Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Wartime Reminiscence

Willard Eldrin Campbell (1924-2011), who served in the Canadian army during WWII in France, the Netherlands and Germany. Picture taken in 1942, when he was 18.


This is an excerpt of a letter written by my father, Willard Campbell, to his older brother Leslie in 1974. I post this because I believe it is well worth sharing: any reader who has the time and inclination to read it,  I'm quite sure, will find elements of strong historical and literary value. The letter tells of the coming of age in the 1930's of a farm boy in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; the development of his political consciousness through following in the Halifax Herald the travails of the Spanish Civil War; of his first romances, and the effects on a small Cape Breton town of the onset of World War II.  It ends with some telling details of sailing back to England on a hospital ship after being wounded in the Battle of the Scheldt, Holland.

At the time of the writing, Willard had just passed fifty. After the war and much moving about all over the country, he settled and raised his family in Toronto. In his life, besides being a farm hand and WWII veteran, he was a factory worker, journalist, trade unionist, mature university student, and school teacher/librarian. Among his many affiliations he had been, from the 1930’s to the early 1950’s, an active member of the Communist Party of Canada. His brother Les had been a Cape Breton coal miner and later, a lathe operator in Vancouver; likewise he had been a soldier in World War II, and during peacetime, active in trade unions and many progressive causes. Les died last year, at the extraordinary age of 107. My father passed away in 2011 at 87 after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s.
—Brian Campbell, Montreal, November 12, 2017


                                                                                                    Toronto, March 22, 1974
Dear Les,

Thanks for the birthday letter. It was good to hear from you again. No need to be apologetic about your letters; they are always fresh and interesting. You write easily and fluently—in your own voice, so to speak. That is how letters should be written. Mine tend to be miniature essays, laboured and self-consciously wrought. I approach words in the manner of a priest approaching his altar. It is not good, this tongue-tied reverence for the word. But I’m stuck with it; it’s been with me so long. Old faiths die hard.

I am now certainly an “ol’ boy”, as you said in your letter, with a half century behind me. Looking back at my life so far, I am impressed most of all by how much of a muddle it has been. Yet I tried to impose a pattern and purpose on it—tried to more deliberately than most people, I believe. Nevertheless, what stands out in retrospect is an excessive amount of wasted time and motion. This is not something to be particularly depressed about; it is simply a phenomenon to be wondered at. I recall a picture you took of me when I was four or five years old, probably when we lived on Main Street in Sydney Mines. I am sitting on some boards—or was it a bundle of shingles?—and looking very thoughtful. On the picture you wrote the words, “I was ’sinkin’.” Yes, looking at that picture one would certainly say, “Now there’s a fellow who’s going to think his way through life.” But I haven’t been especially good at that. In fact, if I were to single out a primary weakness in my makeup it would be that I do not do enough serious thinking as I go through life. I do a lot of dreaming, but not nearly enough thinking. Now I suspect that the little fellow sitting on the shingles wasn’t thinking at all. He was dreaming instead.

Politics, as you know, has been a major preoccupation and influence most of my adult life. It all began when I was scarcely into my teens. The smoking ruins of Malaga and Cordoba…remember? Blown up photographs (in black and white) of the tagged and numbered corpses of children lying in the pavement in Madrid… “bombs plummeted into the market place”, the news stories ran.

The summer I was 13 years old—1937—the war was going from bad to worse for the Loyalist forces in Spain. I remember waiting, with a feeling something like dread, for the daily news of the war that appeared in the Halifax Herald. The newspaper reached us a day late in Boularderie in those days, and I used to draw a peculiar comfort from that fact when the news from Spain was especially bad. That it was yesterday’s news made it seem less threatening, as if it were past history and therefore not immediately relevant. Paradoxically, good news from the battle fronts did not suffer in the least for being old news; as I read it my heart pounded happily and I tingled all over, as if the victory was being won before my eyes that very moment.

How emotionally committed I was to the Loyalist cause! Some wit—I think it was Chesterton—once paraphrased Shakespeare with the saying: “Hell has no fury like the non-combatant.” Well, the fury felt by that farm boy in Boularderie was real enough, I can tell you. I seethed with hatred for Franco and his fascist generals, and wept in frustration over continuing Loyalist defeats. If someone had given me a rifle and sent me over, I would have given a good account of myself! But thirteen-year-ol’s were given no such opportunities, alas, no matter how genuine their heroic impulses. So I followed the exploits of the Mac-Paps in the Clarion with a mixture of hero-worship and envy, and in the meantime waited anxiously for the Herald to deliver its daily disasters.

