War veteran, pioneer son, father of five, grandfather of 12, great-grandfather of 10. Born July 8, 1919, in Gull Lake, Sask., died Dec. 1, 2012, in Gull Lake, of natural causes, aged 93.
The Second World War was Vern’s great adventure, and he came back to his Prairie hometown as Gull Lake’s most highly decorated veteran.
He had signed up in 1940 after spending his Depression-era teens working on the family farm to save his homesteader parents the cost of a hired hand.
He returned in 1945 as an accomplished Royal Canadian Air Force navigator, a flight lieutenant on a Lancaster bomber crew in the Pathfinder Force, one of 213 Canadian airmen awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and an accompanying Bar. He was cited for fortitude, courage, devotion to duty and “coolness and skill under fire.”
Back home, these attributes helped him woo the winsome Nettie Badge, his love of nearly 63 years. And they served him well when the two of them took over the farm.
Their first crop failed, as did the ones in 1947, 1948 and 1949. The only crop that grew with gusto was the one in the house: five kids born within 10 years. To make ends meet, Vern worked during the Christmas rush at the Gull Lake Post Office and fell back on his postwar diploma from the University of Saskatchewan to find winter work teaching courses in agriculture.
“I don't ever remember being discouraged,” he would say. He regarded his life as a rich one.
Vern described himself as “just a quiet boy from the country trying to get along,” and in some ways he was. He cherished and enjoyed his family. He was never too tired at the end of a day in the field to bat baseball flies, drive to a daughter’s piano recital or play cards.
Yet this same “quiet boy” was adept on the dance floor and in demand as a master of ceremony. He spent winters heavily involved in town activities as a school trustee, church elder, Legion officer and ardent curler. Come summer, he coached baseball. He loved to sing: around Nettie’s piano with his kids; with pals at parties and in the truck, his face caked black and his eyes red after a long day riding a cabless tractor, belting out such favourites as The Strawberry Roan.
His stories offered a vivid link to an earlier time. Riding horseback to school and riding the rails to the Calgary Stampede. Watching his dad leave winter mornings with horses and the grain wagon to the elevators in Antelope 15 kilometres away.
Yet he didn’t live in the past. He was keenly interested in any new farmland practice his son Steve would try and had a precise grasp of the business of modern agriculture.
He spent his final Remembrance Day singing, laughing and reminiscing with family.
“Well,” he said, somewhat enigmatically. “We got ’er done.”
Then he raised what would be his last dark rum and Coke and, with a grin, issued his old wartime toast: “Here’s to us. Good men are scarce.”
Doug Small is Vern’s son.