On a soft deck chair at the beach, I read the brutal, bloody and brilliant tale of the bravest Kiwi ever to live.
The book is Searching for Charlie: In Pursuit of the Real Charles Upham VC and Bar by Tom Scott. What a story, what a man, what a contrast with my cushy life. Upham was everything I'm not.
A grenade throwing, Victoria Cross-winning legend who stood up to every bully he came across including the Nazis. It's an exciting read. "Although shot through the elbow, he personally destroyed a tank, four machine gunners and a number of trucks." Action-packed!
It's also heart-wrenching. Upham gifting a fellow wounded soldier his watch is one of many wet eye moments in the book.
It has become fashionable in some quarters to refer to Upham as a psychopath. The rationale being that anyone who killed that many people must have something wrong with them.
Scott disproves this "knee jerk" assessment early in the book. He posthumously puts Upham through Ronson's Psychopath Test and concludes: "Charlie didn't even remotely qualify as a Psycho, Mother Teresa, the Queen Mother and Oprah would score higher."
His grenade based mass destruction had a clear and honourable purpose, cutting a path to safety for other Kiwi soldiers.
Parts of Charlie's wartime adventures are so harrowing the average New Zealander in 2021 would struggle to complain about their life in comparison. Things may be bad, but at least you're not wrapped in barbed wire in a German POW camp with a Luger pointed at your head.
There's an ancient stoic concept called negative visualisation. Instead of flicking through Instagram feeling bad because your life isn't as perfect as others, mentally walk in the shoes of someone in a horrible situation. You'll feel much better about where you are.
Scott travelled the world searching for the origins of Upham's superhuman courage. He finds a GP uncle who demonstrated impressive charity and sacrifice in Lyttelton. Tales of schoolyard Upham standing up to the big guys in defence of little guys. Courage on the rugby field and hot pie sorties for the good of his dorm.
One day Charlie read the headline "Nuremberg laws passed, Germany bans marriage to Jews." He screamed "Bastards! Filthy, bigoted sons of bitches" and before you know it, he was on the other side of the planet jumping on the back of German tanks.
Scott points out that Upham was brave, but he wasn't fearless. When enemy doctors wanted to amputate his badly wounded arm "Charlie was terrified. Babbling struggling and protesting loudly." Yet in the heat of battle, his sense of duty overrode self-preservation.
A soldier who witnessed Upham carrying a wounded man on his shoulders through a hail of bullets exclaimed "He'll either get a wooden cross or a Victoria Cross."
He got the VC - twice. The only combat soldier to do so. The highest award for conspicuous gallantry.
In the opinion of superiors like Major General Howard "Kip" Kippenberger, Upham deserved eight of them.
But Upham detested being elevated above others. As he stated in a New Zealand Army broadcast "It was the men in my own battalion, not myself, who earned the distinction." He found the whole VC thing hugely embarrassing. He didn't "want to be treated different to any other bastard." Brave and humble - very cool.
The highest honour you can bestow on a biography is skipping the pictures to continue reading the story.
There's a heart-wrenching letter that Upham wrote to Trevor Bellringer's family, a friend who had died in Greece. Upham penned it alone on a former leper colony island while taking cover from a nationwide VC media storm.
He gave a detailed account of the events that led to the man's heroic demise. I jumped right over the pics to get back to that story. I didn't go back till I'd finished the book.
Lucky I did. There's a photo Upham took of Egyptian livestock captioned "fat-tailed sheep crossing irrigation canal near Cairo." He makes no mention of the giant pyramids in the background.
Tom Scott's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. His global Upham adventure will enthral you. Read this book if you haven't already (it came out August last year). Your morning drive to work will compare very favourable to Charlie's 1942 commute to a POW camp. "Screams bounced off the walls. The floor was awash with blood, urine and body waste. Drums overflowing with corpses and severed limbs."
I love Charles Upham for many reasons. He jumped out the window of a speeding POW train; he was a great husband and dad, he used 'kia ora' in rural Canterbury in the 1950s. He was humble, heroic and funny. He was also a bit of a grumpy bastard. A great New Zealander.