Chapter 3: The War
This is Chapter 3 in Graeme’s Decarie’s Autobiography Stories, which he is writing for his children.
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“Mrs. Danielson, what’s war?”
It was September of 1939, and I’d heard the grown-ups and the man on the radio talking about this thing called war for months. It was all a puzzle to a six-year-old so, since I was visiting to play with Jack Danielson in the flat just down the street from us, I thought I’d ask Mrs. Danielson. She was a grown-up. She’d know.
Mrs. Danielson frowned, but didn’t look up from her dishwashing. “You don’t want to talk about that,” she said. “Play with Jackie. Never you mind about war. Just play.”
But even playing was all about that something called war. I learned that within days as I started grade one. The girls turned cartwheels as, I guess, they always had. But us boys ran through the schoolyard, arms stretched on both sides like the wings of fighter planes, and we chased each other making the stuttering sound of machine guns. That, I soon realized, is what war meant.
Next year, in grade two, our teacher told us all about fighter planes. A tiny woman but pretty old, maybe eighteen or nineteen, Miss Glazebrooke had a brother training to be a fighter pilot. She liked to talk to us about him and the training he was doing and how wonderful he was. She told us all about Spitfires with eight machine guns in the wings and about squadrons and cockpits and all the rest.
One October day, she had a surprise for us. We were going on a class trip all the way to Jarry Park, almost ten streets away. There was an even bigger surprise when a man was waiting for us just outside the school. He was about as old as Miss Glazebrooke, and he had brown hair and a round, smiling face just like her. He was much taller, though, and – what sent a thrill through all of us – he was wearing the blue uniform of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Miss Glazebrooke beamed at him, and then at us. “Say hello to Michael. He’s my brother, and. he’s going to come to the park with us.”
All the way to the park, we jostled each other to walk beside Michael, and look up at him.
“Do you have a Spitfire? Have you shot down any Germans, yet?”
He grinned at us, and explained that he didn’t have a Spitfire quite yet. He was still learning to fly, and you had to work your way up to Spitfires. But he would get one. He’d get it soon. And then those Messerschmitts better watch out.
It was an enchanted Fall day with a fuzzily warm smell of red and orange and yellow leaves, and right at the centre the image of that slim figure in blue. We had a hero; and this is what war was.
Michael had to go back to his training the next day. But every day after that, Miss Glazebrooke would read us her brother’s letters home telling us all about his progress. Then he was sent to England, where he finished his training – in a Spitfire.
It was early in the Spring, just as we were sneaking looks out the school windows to see the first leaves sprouting, that the now familiar envelope stamped “On His Majesty’s Service” came, but this time from Malta. When Miss Glazebrooke held up the letter, we could see strips cut out of it, as if someone had been cutting out paper dolls. But we understood all about that. It was censorship, and it was done to take out sentences that might give away secrets. That was so the enemy spies wouldn’t find out anything. That was war, too.
We listened to every word as the letter was read to us, and then Miss Glazebrooke showed us Malta on the map, a tiny island and seaport, just off the enemy coast. She told us how it was the key to supplying our armies in Egypt, how it was bravely holding out against constant attacks, and how the bombers would come from Italy over the waters of the Mediterranean every day, and how Michael’s Spitfire would rise up with his squadron into the skies to meet them.
We collected pictures of Malta. We checked it up in the encyclopedia, and then every recess we would race out the doors and over the waters of the Mediterranean each with our arms outstretched and with all eight machine guns blazing. We were all Spitfires. This, at last, was real war.
It was just a couple of weeks after that first letter from Malta that we looked up, startled, to see the principal, Miss Simpson, standing in the doorway. She beckoned to Miss Glazebrooke, said a few words to her, put a hand on her shoulder, and handed her a slip of paper.
Miss Glazebrooke stared at the paper then, as if hypnotized, walked stiffly to her desk. She slid sideways, as we had seen her do hundreds of times, between the desk and its chair, but this time with a strange detachment. Then, as we watched with the beginnings of fear clutching our hearts, she abruptly collapsed into the chair and her head dropped to arms that sprawled across the desk.
I stared, too frightened to react with anything but a frozen silence. The girl seated in front of me turned around. I still remember her name – Lois Lamb. Her eyes were wide with fear, and her face pale with shock.
