Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Series of Some Significance: Dad’s ‘Navy Days’ mean more to me now

[The following lengthy post was originally presented in seven separate parts. Bon voyage!]

Memory Lane PT 1: I find clues about dad's 'Navy Days'

When I was a young teen, an older boy told me that he really respected my father as a baseball umpire.

“He is dead honest. He calls a really good game,” the boy said.

Those words have stuck in my mind for over four decades, likely because (readers may agree) many memories related to dads are significant.

When I was recently given a dozen newspaper columns - written by my mother and father - from the Norwich Gazette (early 1990s), I instantly felt they were treasure and have read the bunch.

One written by my father in November 1992 is particularly noteworthy since Remembrance Day is around the corner and - honestly - I learned something new about the man.

It begins:

“In 1944 I was stationed in barracks on a piece of land called ‘The Spit’ at Comox on Vancouver Island, B.C. About a half mile of water separated the spit from Comox and to get ashore we had to be inspected and travel to Comox on a real Liberty boat.” (Down Memory Lane: Navy Days)

I noticed the following three things upon first reading:

1. “I was stationed in barracks” - this sounds like a military phrase to me, and he still used it in 1992. The military life did have an impact on him, for sure.

2. “The Spit at Comox on Vancouver Island, B.C.” - I didn’t know he spent part of his tour of duty as a merchant mariner on Vancouver Island. I’ve known for many years he trained in Halifax (and I took a long motorcycle trip there a few months ago) and later in Scotland. I also know he was a dead honest man, but not one inclined to reveal his past. Now I have to plan to visit ‘The Spit’ in British Columbia in order to connect with my dad a bit more deeply.

[“This wee boat, containing half of my father’s ashes, travelled with me to Halifax in June”: photos GH]

[“The Walnut was made up of some walnut timber and metal ballast”]

3. “a real Liberty boat” - I love Liberty Ale from San Francisco. It has an anchor on the bottle cap. I wonder if the boat is related to the ale. I’ll sample a few ales while in B.C., then ask around.

I noticed and learned a lot more while reading the full article and now have a headful of memories - about a light-haired man of 24 who later became my father - to guide my thoughts for future Remembrance Days and journeys.


Memory Lane PT 2: ‘Navy Days’ have more meaning now

While reading an article written by my father entitled “Down Memory Lane: Navy Days” I learned for the first time - among a few other things - he was stationed in barracks at ‘The Spit’ on Vancouver Island, B.C. in 1944.

The Spit was offshore opposite Comox and near Courtenay, home of the Sons of Freedom Hall where a bit of dancing took place, so I’m told, when my dad was all of 24 years old.

If the experience was considered a break from action (the year before he had been aboard the SS Silver Walnut and in convoy from England to Sicily, via the southern tip of Africa), my father doesn’t say so in the article.

["I could make this bigger but then what would I write about?"]

What he does say, however, spurs my imagination and gives me a better understanding of the man during some of his formative years.

For example, he writes, “Fishing for salmon was great there. I myself never fished; I ended up on the business end of a pair of oars in the captain’s dinghy while someone else sat in the stern and trawled, using filleted herring as bait which acted as a shiny spinner. Some Fridays we were able to supply the noon meal with freshly caught salmon. We didn’t have meat because of the R.C.s.”

I know my dad liked to fish. He and pal Gord Bucholtz (from Norwich) often fished for green bass at Long Point, Ontario, and he told stories about catching smelt by wading into Lake Erie with nothing more than a basket.

Too bad he didn’t get to fish for salmon, but he sure wasn’t afraid of hard work, so if somebody had to man the oars for hours at a time, dad would have been up to the task.

He mentions salmon a second time in another context:

“A few miles west of Comox was the small town of Courtenay, and I have stood amazed on the bridge over the river in spawning season and watched the salmon. Bank to bank salmon - it didn’t seem possible.”

His appreciation for nature and raw, natural scenes lasted into his later years.

On one of our longer car rides together during his last year or two of life (from his residence at Parkwood Hospital in London to Long Point and back), I stopped at the side of a gravel road as a flock of birds flew toward us.

