After my father died in 2009, I brought home boxes of papers and objects to sort and “archive”. My mum kept saying, “Oh, who will want this old stuff?” and I said, “I do.” But did I? I was nervous about opening the boxes, afraid of what I might find. Afraid of the father I might find. I had an uneasy relationship with mine — the one I knew, that is. He was cranky, opinionated, not a little xenophobic (though he’d come from immigrant stock himself), grudging with praise, and not unloving exactly. But the love he doled out in tiny amounts was not what I wanted most of the time. And I didn’t understand him. To be honest, I didn’t try very hard.
On days like November 11, I realize how little I know about his war service. He was in the Navy for years. He’d volunteered in 1944, it looks like (the copies of forms I have to consult are scribbled and difficult to read), with the HMCS Nonsuch, a Naval Reserve Division in Edmonton. He was posted to HMCS Cornwallis, in Nova Scotia. He operated something called ASDIC, a sonar device used to locate submarines. (In later years he was a radar technician.)
There are some medals in a wooden box. I remember he’d wear them on Remembrance Day parades at the Legion he belonged to in Victoria. There were other occasions when they’d come out to be polished and hung on their ribbons on his chest. I never asked about them which strikes me now as unfathomable. Why wouldn’t I? He didn’t really like to talk about the past. I know he was something of a wild boy. Postcards and little tickets and photographs in the boxes speak to this. And quite honestly that part of his life didn’t interest me. Brawling sailors and tattoos acquired in seedy shops in Singapore — yikes. No one wants to know that about their father. Until after he’s dead, I guess. Then you want to know everything. But there’s no one left to ask.
The medals, though. When my older son (the historian) was here the last time, he said he’d take the medals and have them re-mounted (I think this was the term he used). But then I forgot to give him the box to take home to Ottawa. Next time. He knew the medals though and told me what they are. One of them is the Atlantic Star. At the Veteran’s site, this is how that medal is described:
The Star was awarded for six months (180 days) service afloat or 2 months (60 days) for air-crew service between 03 September 1939 and 08 May 1945 (Europe) or 02 September 1945 (Pacific). The Atlantic Star may not be awarded unless the 1939-1945 Star has been qualified for by 180 days’ operational service afloat or by 2 months (60 days) service for airborne service. Therefore, the total requirement is twelve months (360 days) service afloat or four months (120 days) for airborne service.
That tells me something. I look forward to having this little collection organized, with information on each piece, so that my children will have some knowledge of their grandfather, the information I wish I had now.
But it wasn’t the medals that made me cry. It was this set of dog-tags.
Two of them — apparently the tags were designed in pairs, and contained personal information for identification after death. One of them would be sent to National Defence Headquarters and the other would remain with the body. I hold them in my hands and imagine them tucked under my father’s shirt as he tinkered with the sonar devices, hoping no submarines would show up.
We were in the future. My mother, my three brothers, our life together with a man who was quick to anger but who also taught us things. He taught me and my brothers to fish. He knew about game birds and was a gentle trainer of our family dogs, teaching them to retrieve the wild ducks that helped to feed us in the years when there wasn’t much money.
His Department of Veterans Affairs records list his occupation history before he volunteered in 1944 when he was 17 years old. 3 months deckhand on river boat in MacKenzie River. 3 months small locomotive in factory yards. 4 months general labouring in pump station of Standard Oil in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. No wonder he volunteered. He learned a trade which allowed him to marry and raise a family.
And thank goodness these dog-tags are intact. I wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. And that is one of the many things I’m grateful for and wish I’d been generous enough to tell him.