2007 - 2020

Vasili Arkhipov and the last tram to Auchenshuggle

BriTram9Every Sunday, my father took me somewhere on a tram. Mystery tours, rattling across a sprawling, jumbling, clanking weave-work of metal sunk into cobbled streets that ran for miles into districts that essentially were other towns. Boarding at Glasgow Cross, sometimes we rattled beyond Broomielaw to marvel at the uncanny gods and fearful monsters that were too big to see in their entirety; bound by bars and bolted by rivets that ran into the millions, they were held fast in the chains of giants awaiting descent from Govan to the earthly light of reason through our ancestral passageway, the Clyde. We often caught a ferry across from there, and if fortunate would watch a mighty steam locomotive having its direction reversed on an iron turntable. Occasionally we would simply journey to the end of the line – and there were many possible endings. Given that my father’s only sisters, Caroline and Peggy, were killed by a tram in Glasgow – on Christmas Eve during the blackout – you would have thought…And yet he loved those unplanned journeys on the Glasgow trams as much as I did. He once said every life is unique, and every death is tragic, and I suppose he might have been thinking just that the night we stood under the old clock tower in the Trongate watching the soulless machines relentlessly ripping out the tram rails. We were stunned and heartbroken. Our journeys didn’t end with the death of the tram, but they were never quite the same.

On September fourth 1962, a Glasgow newspaper ran the headline, ‘Last tram to Auchenshuggle’. The editors could not have anticipated that in the following month the Cuban Missile Crisis would cause people across the world to turn over the possibility that a sizeable section of the human race might soon cease to exist. And anyone who glanced at that newspaper after the crisis, perhaps seeing it stacked on a pile by the fireplace ready for twisting tightly to get a coal fire started, may have stopped and reconsidered the gathering clouds of foreboding that the headline unwittingly embodied: ‘The end of the world?’

Once triggered, one could only speculate how fast global devastation would develop, but given Russia’s missiles couldn’t reach the USA – the rationale for siting them in Cuba – it followed European civilisation would come logically prior to all others on the wipe-out list. The response of the British government was to issue directives to hospital staff all over the country on the management of mass casualties, and burns were the top priority. It so happened I was in Glasgow Royal Infirmary at that time with burns, aged six, following an oil pan spill over my lower back and legs, and for some time was confined to a cage. Immediately after the accident I had been lifted up and rushed onto a bus that then cruelly crawled up the High Street – it was the wrong choice, but at the time it seemed quicker, to the mind of my panicking dad, than finding a phone box and calling an ambulance. The trolley bus hummed uphill like an infuriatingly slow toy that seemed all the slower as pain and panic passed through me in waves. Strangely, I have a strong recollection of the small details that made up the environment around me on that journey: the little round light-bulbs in two perfectly neat rows brightening the interior of the bus, the rivets in the aluminium sheeting that made the ceiling, and the macabre faces smiling in small poster advertisements. I don’t suppose I was conscious of the concept of time up to that point, but now pain made it a marshy substance I had to wade through. The woman sitting opposite on the bus – I couldn’t hear anything she said – gripped the arm of the man next to her, scrunching up his lapel. The bus driver made no stops, no one could get on or off – undoubtedly leaving queues of bewildered people at the pavements – but still it took a lifetime to arrive. Eventually it stopped outside the hospital entrance, and I was scooped up and rushed into emergency. I screamed past the white-tiled walls to the ward and its antiseptic smells, and continued to scream when I was put into the arms of the white-coated strangers. I screamed until I slept.

In the event of a nuclear strike, one of the first places to be struck would be my Uncle George’s house in Rothesay. With no public discussion, the British government allowed a foreign nuclear family to be moved into his neighbourhood, Holy Loch, and they most definitely brought with them the potential to bring down house prices. It is said Holy Loch acquired its name around the time of the Crusades when a ship crossing the loch carrying two sacks of soil from the Holy Land capsized – for the purposes of nomenclature one must at least be thankful they weren’t carrying two sacks of manure – but it now became the base for a doom-laden crusade of far greater magnitude and mayhem: the US Polaris submarine programme. In 1961 the firstborn of the demon seed, Proteus, sailed in. It was gunmetal grey. A year later, the human race sweated it out for thirteen days during the Cuban Missile Crisis before it got the all clear.

Without malicious intent, my parents packed my sisters and me off to Uncle George’s house in Rothesay, near to the nuclear missiles, for our summer holidays. A boilermaker at the yards for over forty years, Uncle George’s working life was spent in a deafening din, and as an antidote his house was something of a sanctuary. Other than the gravel path to the front door that crunched noisily underfoot, and a few creaky floorboards inside the house, it was a peaceful place of sleepy-sounding clocks that seemed at times to be in lazy conversation with one another. From the garden it was still possible to hear the clocks gently chime, and I remember my sister looked at me strangely when I asked her if the bees buzzing by could hear the clocks. Was it possible for me to be aware of their world, but not for bees to be aware of mine, I wondered, and still wonder…In that garden we pulled up rhubarb – I would peel it and then dip the rhubarb in bowls of sugar – and my sisters showed me how to make daisy chains – an activity I could become absorbed in for hours. How long those chains became.

