My Grandfather and WW1


WilliamSmith copy

Today and tomorrow, i will think a lot about my grandfather, William John Smith (Bill). He was born in Ireland. He emigrated to Winnipeg, Manitoba because his three sisters were already there. When  he arrived in Manitoba, he worked at various jobs available for new immigrants: glazier, drayman. He joined the militia. Joining the militia was normal. He was Northern Irish, loyal to the Crown, and the armed forces had deep connections to England.

He was shipped to France in 1915. During his time in the trenches he was gassed. When he recovered from that, he was sent back into the trenches to be both a sniper and a machine gunner. Men were killed by artillery fire all around him. Killed by bullets. Drowned in the mud and water. He was wounded by shrapnel in his right hand. It would have healed but it became infected. There were no antibiotics.He spent the rest of the war in hospital in England and, at the end of the war, was shipped back to Canada where he spent time in a hospital in Quebec.

He was one of the lucky survivors. Except the damage to his lungs could never be healed. Mustard gas does terrible things to lungs. He never complained about the war except to say that the treatment of ordinary soldiers was dreadful. Officers dined well and the men on the front lines atebully beef out of a tin and strawberry jam. He never had anything to say about the German soldiers except that they were very brave. I once asked him if he’d killed anyone during the war and he said, “Thousands.” And explained about an enfilade, machine gun trajectories crossing over each other on both sides, slaughtering the soldiers charging toward them. It was a slaughter as generals tried to fight battles with outdated strategies against new technology. The senior officers were often so clueless that they matched the French generals who were shown machine guns in action before the war started and one of them said, “Interesting, but what would you use them for?”

But that’s not what I will think about today and tomorrow. What I will think about is that the cold winter weather of Manitoba made it difficult for him to breathe because of his damaged lungs. He could never afford a car and rode his bicycle to work at the railway roundhouse. Sometimes his lungs were so affected by the cold that he couldn’t get his breath and  he would fall from his bike. My grandmother, on more than one occasion, saw him crawling through the snow toward the house.

War is not business as usual. Soldiers are not just another group of civil servants. While my grandfather suffered bombardment, saw his comrades torn to shreds by explosions, killed by snipers, killed by mustard gas, made to mount attacks in impossible situations, politicians in Ottawa and elsewhere lived in comfort and safety. For many, the war was about making money. For them, war was an opportunity to become rich. Once the war was over, my grandfather and all the other cannon fodder were a nuisance, a cost instead of a profit and responsibility for them was cast aside. Read the history of the General Strike in Winnipeg, the unemployment, the refusal to accept responsibility of the plight of the returning soldiers by the politicians who had spent the war in comfort and security.

There was no glory in scarred lungs. No glory in a shattered hand. No glory in a lifetime of memories of the horrors of war. Celebrate the bravery of people like my grandfather but don’t make war glorious. There is no glory in it.


Laxness Flees to France


After I described my meeting with Ulga, Valdi said, “I had another daughter. “ She was killed in a car accident. It’s her daughter who is at university in Saskatchewan.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I never knew what to say when faced with people’s tragedies. I’m sorry seemed so inadequate. “I lost my handkerchief.” I’m sorry. “I lost my entire family in a car accident.” I’m sorry. There just aren’t gradations that express the enormity of people’s loss. Trivial, tragic, the response is all the same. “What happened?”

“Drunk driver coming from a stag. Head on.”

Now that he mentioned it, I remembered my mother telling me about it over the phone. But I was busy at the time, taking a course, teaching, being married, helping with extra-curricular activities, trying to do research and write, attending fiction and poetry readings to make connections. It was a long time ago. Valdi was a friend of my parents because he’d been a friend of my grandparents. He occasionally dropped by my parents’ place for coffee on a weekend. He was big, opinionated and loud. And entertaining. In reply to the news, I said something like “That’s too bad.” My mother said, “We’ll put your name on the sympathy card.” When she hung up, I went off to give a reading with three other aspiring writers. I wasn’t being callous. I hardly knew Valdi and I’d never met his daughter.

