CHAPTER 1: Leaving Home
I took one last look at my mother’s sad face before boarding the train. Instinctively I reached down and patted the box attached at my waist that held my gas mask. It was September 2, 1939, and I was eight years old.
I’d overheard grownups talking. Britain was about to declare war on Germany . . . 800,000 children evacuated to the countryside . . . the government urging country families to take in city children. Now I was one of those children.
I’d also heard that host families wanted strong, healthy children who could do farm work. Being healthy, I would live and work on Mr. and Mrs. Johnson’s farm, in a place called Wigan, some forty miles from my hometown of Liverpool.
As I sat looking out the window of the train, I tried to imagine what the future held for me and my family. The chocolate bar my father had given me sat uneaten in my pocket. I reached for the bar and held it a moment, trying to quiet my racing thoughts.
When would I see my parents and brother again? Or see home? My head hurt from thinking, but I had no more answers than when I started. I lay my head against the window, closed my eyes, and pictured myself back in my room . . . having tea with Mum . . . reading my Biggles book . . .
I must have dozed, for I was jolted in my seat by someone shouting, “Wigan next stop!” It all came back to me then—where I was going: away from everything I'd known. Uncertainty and homesickness welled up inside me and threatened to spill down my cheeks. “Be brave,” I told myself. My father’s strong image came to mind, lending me courage.
When the train stopped, I grabbed my suitcase, descended the stairs, and stepped timidly onto the platform. Mr. Johnson was there to greet me, which he did with no great ceremony. He was a thin wiry man with a sallow complexion. His wife was his physical opposite, plump and rosy-cheeked. Though not outwardly affectionate, she had a nice smile and seemed friendly.
Soon after I arrived, Mr. Johnson took me on a tour of the farm. His northern accent was heavy and his teeth were few, and I had to concentrate to understand him. People from northern England, I learned, speak with lots of thees and thous, sprinkled with their own slang. I heard Mr. Johnson say to his son, Nate, “Shut up, thee, before I swelp your head off.”
Mr. Johnson led me toward the barn. As we got close, a feral kitten darted out from inside.
With lightning speed Mr. Johnson reached down, grabbed the kitten by the neck, and smashed its tiny skull against the wall; it fell limp to the ground.
I stood motionless, trying to make sense of what seemed a senseless act of brutality. For the past weeks I’d often pictured life on a farm, but it had never included kitten killing.
Our next stop was the edge of a large golden wheat field surrounded by hedgerows. We stood there for some minutes watching the noisy combine cutting the wheat. As it worked toward us, the noise growing louder, deafening, I wondered what we were waiting for. I soon found out.
As the cranking machine got closer, I saw them . . . rabbits! Dozens of them, dashing frantically ahead of the machine, heading for the hedgerows. Mr. Johnson gestured to his dog. “Fetch, boy!” he commanded, and the dog raced off. He returned with a rabbit clenched between his teeth. “Good dog.”
Mr. Johnson took the rabbit from the dog’s mouth, then startled me with his swift and powerful blow to the back of the rabbit’s neck. I stood there, mouth agape, stunned and nauseated.
Mr. Johnson looked down at me and said, “Now it's thou’s turn. If thou are going to live on a farm, thou must know about death.” I gulped and nodded. The dog brought another rabbit and, upon Mr. Johnson’s command, dropped it at my feet. Imitating Mr. Johnson as best I could, I hit the rabbit on the back of its neck and threw it where its unfortunate kin lay. That wasn’t so bad, I thought.
But then, to my wide-eyed horror, the merely stunned rabbit got up and dashed into the hedgerow. The dog threw me a look that I took to be disgust.
* * *
I had a tiny bedroom with an icy floor. At 6:30 every morning, Mrs. Johnson roused me from my sleep by shouting my name. After splashing water on my face, I made my way to the kitchen, where it was light and warm, the air permeated with the aroma of hot porridge. I downed a large bowl of it, then dressed and headed outside to do my morning chores.
The early morning air was stinging cold. My job was to open some gates and bring in twenty cows for milking. Nate had taught me how to hook up the cows to the milking machine.
The machines pumping in unison created a hypnotic sound that sent my mind wandering. I saw myself starring in a Western, one I’d seen three weeks earlier at the cinema. There I was, astride my faithful steed, wearing a black cowboy hat, chaps, and swinging a large lasso above my head. My men and I were herding hundreds of cows to better grazing pasture . . .