“She’s crying,” she said, “Miss Glazebrooke is crying.”
My uncle Johnny had joined up and gone overseas with the first contingent to be sent. It got him away from marriage and children, and back to a lifetime of parties.
From the start, big kids from my father’s scout troop would come by the house to show off their new, military uniforms and to say goodbye. One, Jack Westwater, joined the navy; and he showed me the neat jacknife they had issued to him. (On D-Day, by then an officer, he would get blown off the bridge of his corvette, HMCS Sackville, on D-Day. But he survived the war. The Sackville did, too. It’s now a museum piece in Halifax harbour.)
And then there were the Kelly boys. They had been scouts in my father’s troop, too. One joined the air force, and the other the army. One day, Mrs. Kelly came to our house. A messenger boy had knocked on her door, and asked if someone was with her. Nobody was, so the boy ran off, saying he would come back when she had someone with her. So we went over to sit on her balcony. The radio was on. With the news. Something about a French village called Dieppe.
Many years later, I wrote a story about that day, “Summer Evening, 1942”. It appeared in Reader’s Digest.
The war was everywhere in daily life. We were glued to the radio at noon for news from the BBC in London, introduced by the solemn tolling of Big Ben – a sound that put us right there in London with the bombs – and at supper time for “the voice of doom”, CBC broadcaster Lorne Greene (who would later have international fame as the star of a popular television show, “Bonanza”).
My first awareness of the fears and tensions of the war came with daily news of Japanese forces closing in on the British fortress at Singapore. And then the surrender.
But the government was always encouraging us to think positively. So I brightened up, and said to Miss Simpson, our school principal, “Now, that will make the British really angry; and they’ll soon show those Japanese….”
Miss Simpson didn’t say anything. She just looked terribly fearful.
I listened to serial dramas almost every evening on the radio. My favourite was L for Lanky, the story of a Canadian-crewed Lancaster bomber. And there was Bob Hope, the popular comic who did a weekly show from military bases around the world. His opening was always something like, “Hello everybody, this is Bob speaking from Camp Sill Hope to five thousand American boys who want just one thing – to meet five thousand American girls.” (Uproarious laughter and whistles.)
The war was with us every day in ration books. Every purchase of sugar, butter, meat, eggs could be made only with the required number of ration stamps. It cut terribly into my favourite snack, five slices of bread and butter liberally coated with sugar, and lined up along my left arm as I carried my comic books with my right arm.
The war was with us kids as we pulled our wagons door to door to collect old pots and pans as metal for the war effort. It was with us when planes flew overhead to drop hundreds of thousands of leaflets that we scrambled for. Each one had a picture of a bomb, and a warning it could have been a real one.
The war was a day in 1943 that my father, Malcolm Stanley Decarie, mechanic, went to work as usual. It was just a normal work day. But he came home earlier than usual – as Chief Petty Officer Decarie, Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve, no. V76041. He would be leaving in two weeks for some unknown posting.
My mother was dismayed. We went for the unheard of luxury of a visit to a photo studio for a picture of my father in uniform, and others of Winnifred and me.
It seemed my father had argued with his father, had walked out of the shop and, without telling anybody (especially my mother) went downtown to join the navy.
So much happened so quickly that I still can’t sort it out. On the last day, we all went with him to the CPR station to see him off with a big duffel bag over his shoulder. The station was full of lines of soldiers heading to the trains, each soldier with his pack and his rifle.
When it was over, my mother took Winnifred and me into the station’s restaurant. We each had the most wonderful thing I had ever seen, a small dish of ice cream – with a cookie stuck right in the middle of it.
I guess that was because we now had more money than we had ever seen with a navy salary coming home of one hundred and five dollars a month. Of course, we still ran out of money every month, and for the last week or so would get food from the corner store “on the bill”.
(That gave me the occasional chance to get away with buying six chocolate biscuits for ten cents – on the bill. The man at the store never told on me.)
My father would come home for a week’s leave every six months; and he wrote to us ever day. (He always signed off my letter with ‘Adios’. He knew I just loved cowboy novels.) But, really, everything was changed. And it would never be the same again. Not ever.