Valdi heard from my parents that I was trying to get published. My parents had said that I should talk to him if I wanted to know about the history of the area. I’d made a note of their suggestion but then my life went to hell with my wife deciding to find herself. She’d started taking a Women’s Study course about the subjugation of women. She took it personally. Even though she had her own car, her own job and we already split the housekeeping and yard work.

She’d announced that she wasn’t going wash dishes anymore. It was a mark of subjugation. We had negotiations worthy of the United Nations before we got to washing dishes on alternate weeks. The first week I loaded the dishwasher and unloaded it. When her week came up, she arrived from Walmart with a supply of foam dishes that could be used once and thrown out. She wasn’t into the environment yet. The Great Bear Rainforest was still to come. We washed our own clothes. The sheets were a problem. We settled on my washing the top sheet and her washing the bottom sheet. Her major function in life, I discovered, was to avoid being exploited.

She’d come home and belabour the fact that women in some country in Africa spent six hours a day pounding maize into flour for lazy husbands who sat around drinking beer. That girls in some Muslim countries were forced to get married at six. That women in India were gang raped. I was appalled by what I heard. I agreed, there was a war on women but I wasn’t one of the enemy soldiers. She got really wound up about these things and lectured me about them, shouted the information, made it sound like I was a lazy husband drinking beer instead of a high school teacher coping with classes that were too large, problem students, extra-curricular supervision, grading essays, a principal who shuffled around trying to placate any complaining student. His favorite words were, “We’ll find a solution.” He repeated it so much that the students and faculty called him We’ll Find A Solution Joe.

She gnashed her teeth, glared at me, even pounded her fist on the kitchen table so hard it made the morning coffee spill. She dropped our friends and brought new ones home. Her new friends all wore blue jeans, had studs, spiky hair and demanded to know why she was sleeping with the enemy. Some afternoons when I got home after supervising football, she and her friends would be sitting in the back yard in a circle around the BBQ beating tom toms. They chanted. I thought they were mocking Hollywood Indians. When I said so, I thought her arms and legs would fly off. They were, she informed me, finding their true spirit, their primitive selves. They were, I said, beating tom toms in a suburban back yard and annoying the hell out of our neighbours. Get enough complaints and our landlord would kick us out.

I tried to explain this to Valdi but he didn’t understand. He and his wife ran the farm together. She drove the grain truck sixteen hours a day during harvest. He drove the threshing machine. Sometimes she drove the threshing machine. He drove the truck. They worked like buggers. Neither was a slacker, nor a theorizer. Neither of them sat in the Student Union Building and pontificated over glasses of wine. When prices for wheat fell, they decided to change to beans and spices. They each owned half the farm because it was half their blood, sweat and tears went into it.

“A good marriage,” he said, “means you work together for a common goal. No competing, no trying to slack off so the other person has more work to do. No taking advantage of kindness. You put the other person first. You watch out for them, protect them. If necessary, die for them.”

“You were older when you got married.” I was feeling like a failure.

“It helps,” he replied. “When you are making important decisions, it’s good to be grown up. When you’re young, it’s all tits and ass.”

“You said,” I reminded him, “that a buck doesn’t check out a doe’s IQ when he’s chasing her across a field.”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “It’s true. But after six months, you’ve tried all the positions you can think of. From then on it is going to be a lot of repetition. She wakes up one morning and you’re asleep and she looks at you and thinks who is this? You are snoring, you haven’t shaved, brushed your hair or teeth. And she realizes she has no idea who you are. It happens to everyone. Mary said six months after we got married, she woke up, looked at me and thought I looked like a mistake. It’s like you have to get married all over again. To the real person. Did you get married to the real person?”

