The War Years
The Stych family has been incredibly fortunate; wars' misfortunes have not wounded us severely since Dad's oldest brother Uncle Wilfred died at the Battle of Arras in Belgium in 1918, seen below with his sister Pearl. My son Douglas enlisted in the US Marines in the late Seventies but was stationed in the US. And my wife Ursula was a 2nd lieutenant USAF AeroVac nurse in the early Seventies at Scott AFB in Illinois. Her orderlies, enlisted men, no doubt pined for a little close combat. But she only flew with doctors.
I've no memory of the day World War II ended but I do recall a week earlier being at a rural gas station near St. Catharines...and the day I'd rushed back to the car to tell Mom we'd dropped a monster bomb on Japan. It was a prophetic adjective for the instant incineration of tens of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima. Possibly there was some justification for this mass slaughter although both Eisenhower and MacArthur argued against it, asserting with many others that Japanese surrender was imminent. The later bombing of Nagasaki was indefensible, but that's only my opinion.
My parents were not into flag waving and my mother was especially critical of patriotic hype that demonized adversaries. She also hypothesized to me at the time that someday we'd face a greater challenge from China than either Germany or Japan. She ran the numbers. After
the throes of revolution and a few decades to mature their physical and intellectual infrastructure, a billion natural entrepreneurs were not going to be content ironing our shirts.
But much more significant for us was the material by-product of the post-WWII war years; our rural economy took flight. More money in our jeans bought us a radio and sent the world to the movies. And with increasing exposure to the outside world, this soon-to-be-teenager realized success would mean selecting beliefs complimentary to his own objectives but also those of others. So confirmation bias becomes the route—massage or discard facts that don't fit. And when that falters, cognitive dissonance can provide an alternate if not comfortable solution.
Regrettably my personal cognitive dissonance deteriorated to entropic dissonance years ago ago...entropy by definition in thermodynamics is the measure of disorder in a system. It trends to absolute randomness so my beliefs have very short shelf lives. So much for my perspectives...
* * *
What hasn't died is my love for the winding trail, long haul or short. Nor my affection for every bronco that graced my lane way or garage, even the three ton pack mule that I drove to haul fresh fruit and grapes for my sister. That's the same said mule I barbecued in 1952 on a funeral pyre on the QEW, Canada's first four-lane divided highway. The cause of fire was unknown...but a sixty gallon auxiliary fuel tank gave the eulogy. Which garnered a rapidly fleeing ovation from tourists who had parked a little too closely to view my sacrifice...it was Labor Day weekend.
Granted my affection for motor vehicles and driving didn't have an auspicious kickoff...it started around a crank, no pun intended. My brother is in the driver's seat, and I'm standing in front of our 1928 Chevrolet staring fearfully at the starter crank. I was probably about age eight or so because until then I wouldn't have had sufficient strength to turn it. But kick-back and an occasional broken bone was not uncommon unless you're adept and I wasn't. I still remember my anxiety...
Two other images linger. One is my view from the back seat of the same car at the juncture of two highways waiting for the Toronto-bound bus. It must have been one of my mother's periodic shopping trips to Eaton's and Simpson's department stores in the city and on this day it's raining. Mom is sitting in the front seat holding an umbrella over her head...the roof leaked.
The second is of a roadside south of the Ontario town of Tottenham. My father had taken some ironwork to the blacksmith, the last forge still resisting the horseless carriage. He was also the man who shod our horses, a duty my father took up when his shop finally folded. Anyhow, on the way home some aspect of the rudimentary steering must have failed and we nose-dived into a grassy bank. I promptly slipped off the seat and hit my nose on the dashboard.
eighteen years earlier
I believe Dad fixed the problem on the spot, but I couldn't hold back my tears. Seat belts? Be serious. But over the years one of Dad's favorite anecdotes was describing my outrage at his obvious attempt to hurt me...I had to be angry at someone for making me cry! I'd also bet my last dollar he tousled my hair and promised not to do it again, leaving a little boy's pride intact.