It was a day in the Fall of 1944. I was walking through the lane to get to the back door of home. It was the usual Montreal lane, lined with garbage cans and narrow with two-story wooden sheds clothed in tin pressing in on both sides. It was one of those mellow Fall days, a memory of summer without yet being a warning of winter. Suddenly, I was lifted from behind and whirled in the air.
I looked down to see two arms in khaki wrapped around me. Then I was gently lowered to the ground. I turned to look way up at a big, grinning face. It was Bertie, Bertie Danielson in the uniform of the Black Watch with the red hackle of the regiment on his cap.
“Bertie. You can’t be in the army. You’re still sixteen. They won’t take you.”
“I’m in. Heck, I just showed them Frankie’s (his draft-dodger brother’s) papers, and they took me right in.”
And so we walked together that afternoon in Fall, and climbed the back stairs to my place.
Bertie was my friend. Always had been. Most of the Danielsons weren’t worth much of anything. Mr. Danielson and the elder son, Frankie, were just drunks. But I liked Jackie, the youngest. Jackie was my age. And I liked Bertie. He was older than me by quite a bit. But he liked to come and race around in an old, pedal car I still had; and he’d play kid’s games with me.
I guess that’s because he wasn’t really a grownup, not in his head. He was as big as a grownup, bigger than most, and strong. One day, as I was walking near the school, a gang of French kids came pouring from a vacant lot to pound me. There was at least a dozen, maybe more. Some grabbed me. Some kicked me. I don’t remember much about that part. You don’t feel anything or get scared when it’s happening.
Suddenly, a weight was lifted off me, and a French kid went sprawling in the gutter. I looked up to see Bertie in a torn shirt (it was always torn) scattering the bunch of them. Bertie was my friend.
I guess he liked to play with a young kid like me because he wasn’t really smart. He left school in grade four when he was fourteen or so. He didn’t have any job or anything. But he was always happy.
By 1944, the Canadian government, short of troops for Europe, was conscripting civilians. Frankie Danielson had been, as we put it, “called up”. But Frankie wasn’t going. Instead, tossed the draft notice on a table – and disappeared for a while.
It was easy. Bertie was a big kid. He took Frankie’s papers, and went downtown to enlist. Then he was sent off. Three months later, he was dead.
We never knew where or how he died. He was just gone. The family got a government cheque for several thousand dollars, a lot of money at the time. They also got a set of medals with Frankie’s name on them. Mrs. Danielson said it was a shame, and she was going to write the government to tell them truth. But she never did.
The money was gone on booze and gambling within months. Toward the end of the spree, Mr. Danielson got killed by a tramway car. Frankie, now out in the open again, dropped by to tell us about it. As he went down the stairs, I heard him whistling a cheery tune.
It wasn’t until years later I heard the full story. I met a man, a veteran, who had lived in our neighbourhood. He had been in the Black Watch. He had been with Bertie on their first day of combat, just inside the small city of Oldenburg, not far from the Dutch border.
“We were lyin’ face down in the mud with German machine-gun bullets cutting the air above us. I could see Bertie shakin’. Maybe he was cryin’. Yeah. He was cryin’. What the hell, it was our first action, and he was a kid. He was sixteen.”
“Suddenly, it was crazy. He jumped to his feet. The machine-gun cut him in half. Craziest thing – when he jumped up, he was screamin’ for his mother.”
A few years later, I was teaching in The Netherlands. I found out where Bertie was buried – at the Canadian cemetery in Nijmvegen, The Netherlands. There I found the gravestone with the name Frank Danielson, age twenty-something. I wrote to a friend who could do something quickly (he was Canada’s Solicitor-General.) Within a week, there was a new gravestone for Albert Danielson, age 16. I looked at it, then at the trees and the sky. It was a mellow, autumn day, just like that day in the lane when Bertie had lifted me, and swung me in the air.
May 8, 1945. 1 glanced at the calendar, then at the clock. I had already been late for my grade six class twice this month. One more late, said Mrs. Matheson, and she would suspend me. If my father had been home, that could have meant serious trouble. He wasn’t home, though. He was off somewhere in the navy. But my mother could still make life difficult for me.
