Monday, July 23, 2012


My father was born in Minitonas, a small Manitoba farming community in the north of the province, east of Swan Lake but south of Churchill.  He was the first son of my grandfather who had emigrated from Aberdeen, Scotland.  The Hudson Bay Company and Lord Selkirk had opened northwest Canada for Scottish settlement a long time before.
Later Dad would remember the community split between the English, Scots and Ukranians. One of his step brothers would marry an Indian, long before they came to call themselves First Nations.  Dad remembered  them all fighting as boys but joining together as community.
Grandad was a cattleman and Dad's mom, a cattlewoman. We'd never know her.  She died in child birth with her second son, my father's brother.  In a way he never forgave him for that, but then they were closest as the two older brothers, when grandad remarried.  5 more sons were born and one daughter. She died in a gunfire accident my father didn't talk about.  His brothers were playing and his sister died.  No one talked about that, like alot of things in the family.  Tragedies took enough of a toll first time round. No sense repeating them.
I don't know any stories of my father as an infant.  The earliest stories I heard were the pranks they got up to as boys.  Every year there were fairs when the farmers showed off their produce and everyone compared cattle, horses and pigs.  Dad beamed when he told me this years later when I was a kid. The food was the best, lots of chicken, potatoes and most importantly pies and ice cream.  Dad, his brother and a friend got back in the kitchen and found the big barrels they'd had the ice cream in.  The leaned right over to scoup the bottoms for left over when one of them fell right in, getting stuck upside down.  Dad laughed till tears came to his wrinkled eyes, happiest in the memory.
It was a hard life, waking before dawn to milk the cows, cleaning out the barn, feeding chickens, mucking out the pigs.  Dad doesn't speak fondly of those 'chores'.  Grand dad was tyrranical in his early years when men worry about whether they'll be able to make it, keeping young wives and children fed, clearing land, building a farm from scratch.  I don't think my father forgave his father till they were both old men.  Those were hard times and that was before the depression years.  Dad didn't talk about those years and Mom told us kids not to ask him about them.
He did laugh to tell the story of his father shooting a moose. When granddad was going to cut the moose throat it stood up catching his suspenders in it's horns.  Grandad almost died that day with the moose charging off carrying him along until his suspender broke.  He came home in his long johns having lost his pants along the way. Dad laughs to tell the story to his daughter in law years later but one gathers no one laughed when Grandad appeared home from hunting without his pants.
Hunting stories were part of our growing up.  Hunting and dogs and men either working together in the fields or out hunting together.  Another time Dad told of his father shooting a big black bear, the dogs had treed. "He killed it with one shot from the 22, shot it right through the eye".    Alot of Dad's stories came out when we were camping years later as a family.  Our best times to me as a kid were those times, camping, fishing and hunting.  My brother and I didn't like chores much either but then we were living in Winnipeg suburbs and the chores city kids had to do couldn't be compared with those kids had on the farm.
Dad and his brothers liked fishing too.  That was something Dad never grew tired of.  Dad just loved to sit for hours  on a lake with a rod and reel.  He loved the Manitoba outdoors with the blue water, blue skies and evergreens. Hunting with him in the fall when the grain was yellow, he'd say how much he loved that you 'could see for miles' out here.
We'd watch weather come in over the praires.  Way off there'd be lightning and a storm brewing and Dad would tell us kids just how long it would be before the storm would be on us.  sometimes he'd know hours before the rain would come.  We'd think he was a sorcerer then. At night we'd on the grass outdoors just him and my brother, and he'd point to the stars telling us the names of constellations as we watched meteorrites race across the skies. In the woods he'd tell us what we could eat and what we coudn't. He was especially fond of 'rosehips' .  "All the vitamin C, a person needs is right here," he'd say eating the rose hip raw, chewing on it as he walked. Berry picking was his favourite though.  Especially Manitoba and Ontario blueberries, the greatest flavour in the world. He'd pick pots full and have us kids out there with him, though we'd eat as much as we picked.
When I was 4 and my brother Ron was 8 we visitted Granddad's ranch.  Grand dad then was as loving as only grand dad's can be, not the hard man my father had sometimes talked about.  I saw the edge though when I chased his chickens.  I did and he told me to stop but just like a kid I did it again. That's when I saw the old man, terrifying in his rage. "Don't chase those chickens, Billy. I won't tell you again. It makes them tough when your grandmother kills them for dinner."  I almost imagined him killing me.   As a city kid  I'd seen grandma chop off a chicken's head and I was afraid Granddad might do that to me.  That chicken ran around spurting blood till it fell over. My cousin just picked it up then and  began  plucking.
Grand dad squirted me in the face with milk that time we were visitting. I'd gone into the barn where he was milking cows in the morning. He laughed to see me jump back 5 feet when that warm milk hit my face like it was coming out of a garden hose.  Either he or Dad taught me to milk after that and sure enough first chance I got to squirt someone in the face I did, too.
When we visitted Dad and Grand dad and his brothers, they all sat around the farm house table telling stories while us kids, with our cousins wandered around outside, exploring.  I expect that's what Dad and his friends did too.  As kids outdoors the adventure is always to find what's around the corner.  Up there it could be finding birds eggs, seeing a new fawn in spring, or spying a coyote.  Mostly we just walked about in the woods each of us with a stick, the younger kids trailing after the older ones.  It's just the way it was and the way it probably always has been in the country.  We'd wrestle and throw stones,  climb trees and play hide and seek.  That's  what Dad did too.