* * *
Now it's summer 1939. My sister Jean is fifteen and home from high school for the summer. She and my mother are preparing dinner...the noon meal. As Dad drives past the front window with our new vehicle, Jean pipes up, "I hope it has arm rests in the back". The reason she inquired? I haven't a clue...but it amazes me what one can occasionally recall seventy-five years later.
A reclusive and aging farmer had purchased the car when new from the dealer three years before but his son had promptly rolled it over making a too fast turn. That ended said son's access so with only a few minor scratches on the roof, it languished untouched for two years in a new wood frame steel garage. Dad bought both car and garage for $950...in the Chapter 7 photo, the garage is seen behind the sleigh. That's my diamond design on the doors...my artistic talent was limited to ruled lines and still is.
Learning to drive with the Chevie did generate one significant personal faux pas. It was a summer evening and we had planned to go to the store in the village. Dad was sitting outside enjoying his cigar so he asked me to bring the car from the garage...he always gave us every opportunity to practice. This maneuver meant turning and reversing down a slight grade, then going forward to the house.
Now you know that with a manual transmission, starting uphill from a dead stop requires a bit of finesse with brake, clutch and throttle. So in my nervousness, I lay on lots of throttle but forget to shift out of reverse. Houston would have been impressed with my launch which was straight back through a wire fence neatly shearing off a post. I fled the scene with a red face....though the next day I did manage to swallow my embarrassment and mend the fence.
This 1936 Chevrolet did incorporated GM's uber-hyped knee-action shock absorbers; it was a design fine in theory but a brute to maintain so was abandoned the next year. For the most part, though, the car was economical and reliable and endured until 1950 when replaced by a 1948 Pontiac and its infamous straight-eight engine. As Dad later described it, it was a car that never saw a gas station it didn't like...
Before moving on, here's another of my early amusing incidents of the road. In the mid-thirties, hydraulic brakes had arrived so lady drivers could now avoid bulking up their quadriceps. But a decade or so later while on a visit to Niagara and in need of a vehicle, my truck-driving buddy lent me his antiquated 1934 Ford with those old inadequate mechanical brakes. Stopping was an adventure so he and common sense told me to avoid sudden ones.
Unluckily in a local town, such an occasion arose.
If you're terrified of messing up your buddy's car, it's remarkable how leg strength can respond. But I'd forgotten his other warning, that the floorboards were mostly eroded and the seats were not secure. So when I relaxed my legs and exhaled with relief just inches from the rear of the other vehicle, I loosed my hands from the wheel...and the seat and I promptly flipped backward into the rear! A few nearby pedestrians carried home an interesting tale that night.
* * *
As described in an earlier chapter, our road was not snowplowed in winter and often impassable for up to three months. So at the hint of the first big storm, Dad would store our car with a neighbour on the highway. That meant that every Saturday, we'd climb into the sleigh with Dad and Austin up front on the seat and Mom and I behind in the box and covered with a robe. At the highway, we would stable the horses in the neighbour's barn and take our car into town to shop.
This sleigh ride to the car and then back home in the evening could indeed be described as bucolic, a child cozy under the robe and snuggled up to his mom, serenaded by sleigh bells on the horses' harness. It was harness with copious brass that I helped polish at least once a month. Dad was a horseman at heart and loved to decorate and trot out his matched team of Clydesdales.
Apparently in his younger days my father was also much envied for his drivers, animals a little lighter and swifter than plow horses. Mom once made laughing reference to being tossed from a cutter...light sleigh...when Dad was racing a neighbour. But it wasn't until hitchhiking much later that I learned another aspect —a farmer who gave me a ride chuckled he'd once known my dad. Though definitely a surprise to me since we were far distant from our farm, his exact words were, "All the girls around here fancied fast-horse Eddie Stych".
Then along came a fancy grade school teacher. That ended adventuring because a more faithful man never walked this earth. But he always appreciated the company of women—after Mum died, he remarried twice so was thrice bereaved. After burying the third, his granddaughter Vicki remarked, "Grandpa, next time I hope you marry a healthy one". Eighty-eight and almost blind, he laughed, "Not this time. I wouldn't know what she looks like".