I used to walk to McDearmid’s mailbox every day, just before noon, to pick up our mail. It was a short walk that I usually enjoyed, and I would set out, barefooted, accompanied by Rex [our family dog], down the road and over the little bridge that spanned the brook. But on those black days of Loyalist defeats, the trek to the mailbox to get the Herald and the latest news was painful. In order to dispel the gloom somewhat, along the way I used to fantasize about the war, conjuring up images of headlines in the Herald proclaiming magnificent Loyalist victories. “Spanish Insurgents Suffer Heavy Losses.” “Franco’s Forces Crushed at Toledo.” Loyalists Triumph On All Fronts.” As I walked in the summer sunshine up the hill toward McDearmid’s gate, my dream factory would be working full blast: “Dancing In The Streets of Madrid.” “Gigantic Victory Celebrations For Spain In Moscow, Paris, London.” Then I would be confronted by the mailbox, and the dreams would vanish. I’d pick up our day-old copy of the Herald. Sometimes I would be surprised to find nothing at all about the war on the front page, and I would have to look inside to some obscure column for the bad news.

April 1

Ah, how nostalgic I have become! Oscar Wilde once said that, for the English, nostalgia affords the occasional light lunch, but for the Irish it is breakfast, lunch and supper! So perhaps it’s the Irish that’s rising in me just now. But I suspect it’s your letters that set me off.

You probably don’t remember Ann Gibbons. She lived on Pond Street and was related to the McMullens, and distantly to the Jobes’. I met Ann—we nicknamed her “Red” because of her bright red hair—when she stayed for a few weeks with Hughie and Flora in the fall of 1938. I was fourteen years old, three years her junior, but the awkward disparity in our ages did not prevent us from becoming lovers. Perhaps that was because I was big for my age, and worldly wise, too, in my way. As I have said, her hair was the colour of fire. This contrasted with her skin, for she was one of those people who possess a complexion almost totally devoid of colouring. I have to his day a distinct memory of her face: the high cheekbones, the green eyes with heavy lids suggestive of sleepiness, the full, pale lips, the alabaster complexion. But this description evokes an image of some cold, remote goddess of purity, and Ann was anything but that. She was loudly gregarious, a fun-lover who affected a coarseness of manner. She liked nothing better than to tell obscene stories in mixed company—much to the discomfort of us country folk. We used to gather at Hughie’s on those nippy fall evenings; Angus and Neilie Saw, Sadie Mae Jobes, Ann and I, along with Hughie and Flora and their bairns. We’d sit around the stove telling stories. I recall Neilie Shaw’s brick-red face and downcast eyes whenever he had to suffer through one of Ann’s ribald “jokes”. Yet, as I have said, this roughness of Ann’s was an affected manner; a town girl acting up among her country cousins. I perceived this from the beginning of our acquaintanceship, and although I found the public affectation attractive enough, I longed to know the real girl underneath.

One evening soon after we met we were drawn together. I can no longer remember how it occurred: a sudden, shared secret, perhaps, that separated us from the rest, or possibly nothing more than a silent meeting of eyes across the room. Who’s to say, and who can expect a fourteen-year-old boy to mark such events? (Perhaps Ann knows more: the female of the species has a talent for such things, I’m told.) So a few nights later we made love on the cold, damp grass of the Jobes’ slopes, under a white October moon. Oh, it was all panting and grabbing and kissing, and not much more, but the mystery and sheer excitement of it stirred me to my very roots! She was my first adult love, and I was exceedingly proud, and nothing could dampen my spirits on our first night together, but I must tell you this: her breath was sour! Yes, this is true! (We retain acute perceptions of such moments.) But could that matter so much? I was so happy that she found me attractive. Does a boy need any better proof that he has come of age?

How many miles did we walk, I wonder, in those October days! I see us crossing the fields hand in hand, following the wood paths to the vacant farms; we even explored the lake shore below McDearmid’s one moonlit night, and sat on the white rocks, hugging each other for warmth in the raw night air. One evening, after we had walked from the Jobes’ to the schoolhouse, I persuaded her to come with me to John D. MacIntire’s, ostensibly to get a cold drink of water from their pump. Actually, my purpose was to show her off to my school friends. I vividly recall how Francis, Angus, John Alex and Mary MacIntire crowded around us to have a look at the exotic town creature that I had with me. Such small triumphs stay with us through life!

And what was she like away from the crowds, this wildcat with the ribald tongue? She was a surprisingly simple girl, and much more reticent than anyone might have guessed. (I once tried to tell Neilie Shaw what she was really like, but he refused to believe me. He was convinced that Ann and I were enjoying violent, unbridled, red-hot sex every night we went out. Neilie was an extraordinary fantasizer.) Once I became familiar with Ann’s secret, quiet side, I was astonished to see her don the mask of vulgarity whenever we joined our friends at Hughie’s. Courseness was her defense in company—just as quietness was mine. When we were alone together, we both changed: she grew silent, and I became talkative.

