I sat with Harry Carter on his front verandah, both of us watching the bushes, and the birds in the garden, and letting the sun beat down on our heads.
He was 89 years old, had been an air force pilot in World War II, and wasn’t keen on talking to me at all.
But he talked to me for an hour anyway. About growing up in Northcote, about his training days at Auckland Grammar School with the Empire Training Scheme. Then to Panama, across the Pacific, the first ship (in all likelihood) to cross the ocean after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Then to Britain, the formation of his squadron. Hurricane night fighters. Africa via Gibraltar. Algiers. Tunisia. Protecting shipping in the Mediterranean. The Atlas Mountains. The capture of Lampedusa and the invasion of Sicily. Then Spitfires. The defence of Scotland as the European invasion began. France. Belgium. Holland. Paris and bully beef. London during a buzz bomb attack.
Right on 60 minutes I ask Harry this question: What memories are brought to mind in terms of the sacrifice you have seen — what makes ANZAC Day so important?
And Harry goes quiet, staring into the garden, and the great magnolia bush, the very one from which the land agent, 56 years ago, took a sprig of blossom and laid on the pram of his then three-month-old baby girl — a profound moment of connection that sealed the deal.
Harry sits for two full minutes, in absolute silence. Once or twice his mouth opens as if to form a word. But after one hour of almost constant chatter it’s like he’s had enough, and won’t be saying anything more.
And suddenly I’m feeling the enormous profundity of the situation. Beyond the garden wall, and in the Village just a couple of hundred metres away, life is a hectic hustle and bustle. Anxiety, deadlines, the whole drama of trying to get things done to a time frame that leaves us with no time to just sit and be.
But Harry is making us sit. A question about memory has caused him to go inside himself, to a moment in the war we haven’t yet discussed. And it’s as if he’s actually tapped into another type of time. There are bird noises from the garden. The faint sound of cars passing on the road. Some cicadas.
But the overwhelming sound is that of Harry’s breathing.
And when he speaks again there is a completely different tone to his voice. It’s the voice not of a 19-year-old still caught up in the excitement of war, but of a 90-year-old who has come to a deep understanding of the purpose of his life.
‘The terrible thing about losing someone is really for the person who has done the losing,’ Harry says slowly, and with great intent.
‘It really is not a loss for the person who won’t be with us again. Because they haven’t, in fact, gone. We won’t have their company, but they haven’t in fact gone.
‘Like my mum and dad. I’ve noticed, now I’m knocking on 90, I feel closer to my parents than ever I did when they were alive.
‘It’s not a “churchy” thing, but it’s a relation of spirits. Partly, it’s being able to see the truth about death, and realising that the body can die but the person can be even more real and even more alive.
‘And not only that — the memory of them is free of the petty limitations that ego imposes.
‘I remember, between the wars when I was a youngster, people would say, “He was in the war, but he won’t talk about it.” And that’s only part of the truth.
‘It seems that nobody really wants to hear about their experiences — because it brings both the speaker and the listener closer to the reality of existence. And people don’t really want to know.
‘Most people are quite happy to be blissfully unaware of anything “spiritual”. But you daren’t say that.’
Harry goes inside the house to fetch a book that has helped him understand the experience that changed his life. It is Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and the section he has highlighted is entitled The Key to the Spiritual Dimension.
In life-threatening emergency situations, the shift in consciousness from time to presence sometimes happens naturally. The personality that has a past and a future momentarily recedes and is replaced by an intense conscious presence, very still but very alert at the same time. Whatever response is needed then arises out of that state of conciousness. The reason why some people love to engage in dangerous activities, such as mountain climbing, car racing, and so on, although they may not be aware of it, is that it forces them into the Now — that intensely alive state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking, free of the burden of the personality.
‘I haven’t told you about an episode that happened when I was flying night fighters,’ Harry says.
Night fighter missions involved gutting two-engined American ‘Boston’ bombers, the Douglas A-20 Havoc, so they could be equipped with a searchlight in the nose, radar, and batteries.
With a Hurricane on each wing they would search out the enemy at night, guided by radar until they were spotted — and if spotted one or two of the Hurricanes would be sent to attack.
Harry flew these night missions, describing them as ‘A hairy sort of activity. A dangerous activity.’
On one such mission, Harry crashed his aircraft. He ended up buried, hanging upside down in his cockpit. And he remembers screaming.
Very suddenly a calm came over him, something he describes as a sort of amused acceptance. And he began to plot the steps required to dig himself out.
As he emerged, he saw that his engine was on fire, so he calmly threw sods of dirt over it to put the flames out.
He was only 19, but the experience forever puzzled him, and he spent his life wanting to understand it.
He now believes his whole experience of war was for that one moment.
For Harry Carter, it was the moment the barriers came down between his own personality and the nature of being, an experience of death that opened his eyes to life. Indeed, a literal burial, during which life became a more profound reality. One that, having once been experienced, could never be forgotten.