The Cost of War

In the time leading up to Remembrance Day, I think often of my grandfather, William John Smith. He left Ireland for Canada. He went to Winnipeg because he had three sisters there. He joined the militia. After WWI began, he joined the regular army and went to France to fight for Britain.
He was a crack shot. The army made him a sniper and a machine gunner. He was so accurate that on a  number of occasions, he was asked if he’d like to volunteer to be a tail gunner on an aircraft. The lifespan of tail gunners could be measured in minutes. He declined.
He was gassed. The mustard gas damaged his lungs so that in cold weather when he was back in Winnipeg after the war, he found it difficult to breathe. He was wounded by shrapnel in his right hand. It wasn’t a major wound and normally would have healed but it infected and, in those days, there were no antibiotics. He spent the rest of the war in hospital in England, then in Montreal, before returning to Manitoba.
When I was a young boy, I asked him if he’d ever killed anyone. “Thousands,” he said but he would say no more about it. He’d only talk about trying to kill the rats in the trenches with his bayonet.
My father never went to war. He had a wife and two children and a bleeding ulcer that nothing would heal. We never had to fear getting a letter saying that he was missing in action or dead. When we listened to the news, we didn’t have to wonder if he’d been killed in the latest battle. Our fear was for our friends who were overseas. I remember that although I was only six crying when we listened to the list of names of Prisoners of War and discovered that a close friend who was missing in action was still alive.
Many years ago, I married Mary-Anne Tooth. We were both very young and eventually got divorced. During the twenty years that we were together, I got to know her father or, perhaps, I should say, I got to know who he had been. Three days past his 28th birthday, his squadron, the 407 of the R.C.A.F., known as the Demon Squadron, attacked a German convoy. It was May 15, 1942. Mary-Anne had been born three days before. He never returned from that mission. No one saw his plane go down.
Hitler and his ambitions didn’t just kill Arthur Tooth. He also wounded Arthur’s wife and his daughter. Helen lost a husband. Mary-Anne, a father. It is these casualties that go unspoken when we see books about people in the armed forces who were killed in the Great Wars, who have been killed recently in the Middle East. It is these people who have to live with memories, with empty spaces, with what might have been. Women remarry, men remarry, children get stepfathers or stepmothers, but there’s always what might have been. Always.
Arthur Tooth was just one of 45,400 service people, most of them men, who died in WWII. There apparently is no record of the number of widows or widowers, the number of children left without a father or mother.  There is no record of how many mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts who were left bereft, their lives shattered. Yet, they are the casualties of war.
Arthur Tooth. I wish I had known him. He was both a football player and a poet. Quite the combination. He wanted to be a writer. He went to University in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He volunteered to fight for Britain. Just as my grandfather had done in 1915.
Just before he was lost in action, Arthur wrote a poem called, “Requiescat in Pace”. It is the first poem in the collection of his poems that his wife gathered together and published in his memory. It’s a fine poem and a good memorial not just for Arthur Tooth but for all those who went missing in action and were never found. Here are the first few lines.
Not I nor mine shall ever lie
Thus ordered in the church,
Gravestones of white and red
And black shall never mark
Our resting place—nor cheerless
Words shall ever lie like boulders
On our name—nor flowers dead-within a pot
Uptilted on our head.
 “This prophetic poem was received in a letter three weeks after Flt Sgt. Tooth was reported “missing” in action. It was written in the graveyard by the Chapel, Fenny Strafford, where many of his ancestors are buried. “—Helen Tooth

