Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My family's contribution to the War

honourable discharge from the WarWhen the War started, Canada got pulled in, just like that.

For some, it was an opportunity to act out fantasies of glory on the battlefield, to travel and see the world, to kill the nasty, evil Hun. For Vic, it was a free trip home to Wales. One day he announced to his family that he was leaving and within a week he was gone, dragging his underaged brother, Harry along with him.

And with that, the family who was already living semi-regularly on handouts lost its only source of occasional income. At the time, Winnifred had five children and another on the way. They lived in a house in the forest of North Burnaby that lacked running water and electricity and having only arrived in Canada two years earlier, had no other family to fall back upon. Unable to find a job and unable to feed the kids she had, she drove to Seattle where she had an abortion.

Meanwhile, Vic had been deployed to France with the Sappers and wasn't enjoying himself very much. Coincidentally, he just happened to suffer from an ear ache, which might possibly have been an infection. Then afterward, his teeth started bothering him and his eyes, because he needed glasses, and once he had glasses he was completely unsuitable for trench warfare and had to drive a truck in the back instead. Then he got the flu. Then he got gonnorhea. Then he suffered from some sort of stomach ailment. And another ear infection. Then he went AWOL. Then he spent some more time in hospital, and then was disciplined for theft of public property and then he got a mysterious concussion while he wasn't even fighting...

From what I can tell from his records it's likely he didn't spend more than about 28 days at the front during the duration of the War, after which the War ended and he was honourably discharged by King George. Harry returned a drug addict with permanent psychological and emotional damage.

The government only loves the working class when it needs to and dropped the patriotic slogans shortly after the Armistice. A lot of veterans came home to little or no support from the government for their lack of employment, disabilities and mental issues. Harry and Vic were both unemployed, Harry, because he was too shellshocked, and Vic... well, I don't know about Vic.

He used to find temporary employment strikebreaking in construction and in the dockyards. Life's dangerous for scabs, and eventually it got him killed. The details on this are fuzzy. You could blame the cold weather or the lack of safety regulations for the fact that he fell to his death into a ship's hold, but it's entirely possible that he was pushed.

Faced with the prospect of raising seven kids and a drug addict on a widow's pension of one dollar per child per month, Winnifred gathered everyone into the back of a 1912 McLaughlan-Buick and took them for a "holiday" in the interior where she abandoned three children by the side of the road.

It's the most powerful part of my grandfather's autobiography. Something that comes across in the written version, more so than when he used to tell it, was how terrified he was that he would be the next to be left behind, loathing and hatred for both his parents and the trauma of events that have left permanent rifts in my family. That chapter is the only one in the entire book that brings me to tears.