I was born the year the war started. My mother told me once that she’d just come out of the hospital with me when the parade for the King and Queen was taking place in Winnipeg. She saved the newspaper from that day. She showed it to me. She said she’d stood at the side of the road, holding me, watching the parade. She was seventeen.
My life has been inextricably woven through with WW2. That’s because an airbase for training pilots was built two miles west of Gimli. That meant that my earliest childhood memories are of young men in air force uniforms.
My parents were very young when they got married. A year after they married, they had a house. Other young people didn’t have houses. It meant that their house became a gathering point, a place to visit and my parents had an open door. Young men in uniform sat in our kitchen drinking coffee, sat in our living room playing cards, lay about our front porch in summer. They held me, carried me, bounced me on their knees. One of them, when I had colic, took off his jacket and shirt and let me sleep on his warm stomach.
Young men like this training for war, preparing to place their lives at risk for all of us.
All the talk was about war. About what was happening in Europe. Sometimes, about the young men who had been killed. I was still very small when I understood that being dead meant never coming back. As I grew older, I sometimes cried when I heard that one of the young men who had carried me around on his shoulders, chased me around the yard, tickled me, told me stories, wasn’t coming back.
My father couldn’t join the armed forces. He had bleeding ulcers and nothing the doctor did would cure them. It would be many decades later, after antibiotics were discovered and a lot of research was done that there would be treatment. He lived on milk, cream of wheat and ice cream.
Two of his brothers joined up. One in the airforce. One in the navy. Close friends were in the forces. We listened intently to the news, particularly to the theatres of war where our friends were fighting. One of those friends, Dave MacIntosh, see, I remember his name after all these decades, disappeared. We didn’t know if he was dead or a prisoner.
I hated it when my friends were transferred away. Gone and maybe never coming back. It was like a great beast was eating them up. Sometimes, I cried.
I don’t remember the end of the war, the announcement that it was finally over. What I do remember is listening to the radio in the living room, to long lists of the names of POWs. At last, we heard Dave MacIntosh’s name. He’d been a prisoner. He was still alive.
When the war was over, the airport continued to operate. Pilots trained on Harvard trainers, yellow planes that were noisy as they flew overhead. We grew used to them. Air force people lived in the PMQs, some lived on the economy, that is, they rented in town. When we went into grade nine, air force kids were bused to town to go to school. Maybe the biggest impact of the air base were the romances between the airmen and the local girls and the romances among the high school students. The air force kids were exotic. They’d been many places, moved from city to city, town to town, province to province. Some had even been overseas. None of us had been anywhere. They brought us messages from the bigger world.
We discovered that though the airbase had an impressive fence and a guard at the highway entrance, if we walked through the PMQs, we could go right onto the base and make use of the splendid gymnasium. We also went to Air Force Days. There, we got to see the planes up close, to watch weapons being fired, to look at displays, to hear military music, to see, for the first time, men jumping out of planes on parachutes. Just like in the black and white news clips from the war.
We learned about death for the Harvard trainers crashed. One crashed right in town. My cousin Dilla took pictures of it for the local paper. Another went down as we watched, perpendicular, straight into the graveyard. The death in Europe had been far away but here it was immediate, happening sometimes right before our eyes.
It never occurred to me that there was anything different about Gimli having the airbase. I took it for granted. I had no idea that I was living in a world that was larger than that in most small Manitoba towns. I took it for granted that people from many different parts of Canada then, later, from Europe, were neighbours, friends and, sometimes, turned into relatives by marriage.
The Harvard trainers were replaced with T33s, and we learned when there were crashes, to share the distress of our classmates because, often, their father’s were jet pilot trainers. The T33s were known locally as flying coffins.
When we were in high school, there’d been problems in some of the classes we were taking. A friend mentioned to me that we could take classes along with the air force men who were upgrading so they could get promotions. We signed up, our parents paid up, and we got some of the best teaching we’d ever had. Here was a different world, a world where studying and learning were connected directly to a useful outcome. There were no hijinks, no fooling around. Education was a serious business. That was a wage that was priceless.
The wages of war? Some people, those in armaments production, or providing supplies of various kinds, made great wages, made fortunes. We were just a small town with seasonal commercial fishing, with summer cottagers but we earned something, more sophistication than we otherwise would have had, knowledge of far flung places. Sometimes even money. My grandmother rented out a house to an air force couple. In the summers when I set pins at the bowling alley, a lot of the customers were young single air force guys with nothing to do on a summer’s evening. I got paid by the game and took care of two alleys. Those were precious dollars that I stuffed in my pocket at the end of the night.
I remember my air force friends from high school fondly. They added to my life in immeasurable ways, provided wages that could not and cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. I remember the young men in uniform preparing for war who in their spare time, came to visit. I remember having conversations with young airmen who were lonely for home and family. They enriched my life, made my world bigger, gave it a depth that it would not have otherwise had.
On Remembrance Day, I think of them, all those people who passed through, the few who returned to stay, the beloved air force uncle from Boston who joined the Canadian air force at eighteen because the USA wasn’t in the war yet. He came with his Boston accent, his brush cut, his smile and married my aunt. He took her travelling across the world, from one post to the other, but when he retired, they came back to Gimli and it was like they’d never been away.