In so many ways, my grandfather was everything a great patriarch should be: handsome, clever, strong, resourceful, self-made, and a wonderful storyteller. But, because of complicated family dynamics he was also totally inaccessible.
Miraculously, a few days before he died he shared these stories with me—spanning his WWII days in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Remembrance Day always brings me back to them, and it seemed like a good time to share:
Story of Origin (originally published in This Great Society)
Family lore says he once faced off with a Bengal tiger (and was left unscathed); that he landed a B-24 Liberator with two failed props, halfway across the Atlantic, in a wall of fog; that he had wrestled down an escaped convict who hijacked his car.
We never hear these tales firsthand, of course. They are locked up with the rest of his past in the vault of his broad chest. The chest of a man who hauled lumber for two decades. Broad, even now, frail as he is—almost a cliché in his hospital bed.
A long time ago he was a storyteller—a keeper of the past. But time and loss have silenced him.
His sweetheart died in 1965. Agnes was 16 when he began his quiet courtship in a rowboat off the North Shore. She was nearly 40 when lung cancer ended their happy marriage. Agnes had never smoked, but these things happen sometimes.
Their six children remain, a testament to affection. But the loss left an aching void he was desperate to fill. A neighbour widow moved in three months later. They had made new vows in a Waikiki wedding chapel, and she has since worked tirelessly to erase his past and reign in his present. But though she has burned his letters, locked away his journals and had the dead woman’s name removed from the tattoo on his forearm, she is contending with a memory, and Allan’s is incorruptible.
She presides over his hospital visiting hours, but for once we grandkids needn’t wait for a rare invitation to see our granddad. The ward is our access point. We keep coming to call, hoping for those blissful gaps—when she goes to make a call, get a cup of tea, walk out for air—and in her wake he reveals cheeky snippets of those ancient tales that have only ever been hearsay to us.
Then one blessed night she is absent. And, old as he is, he is very present. An intuitive twinkle in his eye meets the one in mine as he signals me closer. I close the curtain around his bed, suddenly complicit in breaking an unspoken rule.
He parts his cracked lips and begins with the War.
Ceylon. A bomber pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he and his crew had been thrashing through swaths of jungle for days and finally bivouacked in an interior village. A local child disappeared a few days prior and nearby trees bore telltale scars from giant claws. No one questioned the child’s demise and all slept fitfully in their stilted huts—little more than gazebos with hammocks, exposed—finding plenty to fear in the cacophony of nighttime sounds.
His gunner, a metre away, finally took to snoring and Allan flipped in his netting to block the sound. A monkey at the window ledge who had been nattering for an hour scampered away at last. But in its place the wind carried a gruff wheeze. It came from the left and then it came from the right, and from the left again until, with a huff and the thud of a thousand pounds of flesh and fur, it was immediately behind him. Hot breath condensed on his back, carrying the stench of decayed meat. A long tongue smacked against a damp muzzle. Coarse whiskers tickled him through fine mosquito netting, but Allan remained still, releasing a slow breath—picturing the single curl on his little girl’s head, the green trim on the white house he’d painted just before he got the call, Agnes’s small waist and the lavender dress she wore rowing that fine summer day. His final memories would be his best ones. Suddenly a light punctured his reverie. He turned, squinting in the beam of his gunner’s torch and witnessed the black tip of an orange tail slip away from the window ledge.
Here Allan smiles. He tells me that in the morning, when his men saw paw prints encircling his hut, they were sure of a bloody mess. But he and his gunman emerged triumphant, regaling them with a yarn about outwitting the beast through their own sheer cunning.
On he goes, chuckling to himself as he remembers childhood shenanigans: convincing his younger brother to eat slugs as a remedy for an earache; charging the neighbourhood kids a penny each to witness a boxing match between his sisters, unbeknownst to Mae or Grace; towing his polio-crippled friend in a self-fashioned wagon so he’d not miss a stitch of fun.