I squirmed. I’d seen Jasmine at a folk dance. She was wearing a loose, flimsy dress from some exotic place, Bulgaria or Serbia or something. It was a warm summer’s evening. She and a group she was with were dancing to some guy playing a flute. He had a red bandana wrapped around his head and was wearing a black vest. A young woman with him was beating a large drum. She was in a billowy green dress with an embroidered vest. Every so often she’d blow a whistle that she held between her lips. The dancers had their arms linked and were doing a coordinated shuffle. Every third beat, they’d shout. Jasmine was the last in the line. As she went past, she reached out and grabbed my hand and the next thing I knew I was shuffling along, watching her feet, trying to move my feet in time to hers. We were doing a simple, village dance but it didn’t feel simple to me. Side, over, step, bend, stand up, shout.

Jasmine’s hand was hot and sweaty. She wasn’t wearing a bra and her breasts swayed as we moved. Her nipples pressed against the cloth of her bodice. She might or might not have been wearing panties under her dress. She had a dancer’s body. Lithe, quick, and when the temp of the dance quickened and she pulled my hand down so that our shoulders were pressed together, I could smell lilac. I’m a sucker for lilac. My mother had lilacs growing at the bottom of the front steps. The smell when they were blooming was erotic, exotic, full of sunshine and summer.

The next dance was too fast for someone who didn’t know the steps. The dancers raced in circles in a line, their feet a blur of motion. The music stopped and the musicians took a break. I’d watched Jasmine jiggle and bounce her way through the dance and thought I want some of that. I was like Valdi’s buck chasing a doe. I didn’t know her IQ and didn’t care. It wasn’t the outlines of her IQ that I was looking at through her dress.

I was teaching high school. The grade twelve girls were serious trouble. They flirted. They knew what they were doing. They didn’t want anything to happen but they were at that age when sexual power consumed them. Watch me wiggle. Watch me bend over. Watch me. Watch me. Instead, I looked at the blackboard, the ceiling, never let my eyes go lower than their chins.

Jasmine came over and said, “Hi. I haven’t seen you around before. There are some slow dances coming up. Join the line and watch the feet of the person beside you.” Then she wandered away to talk to the other dancers and have a drink.

I tried six more dances before the party was over. We were in the city square and I thought maybe she would walk away by herself and I could slip in beside her, chat to her as she walked home. Instead, when the music stopped, she said, “If you want to folk dance, come to the Y on Mondays. There’s a class we all go to.” Then she skipped away, joined her friends and they raced down the street. Folk dancers, I thought, never walk. They’re too revved up.

Mondays. The Y. Folk dance lessons. I sat in my truck outside the Y trying to decide whether or not to go inside. I remembered what Jasmine looked like as she danced. Bounce, bounce, shimmy, shimmy. I was ready to chase her across any field. Pretty, blonde, shorter than me, blue eyes. Lilac scent. I went inside, paid the fee. There were fifteen students and a male instructor. It was all business. The instructor stood with his back to us. Watched us in the mirror in front of him. He showed us how to do a step called a grapevine. We went through it to the right, to the left, back to the right. Here’s a tough one, he said. Skip, hop. We all laughed. Jasmine obviously knew all the steps. She was wearing a peasant blouse and skirt.

She smiled at me. When we took a break, I went over and said, “Hi.” And she said, “You decided to come.” I blushed and didn’t know what to say so I retreated to a drink machine and got myself a cold pop.

At the end of the class, she said, “We’re going to a restaurant to dance to a live band. Why don’t you come with us.”

I was being included. That was a start. Sometimes a chase is filled with stops and starts, changes of direction.

We went, I danced any dance slow enough for me to follow. For the first time in my life, I held men’s hands as I danced. When I felt myself tighten up, I said to myself, I guess I am a bit homophobic even though I sometimes sat with the gay physics teacher in the staff room. A girlfriend would protect me from any speculation.

