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Just before the Canadian military’s final thrust to liberate the Netherlands during the Second World War, three young Canadian soldiers were billeted at my father’s house at Deinze, in neighbouring Belgium.
Exhausted, they were recuperating before what everyone knew was going to be a decisive and fearsome battle.
The people of Deinze were astonished that these young men from Canada – a country so far away – could have come to save them after so many years of war, when their resources were at their lowest ebb.
Out came the celebratory schnapps, the speculaas and the waffelen, the best of the herring, potatoes and pickled eggs. Nothing was too good for the Canadians, and the villagers embraced them and gave the best they had.
In appreciation, one of the soldiers, Tommy Watkin, promised that if he survived the war, and if my father’s family ever wanted to immigrate to Canada, they could stay with him.
And so it was that, several years later, Mrs. Watkin was surprised to find four Belgians living in the basement of her home in Brandon, Man. – my 14-year-old father, his four-year-old brother and their parents, Albert and Bertha de Waal.
Moving to Canada was a shell shock different from any in the war, but shattering nevertheless for a young European boy.
The first shock was having to leave their dog behind. A Belgian shepherd named Dianne, she was the companion of my father’s heart.
None of the relatives would take the dog in, so she ended up being sold to the village rag man, who put her to work pulling a cart filled with old clothes through the market square. She didn’t live long.
The pain of this loss, and of Dianne’s unfortunate fate, was a wound that Dad could not speak of without emotion, even 60 years later.
And there was another problem – more superficial, but of great importance to a self-conscious teenager – that of clothes and fitting in.
Good leather shoes, below-the-knee woollen knickerbockers, high socks and a little wool suit-coat were not the things most Canadian boys wore to their first day of high school.
Jeers of “D.P! D.P.!” (displaced person) rang in my father’s ears, as it did for many European immigrants arriving in Canada with nothing but bundles, trunks, strange accents and odd clothing.
More challenges lay ahead: the confounded difficulties of the English language. Dad would describe for us the utter misery of trying to understand why words like “enough” and “stuff” sounded the same, yet were spelled completely differently.
And don’t even get him started on his attempts to make sense of Hamlet, the Shakespearean play everyone in Grade 9 had to study.
For a Flemish boy who spoke only the Dutch dialect and French, and not a smattering of 16th-century English, or even 20th-century English, this was a major obstacle to overcome.
Failure was not an option: The family expected him to make the best of things.
But Dad was determined, and when his parents got jobs and the first wonderful paycheque came in, his first precious blue jeans, running shoes and plaid collared shirt allowed him to put away the European schoolboy’s garb forever and dress like the other boys. These new “Canadian” clothes were guarded with his life.
Dad learned English and lost his accent. By the time he’d finished at Brandon High School, he spoke three languages fluently and had mastered the Sea Cadet program – in fact he’d been named Sea Cadet of the Year for Canada. His prize was a trip to Japan on the navy destroyer HMCS Crescent.
Soon after this, he was expected to leave home. He was 18, and it was time he was out the door!
He applied to both the Navy and the RCMP, and the acceptance letter from the RCMP came first. He joined, and despite never having ridden a horse or played a trumpet, he learned to do both these things, becoming a member of the 1962 Musical Ride and one of its buglers.
The actor Morgan Freeman plays the role of God in a movie I watched recently, and at one point he says to the Noah character (played by Steve Carell): “When people pray for courage, God sends them opportunities to be courageous.”
Courage for Dad didn’t come in the mail, but in the many strange new circumstances that required a courageous response.
As a little girl, and now, having raised my own children in comparati ve security and ease, I see Dad as a sort of heroic Don Quixote or St. George character – brave, strong, wading into the fray, able to speak any language (he taught himself Spanish, too, by listening to tapes), and treating everyone from gardener to ambassador with the same respect, deference and attentiveness.
When I think of Dad’s face, I see the face of courage, and I’m grateful for his strength and his accomplishments.
Dank u zeer wel, vader. Thank you, Dad.
Jeannine O’Reilly lives in Newmarket, Ont.