I was lassoed back to the present by the sound of Nate calling my name. “Time to unhook ‘em and take ‘em back out,” he said.
Poof went my steed, cowboy wardrobe, and lasso. With no resistance, and needing almost no help from me, the docile animals lumbered slowly to their pasture. Then I went inside to get ready for school.
Over the next few weeks I tried to get into the rhythms of farm life. But inside I longed for my old life, my family. I managed to go through the motions of living, but my heart wasn’t in it.
A month after I arrived, I developed painful boils all over my body. The largest and most painful was on the back of my neck. The doctor came and lanced and drained it. An old village doctor, he offered his theory: “The boils are from the change in water you have experienced.”
Somehow, even as a child, I knew the boils were outward symptoms of my inner distress.
Mrs. Johnson told me parental visits were discouraged because it was thought to unsettle the children. So I was surprised, after my sixth week at the farm, when my parents showed up.
My mother took one look at my pustule-covered body and gasped. Then, in words I would never forget, she announced, “You’re coming home. If we are going to be blown up in this war, then we will be blown up together, at home in Liverpool.”
CHAPTER 20: Plymouth
Soon after starting work as an engineer for Standard Telephone Cables (STC Canada), I became friends with a co-worker, Ron Doyle. Ron, a kind man, and a third-generation Canadian, was always available to answer my questions about my new country. He told me what to expect when I ordered eggs “over easy.”
One day I mentioned to Ron that I was looking for an affordable used car. Ron said he’d keep his eyes open. Then he added, “How’d you like to learn to drive? I could teach you.”
I was touched by his generosity. I did note, however, that he chose a company car for the lessons, not his own. Generous but not stupid, I thought.
The lessons went well once I remembered to drive on the right side of the road. A few weeks later, Ron approached me at the office, waving a company memo. Smiling, he handed it to me. “This might be your chance to get a car,” he said. “Read it.”
The headline, in big bold font, read: “Used Company Cars For Sale!” According to the memo, the company had purchased a fleet of cars for a particular project. Now that the project was finished, the cars were no longer needed. Interested employees could buy the cars at a discount.
I thanked Ron and headed off to talk to my manager about the cars. En route, I fretted over the numbers. How much discount? Could we afford it?
My manager, Dave Denby, waved me into his office. I sat in the hard metal chair that was offered, handed him the memo, and said, “I’m interested in buying one of those cars.”
We talked for a moment, then Dave said, “Okay, I’ll phone over to the motor pool and let George know you’re coming. Once you pick out a car, bring me the check and we’ll transfer ownership.”
I thanked him and, my feet barely touching the ground, headed over to the Motor Pool. George was outside his office waiting for me. He gestured to a line of cars. “There they are. No extras on ‘em, like air conditioning, radios, automatic transmissions, or rust protection. But at five hundred each, they’re a good deal. In fact, I was thinkin’ of gettin’ my wife one.”
As I slowly walked toward the cars, I felt my hopes fading. They were more expensive that I’d hoped for. We didn’t have five hundred dollars. Still, I inspected each car. The last model was a light-blue 1956 Plymouth. Unlike the others, its interior was clean. I checked the odometer and saw it had the lowest mileage. I headed back to tell George that I wanted the Plymouth.
Back in Dave’s office, I swallowed audibly and plunged in. “I can’t pay for the car all at once . . . but I could pay for it over time.”
He smiled, the first time I’d seen his teeth, and said, “Tell you what . . . how about we take a hundred dollars out of your pay each month. Can you swing that?”
Beaming, I said, “Yes, sir. Thank you!”
That evening, I drove the Plymouth home at the speed of a funeral procession. I was still getting used to driving on the right side of the road. Besides, I didn’t yet have a Canadian driver’s license.
The following Monday I went to the Quebec Motor Vehicles Department to apply for a driver’s license. I was nervous about taking the test and relieved to find the office nearly empty.
I was given a short form to fill out. It could have been completed by a small child, which encouraged me. Twenty minutes later, a man in a blue uniform called me for my driving test. I recalled Ron’s advice that it was easier to drive a car if you sit on the side with the steering wheel.
My instructor told me to start the car and exit the parking lot. For the next fifteen minutes, he periodically gave me directions. But he showed no apparent interest in what I was doing with the wheel, brake, or gas pedal. I made all the turns, stopped at all the red lights, and felt fine about my performance.