I tried to dance my way into Jasmine’s bed. I asked her to help me with complicated steps. I gave her a stake in my success. She finally invited me to her apartment to practice one of the few dances that was a couple’s dance. Most were line dances, circle dances. Her apartment was small, definitely alternative, posters of Balkan cities, camel bags. It was one room with a bathroom. The brass had peeled off parts of her brass bed. She was a university student. We worked at the dance. It was the kind where you had your leg between your partner’s legs, where you held your partner pressed against you, where thirty seconds into the first step you couldn’t  help but have an erection. Then we practiced some Greek hisopiko because after class the coming week our group was going for supper and dancing at a Greek café.

We sweated. I kept drying my hands by rubbing my palms on the sides of my pants. Jasmine microwaved frozen lasagna and poured bagged salad into two bowls. That should have been a warning but the dancing had shut off all my circuit breakers. “I don’t do food,” she said. We ate sitting on the two stools in front of her arborite covered counter. “I don’t type. I don’t make coffee. I don’t want to be anybody’s slave.”

When we had finished, she said, “Do you want to fuck me?” She was scooping ice cream into two red plastic bowls.

I was struck dumb When she handed me my ice cream with a plastic spoon she had scooped from Tim Horton’s, I said, “Yes.”

“Why?” she asked.

That stumped me. It was what I felt, not what I thought. What a question. How do you answer it? “Because you are very sexy. When you move, I want to grab hold of you.”

“Just once or lots of times? Lots of guys want to do it once and then they get scared and run away.”

“Lots,” I said. She licked ice cream off her spoon. Her tongue was a pale pink and her pale blue eyes never left my face.

“Do you want to feel my breasts?”

Under the interrogation I had been starting to lose my erection. It wasn’t gone but it was at half-mast. She was wearing a blue flowered gauzy blouse with blue buttons. It was cinched by the belt of her skirt. She undid the buttons and pulled the blouse to either side of her breasts. I missed my mouth with my plastic spoon and stabbed my upper lip. She leaned over and licked the ice cream off my upper lip. I would have put my hands on her breasts but I was still holding the spoon and dish. I put them onto the counter.

We went to her bed and lay on top of the quilt. She wasn’t wearing any panties. The phone rang. She reached over and picked it up. She rolled toward the phone. “That bastard,” she said. “I’ll be right there.” She stood up, shook down her skirt, buttoned her blouse. “My sister. That bastard of a husband. Men are pricks.”

I was standing on the front door step in just over a minute. “Thanks for the dance lesson,” I yelled after her.

I told Valdi some of this. I held my head in my hands part of the time.

“Three weeks later, after her sister had moved out and left her husband  she asked me back for another dance lesson. She microwaved lasagna. I brought a home made salad. Fresh red pepper, baby spinach, avocado, English cucumber, oil and vinegar dressing in a container. It was an omen but I wasn’t watching.”

“Laxness got a farm girl pregnant,” Valdi said.  “He abandoned her. He fledt to France. I think that’s why he decided to become Catholic. She was six years older than him but he’d chased her around the farm yard until he caught her. He decided to go into a monastery. What a good place to hide if you’ve knocked up a girl. The monks told him that he wasn’t responsible for what happened.”

I squirmed because as Valdi told me this, I was remembering that my father had, after I became an adolescent, constantly repeated if I got a girl pregnant I had to marry her. That was what had happened to him. I was the constant reminder of  his mistake. He hadn’t had an abbey to hide in. Jasmine was finishing a master’s degree in sociology, had a prescription for birth control pills, was not absent minded so when she informed me she was pregnant, I’d said, “You can’t be. Are you sure? Can’t you take the after-morning pill?”

“Too late,” she’d said. “That after-morning was some time ago.”

“An abortion?”

“Don’t be a jerk. Are you saying, I’m good enough to hump but not good enough to marry?”

I should have found an abbey. I should have retreated to some place to sleep and eat and pray and forget about how Jasmine looked when she shimmied in a harem outfit. Instead, we had a small civil wedding. My mother was disappointed. My father said good, no big wedding, now we can afford to go to Hawaii for a holiday like we’d planned.  He gave me two thousand dollars and patted me on the shoulder. Jasmine’s parents sent a Dollar Store card and a fifty dollar Starbuck’s card from Fredericton. We had a folk dance party at a local restaurant.