The flock turned out to be about two dozen crows chasing a bald eagle in a south-easterly direction toward Lake Erie, and the eagle, keeping low to the ground for protection, flew directly toward us and then over the car.

“Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that!” he said as we pulled away to head home.

One of us joked that the eagle looked big enough to pick up my Civic.

We also spotted bluebirds - truly, his favourite birds - along that same road, so all in all, that was a pretty fine day in his book, and mine.

Already my wife and I are talking about a trip to B.C. within the next year or two, and we’ll have to look for that bridge near Courtenay.

I feel it would be very rewarding to look upon a few of the same raw, natural scenes that my father did, and perhaps eat a plate or two of fresh oysters while we’re at it.


Memory Lane PT 3: My dad was an oyster lover?

I recently learned for the first time that my dad developed a taste for oysters while stationed in barracks on Vancouver Island, B.C. in 1944.

Occasionally he’d go to a dance and drink a beer at the Sons of Freedom Hall.

Once in awhile he’d handle the oars on the captain’s dinghy while someone else sat in the stern and trawled for salmon, or stand “amazed on the bridge over the river in spawning season and watch the salmon.”

Now, about the oysters mentioned earlier.

Dad writes:

“At Comox, right close to our barracks was a government breeding ground for oysters. I never knew of such a thing and didn’t care particularly as all I had eyes for was those monstrous oysters which showed up when the tide went out. I wasn’t alone, believe me.”

["A banner kept at the Naval Museum in Esquimalt, B.C. My dad, D. Harrison, is listed"]

Dad lived his life in Oxford County (the western edge is not far from London; it’s bisects the gravel pit between Putnam and Ingersoll) and though you’ll find significant bodies of water in the county, e.g., the Gordon Pittock Dam north of Woodstock, there is not one monstrous oyster to be found.

Sorry, I digress.

Dad continues:

“As the tide ebbed at night we once again borrowed the Captain’s dinghy and a few burlap bags and rowed out to the oyster bed. We climbed out of the dinghy into the horrible muck, filled our burlap bags and paddled away before the tide left us aground. These choice oysters were dumped into the sea out of sight behind the barracks, thereby assuring us of our own private oyster supply.”

“We ate most of them raw; salt water and a bit of sand didn’t matter too much and a good slap on the back was required most times to help swallow them.


Wonderful adventure, I say, for the 24-year old man who eventually became father to five lively kids.

I enjoyed reading just a touch of a line; “salt water and a bit of sand didn’t matter too much.”

Dad felt no need to insist on absolute cleanliness; salt water, sand - it’s fine.

Total refinement wasn’t dad’s strong suit, as I recall. Honest hard work, raw hands, shoulder to the wheel - that’s the fellow I remember.

Thankfully, because of his own story, I remember him more fully today.


Memory Lane PT 4: My dad swung for the fences

In 1992 the following single sentence - about what sounds like my dad’s chief form of recreation during his days in the navy - appeared in one of his weekly columns:

["Poor picture of a banner, w Dad's name aboard, now in Esquimalt, BC"]

“I was on the navy softball and hardball teams and we played as many as six games a week.”

The next sentence moves on to another topic, i.e., weekend activities in Courtenay.

["Esquimalt, SW of Victoria; Comox and Courtenay are N": photos GH]

Not that the rest of his days in Comox, British Columbia in 1944 were all work and no play. He fished for salmon, mucked for oysters and visited the Sons of Freedom Hall in Courtenay for a show or beers and dancing on occasion too.

The whole article helps round out the meaning of his ‘Navy Days’ for me. I know he liked to play ball and my youngest sister recalls he used the term ‘semi-pro’ to describe some of his wealth of baseball experience.

["Senior Champs, 1949; D. Harrison - top row, third from right"]

As a young boy and later as an adult I didn’t think much about his days in the navy or his own love of sports because I was too busy with my own life - including lots of sports.

Hockey filled my winters, baseball filled my summers, and many other school sports, including football and track and field, made mostly welcome demands upon my time.

["The back of Senior Champs photo; I was born in 1949 - a very good year"]

Now that I’m older I am growing in appreciation of my dad’s role in the navy and in my life “way back when” - and now, even though he’s gone. Perhaps, because he is gone.

