already about given up on the thought that such widely-available data as address and phone number are at all “private” anymore, but that seemed like a bridge too far.)

Although it mystifies me that others would spend time writing about yours truly, unbeknownst to me and without my able and self-interested assistance, I occasionally find out delightful or forgotten things about myself and my family (I call these “pearls.”) Before I retired, I’d occasionally find myself positively mentioned in IT trade rags, in write-ups about one or another project my team had implemented to improve patient-hospital communications. Sometimes, I run across old friends, names from the past, memories that I’d forgotten, but which someone else had not, and which still live on fondly in their minds. That time in 1993 that a group of us won the Fiberfest talent show with a musical skit we’d written–so proud that we came in first in the goat show’s signature event, having performed just after the seven-year old boy singing “Music of the Night” in a Phantom of the Opera costume, and just before a burly guy completely covered in highly decorative tattoos, who broke concrete blocks in half with the side of his hand. Crimenutely. (For those of you who think I’d never engage in such frivolous behavior, or that even if I did, my team and I would stand no chance of winning against such overwhelming odds, here’s the photographic proof, which someone ‘kindly’ posted on my behalf several years ago. Note the blue ribbon hanging from the strap of my overalls):

Sometimes the memories I run across involve Mum and Dad, or others of my relatives–I came across my first Internet reference to Great Uncle Cecil, a veteran of the First World War, in one of these searches. And when searching on Mr. Right’s name a few years ago, his grandfather’s name appeared in a result, together with the record of his arrival in the United States (Port of Galveston, March 9, 1908, on the SS Köln). That was a couple of years before that same information migrated into the Ancestry database, where I’d been trying to run it down for quite some time.

Less often, but often enough for me to warn you to be prepared to encounter them now and then, I find things that are less pleasant to see (I call these “swine.”) As I think we all know, the Internet often operates on a parallel, non-intersecting (but I repeat myself), plane to that of the world most of us actually live in, so all bets are off when it comes always discovering the eternal verities on it, even, or perhaps especially, as they apply to oneself. Sometimes, nasty, dishonest people write nasty, dishonest things. Forewarned is forearmed, I say again. That, and it’s sometimes useful to have broad shoulders, a thick skin and robust senses of humor, the ridiculous, and proportion, as the last three apply to others, and once again, to oneself.

There I was, though, a few months ago, doing my thing and checking up on Dad (always a pretty entertaining exercise; there’s almost always something new), and right there on the first page of Google hits was a link to Sally-Anne Greville-Heygate’s book, and an excerpt from a paragraph therein. So I took a look on Amazon, and ordered it, on the strength of this from the search results:

February 22 was a Red Letter day for David [Greville-Heygate] when a telegram arrived requesting that he attended an RAF interview. Charles dropped in for the day and after lunch they drove over to visit David Muffett at Brandy Bay [on England’s Southwest coast]. Muffett had just had a lucky escape from a minefield on his stretch of the beach. While checking his map for mine positions, an old fisherman came up to him to say that due to the stormy weather the sand had shifted them all and his map was useless. However, knowing the beach like the back of his hand, he could give him a rough guide as to where they were. Muffett quickly sent someone down to the beach to re-plot their positions.

How very Dad. He’d have so loved chuntering away to the old fisherman, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Dad took his expert opinion and advice as to the effects of the storms on the defensive mine placements, and that he acted swiftly to get their positions re-plotted as soon as possible.

But it gets better.

In October of 2018, I wrote a post about Dad, and in it, said the following:

Perhaps the best summation of Dad came as a complete surprise, via a letter after he died, from the daughter of a fellow Army officer. Her own father had died, and while going through his effects, she found his WWII diary, and a description of Dad, as follows:

“I’ve never heard anyone so noisy from the time he gets up, to the time he goes to sleep . . . and after!”

You guessed it. Not too far into From Sapper to Spitfire Spy, I found it:

Back at Portsmouth there was terrific bombing and an Ack-Ack barrage but I am so used to them now they mean nothing. However I don’t know if I will ever get used to Muffett for I’ve never heard anyone so noisy from the time he gets up to the time he goes to sleep and after.

What a coincidence. What a “pearl.” And what an eternal verity, if ever there was one, when it comes to Dad.

It made me happy just to see it, I felt as if I’d completed an eighty-year circle–from me, to Dad, to one of Dad’s army buddies from the War, to his daughter, and back to me (who, having finished the book and while I was perusing the end-notes, suddenly found my own name in them, although I’m not sure where she found the detail she did and connected it to me–perhaps in one of my Ricochet posts, throughout which I mostly fly under the cover of a marvelously vague pseudonym, even though I don’t take particular efforts to hide my family history or identity to those who may be interested, or those who know anything much about it.)

When I saw it, though, I felt happy. And connected. And human.

And that’s the magic of the Internet. When it works its best, that’s what it can do. Happiness. Connection. Humanity. May it always do that for you as you navigate your way around. May your Internet always be full of pearls. And never the other things.

**I urge everyone to do due diligence with regard to professional “event” photographers (lovely people; I had a late friend who was one). But I’ve been careful myself for decades, ever since I discovered (in the last century) that most of the time, their customers don’t “own” the rights to the images of themselves or their friends when they are photographed at the major life events they’ve contracted services for. It took us months to find what seemed to be the only photographer in Pittsburgh who was willing to turn over ownership and the negatives for my stepdaughter’s wedding, as Jenny didn’t want strangers poring over images of her special day as a result of its inclusion in the photographer’s portfolio. (I think it’s perfectly fine that some folks would agree to that, or wouldn’t mind if it was done; she didn’t want it done, is all.) Today, almost all professional photographers have attractive websites showing off their prodigious talent, and most of them put their digital portfolios online. Often, in an excess of self-congratulatory professional zeal, they enhance and embellish the pages with personal anecdotes as well as identifying details such as names, dates, and locations–a gold mine for image search engines, as well as people and background checking sites. And although the primary focus of the celebratory events (usually things like weddings and anniversaries) are the happy couple, to a lesser extent even those whose images are captured incidentally at the reception, on the dance floor, or at the dinner table, can appear in searches as well. I don’t like it. But that’s the world we live in. Caveat emptor.

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