I discovered this doe was smart, had an IQ off the Richter Scale, liked to play chess on Saturday mornings. “I eat microwave,” she said. “I haven’t got time to cook. You want Mom, go back home.” We settled on each of us cooking for ourself. Dancing was good, sex was good, hiking was good. Going to movies was good. She ate meals if I made enough for two but I didn’t do it regularly because I didn’t want to be used, either. I, too, ate microwaved food as a defense against domestic slavery.

“Maybe you should become a Catholic like Laxness,” Valdi said. “You want to write. You go into a monastery. You’re not getting any sex anyway. A room, three meals a day. No charge. Every so often, you join the monks in prayer. You’re always saying you have no time to write. Too much grading to do, too many lesson plans, too many parent-teacher nights.”

“After I’ve collected all the material,” I countered. “I’ll apply for a Canada Council grant.”

“Kiljan would never have sacrificed his writing. He was a real writer.”

Kiljan. His name was Halldor, with an accent over the o but when he was baptized a Catholic in 1923, he chose the name Kiljan Marie Pierre Laxness. Kiljan. An Irish saint’s name. Nice name, more musical than Halldor. He was that kind of person. Went out and reinvented himself. He admired Irish writers. I admired Russian writers: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol, but I couldn’t imagine giving myself a Russian name. The Interlake was thick with Ukrainians. In spite of the RCMP and CIA being unable to tell the difference, there was no love lost between them. With a Russian name, I’d get no invitation to dinner when I visited a Ukrainian farm. No perogis for me.

“You said you didn’t have a kid together.”

“We were married a month when she had a miscarriage.”







Iceland: War With England


Have you heard of the Napoleonic wars? Did you know that because of them, England and Denmark were at war? Did you know that Danish ports were blockaded by the English and that the trade ships that were supposed to supply Iceland with food and trade goods and take Icelandic goods in return were not able to leave port?

Did you know that the people of Icelandic were brought to the brink of starvation? That friends of Iceland in high places in England intervened and obtained a declaration from the English king to lift the blockade on Iceland?

That’s okay. Neither did I. Not, that is, until I began this arcane, strange research into life in Iceland in the late 1700s and the 1800s. I mean, most of us don’t know Canadian history, never mind what was going on in Europe in the early 1800s.


However, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland has numerous references to the Napoleonic War and its consequences for Iceland. They are just tidbits, footnotes, brief mentions but by the time I’d finished re-reading Holland’s journal, I had a sense of Iceland being affected by something I’ve never heard anyone talk about.

In a footnote on page 114, Holland says” Bjarni (Sivertsen) may already have been engaged in negotiating the restoration (completed 1812) of funds pirated from Iceland during the 1808 Gilpin raid. Bjarni was no stranger to Britain. He was one of the Icelandic merchants whose ships were detained under war regulations at Leith 1807-1809; Sir Joseph Banks helped secure their release and offered financial support.”

Later, he says about the School House, “Behind the building which forms the present schoolhouse, a new range of buildings has been begun upon, with a view to an enlargement of the Institution. The war with Denmark, among its other consequent calamaties, has been the means of entirely suspending this scheme—from the want which it creates in Iceland of all the materials for building.”

Later in his trip he visits Mr. Jacobæus, whom, he says, “is one of the most considerable merchants in Iceland; and had much commercial connection with Denmark; though this trade has of course suffered greatly from the war between England and Denmark.”

He visits the Leira printing office, the only printing office in Iceland, and says, “It has latterly been much injured by the winter floods, & it is now in projection to construct a new building on the same spot – the execution of which is only delayed form the scarcity of timber in Iceland during the period of war.”

