One English summer afternoon in 1970, Lolly and I were on Broad Street in Oxford when we spotted a name we both knew well — Blackwell’s Book Store. We knew that name well because Blackwell’s is famed throughout the British world as the world’s largest bookstore. We had overlooked the fact that we were living just 12 miles from it now that we were on RAF Upper-Heyford, but the minute we spotted that name, inside we went.
Though it seems like yesterday, that day occurred more than 40 years ago, long before the Age of Information, which now brings us the knowledge of the world at the click of a mouse button. If you wanted to know something back then, you opened a book. Those who read, knew. Those who didn’t, knew nothing.
Entering Blackwell’s was more like walking into a library than going into a bookstore. Shelf after shelf groaned beneath the weight of 5,000 years of written word. We went in empty-handed and came back out smiling, happy and loaded down.
Part of my load was a book I had never heard of, Winston Churchill’s “Frontiers and Wars.” When I spotted the title in the store, picked it up, and glanced at it, I was expecting to see a history book. I knew that Churchill had written many history books and thought this was one of them, but much to my surprise it was something quite different.
Back in the 1940s as World War II raged and England held on by the skin of its teeth, I often sat beside the radio with Mom and Pop, listening to Winston Churchill’s inspiring words coming from far away England. Even as Hitler’s planes and missiles rained death and terror down upon the British Isles we listened to the unwavering voice of a man of inexhaustible courage speaking to his people and to all the people of the free world, telling us to have courage because in the end we would prevail. I remember that voice well, the voice of an elder statesman who at an advanced age was called into service to save his nation — and somehow did it!
But the book I spotted that day was about a different Winston Churchill, one I had no idea had ever existed. In it I discovered not an aging, overweight statesman, but a cavalry officer in his early 20s engaged in some of the most hair-raising adventures I have ever read. I could hardly put the book down that night to go to bed; it was that good.
I discovered a lot more that day however. I discovered years and years of reading pleasure. Winston Churchill was not only one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but if ever any man had lived a life worth writing about, it was Churchill. I will never forget some of the things he said in that book. Its first part covered an expedition against rebellious warriors on India’s Northwest Frontier. In it, Churchill spoke of his first moments in combat, saying with both common sense and humor, “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at — with no result.”
That book revealed another Churchill as well, a courageous young subaltern who discovered his manhood on his first day in combat as his small unit was ambushed by hundreds of screaming tribesmen. Unable to go to the rescue, Churchill was forced to watch a helpless, fallen comrade cut to ribbons right before his eyes by a wild-eyed tribesman. Pulling his men together for a counterattack, his eyes fixed on the tribesman who had just hacked his helpless friend to death — the same rich-voiced Churchill who 50 years later calmed a nation in great peril — said in his first book, “I forgot everything else at that moment except a desire to kill that man.” It wasn’t to be. His commanding officer ordered him to get his men to safety, and to bring up another brigade.
What is characteristic of Churchill, however, is what he wrote in his journal after three fierce weeks of fighting, during which he watched the enemy force broken, its members scattered, its fortifications dynamited, homes torn down, cattle slaughtered, wells destroyed, and fields set afire. After it was all over, he surveyed the ruins and wrote nine telling words.
“Whether it was all worth it I cannot tell.”
That was the honest, forthright Churchill of later years speaking, a man who had come to care about the same wild tribesmen he had so hated on that first day. In a few short days he had come to see them no longer as enemies, but as men defending their homeland. It takes a rare individual to do that when someone is trying to kill him.
Later, when the shameful Munich Agreement signed by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain allowed the annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia, Winston Churchill spoke out. On that day, the world heard the words of a man who knew the difference between death and dishonor.
Chamberlain, Churchill said, “... was given the choice between war and dishonor. He chose dishonor and will have war anyway.”
Do yourself a favor, Johnny. Read some of Churchill’s many books. You may as well, you’ve already read many of his words. For Churchill is, you see, the third most quoted reference in the world, coming only after the Bible and Shakespeare.
Next week: The humorous side of a great man.