That was August. There would have been similar sorts of scenes in Hiroshima in that same month just seventeen years before, and it is not difficult to imagine children absorbed in the life of a garden, just as we were in Rothesay – the younger children communing with the elder ones, asking profound questions and being fobbed off with cryptic answers. It is not difficult to imagine that perfectly still summer morning when Little Boy burst over little people with little fingers earnestly engaged, engulfing them in a blinding white light and making them vanish from existence. The bomb burst on this bright morning over what President Truman described as a military target, a hospital; there was a blinding flash in the sky, and a great cloud of swirling dust and smoke luminous with red carried the dissolved remains of everyone within the blast range up into the air. It cast a dreadful pall of darkness over the city, and for some days remnants of Hiroshima were still burning.

The last day of the thirteen-day crisis was my worst day in hospital. I was, of course, unaware that my parents were facing Hiroshima, and my condition must have added a dimension to their concern – around the ward they would have seen lots of children with burns. My parents were sent out of the ward, ushered gently but firmly by a group of nurses straight through the swing doors and out into the corridor. A white coat commanding a group of pink uniforms with silly hats and strange masks quickly took their positions around my bed. Their cheerful words belied the concern in their eyes. Whilst I don’t know why I had to be conscious for the procedure, it quickly became clear why they needed a nurse team; the cage that covered me from the waist down was lifted away, and then the doctor, with concentrated effort, got a grip of my skin from somewhere around the hip and lifted it up and along my leg in one continuous sheet. He went back a few centimetres from dead to healthy skin, causing some bright red bleeding. The pincers fell with a clink into the bowl, and a nurse stepped in between the others, who were restraining me with some physical effort, to dab the raw, bleeding flesh with a stinging antiseptic. My screams added to the collective anguish, and whilst he gave the assurance – perhaps for the nurses – that it would soon be over, it was a long haul.

On the eve of destruction, the fate of the world depended, as they say in Hollywood movie trailers, on just one man. The same day the medical team lifted and cut away a sheet of my skin, Vasili Arkhipov swung round from his narrow bunk, picked up his boot, and began working in just enough polish to allow a bit of resistance and make it interesting. Always in this hypnotic activity he switched off, but his peace abruptly ended when a series of muffled explosions rocked the submarine and signalled everyone to their posts. The submarine, escorting a fleet armed with nuclear-tipped warheads, found itself trapped by US warships and subjected to depth charge bombardments to force it to the surface. The submarine rocked violently, and although the boat’s crew held on tight to whatever they could, most were thrown about and some were injured as the explosions intensified. The discretionary power to launch nuclear warheads lay not with Moscow but with the submarine commanders, though two senior officers had to agree the launch. As sparks flew from electrical equipment and lights flickered on and off in the otherwise silent vessel, the eyes of the crew steadied on those officers. When the minute hand struck the hour precisely it also struck the darkest hour for humanity; the order was given to prepare to launch and the crew burst into a flurry of activity. Conscious that all the destructive force of the world ever imagined was being gathered and brought to its psychotic edge, Vasili Arkhipov prevailed on them not to fire. He reasoned with his fellow officers, he pleaded with them to resist retaliation, he urged them to do nothing. Finally the dam burst, his words got through, and the order was rescinded.

Pocket watches found in the wasteland that was once Hiroshima stopped at 8.15, a result of the magnetic effect of the blast. Most fused with sand or stone or glass through the intensity of heat. The people who had owned them had of course been vaporised; the basic power of the universe had been harnessed in a metal box and dropped above the city, and now a part of our universe was permanently lost. I once saw a photograph of a man with his family in Hiroshima. The children were involved in some form of industry reminiscent of the scene that runs in my head of my sisters and me threading daisy chains in Uncle George’s garden. His pocket watch was chained to his waistcoat, and as I looked ever more deeply into it I saw him winding on the hands into synchrony with a clock chiming peacefully indoors. Perhaps this, or some other gruesome example of time petrified in a clump, found its way into the modest treasures of Vasili Arkhipov – the man who saved the world.

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Comments (15)

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  1. Warren Evans says:

    Extraordinarily poignant. Your writing is infused with melancholia (as are you, I know). Bitter sweet. Doesn’t seem that long ago.

  2. Darby O'Gill says:

    Beautifully written. Thank you.

    1. Paul Tritschler says:

      Thanks.

  3. Connor McEwen says:

    I was just out of short trousers but a timely reminder.