For example, I certainly am happy to learn about his activities and pastimes in 1944, that they took place on home turf, i.e., in Canada, and that I can visit some of the places in which he spent some of his youth.

I’m also glad he had time for a bit of ball after long and harrowing months on a merchant marine ship in convoy upon the Atlantic Ocean the year before. (More about that later).

So, one day in the future I’ll find that spit of land near Comox where he was stationed in barracks, see if a ball diamond can be found and swing for the fences in memory of a proud man who still comes to mind every day.


Memory Lane PT 5: A positive tone follows many trials

Reading and writing about a 20 year old column belonging to my father has been a meaningful exercise for me.

It has added a bit more flesh to the bones of the memories I have of my dad and inspired me to plan a trip to British Columbia to see the banner (a merchant marine insignia with names of the crew of the SS Silver Walnut, including my dad’s) and walk upon some of the same ground my did walked upon when he was 24 years of age.

The tone of the article, about his activities while stationed in barracks in 1944 in Comox, British Columbia, is very positive.

He mentions salmon fishing, mucking for oysters, paying baseball, catching herring with a comb of nails, acting as Coxswain on large navy cutters “as soldiers worked the oars” and much more. Even his final sentence (“Got away from the subject of the navy, didn’t I?”) was surely meant to bring a smile to the face of readers.

One of my final thoughts relates to the positive tone.

I’m happy for it. It reflects part of the character that made up the man when he was alive and young and also when he was old.

I’m also aware that the positive notes expressed in 1944 fell on the heels of events that would try the patience and virtue of the strongest of men.

Dad hints at some of his own trials in another column from the 1990s about his time upon the Silver Walnut and in stories found in Volumes I and II of The Canadian Amphibious War 1941 - 1945 (books that contain stories in sailors’ own words).

For example, he writes, “The Walnut chugged along, past Lands End (the SW tip of England, after leaving the Irish Sea in a convoy) and the seaward edge of the Bay of Biscay, which was a very dangerous zone because of German submarines; if we made it through this area there were great hopes of making it all the way (i.e., around the southern tip of Africa and to the Suez Canal).”

The threats and dangers associated with submarines were real. I’m sure my dad knew that.

“Although we Canadian sailors scraped and painted large Maple leaves on landing craft aboard ship, we also became voluntary lookouts. No one was relaxing his guard, as we hoped soon to enter less dangerous waters off West Africa.”

Unfortunately, the Walnut was not in the best of condition for wartime service.

Though the long voyage started relatively well (my dad writes, “perhaps out of fear, the Walnut’s engines purred along at about ten knots,” or about 12 mph), the ship experienced some difficulties that put many lives at risk.

So, the positive tone expressed in 1944 doesn’t surface as often in his stories from 1942.

Little wonder.


Memory Lane PT 6: Real trials at sea in 1942

Though I appreciate the positive tone in one of my father’s columns that related to his days in the Navy in 1944, I realize he faced real trials at sea two years earlier in ’42.

The ship he was on, the SS Silver Walnut, though remembered fondly by those who lived on board during WWII, was not in tip top shape and its sailors perceived real dangers during many stoppages and breakdowns.

["Convoy preparing to leave Bedford Basin in Halifax, WWII"]

My father writes:

“Quite possibly there was the odd submarine about when the Walnut started her antics off the African coast.”

Antics. He’s being kind.

["Photos from or of books found in Canada's War Museum"]

“The first hint of trouble was when she slowed down, and a more severe hint was when the Captain ordered the engineers below in the deplorable heat to make repairs. About 15 minutes was all the men could stand, and then the Captain, in no uncertain terms, sent more men below; meanwhile the convoy was stopped, the escorts were circling, and all eyes were on the Walnut.”

For darn good reason. A sitting boat is a sitting duck and endangers all who travel with her.

“Minutes became hours; we all suddenly became quiet, our stomachs churned, and we doubled up on our lookout stations.”

Lest you think I’m being dramatic without cause, allow me to share a few words from a historical essay about the submarine war found at the back of a thick book entitled ‘U-Boat War’ (1978), an inside look at submarine warfare by German writer - Lothar-Gunther Buchheim (author of The Boat) - and onboard observer in real wartime (WWII) conditions.