I turned back to my breakfast of broken pieces of stale bread with milk and sugar. It was my favourite breakfast. (Bread pudding my mother called it.) We didn’t see much of that breakfast stuff-in-a-box in our district. The war had brought some prosperity, but not enough to throw money around on fancy cereals in boxes.
I checked the clock again. Uh-oh. There was just over a half hour left, and school was a good two miles. I grabbed my books, headed out the door of our flat, and down the curving stairway to the street. When I got to St. Hubert St., there was a bus coming; but I didn’t even think about it. The five cent fare was such a lot of money that we walked just about everywhere. I always walked to school. Anyway, two miles was so close we never even thought of taking a bus for it. So I hurried through the long blocks of flats, past neighborhood butcher shops, the convenience stores we would later learn to call by their French name of depanneurs, the scrap dealers, taverns, and past the great Catholic churches that were part of every neighbourhood in Montreal. Most of them were French in our 90% French district. But I also passed the tiny red brick Crystal Springs Crystal Springs mission church that my family belonged to.
Then there was the Syrian Orthodox church, whose children went to my school, the English school. And then I passed the great bolognas hanging in the shop windows of Little Italy. Lots of Italian kids were in my school, too. At last, legs aching from the forced pace, I rounded a corner to see the brick mass of Peace Centennial school.
Even to a kid, Peace Centennial seemed an odd name for a school that opened in 1914, just in time for World War One. It seemed odd, but it actually made sense because it was really named for the hundredth anniversary of the peace between Canada and the US that ended the War of 1812. But I didn’t think about the oddity of the school name that day. All I could think of was that no kids were in the schoolyard. That meant I was late.
Ten minutes later, I was walking back home. With a note in my hand. To be signed by my mother.
I was one worried kid. But when I got home everything happened so fast I hardly knew it. My mother didn’t say a word about me getting suspended. She just scooped me up, and we were soon on a crowded trolley filled with people who seemed excited about something. And so we rattled along all the way to Montreal’s biggest shopping street, St. Catherine. The trolley ride was two nickels – ten cents in one shot – but my mother didn’t seem to care.
St. Catherine Street was jammed, so jammed that all its trolleys had been stopped. The department stores all had great sheets of plywood over their show windows. A man with a waste paper basket over his head and shoulders swaggered down the middle of the street leading a parade of hundreds of cheering strangers yelling in English and French, “It’s over. C’est fini. The war is over. La guerre est fini.”
So that was it. Germany had surrendered. The war in Europe was over.
A bunch of the men in the crowd were big, grinning sailors. They were home. Hey! My father was a sailor. Was it possible that he’d be home soon, too? Then I paused as another reality hit. I had to go to the bathroom. Bad.
My mother grabbed my hand and rushed me to an elderly friend’s house just off the shopping street. It was a nineteenth century greystone converted to cheap apartments. Mom’s friend opened the bathroom door for me. I gaped in awe. It was one of those bathrooms left over from the grand, old days, with the toilet having its very own room all to itself. It was a long, narrow room with three steps rising like an anthem to a throne-like toilet, and with a great water tank hanging over the toilet, and a regal-looking chain hanging down. It was so majestic, I hesitated for just a moment. But this was a real emergency. So I stood erect, squared my shoulders, and mounted the first step.
When we left the house, I glanced to my right to see a common wartime symbol painted on the brick of the house. It said, “V…_for Victory.” Shortly before writing this, I returned to look at the house. The V…_ for victory was still there.
Then we headed back out because there was so much to see – a band of bagpipers from Montreal’s highland regiment, a half dozen WRENS from the women’s naval service, and everywhere masses of happy faces. And there were all the posters of wartime –
Loose Lips Sink Ships, Buy War Bonds. And, of course, V…_.
Then, at a corner just across the street, I saw them. They were two soldiers. They were pretty young. Even a kid could tell that. And they were from Montreal’s Scottish regiment, The Black Watch. I knew that from their dark kilts. They were standing in front of a bank. But what was it… ? Something was odd.
Of course. One of them was on crutches. I stared harder, until slowly it sank in. He had only one leg.
Suddenly, I was confused, embarrassed to be staring. So I looked away. As I did, my eye caught a poster in the bank window. It was, like Loose Lips Sink Ships or Buy War Bonds, a war poster. But this one was new. I guess it was the newness that caught my interest.