  4. Peter Barjonas says:

    I remember ,too, the Glesga ‘caurs’ that passed my Eglinton Toll window and the maintenence trams that clattered unseen in the early hours. Old enough to travel alone, my favourite journey was the route to Rouken Glen for a thrupenny half ticket.
    When planes to and from Renfrew airport were over my house television reception was affected as the picture pulsated.
    I was aware of the Cuban crisis. As you were being treated at the Royal I could have been anxiously hoping that the TV distortion was due to ‘one of ours’.

    1. Paul Tritschler says:

      Thanks Peter. I like the imagery you use to evoke those ghostly machines repairing our trams in the night…

  5. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Great piece brought back many memories of that era. And now in my senior years those times don’t seem that long ago. I also had an emergency journey to the Southern General one summer’s evening as a ten year old on a double decker bus. The kindness of people in Glasgow has been a gift that am always grateful for.

    1. Paul Tritschler says:

      Thanks Fay for your kind comment. You went to hospital on a bus as well! It was often the case, of course, that finding a phone and perhaps being left unattended, wasn’t an option. I knew of someone going to hospital having accidentally swallowed poison, another with broken ribs (must have been agony), and one stuck with a crochet hook. Probably wouldn’t be allowed on a bus now. On the other hand, depending on your postcode, it can still take a while to get to hospital in an ambulance.

      1. Jack Collatin says:

        Lovely poignant piece, Paul.
        I was 14 when we gathered at Clydebank Town Hall to watch the ‘last tram’ trundle past.
        My grandparents lived in Earl Street Scotstoun, adjacent to the tram terminus, and we lads often got the conductor’s empty ‘ginger’ bottles, to collect the 3d deposit from the ‘Tali’s ‘, the Café nearby,one of many in Glasgow owned by Italians.Home made ice cream to die for.
        I had my tonsils, adenoids, and a mastoid removed from my left ear (I still can’t hear a ticking watch) in one operation at Glasgow Western Infirmary when I was ten.
        After an overnight stay, I begged to be let home. My father came to collect me, my outdoor clothes in a wee suitcase.
        Discovering he had only brought one sock, he gave me his to wear. We travelled home to Clydebank by tram, upstairs in the wee compartment at the front, in relative privacy because of my father’s bare ankles. Little did he know that it would be the trend 15 years later. I miss him dearly to this day.
        We holidayed in Dunnon back in the day, and we watched the US fleet arrive in the Holy Loch, and a booming taxi industry develop over the years.
        I recall the Cuban Missile crisis and the US blockage. A cartoon in the Express I think, showed two American sailors in the Crows’ Nest of a battleship scanning the horizon for the Russian fleet. One matelot is saying to the other.
        ‘Would you stop whistling ‘Red Sails in the Sunset, Mack!’
        I remember that we were all very scared indeed.
        A few years later, Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Viet Nam. My older brother and I were of conscription age then. That was pretty scary too.
        A wonderful nostalgic and sorrowful but inspiring writing, sir. My heartfelt thanks.

        1. Paul Tritschler says:

          Thank you Jack, and thank you too for those unique and priceless insights – we really do need to redefine the meaning of wealth! How those old shooglies shake up memories, and how the heart still beats in that city. I wonder if at some point in our future the Scottish people will delve into common memories about that common cause that is so wonderfully uniting them today…

  6. Ray Gallon says:

    A skilful and entertaining conflation of private agony and the possibility of a total melt down in the world. I was in my late teens when the Cuban missile crisis featured in the headlines, but with the arrogance so typical of most of my peers, I dismissed it as of little
    concern to me! How important it is that we remember both the callowness of youth and
    the potential cruelty of despotic politicians.

  7. Tim Gould says:

    A gripping, powerful reminder of how history happens to all of us and how little control we have over its often unpredictable unfolding – arising from the actions of individuals responding to the situations and structures they ‘inherit’. You’ve captured both the fragility and heroism/agency that accounts for so much of the human condition and experience, and done so with great humanity.

  8. Graham King says:

    Brilliant evocative writing from lived experience. Thank you!

  9. David Ward Allison says:

    My memories of the trams include ‘helping’ the driver change the points at the number 8 terminus in Riddrie ,with a huge steel lever. Solitary adventures to see my gran’s friend Mrs Stewart in ,Milngavie, rattling past the Benny railplain, roused no parental panic.The trams were an essential to a wee boy’s growing imagination and sense of adventure.Weekend trips to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery were a favourite treat.

    1. Paul Tritschler says:

      Thank you for that, David. I would have loved to have seen George Bennie’s railplane – it would have fitted perfectly in my perfect world of trams and rattling things – and it too ran mainly on clean energy, if that is the right term to use here. It had something of the airship about it: a monorail tram with a propeller – only a Scottish genius could come up with it! Best wishes.

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