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I was just a boy. And he was just my Dad.
It was the 1950s and everything was the way it should be.
We were a small family. My parents were all the things that parents were supposed to be. Attentive. Caring. Happy. Devoted to one another and to being parents to my older brother and me.
I felt that my Dad not only loved me but he liked me. He was happy to have me tag along with him, go places with him. He liked my company.
Beyond that we were left to ourselves, to be kids, to make our own fun and explore our world as we saw fit.
Then suddenly, when I was 9, half of my safe and comfortable world disappeared.
My brother and I had gone off to school, as usual, that day. My father had gone to work.
At noon, we were picked up unexpectedly by relatives and brought home. The reason was never explained. When we went in the house, our mother put her arms around us and told us that our Dad had died that morning. It was a heart attack. Two days later, we stood beside a dark and gaping hole in the ground and watched as his body was lowered into it. He was gone from my life. As I grew up, except for a few precious fragments of memory, he remained gone to me.
A child wants to know why such things should happen. For a child, however, there can be no satisfying answers. It’s beyond comprehension. In many respects it still is.
But with adulthood, I gradually began to learn more about my Dad.
I knew he had grown up on the family farm in Manitoba, the middle boy in a large family. He had stayed on the farm as a young man until the Depression got the best of them.
When war broke out in 1939, he and his younger brother joined the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders regiment. He was 31. He was sent overseas and stationed for more than a year in Aldershot, the huge base in southern England where thousands of Canadian soldiers continued their endless training while waiting for a call to action.
During that time, he used his occasional week-long leaves to visit Scotland, where a family connection has already been established. There he met my mother, and they married in April, 1942.
I remember that Dad often had to go from our home in Fort William, Ont., up to the Deer Lodge veteran’s hospital in Winnipeg each year, even if I didn’t have much understanding as to why. Something about his kidneys. Something about his heart. My mother even took me out of school once, so we could visit him there for a whole month. The only thing that really mattered to me was that he was always glad to see me. Those were my important memories.
Many years later, I become more curious about his wartime and postwar experience, hoping it would help me know who he was.
I sent a request to the National Archives for his military records. Months later, I received an envelope containing all the official documents relating to his service, from enlistment to discharge. I saw how methodically bureaucratic the military was in its record-keeping.
The only discovery of interest was the fact that he had only three one-week leaves from his base over the course of a year and a half in which to meet, court and marry my mother. One presumes that a great many letters were exchanged in between those fleeting visits. Shortly after their wedding, he was captured at Dieppe and spent almost three years as a prisoner of war.
Gratified by the service offered for free by the Archives, I then followed up with a request for his postwar medical records. I didn’t know what, if anything, to expect and for an inordinately long time, I didn’t get anything. I began to assume that the request would not be met.
One day I came home from work to find a very thick bundle at my door. It was my Dad’s medical records for the 14 years he’d lived after the war. More than 800 pages of records; one doctor said it was “big enough to choke a horse.” I was overwhelmed. As I turned the pages over, I felt like I was sifting through the wreckage of someone’s life.
So here was my Dad’s story. And the Dad I hadn’t fully known.
This was the Dad who survived years of cold and damp conditions and undernourishment in Stalag VIII-B in Poland.
It was the Dad who survived death marches in the bitterly cold winter of 1945, as the Germans paraded their POWs around the countryside in an effort to keep them from being liberated.
It was the Dad who spent 391 days in the hospital during his 14 years of life after the war.
It was why he left home to go to the veterans’ hospital in Winnipeg each year.
It was why he was in bed so often when he was at home.
It was why he died at the age of 50, leaving his wife and two sons behind.
The child in me could never understand why he would leave me. The adult could now forgive him for having done so.
But I can’t forgive war itself for the losses it imparts, not only on the men and women who actively serve but on the generations yet to be born.
Murray Angus lives in Ottawa.
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