Legends of Myself 7

Posted on January 30, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 6

9. A Prehistory of My Father, Pt. 3

Education. The grade eight education that Port Essington offered was less than my father wanted.  For a beginning, he wanted high school.  But high school was in Prince Rupert.  To attend there, he would have to board away from home.

And Old Pop wouldn’t let him.

Perhaps Pop didn’t like to see his rambunctious teenage boy away from Essington, outside of his protection, in a nearly-urban setting.  (Prince Rupert, a two mile river crossing and an hour-long, stop-and-start, rail ride away, was urban enough for the north coast, a rough and expanding frontier town.)

Also, the era was the Dirty Thirties, and hard times like frontiers have their own dialectic.  Perhaps to Old Pop, an education beyond a serviceable grade eight didn’t seem either necessary or obvious.  In 1934, a grade eight education—for a working man or woman seeking a living—was not so different a commodity from a high school education today.

Or perhaps Pop reasonably expected his half-Tsimshian son to continue as a fisherman, in what might have appeared a secure profession in an otherwise lean and racist era.  Fishing is theoretically recession-proof because you can readily salt, smoke, can or eat what you can’t sell.

In those days, it was easy to assume that there would always be fish to catch.

Whatever Pop’s reasons, what I saw from where I sat—so far from the decision but so close to my father—is that my father never really got over that decision.

Where the mind blazes hot, the emotions run strong.  My father must have argued and pleaded with Pop.  He was then a fourteen year old boy.  He must have taken it to his pillow and there must have been tears.  Telling me about the decision decades later, there was an edge of argument to my father’s voice, still a pleading with Pop–won’t he listen?

Of course, my father was able to read, write, think and educate himself.  What he couldn’t get in school, he searched out in newspapers, bookstores and libraries.  He engaged in a lifetime of discussion and letter-writing.  The lack of a formal, structured education held my father back—that is obvious—but it did not keep him still.

Yet he missed it, hungered for it, and because of that, because I grew up with that hunger, education has always for me been as natural as the jerk my leg gives when the doctor taps it with a mallet.

From 1934, when he finished school, until 1944, when he was drafted into the army, I can learn almost nothing about my father.  He fished, chopped wood, rowed, shot deer, gutted salmon, repaired gillnets.  He played guitar and learned to yodel like Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman.  According to my uncles, he was tremendously strong.  They were younger than him by two years or three, which may have given him an advantage, but it took both my uncles together to bring a fight to him, and even then he could still win.

Almost the only material evidence I have of that era is a single photograph, my father sitting with Pop at the foot of some wooden stairs leading briefly up to a white door.  This is Port Essington, presumably.  Pop is smoking a thin cigar and has his left arm proudly wrapped around his son, who is smiling slightly, holding a two-tone guitar and fingering a G chord.  A narrow wooden pathway crosses near their feet, and to their left—the viewers right—is a roofed-over woodpile.  According to the information attached to the photo, it was taken before the war, which, if the year is 1939, would make Old Pop as old as 52 and my father as old as 19.

The Second World War would have exerted some changes on Port Essington.  The fishing industry was opened up by the government, as catch restrictions on salmon were lifted in support of the war effort.  After Pearl Harbour, the expulsion of the Japanese from the coast and from Port Essington, opened up opportunities for the fishermen who remained, including Aboriginal ones.  That incident also brought the American army into the area, which constructed a highway from Prince Rupert into the interior, a highway which could be seen across the Skeena and upstream from Essington at Tyee.

It was strange to see cars driving over there along the highway, my father remarked to Old Pop.

And Old Pop agreed.

A little bit of the 20th century was encroaching on Port Essington.

And finally the war came and collected the three brothers and shipped them over to Europe.

Overseas. My father was the first to be drafted.  I supposed they tested their recruits.  My father says he was second fastest on the north coast, explaining how the fellow who outraced him was a little guy who was just moving like the dickens, pumping his arms, who went right by him at the end.  (Dad, smiling, impressed, twenty years after the event.)

“They called us Zombies,” Dad said, without explanation.  But what that meant was that, at first, my father refused to fight.  He never said anything about why that was.  He may–like many of the men drafted into any war–simply have objected to having the decision forced upon him by the government.   But I’ve always connected his refusal with another remark my father made about the war.

“I don’t think I ever shot anybody.”

He was a country boy raised around rifles and deadly to deer.  He would know whether he had ever killed a man.

That he hadn’t was mentioned, I believe, as a source of relief.  So I also believe that my father refused to fight, at least partly, because he just didn’t like the idea of killing.

My father says the Canadian Army used Zombie draftees as human test subjects for new ideas in soldiering.  He himself was made part of an experiment in accelerated basic training, as one of the control group, fortunately, which is where you wanted to be in that particular experiment.  The other, more hapless, troop of Zombies were pushed through basic training at double time.  It was a superhuman pace that in the end, far from building them up, merely wore them down.  Dad’s control group went through training as usual, with Dad loping through it easily, almost feeling good about it considering what was happening to the other guys.

When the two groups were compared at the end, Dad’s group was in far better shape.  The other group was the walking dead.  The accelerated basic training idea was scrapped.

Somewhere along the way my father shed his Zombie status and changed his mind about going to war.  I don’t know what caused the change, since he never referred to it in any way.  It might have been the nature of the enemy.  He was never naturally inclined to dislike anyone, but I know that he did not like Nazis.

They were never the honourable enemy.  When he mentioned them, with inevitable contempt, he pronounced Nazi without the invisible “t.”

Most of my father’s precious few war stories speak about London, where next the war brought him.  He mentions going around excitedly visiting all the places he’d read about and heard about, and having a fine time as a soldier-tourist in London, but being somehow baffled in finding “Lester Square” in order to, as instructed by song, say hello.  Then of course finally realizing that “Lester Square” was Leicester Square in Brit-speak, and he’d gone by it over and over already.

Another story has my father at a hospital for some reason.  Not for being ill.  He was alone in a room with a nurse.  I somehow picture them standing at a window and perhaps that was part of my father’s original description.  The nurse explained to him how lonely she felt sometimes.

Yes, he felt lonely too, my father replied.  Sometimes he missed his mom and dad.

In utter oblivion.

It was only later, and much too late, that he realized that the nurse was hinting at a kind of lonely which doesn’t involve missing your parents.

Where the nurse went wrong, of course, if she had only known, was that she had stopped at hinting when she should have been wrestling him to the ground.

And then there’s the story that Uncle Jim tells.

Dad was in a barracks playing cards.  Somebody came in, saying to my father that there was a soldier outside who wanted to see him.  Maybe he had good cards, but Dad didn’t want to go.  The guy outside insisted.  After awhile, my father put down his cards anyway and went out.  The persistent and insistent soldier waiting there, grinning at him, was his brother Jim, who had gotten drafted sometime after Dad and had somehow tracked him down in London.

Dad mentioned the story in a letter to Old Pop, who was tickled enough to tell it to the Prince Rupert Daily News.  They reported the story, I guess, as being of local and patriotic interest.  “Two soldier brothers meet in England” or something to that effect.

That was the innocent part of the war.  Of the rest, of actual soldiering, my father never said anything.

———-

Continued at Legends of Myself 8

Posted in: autobiography