Remembering a World at War
November 11, 2013 is three weeks away and words and stories from far-seeing and often plain-speaking veterans are on my mind. Old soldiers, airmen and sailors are falling one by one as time quietly passes, their stories and significant pieces of world history disappearing with them, with just a few words of remembrance left behind - say, in a short obit - to remind us they were with us but a short while or were even here at all.
[Sam, "a valiant soldier" say his sisters]
Stories left behind by my father are particularly on my mind. They remind me of a simpler time long gone, of events that influence me to this day, of a man who is in my blood and bones. I am made to wonder: Why did he join the Canadian Navy? How did his four years away from home change him? Did his stint make a man of him, or unmake him, or both? What inspired him to write down his stories while so many of his friends and comrades remained silent?
As I read and then share his stories I learn some of the answers.
* * * * *
Today's quote -
"We had to join, we had to join,
We had to join Belisha's army.
Ten bob a week, bugger all to eat,
Great big boots and blisters on your feet."
Song of the British Militiamen
(Secretary of State for War was Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1939)
Today's story -
Why my Father Joined the Navy (2)
An old black and white reminds me my Uncle Rol (Roland), one of my father's older brothers, joined the Canadian Air Force soon after England and Canada declared war on Germany. Seeing a snappy uniform in the house may have influenced my father to sign up as it did others.
["Uncle Rol (holding cousin Dougie), Aunt Ruth, and my father"]
For example, in the introduction to a book by Bill McNeil, I learn that his two older brothers, as well as his friends in their home town of Glace Bay, Cape Breton, wore their new uniforms proudly and just the sight of them had a profound impact on him. He writes, "My twin brothers were among them (i.e., those who got around restrictions barring members of coal-mining families from joining the armed forces because of their value to an industry deemed essential to the war effort), one in the army and the other in the air force. I was still only sixteen by this time, in my last year of high school, and still drooling to wear a uniform." He could hardly wait for his own turn. On more than one occasion he tried to sign up before he turned eighteen, the legal age for recruitment in Canada. (pg. 7, VOICES OF A WAR REMEMBERED)
However, in my opinion, more important than the sight of uniforms upon my father, or even the prospect of steady pay (he already had a full-time job at the Norwich Co-op), was the influence of two good men he appreciated and respected, perhaps like father-figures, in the absence of having a father of his own since the age of ten. One was 'Skimp' Smith of the Merchant Marine, the other J. C. St. John, the principal of Norwich District High School for many years.
My father calls Skimp one of the heroes of his home town and in an article for the town newspaper he says the following:
The war was on and I was working at the Norwich Co-op,
about 60 hours a week. Skimp was laying on the lawn enjoying
the sun as I rode by on my bike. I knew he was connected to
the sea, so I stopped and began to chat with him; I was seriously
thinking of joining the service.
Skimp was a tall and happy man, and like so many people of
Norwich, I immediately liked him. He was a magnetic character.
He had other good qualities, too. These would serve him well
as he served the U.S. merchant marine with distinction...
I asked him where he had learned to operate a wireless, and
he recalled acquiring most of his skill from Al Stone after
school and on weekends. Al was the likable station agent at
the west end railway station.
I told Skimp that my high school principal, the late J. C. St.
John, wanted me to join the army in the Elgin Regiment.
He must have forgotten how much I disliked high school cadets.
After further conversation I recall Skimp asking me what I
wanted to do. “Join the navy,” I replied. His response was
akin to ‘then go for it.’
["Go for it"]
I would curse him later, many times, but on that day and
with the urging of Skimp, the die was cast. It was to be navy
blue for me. [from The Norwich Gazette, March 30, 1993]
[“J. C. St. John wanted me to join the army in the Elgin Regiment."]
["Elgin Regiment metal found with my father's
belongings. A gift from an old friend?"]
The events that followed between 1941 and 1945, though likely punctuated by more than a few curses, had a profound affect upon my father. He made many good friends and lost some, seemingly in the blink of an eye. At times he was worked or starved to the point of complete exhaustion, and at other times he relaxed, as if a Prince, with bottles of his officers' rum close at hand, or gained back more than double the weight he lost, thanks to piles of Navy pancakes after he'd lived a hard scrabble life for 30 days inside limestone caves in Sicily, all with a fine rib cage showing.
But would he have cursed the Navy at the end? No sir. He loved to meet with his Navy pals at reunions and eventually became quite good at penning a meaningful tale. And at the very end he wanted to be buried at sea even though the idea of such a thing would turn his wife's life (my mother's life) upside down.
What a tale that is... for another time.
Photos by GH
Please click here to read time, like a silent river (1)