After I pulled back into the parking lot and turned off the engine, the inspector scanned his clipboard holding my paperwork, signed the bottom of the form, took it off the clipboard, and handed it to me. “You should shift to a lower gear when you go around turns,” he said curtly.
Then he got out of the car. Thus ended my driving test.
* * *
I decided, with some trepidation, to teach Maureen how to drive. I started with the basics—how to hold the steering wheel and what each control did. Then I asked her to turn on the engine, put the car in gear, and slowly drive down a country road.
She looked over at me with uncertainty. I said, “Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine.”
Maureen shifted her gaze forward. Clutching the wheel tightly, she said, “But Don, what if I’m not ready? What if I make a mistake?”
I reached over, patted her knee, and repeated my reassurance.
At first it went well. Then we came to an intersection. “Turn right,” I said gently.
She glanced at me, then back at the road. She eased her foot onto the gas and pulled the steering wheel to the right. But once the turn was completed, she failed to let the wheel slide through her hands and back to the normal position. Instead, she gripped the wheel tightly—and we continued to turn. Before I could say anything, we had made a near U-turn, gone off the road, down a hill, and stopped in some brush.
Neither of us was hurt. I turned off the engine and looked at Maureen, who shot me a look that seemed to say, “I told you so.”
In case I didn’t get the message, she added the words: “I told you I didn’t think I was ready!” A tear escaped and rolled down her cheek. I offered the most comforting words I could manage, while thinking, “Maybe husbands and wives shouldn’t teach each other to drive.”
* * *
Winter in eastern Canada is brutal on cars. The city of Montreal salts roads to melt snow and ice, and rust never sleeps. I’d overheard many heated discussions on the merits and demerits of an anti-rust coating available for the underside of cars. One local swore by the concoction, a slurry of oil and tar. Another man argued vehemently that the slurry actually created small pockets that captured the salt sprayed on the road and thus increased rust damage.
In the end I decided against using the coating. It cost $200, which no doubt influenced my decision.
One day, near the end of winter, Maureen and I went for a drive in the country. I took the wheel, and after a while I noticed Maureen hunched over, searching for something.
“What are you looking for?”
“My scissors. I just dropped them, and now I can’t find them anywhere.” She bent down and continued the hunt.
When she sat back up, she had a surprised look on her face. “Don, did you know there is a hole in the floorboard? I can see the road rushing by. And I think my scissors fell through the hole.”
I pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped. For a moment Maureen and I just sat there looking at each other. Then we both burst into laughter.
Still chuckling, I made a u-turn to go back and look for the scissors. “Well, I guess we don’t have to wonder anymore about the merits of slurry coating.”
CHAPTER 22: Cabin
One day my friend Archie and I were sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Montreal. Archie suddenly changed the subject. “I have a piece of land, four acres on a lake, about eighty miles north of here. I’d like to sell it.”
In the middle of the property, he said, sat the framework of a cabin. He shook his head. “I bought the property intending to finish the cabin in my spare time. That was five years ago. I never got around to it and probably never will.”
I liked the idea of owning something as substantial as land, but money was short. “How much?”
After some back and forth, we agreed on a price: $2,000.
When I got home, I immediately told Maureen about it. “It could be our weekend retreat,” I said, and she quickly joined me in my enthusiasm.
The next weekend, imbued with a sense of adventure, Maureen and I loaded the kids into the car and headed out to inspect the property. We knew only that the land was adjacent to one of a chain of lakes and the nearest neighbor was half a mile away.
The land was beautiful, just as Archie described. But what he hadn’t captured were the delicious smells of the deep woods. In fact, the four acres was mostly birch forest, with a clearing in the middle for a cabin. At least it used to be a cabin; now it was little more than rows of studs.
Years earlier the woods surrounding the property had been burned in a fire, and the result was a densely packed forest of six-inch-diameter birch trees. The lake frontage consisted of round rocks worn smooth by the action of ice and water over countless years. As we stood on the shore, I heard the slap of a beaver’s tale on the water. “Look, kids.” Across the lake we could see the workings of a beaver dam.
We all stood there, stock still, even the children quiet, taking in the sights and sounds. Birds and squirrels darted here and there. The squirrels, untroubled by our invasion, came quite close, as though inspecting us. The plunk of fish jumping could be heard from time to time, and I thought I might try my hand at fishing. I pictured fresh trout piled up on a platter.
Ten minutes later we decided to buy the property.