And how I talked and talked! There was so much to say, so much informing and explaining to be done! The tragedy of Spain; the despicable Anschluss; the treacherous Munich Pact (just signed the previous month); the Sudetenland threat. How she must have marveled at the erudition of this country lad! (Or perhaps she had already been warned by her cousins about the strange beliefs of these Campbells. Perhaps her long silences and her shy, quiet questions were her own skilful politics at work. I will never know.) But politics is extraneous to the relationship of the sexes, when it comes to love making. Marxism is neither improved nor diminished by a kiss; no social revolution erupts when a boy and girl press their bodies together in the moonlight. I did not know these things at the time. It took me many years to learn the difference between life and living. So I talked on, trying to draw her deeper into my world, but succeeding only in building higher walls between us.

Yet, for all the attention I gave her, my feelings for Ann were neither clear nor consistent. (What she really thought of me, I probably had no idea.) A fourteen-year-old boy has no established patterns of behaviour when it comes to the opposite sex. There are no strong precedents; he is essentially an explorer. And so our romance waxed and waned, as it were, until she returned to Sydney Mines at the end of October. We said goodbye carelessly, without regrets, and with little thought for the future. This happens too, when you are young and feeling your way. But after she was gone a strange thing happened to me. Infatuation set in more strongly than ever, almost like the condition of relapse that ill people sometimes suffer. I longed for her night and day, and moped about the farm dreaming of her. And, at the first opportunity, I went to Sydney Mines to recapture her love.

But, as you can probably guess, the game was lost. We walked along Main Street like two strangers, with scarcely a word to say and not daring to hold hands in such a public place. I recall that she wore a new winter coat, with a coloured scarf—the coat was beige, and looked white under the street lights. I must have looked out of place with my knee-boots, belted leather jacket (badly worn), and my old leather cap with the earflaps. I had no money to take her to the movie or the restaurant, so after some aimless store gazing we turned down Pond Street and walked to its very end, where there is a wooden fence and beyond that a field which leads I don’t know where. We embraced there in the dark, far from the town’s lights, and there was no moon, just the lights from houses further up the street. Afterward we talked a little about Hughie and Flora and Sadie Mae and the others, and then we walked back up Pond Street, and the chasm between us was wider than before. By the time we parted at her house, we had grown so detached that we shook hands! My heart was bursting, but I was helpless in the face of this incomprehensible strangeness. I walked back toward town biting my lip and fighting back the tears.

I nursed this infatuation for a year—and what a year it was, with the old homestead burning down, the move of the entire family to Sydney Mines, to Millville, and back to Sydney Mines, and then the outbreak of World War II. Although I saw Ann once or twice around town, I never spoke to her again. My chances of rebuilding our romance had further dimmed with the war crisis: the soldiers were in town. They were billeted in the old General Office, and tents were going up in the fields beside Chapel Road. The soldiers tramped through town, looking almost foreign in their new uniforms and jaunty berets. Young girls on the street pushed each other and giggled whenever a soldier walked by. They were the talk of the town. It was not an auspicious time for a sexually precocious fifteen-year-old without money or, for that matter, a decent pair of pants. But I was not alone; there were a number of young fellows in the same position. And fortunately, there were at least a few girls who did not go raving mad over the uniformed invaders. Early in 1940 I met one: Helen Maclean, a tall, carefree brunette from Burchell Street, who instantly became my best girl and sidekick. I did crazy things with her: I recall one sun-filled, windy day in early spring, down by the cliffs off Shore Road, I clambered to the top of a billboard, crawled along and hung from the middle—my boots striking the face of the chic lady holding the Winchester cigarette—while Helen screamed with laughter on the ground below me. But that’s another story. Helen was the balm that healed the wounds of my first grown-up romance, and for that I am everlastingly in her debt. I thought little more of Ann Gibbons until sometime later in the summer, when Malkie McMullen told me that Ann was engaged to marry a soldier who was stationed in Sydney Mines. Need I say that I felt a stab of anguish? But memories were fading, and by the time I left for Ontario in the fall the romantic affair of two years earlier was all but forgotten.

I heard no more of Ann until four years later. In the fall of 1944 I was on a hospital ship in the English Channel, returning to Blighty with other wounded men from Europe. I struck up a conversation with a soldier sitting beside me on the deck, and knew at once from his speech that he was a Maritimer. It turned out that he was from Florence, and before long I learned that he knew several of the Matthews boys, as well as other Sydney Miners. Ann Gibbons flashed into my mind, and I asked him if he knew her. “I know who she is,” he said, “and it’s funny you should mention her. My sister told me in her last letter that Ann Gibbons died—in childbirth, it was. Her first baby, too.” I sat in silence, my mind trying to grapple with the reality of what he had said. In a sense, she had been dead for me for several years, and now the announcement of her death only served to make her live again in my memory. As the hospital ship plied its way toward the coast of England, I dreamed of those Boularderie nights when Ann and I walked through the woods and fields and along the shore, of the October moon that never deserted us, and of the bewilderment of a fourteen-year-old boy growing painfully to manhood.

2 comments:

GenVi said...

Thank you for sharing this remarkable and very poignant letter.

Brian Campbell said...

Thanks, GenVi. Your appreciation made the effort of transcribing it from the handwritten original and posting it well worth it.