In 1975, at 55 years of age, and 30 years after his WWII discharge, my father sat down to write his naval memoirs. I don’t know how long the job took him - I didn’t hear one word from him about the task, nor would I have asked much about it anyway, had he mentioned it - but I know he produced a neat collection of 46 handwritten pages by the time he finished. I now have them. And I guard them closely.
His memories about Gracie Purvis appear near the end of his written notes, on pages 38 - 39, and total 16 sentences or about three-quarters of a page in all. Apart from a final chapter about some of his adventures while on leave, the ‘Gracie Purvis story’ is the last one he writes about his two years overseas as a leading seaman in the RCNVR.
In 1995, at 75 years of age, he wrote a lengthier story about his relationship with Gracie for the aforementioned book ‘St. Nazaire to Singapore: The Canadian Amphibious War 1941 - 1945. He called his story ‘The Silent Pact and Its Epilogue’.
It is 16 paragraphs long, not a mere 16 sentences, and near the end he writes, “We were as two ships that had passed in the night.” I say that line is to be expected from a man who loved his Navy blues, but it appears he wasn’t very silent in the long run, was he?
For one, I’m happy he broke his silence, for each time I read his stories I catch a glimpse of a man who now lives very far away. Plus, in his stories (unpolished at times, and almost always unvarnished), he talks of earlier times and customs in such a way that I’m left thirsting for more, and ‘thirsting’ is an important word at this point.
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Scene 2 - Through the black-out curtains
Setting - Top Hat Pub, Southend-On-Sea, England. Autumn, 1942.
[Sketch of Old Hat Pub, Southend. GH]
Two young sailors in Navy blue primp in front of a store window outside the Top Hat Pub.
Narrator: My father says he and Navy buddy or ‘oppo’, Frank Herring, “engaged in a Silent Pact overseas.” I suppose in today’s terms he means, what happens in Southend stays in Southend. In the book ‘St. Nazaire to Singapore, Vol. 1’ he writes, “When we were not required on board for duty we conspired to be the first ashore to get the pick.”
Doug (as Frank adjusts his cap): Ready to go, are you?
Frank: Ready as I’ll ever be, Dougie.
Doug (nods toward the pub’s front door): Through the black-out doors you go. Don’t bump anyone in the maze.
Narrator: With father close behind Frank, the sailors pass through the black-out doors, skirt a few tables, glance longingly and two WAAFs, and pull up stools at the bar.
Barkeep: Good evening, Gents. I’m pleased to see you again. How may I be of service?
Doug: Two Johnnie Walkers, please Gov. And like I said last week, when you think I’ve had enough to drink you can kick me out the door.
Barkeep (with a wink): Oh, I will do that, Navy Blue. Then I’ll put a new sign in the window: No Dogs or Sailors Allowed. How would that be?
Frank (sipping his whisky): We’re already used to that sign. We saw it displayed in half the windows in Halifax.
Narrator: The two sailors finish their first whisky while staring, none too discreetly, at a blonde and brunette seated at a nearby table. And for the record, in his memoirs father writes, “On one occasion that I remember, he (the bar tender) obliged me” i.e., kicked him out of the pub.
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More to follow.
[Photos by G.Harrison]
Please click here to read (6) “WHERE ARE YOU, GRACIE PURVIS?’