Years later he'd talk about his friend Billy.  Billy became a rear gunner in WWII over Europe riding in the tail end of a Lancaster bomber.  They were together in that one room school house.  When Dad was an older man the town had a big anniversary celebration. Dad went back and was one of the 4 from the original 7 kids that had been schooled there in Minitonas.
A Lancaster bomber was on display in the Ottawa air museum.  Years later, after Mom died and Dad went to live with my brother in Ottawa, I'd visit him there. Every time I'd ask him where he wanted to go, it was always the air museum. Then he'd sit there on his walker and talk about the war and his friend. "Billy signing up for two tours as a rear gunner. Not many survived two tours." he'd say.  The rear gunner was the most exposed and most likely to die.  Dad was always reverent when he sat there telling us for the umpteenth time about his childhood friend Billy sitting in that cramped space firing those big machine guns.  Dad would tell us like it was the first time he'd told us, a story that for him never grew old.
As long as I remember Dad was happiest around Vets like his duck hunting pilot friend Ed who he always talked to in the backlane.
Growing up the men had a world of their own in that back lane while the women had their living rooms. Ed and Dad and Gord would talk for hours out behind the garage, Gord being included because though he wasn't a vet, he had polio, so couldn't join for good reason. Dad and Ed liked Gord mostly because he'd be doing his own roofing up on crutches and never shirked.  The vets didn't like shirkers and  Dad was always a worker.
Dad himself was in the RCAF, Royal Canadian Air Force.  We grew up with his uniform in our home brought out and worn on special occasions. Dad had been a bomber but he'd only flown in planes on the east and west coast of Canada.  He was an airplane mechanic as well, working on spitfires and the training planes.
Before the war though he and his dad had a big falling out.  It had something to do with chores and all the work that Grandad expected from the boys.  Grandad had expanded to having a logging operation and would eventually get a mill going that my cousin still runs today.  During the 30's Grand dad saved some 30 families in the neighbourhood from starving by giving men work and helping folk that were poor.  He became the reeve of the region after that.
I never learned what church he attended. Most of the Scots were presbyterian.  I did know that Grand dad was against liquor and joined in the church movements to restrict booze in the community.
We never heard what the falling out between Grandad and Dad entailed but expected it was physical. Mom told us not to bother Dad about those memories.  When Dad and Grandad visitted they never talked about the teen age years or the thirties. Dad left home when he was 16 though.  He went to work for neighbours driving logging wagons.  Grand dad had great big Clydesdale horses when I was a kid. He put me up on one out by the barn when I was only 5. I felt like I was on top of a ferriswheel it was so high up.  Big horses with white tufts on their ankles.   The horses people associate with German Beer wagons.
"It was hard driving six of those horses," Dad would say.  The logging roads would be thick with mud and heavily rutted like cordoroy.  Big wheeled wagons piled high with timber, 6 huge horses and a teen age boy.  Kids had to grow up fast back then.
It was the dirty thirties too and to hear the fear and sadness in Dad's voice we all knew there were bad times.  Starving men went from farm to farm looking for work and those who had work did whatever they were told and worked as long as they could. Mostly people were paid with food and shelter those years. But then Dad didn't talk about it much and when he did Mom would ask us kids to stop bothering him.  I remember seeing tears in his eyes remembering that times but never learned what that was for. Just, "they were hard times, Bill. Hard times."
It's not surprising that Dad and a lot of men joined up for the war. Dad said that part of it was the food, boots, uniforms and army beds.  There was patriotic duty but that didn't count as much as paid work.
"Never volunteer," Dad told me about the air force.  His brother was an MP in the maritimes but Dad was good with machines so he got into mechanics and engineering. First it had been tractors and then it was motors. He had a knack. Could listen to a machine and tell what was wrong with it the way a symphony conductor could hear one violin wasn't in perfect tune.  Dad trained as an Engineer in the air force and after eventually getting his Engineering dipolma.  "We fixed alot of those training planes," he told me. "Not so many spitfires."   Canada was a great pilot training place during WWII.  The other part of his duty was flying coastal service as a bomber.  Off Vancouver Island he said, "they told us we bombed a Japanese submarine but I couldn't be sure. It looked as much like a whale to me." And that was the only hostile forces Dad saw. Though he did pull a lot of men out of crashed planes and saw some his friends killed in training.
He told me he learned to drive a jeep when he was in British Columbia. The camp was at the top of a mountain and the captain asked if anyone knew how to drive. Dad said that he had driven a tractor.  "Take that jeep then and drive down the mountain to town to get these supplies. I expect you back tonight." That's how Dad learned to drive a jeep and twisting mountain roads. I expect it also contributed to his telling me the most important thing he'd learned in the air force is 'never volunteer."
Mostly the war was remembered in our family as the time when Dad met Mom in Toronto.  That was the beginning of the great love story. It lasted 55 years. Mom was the love of Dad's life and he was the love of hers. Everyone knew it too.  And that was just the way it was. Her name was Jean but he called her "Jeannie' when they were alone and she wrote love letters to him addressing them to "Johnnie" though we'd never heard my father called anything but "John".

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