But why do some of us begin to practice being old in our sixties? And choose to occupy our ailments sharing details with anyone within earshot? Whereas my Dad, blind in his nineties and now in a retirement home, still gifted holiday chocolates to a lady he dined with regularly. He lived until he died.
You can channel my bride's maxim...you always have a choice. Even after the ALS diagnosis, Ursula breathed life into every single day she remained with me.
* * *
In the late thirties, my Uncle Clarence brought us a radio powered by a large lead cell battery. It nested in the last available corner of our living room so Dad's couch and spittoon were moved to the adjacent wall. There he'd recline of an evening and read the Toronto Telegram while my brother hunched on a rocker searching for stations. That tableau survived for twenty years.
Mother enjoyed Jim Hunter's evening news and Gordon Sinclair's news commentary. And also the Happy Gang, a relentlessly upbeat variety show that ran for years on CBC. And of course the Royal broadcasts...the first such live broadcast was made in 1932 by George V. In 1939 at the outbreak of WWII, the duty fell to his son George VI who was unfortunately prone to stuttering when stressed—an impediment dramatized decades later in the Oscar-winning movie 'The King's Speech' with Colin Firth.
Mom as a fervent royalist was aware of this. Her quiet observation at the conclusion of his speech in 1939 was, "he did very well". Born in the final years of Victoria's reign, she survived to admire six monarchs. And I'd wager that until her death she never missed the royal Christmas message.
Fast forward to early morning February 1952. Now employed by Ontario Hydro's construction crew in Niagara Falls, I flip on the radio in my boarding house before grabbing breakfast and taking a bus out to our shacks on Stanley Avenue (no, a different Stanley). But on every single station there's only hymns! My first reaction? The Cold War has gone hot and a nuclear bomb will really screw up my job at the power station. Luckily for me but not George VI, they were mourning his death and announcing his daughter as our new Queen Elizabeth.
Twenty-six years later, I drag Ursula on a tour of royal sites from York in the north down through London and on to Canterbury and Hastings in the south. Included were Churchill's birthplace Blenheim Palace and his grave at Bladon near Oxford. Possibly the nadir for Ursula, my then very pregnant bride, was a cold rain-swept pasture near Evesham where in 1265 the primogenitor of our parliamentary democracy Simon de Montfort was defeated by Edward I otherwise known as Longshanks. She sat for an hour in our car, a tad ticked, while I shivered on the rail fence under my umbrella and re-imagined the battle.
Also later in Windsor Castle, a matronly tour guide was describing the wife-laden history of Henry VIII and observed he'd sired no sons. Ignoring my bride's heel suddenly impaled in my foot, I merely asked whether Edward VI had been born of immaculate conception. Matron was not amused though to be fair she was probably the victim of a poorly researched script. I believe I redeemed myself later by helping Ursula with gravestone rubbings at Westminster Abbey. They graced our front hall for years.
You've discerned by now that Mom's apple didn't fall far from her royalist tree.
* * *
My preferred radio program? The Shadow, hands down. But among runners-up were Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Aldrich Family, The Great Gildersleeve and The Green Hornet. My father's favorite, in fact the only one he listened to regularly, was Amos 'n' Andy... which is an appropriate segue to the level of bigotry as it existed at that time in my world.
In our community, the only significant singularity was being born Protestant or Catholic. I knew of one Catholic boy who had the effrontery to marry a Protestant lass and was never reconciled with his family...at least not for the years I lived there. Granted there was also an occasional visit by a Jewish peddler with his incidentals but it was too infrequent to register as a commonality.
The first black person I saw outside of books was in the film 'Gone with the Wind' in 1939. I suspect the attitude towards them was consistent across Canada—we credited their ability in music and athletics and dismissed them. Cohabitation or marriage was unthinkable.
As for our native Canadians, they were often though not exclusively portrayed as savages. This was also the heyday of residential schools, some religiously inspired. Though one couldn't find a more compassionate woman than my mother, she had also believed assimilation was in their best interests. I do wonder if she was aware of the involuntary removal of children from their parents.