They visit a Mr. Gudmundson, a merchant, “who has commercial connections at Copenhagen, at Reikjaviik & at Havenefiord….We found from conversation with him that the war between England & Denmark had been greatly injurious to his trade—Three years have now elapsed since any vessel has come from Copenhagen to Buderstad; though previously to this time, it was usual for one or two vessels to enter the port annually – This privation of the accustomed inter course is severely felt by the inhabitants of the interior, who are greatly in want of corn, timber, iron &c. The warehouses at Buderstad, and other ports in this part of Iceland, are filled with the commodities of the country—fish oil, fox skins &c, which it is impossible at the present time profitably to dispose.“

When they visit Stappen, he says the merchant of the place is a Mr. Hialtalin. However, he is not there because “At the commencement of the war, he was taken prisoner, & carried into England –Thence he contrived to get into Norway, where he was about 1 1/2½ years ago. Since that time no intelligence what ever of him has reached Iceland. His wife, Madame Hialtalin, with a family of six children, continues to reside at Stappen, where she carries on the business as well as lies in her power.”

When he visits Mr. Clausen, another Danish trader, he discovers that “He collects for exportation, fish, oil, tallow, fox-skins, & the various woolen manufactures of the island–& sells to the inhabitants, both in a retail & wholesale way, different articles of foreign produce or manufacture, procured from the continent of Europe. The war between England & Denmark has been greatly detrimental to this trade. Beside the intercourse with Denmark much profit was formerly derived from the exportation of fish to France, Spain & the ports of the Mediterranean Sea; a branch of commerce which is now entirely suspended. The intercourse with England has not yet acquired a sufficiently settled footing to relieve these evils—Mr. Clausen’s warehouses are crowded with goods for which a market is wanting—He reckons that he has lying by him, (either under cover, or collected into large heaps upon the shore) many hundred thousand fish, salted or dried—Of the woollen goods, manufactured in Iceland, his stock is proportionally large. He has about 50,000 pair of mittens, or woolen gloves, and almost an equal quantity of stocking of different qualities of fineness.”

“Previously to the war, Stikkes-holm was a place of considerable trade, three or four vessels from Norway or Denmark generally coming to the port every year. The only vessel which arrived last year was one from Norway, & none has appeared here in the present summer.”

“Mr. H. had been present at the late unfortunate attack upon Copenhagen—his house & much of his property had been destroyed in the bombardment of the place. He shewed us an umbrella, broken by a shot whilst he was sleeping under it, in a tent.”

“Both Mr. Hialtalin (this is the brother of the missing Mr. Hialtalin) & Mr. Benedictsen spoke much of the distress produced in Iceland by the war between England & Denmark; & seemed to consider the English Order in Council as likely to afford only a very partial relief.”

Reykavik has an annual trade fair, “The Handel”, which Holland says is better this year, 1810, than the previous year “however, by no means equal to previous years.”

When they arrive at Hyindarmule, they attempt to buy some items of Iceland dress from the women. “We were unable, however, to effect any thing of this kind—Not that the people were unwilling to sell – they were all pleased but the impossibility, during the present period of war, of replacing any article with which they now parted.”

“We reached Eyarback at 5 in the afternoon…Previously to the war, three ships usually came there every year.”

“The merchant proprietor at Eyarback is a Mr. Lambasson—This gentleman being detained in Norway by the war, the business is conducted at present by his wife, & by an agent, Mr. Peterson. We were received by them with great hospitality, & remained at the house a few hours to refresh ourselves.”

It’s interesting that, time and again, where they stay is with Danish merchants. Their countries are at war. The English bombardment of Copenhagen resulted in 2,000 civilians being killed and 30% of the buildings being destroyed. Danish ports were effectively blockaded and the Danish navy neutralized.

However, except for one instance, Holland and his companions never felt any hostility or disapproval.

This was not a two way war between France and England but a complex web of alliances and re-alliances with Denmark having to not only fight England in order to avoid being invaded by France but by Sweden. Germany and Russia, at various times, were part of the mix.

When I get time, I’ll type up the letter of the English king who writes up the letter for the British Order in Council that is mentioned.