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.jpgI am inspired by Seawriter’s recent review of a biography of Major Donald J. Humphrey, written by Humphrey’s son, to brush-up and re-post this jaunt down memory lane from early last year:

From 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 beginning of the War) RAF service, whose pilots were well-trained but also 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 to 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 my close 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 you or anyone else. And if you’re really serious about your privacy, you can always try to get your Internet-self erased or forgotten.

Good luck with that.

However, when I’m doing my own proactive little check on myself and my close family members, 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. I do keep an eye on “hostiles” who’ve demonstrated–for no particular reason–an unusual or irrational public malevolence towards me or those I love, just to see where–if anywhere–such nastiness goes or spreads and whether it infects sundry malicious, even more ignorant, others.

Because I’ve long held that people should maintain a basic level of awareness of what their online footprint looks like, and I’m always amused 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. (“How dare you read these vile things that I’ve been writing about you!” is a sentiment that’s been directed towards me more than once.)

I think that folks who don’t maintain at least a minimal awareness of their online footprint 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–truthfully, untruthfully, appropriately, inappropriately–online, openly on public sites that anyone can see, but yet they didn’t see them

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 and innocently run across in the course of doing other stuff on the Web. Sometimes, those things were written by the parents or the children in those same families, in the course of unwise over-sharing of too much information about themselves or their lives. (To quote Emily Aston Perrin, “The Internet is not where you hide–it’s where you are found.” That works both ways, and we’d all do better if we remembered it.)

So I wonder sometimes what my granddaughter (who’s thirteen at the moment) 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 loves.

As I’ve been checking up on myself and my family over years, though, there have been a number of eye-opening revelations, a couple of them quite serious.

Several years ago, I discovered that my 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, US 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 name, address, and phone number are at all “private” anymore–because they’re not–but that seemed like a bridge too far.)

Although it mystifies me that others would spend time writing about yours truly, unbeknownst to me, 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 mentioned (always positively) 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 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 1)humor, 2)the ridiculous, and 3)proportion, as the last three apply to others, and once again, to oneself. (Regarding my afore-mentioned granddaughter: It’s my hope that, knowing me as she does, and loving me as she does, if she ever runs across any of this bilge herself, she’ll realize it says much more about the people spewing it forth than it does about her own grandmother.  She’s pretty smart.  I’m not worried.)

So there I was, a couple of years ago, amusing myself, 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 on Ricochet 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 she 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.

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

  1. The notion of privacy in photo tags, captions, and EXIF data is still unsettled in the photographer community. Many pros are aware that they do need to balance out the desire to retain copyright and show off their portfolios just as matters of revenue protection, with the need not to embarrass or expose their clients, but there still isn’t what you could call any industry SOP. However, due to various legal actions regarding the use of likenesses, things are gradually moving in the right direction. Remember Taster’s Choice coffee, and the guy featured on every jar for decades? He never gave his consent, and (not being a coffee drinker) was oblivious to his visage on the jars until someone pointed out the resemblance – at that point he put a few things together, remembered some photo modeling he’d done when young, and called his lawyer. I have no idea what he settled on, but the case did make some ripples. Stock photo sites today – at least he reputable ones – make photographers submit model waivers if anyone’s face is showing and identifiable (with some caveats about public spaces and large groups). But the laws and the practices are still full of massive gray areas.

    Neat that you could find so much about your father. But I think it helps that he was such a memorable and active character all through life. My family has searched for stories of my grandfather and his brothers in the war, and it has been thin pickings. After the war they all returned to quiet civilian life and rarely even went to various unit reunions.

    1. Yes, it’s good that people are paying more attention to privacy, and becoming (even slightly) more aware of the information that may be stored with photos which are uploaded to the web. I was gobsmacked to find my granddaughter’s image (lots of them) associated with her full name, and the (small) town where she lives. They were exceptionally cute photos (the photographer did a great job!) but it was somewhat disturbing to see my granddaughter’s personal information exposed that way. I’d have thought that a professional would have, at the most, given her first name, no information about where she lived, and removed the EXIF and GEO information from the photos. Gah.

      You’re right about Dad. He was also instrumental in much to do with Nigeria’s governance and independence, so there is quite a bit about him floating around. For the lesser lights in my family, I’ve found that, over time, more and more stuff appears on Ancestry, for which I have a subscription at the moment, so it pays to repeat the searches periodically. That’s where I’d been searching for Mr. Right’s grandfather’s entry into the US (researched all the usual suspects, and had pretty much given up–thinking they’d probably spelled his name so wrong I’d never find it)–when I did find it somewhere else, looking up something else. Eventually, it did migrate its way onto Ancestry as well.

Leave a Reply Cancel reply