Wartime Scrapbook, Part Two

Here, for your browsing pleasure, are some of the fascinating photos and stories sent to me by readers of Wartime Wednesdays, plus a few I found myself. This year I plan to do a collection of wartime tidbits from time to time. To read the first roundup, click Wartime Scrapbook, Part One.

*****

Cheers to the Legion Ladies Auxiliary

I’m kicking off this issue of Wartime Scrapbook with photograph of my mother June Florence, aged 90, who has served in the Royal Canadian Legion Ladies Auxiliary for sixty years.

Typical of ladies of her generation, she didn’t want to accept the sixty-year membership medal, because “I haven’t done that much lately.” Taking into account the thousands of hours of work she donated to the auxiliary for about fifty-eight of those sixty years, I would say the medal is well-deserved.

The Ladies’ Auxiliary, a largely unsung group, supports the aims of The Royal Canadian Legion across the country with their hard work (translation: countless bake sales and dinners).

As you can guess by its name, the L.A. is strictly female, comprised of mothers, wives, daughters, nieces, sisters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters and widows of Legion members.

My mother belonged to the L.A. in Battleford, Saskatchewan for forty-two years, followed by the L.A. here in Invermere, Britsh Columbia for the past eighteen years.

The membership medal is the one with the plain ribbon; the one with the striped ribbon is for serving on the executive. (She said her jacket is too big because she bought it when pregnant with my brother Rob, who is now sixty!)

Congratulations to my mother, and thanks to members of the Ladies Auxiliary everywhere.

Cheers to the 'Girls' of Bletchley Park

These women weren’t veterans, but they served their country faithfully and probably had a greater impact overall. Given the popularity of the new movie called The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing and his code-breaking Enigma machine, this is a fascinating article about the women who served with him at Bletchley Park. These survivors reunited for the release of a new book by Michael Smith called The Debs of Bletchley Park.

(I’m still waiting for a movie about those other heroes, the aerial photographic interpreters who worked at RAF Medmenham, just sixty kilometres from Bletchley Park. They were the focus of my novel Bird’s Eye View. You can read more by clicking: RAF Medmenham.)

Back to the Bletchley girls: you may read the article by clicking here: Bletchley Park “Girls” Break Code of Secrecy. (Try saying the word “Bletchley’ ten times quickly. It’s almost as big a tongue-twister as "Medmenham.")

Here’s a photo of them, with the author of The Debs of Bletchley Park.

When stockings were as rare as hen's teeth

During the war, both silk and nylon were needed to manufacture military items like parachutes. And that meant pre-war stockings were hoarded and made to last.

Ruth Miller of Calgary, Alberta, was eight years old when war broke out and thirteen when it ended. She remember a working lady friend of her mother’s had a supply of silk stockings. “I had (and still have) a tiny crochet hook and she paid me ten cents to repair one run. Good spending money.  I couldn't do that fine work today!”

When I was signing books in Calgary, Ruth came along to buy my book – and brought with her the same mending tool she used back then, to give me a demonstration of how it was done. 

Here's the tiny crochet hook being used by Ruth to catch the thread in a stocking run, and skifully weave it back together.

Ruth also remembers that her older sister, who was 15 years old in high school and 20 years old when the war ended, used to paint her legs with flesh-coloured leg makeup to look like stockings, and draw a pencil seam up the back. This was so difficult that some girls had their friends do it.

I found this old photo showing how you could use a pair of calipers with a coloured pencil for greater accuracy!

Wolfe, The Donkless Hero

From Leslie Vass in Kelowna, British Columbia, comes this newspaper article called “Donkless.” I couldn't find a photograph of the author, but here's the background.

Larry MacDonald was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan on August 22, 1921. He joined the army at the outbreak of the Second World War and was injured at the Battle of Caen in 1944. Following the war, MacDonald entered the field of broadcasting, working as a journalist for CBC in Ottawa and earning many awards before his death in 1998. He was married to another CBC journalist, Mildred MacDonald.