He tells me the miraculous tale of his first cross-Atlantic flight. From their base in Ontario his crew flew a bomber south and fuelled in Florida for the first leg. Trouble began over a vast stretch of ocean, with heavy sleet and lightening and then wind that flicked his Liberator like an eyelash off the cheek of a roiling black cloud. His radar failed and then his compass. Flying blindly through tar skies, one engine sputtered to a halt and then the other. The fuel gauge pointing firmly at E. Allan was a man of great faith and, within his crew, great authority, so while he manned the controls he directed his men to their knees. And as they prayed, a beam of sunlight broke through the fog. Like a searchlight it shone, not only toward the cluster of Azorean islands where they were due to refuel, not just at the very island that held the fueling station, but on the airfield itself.
He’s getting tired from all this talking, and also from drawing on the memory he’s always worked to subdue. But finally, he tells me a love story.
War was over—had been for over a month. He was already weeks overdue on his promise to be home for Christmas. He had a son who he’d never met, a daughter learning her first words, and Agnes, of course, who had stopped writing weeks ago lest her letters pass him on the journey.
In Southampton, soldiers and war brides clogged ship decks bound for New York. Cunard’s twin ocean liners were converted to carry 15,000 soldiers each—30,000 homecomings a week between them. But there were millions of soldiers in England. The wait was months.
Not an idle man, Allan passed the time visiting his wife’s Irish relatives, and then his own in Cornwall. There he was riding his bike one day when he met a man trying to fell an ancient oak in his garden. Allan rested his bike against the low stone wall and offered to help. For two weeks he returned every day to chop that behemoth into stove-sized tinder.
His departure date came, at last. He and his crew sailed aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth—once again clothed in her Cunard colours after years of gunmetal grey.
Raising a finger, he clarifies: “Not named for the Queen Elizabeth you think of now. The one before that.” He licks his lips and smiles, “And Winston Churchill sailed with us.”
He says it so casually that I make him say it again. And indeed, at dawn on each morning of the four-day sailing, England’s indomitable leader paced the upper deck—taking air and shouting greetings to officers on the deck below.
Elizabeth was met in New York by hordes of jubilant civilians. “We knew the fuss was meant for the Prime Minister, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying it.” Those ordinary-looking men soaked up the praise, finally feeling like the heroes they were. He pauses in his storytelling to catch his breath, and in spite of his frailty, I don't struggle to picture him in uniform with flawless posture and an assured grin.
The Canadian National Railway facilitated the rest of Allan’s journey—making stops in seemingly every town between Halifax and Vancouver. “We had men from each province in our company. As each one stepped off the train we were pretty sure we’d never see each other again.” He faced near-death alongside these men in those thick black nights gone by. These were not insignificant goodbyes, but even as he told of them, it was clear his mind was only concerned with the journey’s end.
Finally, finally, finally, the steamer rolled into Vancouver’s old Central Station. Military transport was relegated to the lower rails, far below the main commuter platform. Soldiers rushed from the train only to find their journey further prolonged—a hefty flight of stairs remained between them and the objects of all those muddy trench reveries.
“It was a winding staircase that wrapped around and around in a square. We all had heavy kit bags on our shoulders, but we ran up those steps.” He details the climb so carefully, reliving the agony of such superficial separation, knowing she was at the top of those stairs.
Wives and girlfriends, the finest they’ve ever looked, scanned the uniformed stream for the face they loved. “Your grandmother was there. She was wearing the felt hat I had sent her for Christmas, which was the fashion back then. It was covered in flowers.” He falters then, determined to hold his composure, but chokes briefly as he says, “She was so cute.” An unfamiliar smile emerges, showing his teeth, his real ones mind you, not the perfect enamel most men his age trade up for. It’s an embarrassed smile—shy to be still be so in love after so much time.
“I don’t know what happened to my bag. I must have dropped it at the top of the stairs. I didn’t even notice where it had gone, I only saw her in that flowered hat.” Another pause, this one much longer, accompanied by tears he fought off before, and again those impetuous words tumble out, “She was so cute.”
In the hospital bed he works to compose himself as I suppose he had to that day so long ago. They embraced. He tells how he picked her up with such abandon that that flowered hat came right off her head and tumbled down all those many flights of stairs. Another officer was kind enough to climb down and up again to retrieve it—Allan was far too engaged and couldn’t bear to leave Aggie’s side for even that long.
Fifty-five years have past since the end of that great war and Allan’s great separation. Until today he has never shared the tale of that reunion, but he doesn’t stumble over a single detail in the telling—as if he has recalled it every day since.