They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
These words from Ode Of Remembrance – taken from the English poet Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen that was first published in 1914 – is often read at Remembrance Sunday services in the UK, an annual commemoration of British lives lost in WW1, WW2 and other conflicts since.
Held at 11am on the second Sunday nearest Nov 11 (or Armistice Day, which marks the agreement between the Allies and Germany to end WW1 in 1918), a two-minute silence during the commemoration also provides a solemn and poignant moment of reflection as part of the memorial service.
As I was growing up, I had a keen interest in both world wars. The sheer magnitude of conflict and the territories at stake captivated my attention, and I was fascinated by the heroism of all those who signed up to serve for their country.
When I grew older, my focus shifted from the jingoistic patriotism of the “war efforts” to centre on the young soldiers who put their lives on the line for king and country. While I respected their courage, strength and bravery, I felt a heavy sadness that many of these boys – and they were boys – would never return home.
Years later I discovered that a WW2 veteran, Tom Rinnie, lived in my hometown. He had seen action in Dunkirk (France) and Russia, and witnessed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (Japan) from his ship at sea.
I’ve written before about Tom in this column. He was a quiet old man, but I was struck by his cheerful demeanour and positive outlook despite all he had witnessed. As part of the Arctic convoy missions, Tom and his crew endured what Winston Churchill called “the worst journey in the world”.
In one of his more humorous tales, Tom recalled that when taking supplies to Russian allies, the men were warned not to touch the ship’s railings due to the sub-zero temperatures.
Boys being boys, one or two called the captain’s bluff, and subsequently required boiling water to be pored over their hands to free them from the rails. No one touched the railings a second time.
Initially I had planned a half-hour interview with Tom for a newspaper story. In the end I visited him on three occasions, spending six hours in total with the bravest man I have ever met.
Bravery is a word that gets thrown around easily these days. But in its truest sense, it was a word meant for men like Tom.
In my time as a journalist and broadcaster in Britain, I’ve met prime ministers, business leaders, actors and musicians – and I was never overwhelmed. In the presence of Tom Rennie, a man who had seen and played a part in some of the most notorious battles in history, I was genuinely in awe.
I met him when he was 89, and his mind was sharp as ever. He represented a character you don’t often see nowadays. Truly stoic, taking life’s challenges in stride, never allowing life to beat him, and always thankful for every day he’s given. Tom did it all with a smile and a wicked sense of humour.
I think of Tom often, more so at this time of year. He died at 90, not long after I came to Malaysia. When we first met, he had been waiting 69 years on a service medal from Russia, previously denied to British soldiers due to fragile political relations. Receiving the Arctic Star was an honour he proudly received.
As I remember Tom, I’m reminded why I’ve always preferred the company of the older generation. In my experience, the wisdom and insights they have to share on life are priceless. I think it’s to our peril that we don’t afford our elders the same respect they used to receive.
Their stories, experiences and perspectives are rich with life lessons, yet many people don’t take time to enjoy such treasure troves of knowledge, all right there to be shared. For me, the best thing about learning from the older generation is that they teach without either party being aware of it.
Often after a conversation with an elderly relative or friend, it’s not until I’ve reflected on what’s been said that I realise they’ve shared valuable insights that allow me to understand life a little better in some ways.
We should all consider spending more time with the elderly. Often it comes across like the young ones doing them a favour, but it’s usually the other way around. There’s no greater life investment than to learn at the feet of those who have seen more changes than we can begin to imagine.
Tom taught me to value whatever time I have. At 89, he said that it felt like yesterday when he signed up for the navy – at age 14 – after lying about his age as many boys did. He taught me to stop taking life too seriously. “You never get out alive anyway,” he joked.
Wherever you are, Tom Rennie, thank you – for your service to your country, your generosity to others, your kind spirit, and most of all for your enduring patience with a young man who still has much to learn.