“We’ve Won The War,” it said. Wow! That looked good, so I read it again. “We’ve Won The War.”
Yeah. We had. Everything was going to be different. My father was coming home. Everything was going to be better. It was going to be a whole, new world. There was a second line, too. But it was a bit smaller and harder to read. I walked to the edge of the curb. There, as I strained forward and reached on tiptoe, I could just make it out.
Loose Lips Sink Ships, Buy War Bonds. And, of course, V…_.
Yeah. We had. But there was another line, a bit smaller and harder to read. I walked to the edge of the curb. There, as I strained forward and reached on tiptoe, I could just make it out.
“We’ve won the war. Now we’ve got to win the peace.”
I stared at it, puzzled. We had won the war. Well, winning the war meant we had won the peace. Didn’t it?
My father came home on leave shortly after that. We were quite excited. The war was over. He’d soon be staying home. On the appointed day, Winnifred and I posted ourselves at attention on the front gallery. I was wearing a war surplus army helmet I had just been given, and holding a wooden rifle my father had made.
Alas! We didn’t know when he was supposed to come. So, eventually, we sent back inside. And then he arrived. He had presents. We had a great supper. Then, just after darkness fell, we went for a long, family walk. I wasn’t listening much to the conversation. Then I noticed my mother’s face. She said nothing. But the expression on her face sent a shock through me. I listened.
My father wasn’t coming home. He had volunteered for service in the Pacific against Japan. (At that time, Canadians who had volunteered to serve had the option of returning home once Germany and Italy were defeated. One ship, a cruiser that was in action in the assault on a Japanese island, immediately voted to return to Canada. British and American captains watched in astonishment as the Canadian ship pulled out of the firing-line, and headed for the horizon.)
But my father volunteered.
Shortly after he returned to his base in Nova Scotia, my mother made an unheard of decision. She, all of us, were taking the train to Nova Scotia to see him before he left for the Pacific. I realize now it was a financially unprecedented decision. I realize now that she must have thought we would never see him again.
Close to the day we left, we walked by the newspaper store on Jarry near St. Denis.
There was a newspaper in the window. It had a picture of some city with a strange, mushroom-shaped cloud rising from it. But I was too excited to stop and look at it.
The train ride to Saint John, New Brunswick was the thrill of a lifetime. I had never before been more than 20 kilometres from home. We were in a train so packed with sailors and other wartime travellers that some were actually sitting in the washrooms. The aisles were full of standees. We clung to our seats and, that night, we slept sitting in them – for a little while.
Then we woke to the sound of cheering and excited talk. Japan had surrendered. My father would be coming home after all.
At Saint John, we left the train station to fight our way through hundreds of people struggling to cram themselves into the few taxi cabs. We got into one with several other people, and headed down to the docks to board the good ship Helene that would take us to the village of Digby, not far from the naval base.
It was in the dining room of the ship where we sat looking out the windows at buildings rising and falling that I had something quite wonderful that I had never before even heard of. It was tiny box of corn flakes, just like a big one. And you didn’t even have to pour them out. You just cut the box open, put in some milk and, oh, this was living.
As we left port, I wandered the deck, noting the gun still mounted at the stern. And then I felt the rolling. It was gentle at first, and I simply braced myself. But soon I was clinging to the rail, and looking up from a valley to great mountains of water that bore down on the ship. It lifted us way up in the air then we slid down the other side of it into a deep canyon. A sailor grabbed me, and pulled me inside to join a long line of men outside a washroom.
“Stay here, kid. You’re going to start feeling pretty tough.”
And he was right. I just made it through the door in time.
It was a wonderful week in a tiny village called Clementsport. I met a kid named Chuck from Calgary. We fished every day for eels and sole and flounder on the dock. We visited the old, Loyalist church sitting in its own graveyard. There were small doors to enter each row of pews, and a great, sounding board was over the pulpit to amplify the voice of the preacher.
It was a great week. The war was over – the whole war was over. My father was coming home. Strangely, I have no memory at all of the return trip to Montreal.
I guess, with the war over, there was no longer a past, only a future.
[End of text]
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