Saturday, October 26, 2013

time, like a silent river (4)

Remembering a World at War

My father walked with a limp and occasionally used a cane in his later years. The limp was not the result of a war injury (he returned from Europe, on leave, in 1943 after two years of 'hostilities only' unscathed, at least physically) and it didn't much deter him from getting to where he wanted to go. One determined man he was. About three weeks from now, on November 11, I'll walk to the cenotaph in Victoria Park, London and back, about an hour of easy walking all told. On November 12, however, I'll walk with a limp for the first hour or two of the day because my right hip is getting temperamental. (Thirty year's worth of jogging and marathoning are exacting a price, I think). I guarantee that on that day, after getting up and walking even a short distance (e.g., behind the counter of a local coffee shop to sneak a refill), I'll be remembering my dad.

* * * * *

Today's quote - 

"The lights of Halifax were fast disappearing and my thoughts
were of my wife of ten days, and how the distance between
us was increasing every hour." [Reg Knight, from Huntsville,
Ontario; 2 AM, on the deck of the Louis Pasteur, July 1943]

Today's story - 

Signing Up Means Leaving Home (2)

Families deeply missed their freshly-recruited boys and girls as soon as the front door of an empty nest closed behind them. And the boys and girls destined for armed forces' manning depots or training centers across Canada missed their families almost as soon as buses and trains - loaded with the raw recruits - left the station in their hometowns.

Many had strong feelings about leaving home or could, in later years, recall clear memories of their first few nights away. 

Reg Knight writes: 

     "Few, if any, soldiers left Canada for the battlefields of Europe
     with the belief that they wouldn't return. I know I didn't.

     I was married to a very lovely girl ten days before leaving, and
     I sure didn't want to go but I most emphatically intended to come
     back, as did all those others whose short time on earth ended
     thousands of miles from the homes that they longed for."

He did not want to leave, but leave he did, aboard the Louis Pasteur out of Halifax in 1943, feeling the distance grow between himself and his new wife, nautical mile by nautical mile.

John Grimshaw, one of thousands of 'adventure-seeking youngsters' who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, waved good-bye to home and then travelled to Number One Manning Depot (for a well-remembered physical exam, an early step in the recruitment process), found in the 'recently vacated home of the Royal Winter Fair - the Coliseum building of Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition'. He vividly recalls the first night in his new surroundings: 

     "... disillusionment set in quickly. The lingering smell of horse
     manure didn't help... 

     At night this cavernous room was bathed in an eerie blue light
     and it was filled with the night noises created by a thousand
     sleeping bodies... Occasionally, if one were awake and listening,
     you could hear the soft sniffles of some lonely youngster who
     couldn't get used to being away from home."
     [pg. 66, Voices of a War Remembered]

Many women signed up for various duties as well (my mother made an attempt but was turned down) and experienced their own hardships related to leaving home and settling into new and oft-times very strange quarters.

Kitty Hawker, later in life a resident of Don Mills, Ontario says she was propelled into the war by "the attack on Dieppe in 1942... Most (of the hometown regiment, the Essex Scottish) were either killed or captured. On the streets of Windsor people were openly crying. I simply couldn't wait any longer to get into the fight," so she volunteered to take a trade course in Filter Ops (radar usage, with the RCAF). She recalls the following mixed reactions to her leaving home in September, 1942 and her first thoughts about arriving in Ottawa:

     "My parents were very proud but my sister was upset because...
     she wanted me to be there (for her upcoming wedding). Some of
     my mother's friends were horrified, because there were many false
     stories going around about the looseness of women in the services.

     The train ride to Ottawa... was quite unreal, and when we were
     met at the train station, herded into buses and urged to sing, "I've
     got sixpence," we were all left wondering what we had got ourselves
     into. Everything was strange and new, almost like being put down
     on another planet..." [Ibid, page 32] 

Having to get used to another world quickly was quite common for many recruits. Ann Farrell, an English woman with boarding school experience, and after the war a resident of Toronto, remembers her first morning in Gloucestershire, England among members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF):

     "Nearly all of us were middle-class girls and some had never
     been away from home before... I remember the first morning
     in the air force. The place was full of crying girls who were so
     lonesome for their mothers. Some of them had never put out
     their own clothes before and they were completely baffled as
     to what they had to do. Every little thing that came up would
     start them crying again. It was hilarious in a way, if it hadn't
     been so tragic for them." [Ibid, page 70]

["My father and his mother Alice, Christmas 1941. A
week or so later later he was training in Scotland"]

Compared to many others my father had it easy. He likely said good-bye to his mother and some brothers and sisters on the front porch of the family home or from the rail platform at the west-end railway station just across the street. After a two-hour journey he landed safely in Hamilton and moved into an older sister's apartment on Bay Street, not too far from his training center (H.M.C.S. Star) and the James Street cotton mills, an early place of employment. 

That being said, surely not one person hearing "Good-bye... good-bye... good-bye," while clutching a tightly-packed cardboard or leather suitcase had a full idea of what the upcoming days of anticipated training were going to be like or what new adventures lay ahead in a strange Canadian city, and then later, an even-stranger foreign shore.

They would soon learn. More to follow.

Photos by GH 


Please click here to read time, like a silent river (3)

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