The onset of WWII ushered in patriotic bigotry that was directed at demonizing Hitler and the Nazis, but not necessarily all Germans. After all, they're much like us although possibly with a few bad apples to be sorted. Two years later the Japanese entered the war...and racial antipathy flowered.
Anyone could see they're different, right? So very few voices were raised when Canadians of Japanese descent became in essence non-citizens, were reimbursed a pittance for their property, and then interned at desolate camps for the duration of the war. One of my best friends in university and thereafter had suffered this ignominy with his father. That he later became a top executive with one of our largest multi-nationals may carry a message?
* * *
The massive contribution of the U.S. to the war effort continued to divert our attention away from the British Empire and toward our neighbor to the south. And the American post-war drive to harness technology to their pursuit of happiness was seductive, as seductive as their sirens who now ruled our screens. It accelerated the metamorphosis of our and their rural societies.
But there was no single overriding cause of rural change. It began with mechanization of cultivation, particularly mobile harvesters (combines)—within five years threshing bees were a thing of the past. A few farmers like my Dad purchased threshing machines and clung to old habits for a few years by partnering with one or two neighbours. But it was unsustainable...we lacked sufficient productive acreage to defray the additional expense. Western Canada quickly became our breadbasket.
A second factor was our reasonable proximity to Toronto. Middling to poor translates to hilly and scenic which appealed to the growing number of city elite who fancied a country estate. Property values increased rapidly as did taxes. For many young people, myself included, the handwriting was on the wall.
Except for the very few who would inherit larger prosperous acreage, the future would be elsewhere and the exodus began. By 1955, the local grade schools began to close and young men entered the trades in nearby towns or migrated to factories in the city. This would have been my future too if not for a mother's influence and a friend's intervention.
* * *
It's doubtful my parents were ever in a movie house prior to 1939. Their fiscal discipline was focused on a mortgage that I believe was finally discharged in the late Thirties. But then with a little more scratch and faster transportation, the stage was set to participate.
My first clear recollection is The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 and it whet my appetite for adult themes ...adult had a different connotation in those days. Saturday screenings were usually oaters or comedies. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were typical of the genre—see one, you've seen them all. A few comedians such as Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy appealed to me but the Three Stooges did not, whereas Dad never missed George Formby or Gracie Fields. Mother and I still remained fans of Margaret O'Brien...
The finest war movies usually lag the conflict by at least a decade but a few from the forties linger in memory, three in particular. My mother loved 'Mrs. Miniver' where a comment by Greer Garson to her husband reminded Mum of the night she woke Dad in a panic. In those days, it wasn't uncommon to suspend the alarm clock above the bed a bit out of arm's reach. On this night it was vigorously seriously swinging back and forth. Dad's response? "It's just a strong east wind" and went back to sleep. Next day a neighbour asked if they'd felt the earthquake.
James Cagney's 1942 'Captain of the Clouds' had a Canadian twist with Cagney as an aging bush pilot. Unusual for a flick of the time, it didn't end well. Of similar impact was 'The North Star', a U.S. propaganda film to bolster support for the Russian war effort with Anne Baxter in the role of a Ukrainian peasant. Just about everybody dies...
Scrolling through the war movies, though, reveals again the inexorable evolution of cinematic taste. And by the end of the decade a subset of the Canadian audience began to be receptive to foreign language work possibly due in part to a flood of new immigrants. An example was 'Mr. Hulot's Holiday', a French film without dialogue screened at Toronto's University Theater.
With my friend Gerry, we skipped a university class to see it. And it remains as hilarious today, this brilliantly choreographed focus on the often comical aspects of our very human reactions to everyday events.
* * *
Speaking of zero dialogue, imagination is far more powerful than words, particularly for a farm boy hopelessly shy but perpetually in love with a celluloid goddess. Meet my then dream girl.
Glenn Ford is on horseback and deserting his army post with the amoral Carmen behind him, her arms around his waist. Someone asks how can they possibly keep warm in the caves in winter.
Rita Hayworth smiles. That smile can still warm my cave.
* * *