* * *
A few weeks later I vowed to spend a Saturday at the property thinning out some of the smaller birches. “It will open the place up a bit,” I told Maureen. “And we can burn the wood for heat.”
So I drove up there and chopped down a dozen small trees. Then I laid them out to dry. When I returned the following weekend, my birch logs were gone.
My first thought—that someone had stolen them—was ridiculous. Then I noticed little foot prints and drag marks in the dirt. Following those prints led me to the lakeshore. “Oh,” I said aloud. There before me sat a beaver dam! Near the top—my birch logs.
“Okay,” I said. “You win this round. But this isn’t over. I’ll make the necessary adjustments.”
That night when I told Maureen the beaver story, I said, “I bet they think we’re going to be their favorite neighbors.”
* * *
Buying the land opened up new opportunities for me to be creative, to learn new skills, and to discover new ways to make mistakes. First I had to learn how to use a hand saw, so I could cut in a straight line. I also needed practice driving a nail in straight.
My plan was to straighten out the framework of the old cabin. This required pounding in stress points and twisting old wood into new shapes. After hours of frustrating labor, I concluded that it would have been cheaper and easier to burn the place down and start afresh. But stubborn to a fault, I pressed on.
One of my goals was to make the cabin rainproof. I bought large plastic sheets and tacked them all over the cabin. Next I set out to deal with the smoke problem. When the wind blew in the wrong direction, the dirt-floored cabin filled with smoke from the campfire.
I visited the local dump and found a functional potbellied stove. Perfect, but heavy. I needed help lugging it back to the property. Time to call on our new neighbor.
I’d met Dan earlier, when he came by to see how I was progressing on the cabin. A good-natured fellow, he was happy to help. At the dump we loaded the stove into the trunk of my Plymouth, drove to the property, and moved it to a corner spot in the unfinished cabin.
“Need a stovepipe,” Dan said.
I got in the car and headed, yet again, to the local hardware store, fifteen miles there and back. Since I had to pass the dump again, I decided to take another look for some useful household items.
I came upon a set of windows, slightly damaged but repairable. The windows presented a new challenge—how to fit them in my car. I crammed and squeezed them in every which way. No matter what I did, they stuck out the Plymouth's side window. So I drove home slowly, careful not to get too close to mailboxes or other unyielding objects.
To close in the cabin walls and roof, I purchased cedar sidings. They were cheap, but also easy to break, which I did often. They also burned easily, and I used broken sidings as fire starters.
Then I discovered that I had the right size pipe, but not enough of it. So I slipped cedar strips in between the sleeves to extend the pipe and make it fit.
Ready to test the stove, I lit a small fire and watched in horror as the pipe got red hot and the cedar strips burst into flames.
“I’ll get water,” I shouted. Brushing past Maureen, I darted outside, grabbed two buckets, and headed for the lake. I filled the buckets with water and raced back to the cabin. While I was gone, Maureen had grabbed the basin of dirty dishwater and doused the flame, which was now smoldering.
I lost count of the lessons learned that day.
* * *
The local dump was five miles from the cabin. Short of money, I subscribed to the old adage: “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”
I soon discovered that Saturdays offered the best selection of junk/treasures. One such Saturday I spotted an iron bed frame, complete with springs. It struck me that if I were to cut it in half, it could be used as a bunk bed for the children.
Grunting with the effort, I pushed and pulled that bed frame and crammed it into the back seat of the Plymouth. I had to drive with the back windows down and the frame sticking out a few feet on both sides. I drove slowly, hoping for no oncoming traffic.
The trip back to the cabin was incident-free—a good omen, I thought.
I’d already measured the bed frame to be sure it would fit through the cabin door. I had an inch to spare! Once inside, I took a hacksaw and began the arduous task of cutting it in half. Minutes later, I heard a loud twanging noise and the frame sprang into a contorted shape.
I stared, mouth wide open, until it hit me: I’d cut through one of the support members that held the frame straight. Not only did I have a deformed bed frame, but how was I going get it back out the door? Because of the twist, it had a wider profile than before.
After considerable reflection, the solution came to me. I cut through the other support member, causing the frame to curl more into itself, and creating a more compact shape.
I dragged the twisted metal back outside and into the back seat of the Plymouth. I waited for nightfall, then drove it back to the dump.
On my next visit there, I noticed that the bed frame had disappeared. My junk had become somebody else’s treasure.