In 1997 CBC ran a contest asking for new lyrics for The Maple Leaf Forever, to avoid mentioning "Wolfe, the dauntless hero" and his victory over the French. While the contest was underway, Larry MacDonald wrote this piece for Southam newspapers.

*****

Let me go back to Grade 3, Elmwood Public School, Swift Current, Saskatchewan. The year was 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression. I was eight years old. Our teacher was Miss Preston, who always smelled of Turret cigarette smoke and mothballs. Shortly after the nine o’clock bell sounded, we trooped into class to stand by our desks. The morning ritual began.

“Good morning, class.”

 “Good morning, Miss Preston.” This from 40 treble voices.

Miss Preston raised her right hand and on the downstroke we would drag out the slow moving dirge-like anthem. God Save the King. You don’t hear that or The Maple Leaf Forever in hockey rinks much anymore.

The way we sang it always sounded like some ancient Presbyterian hymn for some old dour Scot who died a millionaire and never left the orphanage a cent.

Pause. Again Miss Preston’s down-stroke.

The Maple Leaf Forever! Boy, did we belt that out! We sounded like a bunch of people who had just seen the light.

I do remember its opening verse:

In days of yore from Britain’s shore

Wolfe the donkless hero came

And planted firm Britannia's flag

On Canada’s fair domain.

Long may it wave

Our pride and joy . . .

This went on for several verses. We particularly liked the part where General Wolfe worked in Saskatchewan. (Although where the General would have heard of the prairies in 1759 is something that never crossed our minds) We sang, “the thistle, rose and binder twine . . . the maple leaf forever”

We were the despair of Miss Preston. It took her some time to get us to sing “the thistle, shamrock, rose entwined, the maple leaf forever.” We still slipped in binder twine, just mouthing the words.

Well, no sooner had that contretemps been sorted out, than another one arose.

Fat Campbell, a kid in our class, wondered how Wolfe got into the army considering he was donkless. This had never occurred to any of us before.

I should explain here that when I was eight years old and in Grade 3, male genitalia consisted of a single word: donk. We had never heard of another word for it. If someone had suggested the real word to us, he would have been laughed out of the school yard.

During the period of the 1920s, Gertrude Stein was in Paris telling the world that “a rose, is a rose, is a rose.” Exactly. And a donk was a donk, was a donk.

I was elected, against my will, to approach Miss Preston after four to inquire if Wolfe was donkless. What to say? How to dodge a lightning bolt: To duck a steel-edged ruler?

“Was General Wolfe donkless?”

Miss Preston started to laugh and laugh and laugh. I thought she was losing her mind. And what would happen to me if that was the case? Regina Jail? Tears rolled down her face. I was waiting for a bang on the side of the head.

 “No, Lawrence. The word is dauntless, unafraid, a hero, brave.”

I told the kids. Wolfe had lost his stature. When he was donkless, he was somebody. We could see the flag on Canada’s fair domain.

But now that he was just dauntless, the fire had gone out of our singing. We lost the evangelical fervour.

*****

Subscribe to The Senior Paper

Speaking of newspapers, for the past six months I’ve been writing a column based on Wartime Wednesdays for The Senior Paper, published in Regina, Saskatchewan, and distributed across Canada.

Here's a photograph of one recent issue, with an article written by me. You can read the whole article by clicking Girls Also Trained to Defend Their County.

The newspaper is available by subscription only, but if you want to subscribe – or have a friend or parent who likes reading a real 32-page tabloid-sized newspaper, one filled with reader-submitted memories of a simpler time -- here’s the link to subscribe. Click: The Senior Paper.

              STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image showing a tough sergeant wondering who could have given him a Valentine. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.

Happy Valentine's Day, dear readers!

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                      About My Events

  • I have a fascinating one-hour powerpoint presentation describing wartime women in uniform, and the little-known practice of aerial photographic interpretation. And I come dressed in my wartime vintage duds! To contact me about speaking at your organization, click: Contact.

‚Äč               Calling All Book Clubs!

  • Book Clubs across Canada have discussed Bird's Eye View. I would love to visit your club, or answer your questions via email, telephone, or Skype. For a list of discussion questions, click: Book Club Questions.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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