The Weekend Carpenter

I built a woodshed last weekend. It looks like something from the Beverly Hillbillies. My only defense is that there is now has a wood stove and it needs dry wood. Wet wood doesn’t burn well, and the winter rains start soon.
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There are lots of big trees here. I chose two that are fairly close together, then erected two posts and a 2×6 crossbar  some distance away. You have no idea how reckless this project is. I’ve never built anything in my life. They only gave me a passing grade in shops because I caught my thumb in the lathe and they were afraid they’d be sued. I’ve still got the scar. The shop teacher told the principal that if I failed and took the course a second year, he’d have a nervous breakdown].
The boss who oversees all won’t let me use her power tools. There’s a good chop saw on the back porch, but she has visions of my hands flying off. I’m inclined to drift away and think about other things when I’m working. A handsaw can’t do much damage. An errant hammer usually just means a smashed thumb. A power saw is not so forgiving. Or a nail gun.
Salt Spring ground is uneven. Except for hollows filled with moss and deadfall, large rocks covered in moss are everywhere. When it rains, the hollows fill up with water. Next to where I chose to put the woodshed, a large cedar tree had fallen some years ago.  It’s old enough to have mostly crumbled into a heavy, deep red pulp. I had to break it apart in places with an iron bar and rake it so I could get back and forth easily.  I wished I had a yard of good Manitoba gravel to level the area. I probably should have called Ganges to see if I could get some crushed rock, but that would take days, maybe weeks, to get delivered, and I was in a hurry. 
When I began the shed, there were low grey clouds and fog so thick I couldn’t see Galiano Island. There’s no thunder and lightning here, not like on the prairies. Instead, the sky closes down on you, the mist rolls through the trees, rain starts a few drops at a time, then settles in to fall all day, all week, all month. Once, it rained thirty days straight. It wasn‘t raining hard on the weekend and there wasn’t any wind but the rain was relentless. I hadn’t expected to build a wood shed and hadn’t brought my Gortex jacket. As a matter of fact, I had no jacket. The weather report had said sun with broken cloud. I put on a sweater, cut a hole in the top of a garbage bag and at the sides. It made a perfectly good rain jacket except for the arms. It was a tight fit because every time I’ve picked blackberries, I’ve eaten them with ice cream.
I spiked two side beams to the trees and nailed them to the cross bar. I didn’t say this would be beautiful, just dry. I nailed some boards across the bottom to tie the frame together, then ransacked the scrap pile. There’s no hurrying. The rocks, moss and water with a tangle of wild rose bushes that never bloom see to that. The wood pile looks like someone has dropped pickup sticks. Boards that may be the right size have to be teased out of the pile. They’re often too long or too short. The too-long ones, I used for the roof. I put them on crosswise. That turned out to be a mistake.
The next morning, it was still raining. The pools of water were deeper. I’d thrown tarps over any wood that could be cut up for the wood stove. I wished I’d brought rubber boots. I started cutting and nailing boards on the walls vertically. With all the rain it’s better to have the boards up and down, with narrow boards over the cracks. The boss came out to inspect my work and said “That’s called board and batten”. At least, I think that’s what she said. The rain was making my hearing aide buzz. During the night, I’d wakened up with a realization that I should have put the roof boards running from the peak to the eave on this shanty. If I do that and put slats over the cracks, the roof will be waterproof. No shingles needed.
The roof boards will have to come off but I decided to do that later. By the time the sides were finished[ , my arms and feet were soaked. I needed coffee. I dragged a tarp over the roof. Everywhere on Salt Spring, you see tarps. They’re the islander’s equivalent to duct tape. The way I use tarps, you’d think I’d been born and raised on the island. If there isn’t a spare tarp or two, I feel unprepared for life. City people need jobs, bank accounts, lines of credit, to feel secure. On SS people are free spirits. A place out of the rain, some homemade goods to sell to the tourists at the Saturday market, an old truck or van, a half dozen tarps, and life is good.
The shed is not much to look at, but no rain comes through. It’ll do for this winter. The next time I’m here, I can change the roof boards and, if there’s time, saw and split wood and store it safely. SS does get snow and sleet. Once, the roads were closed for two weeks. The power does go out. It does get cold. If a blizzard knocks out the power, the wood stove will heat the entire floor.  
In the city, at Thanksgiving, we give thanks for turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie but we don’t often remember to give thanks for electricity that nearly always works and when it doesn’t, it is rapidly repaired, or water that flows from a reservoir rather than our well, or streets quickly cleared of ice and snow but, away from the city, where people are on their own when things go wrong, we slip in thanks for a shed of dry wood in the face of winter storms.
 (A slightly different version was first published in Logberg-Heimskringla)