The essayist, Michael Salewski, writes the following:

“Nothing was to be gained by ranged naval battles in the North Sea and the Atlantic. British supremacy on the Atlantic could never be broken, but it could quite literally be subverted - by the submarine.”

“For the submarines did not join battle with the enemy’s warships; their real targets were enemy freighters. Control of the seas was nothing other than the ability to guarantee one’s own merchantmen a safe passage, while curbing the enemy’s ability to do likewise.”

In other words, protect and save your own freighters and merchant mariners; pursue and sink the enemy’s freight and merchant sailors.

I have to ask myself. Why did my father enlist in the Merchant Marine?

I think I have the answer in yet another of his articles, but that’s for another time.

Salewski continues:

The Germans recognized early on that “they couldn’t maintain their own Atlantic trade routes. There was nothing for the German Navy to protect in the Atlantic.”

“Therefore, the German High Command had one single aim: the destruction - despite British sea power - of the objects of that power’s protection; namely, the essential lifelines of Britain’s overseas trade.”
(The Submarine War: A Historical Essay)

What did dad say Canadian sailors spent time painting on the sides of their landing craft? Wasn’t it Maple leaves?

["The thoughts of a merchant mariner"]

They might as well have painted targets, because boats such as the SS Silver Walnut, filled with freight, supplies, food, medicines, etc., were the German sub’s chief prey.

Danger indeed.

In spite of it, however, my dad fell in love with the sea and expressed the wish, later in life, to be buried within its cold embrace.


Memory Lane PT 7: Family ties - better late than never

While motorcycling into Ottawa in June, just a few days after setting my father’s ashes upon the Atlantic Ocean in a hand made cedar boat called SS Silver Walnut 2, I got bogged down in thick traffic about four blocks from my hostel accommodations.

The heat was stifling. I flipped up the face guard on my motorcycle helmet, took a breath or two, and looked more closely at my surroundings.

I noticed the following:

Wall to wall cars and trucks, thick pedestrian traffic too, and a used book store on my right with piles of books on the sidewalk.

["I spotted a large book while in the middle of traffic": photos GH]

One large book caught my eye. U-BOAT WARS. Traffic eased. I moved along.

["Famous sea battles were often about about sinking freighters"]

I rode back to the book shop a day or two later, after visiting Canada’s War Museum, ready to learn more about Canada’s Merchant Marine, and found the large book I’d spied earlier and one more about famous sea battles of WWII.

Readiness to learn is a powerful force. As a young man I showed little interest in my dad’s own youth and war experience. Only in his old age, as he drew closer to his final years, did his words, deeds and concerns resonate more deeply inside my busy head.

A few lines from U-BOAT WARS make perfect sense now, whereas they never would have penetrated my own thoughts 10, 20, 30 years ago:

“It was the (German) submarine’s job to destroy enemy tonnage - as much tonnage as possible, never mind where, or whether it was carrying cargo or not. What mattered was the shipping capacity: if the “Anglo-Saxons” ran out of ships to carry freight, it would not matter how many aircraft, tanks, and projectiles they produced, or whether the Americans could grow sufficient grain to feed the British Isles. The main thing was therefore to destroy the means of transport.”

Whether or not my dad knew that the Merchant Marine was in the business of hauling tons of freight, I’ll never know. I just know he was inspired to enlist by words from another merchant mariner from his home town, Norwich.

In another of his stories my dad writes:

["Dad was inspired by a few words from Skimp Smith"]

“I told Skimp (Smith) 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.”

“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.”
(Merchant mariner ‘true Norwich hero,’ Norwich Gazette, March 1993)

I didn’t read of any cursing in the article that inspired this 7-part series, and for that I’m grateful. His time on Vancouver Island in 1944 was more about training soldiers, playing ball and mucking for oysters.

Honest, with the hope of spotting wall to wall salmon, eating a plate of raw oysters and swinging a bat on my dad’s old ball field I’ll head for the same island myself one day in the not too distant future.

Readiness to learn is a powerful force.


I hope you enjoyed this journey with me down memory lane.

And when my west-bound trip is underway, you’ll be the first to know.



No comments: