Sharing with you things that are on my mind...Maybe yours too. Come back to Wrights Lane for a visit anytime!

17 February, 2014

THE REALITY OF BOYHOOD DREAMS THAT WERE NEVER MEANT TO BE

A discussion that I was involved in the other day prompted me to realize just how much war and the military was ingrained in the lives of those of us who grew up in the 1940s. There was never an era like it in Canadian history and there will never be another one like it in the future.

World War II was the defining experience of our lives. It bred a sense of patriotism and an intense consciousness of being a member of a distinct generation, set apart from those that came before or since. For most children, the war years were a time of anxiety. For many, this was a period of family separation. For some, it was a time of profound personal loss. For everyone it was a period of restraint and sacrifice. Fun was found in simple things like parlour games and visits with family and friends.
Me in 1943 and again in 1954.

War affected the way we played and impacted our imaginations. It had a powerful effect on the rhymes of childhood, the books, comics and newspapers we read, the movies we watched, the music we heard and the food we ate or didn't eat. Current events at school were focused almost entirely on news from the European front and the local boys who were serving overseas. When we sang God Save the Queen every morning before class and at the opening of all public gatherings, it had special meaning. We planted victory gardens and belonged to the Junior Red Cross. We collected care package items for soldiers and for needy families in war-torn European countries.

Many children had to grow up quickly during wartime. Some teenagers were required to leave school early to take jobs. While fathers fought in the war many younger children had to fend for themselves while their mothers worked to keep food on the table.

Most resources in the 1940s went to the war effort. Frugality and rationing were a fact of life for all Canadian families and people were resourceful out of necessity. Churches were the glue that held communities together and were the focal points of most social activity. People sought togetherness, faith and hope in a better day to come.

Neighbours and relatives who were conscripted into the armed services and fought overseas at the time were idolized by youngsters like me. Soldiers and baseball players were my role models and they continued to be well into adulthood.

For veterans returning from the devastation they had witnessed during World War II to the jubilation and normalcy that awaited them at home after peace was declared in May of 1945, the world must have felt like their oyster. Soldiers came back to heroes' welcomes and ticker-tape parades. What might not have been top-of-mind for those veterans was the job market that awaited them. Much like today's military personnel who leave behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, World War II vets returned home to financial uncertainty. That economic anxiety was the result of not-so-distant memories of the Great Depression. In the '40s, as is the case today, the issue of military personnel returning from service created challenges for employers, policymakers and the soldiers themselves.

Much to the credit of many employers and at the urging of government, priority consideration was given to returning war veterans in the mid and late 1940s. I mention this fact because it hit very close to home for my family in a rather unfortunate way.

My father Ken was born in 1899, too young as it turned out, to qualify for military service in World War 1 (June 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918) and too old to serve in World War 11 (September, 1939 to May, 1945).  While still a teenager and an apprenticing barber, he formed a rag-tag army reserve unit in his hometown of Dresden, ON.  With a few items of equipment gleaned from the Kent Regiment in Chatham, he and 10 other friends (all born in 1899) took part in drills and malitia-type training. When peace was declared a year later, the unit disbanded.

Fast-forward to 1947 or '48 when the first-ever Liquor Control Board (LCBO) store was established in Dresden and interviews were being held for the position of store manager. The job had certain appeal for my father who was about 47-years-of-age by then with 30 years of barbering under his belt. The going rate for a man's haircut in those days was 45 cents (50 cents for a shave) and in a good week Ken would bring home a paltry $20.00, so it was understandable that the $45.00 a week LCBO salary would be a factor in his applying for the job.

We collectively (my dad, my mother and me) kept our fingers crossed when it was learned that the list of applicants had been narrowed down to two people -- my dad and one other chap, a WW11 vet. Guess who got the job?  While devastated, my folks understood rationale in the hiring decision but there was a noticeable deflation of spirit in my father that he took to his grave some five years later. He was truely locked in to a line of endeavour that provided borderline subsistence for his family.  He felt he had let us down...The pain was palpable.

Meantime, interest in both baseball and the military escalated into my high school days.  When I should have been applying myself academically, my mind was on things baseball and army. I became Commanding Officer of the Lambton Kent District High School Cadet Corps and my math teacher Frank Brown, a retired Army captain, took me aside and said that if I could improve my grades to an acceptable level he would recommend me for officer training at Royal Rhodes Military College.

Bless his heart, I know that Frank was trying to motivate me to upgrade my marks, but my mind was already made up.  I had become disenchanted with school in general and knew I would not finish out the term. The lure of professional baseball was just too great and I left high school the next spring for a training camp in Cocoa, Florida. I was a far-too-young, wet-behind-the-ears 17 year old who would soon have his eyes opened to the cruel reality of professional sports and the odds against a Canadian kid making the grade in the great American pastime.

When the baseball career did not pan out and I found myself at a dead end in the men's retail clothing business,  I resurrected my interest in the army.  I thought about school chums who had already joined the armed services -- Carmen Harrett, Nelson Sommerset and Jim Simmons (Navy), Larry Gray and John Watson (Air Force) and Dave Meldrum and Larry Browning (Army). "If they could make it, then why not me?" I reasoned.  Still just 19 years of age, I walked into the army recruiting office at Wolseley Barracks in London and found myself sitting in front of the resident recruiting officer, a Major.  With a surprisingly fatherly demeanor and while another young fellow about my age was signing enlistment papers in an adjoining office, the Major generously interviewed me for a good hour.

In the end it was suggested that with my athletic ability and background in cadets, it would be advisable for me to return to school and to complete Grade 13 in order to qualify for officer training.  "Come back with your high school diploma and a career in the Canadian Army awaits you," were the Major's parting words. With no suggestion that I could still sign up if I wanted to, which I would have done, I left disappointed and rejected.

Instead of appreciating that the Major had taken time to offer advice that was in my best interest, I was engulfed with a feeling of inadequacy. I was not good enough to make it in baseball and now the army was out of reach for me too.  Two boyhood dreams dashed and for the time being no more dreaming left in me. While the circumstances were not quite the same, I felt very much like the late Ken Wright's son.

One thing I learned from those early experiences, however, was that there was a difference between having a dream and actually applying myself to it.

Now, 57 years later, and a former newspaper managing editor cum public relations director and lay minister in retirement, I still find myself wondering what if...and dreaming sometimes impossible dreams.

I soldier on with hope in my heart and an ever-so-slight glint in my eye!

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