Writing in My Father’s Voice: Honouring His Wartime Experience (Part 2 of 2)

Thank you to Allyson Latta for permission to reprint this essay, which was first published Saturday, May 28th, 2011 on her website for writers, Memories into Story, www.allysonlatta.com.


Wartime-Log-Cover-smallerMy idea of writing a mock journal turned out to be not so far beyond the realm of possibility. The Canadian YMCA had distributed log books, like the one Johnny kept, to help Canadian PoWs fill time, cope, and record the day-to-day routine of an utterly un-routine life experience. Dad surprised me when he told me that he too had kept a log book; however, he’d left it behind when the men were marched from the camp on foot in January 1945. For Dad, practical then as he is now, it was a matter of squeezing the most out of the precious space in his backpack: it was the log book, or chocolate and smokes. There was no contest.

I began interviewing Dad formally three years ago, to fill in some of the gaps in his timeline. We spent hours together, huddled over my old Dictaphone, often in Mom’s room at the nursing home. It was terrific “together time” and very informative for me; however, the transcribing process was incredibly tedious. In hindsight, a digital voice recorder and voice-recognition software could have been my new best friends. And there were other challenges.

Although Dad would be quick to say that he “has all his marbles,” an 87-year-old memory is an 87-year-old memory. Some things he simply couldn’t remember (and he would get cross with himself for not remembering). Others he perhaps chose not to remember. Sometimes his events were right but his dates weren’t. That’s when I realized a narrative approach would have made it easier to be vague about, or gloss over, dates. Oh well, too late for that. And some things, I later discovered, Dad only thought he remembered, when I suspect he had actually read about them in his voracious consumption of all things written in the last sixty-plus years about Stalag Luft III, the Great Escape and the European Theatre of World War II. But his confident style of relating events threw me off track, and it took me a while to realize I would have to be rigorous in checking facts.

He told me several anecdotes, for example, about sailing overseas in 1942 on the Queen Mary, one of the world’s great luxury ocean liners, which had been converted to a troop carrier to support the war effort. I was thrilled; I love details, and these were exactly the kind of details that would add the realism I was after in his story. But when I later searched the Web for additional tidbits to include about the Queen Mary, I discovered, to my disappointment, that she had been in dry dock in Boston at the time his service file said he sailed!

Oct 2, 1942 – Queen Mary collides with British light cruise Curacao in Gourock, Scotland. Oct 14, 1942 – Nov 2, 1942 – Dry docked in Boston Naval Shipyard …

Oct 2, 1942 – Queen Mary collides with British light cruise Curacao in Gourock, Scotland. Oct 14, 1942 – Nov 2, 1942 – Dry docked in Boston Naval Shipyard …

When I casually asked Dad if he was sure he had sailed on the Queen Mary, he looked at me askance. So I let it go, but made up my mind to quietly dig deeper. In the end I got to the bottom of it and had an interesting journey along the way. My checking took me first to Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Europe-bound Allied service personnel assembled in the war years to go overseas. I became a regular correspondent with a Pier 21 researcher who helped me shortlist troop ships and dates from their ship database. Next I was off to my local library to arrange to borrow microfiche of National Defence records from Library and Archives Canada. The wheels of anything governmental turn slowly, and three months passed before the reel arrived. After many hours hunched over the library’s microfiche reader (with nearby students eyeing me as if I had just landed from Mars) and several large Tim Hortons to fuel me (plus one big headache), I discovered for a fact that Dad had shipped out October 31, 1942, on the Queen Mary’s sister ship—the Queen Elizabeth!

At this rate, I thought, I would never finish my writing. Yet it was important to me that the story have integrity. And I was fascinated by what I was learning and enjoying the research experience itself. That said, the fear quietly nagged at me that maybe I was using excessive researching as a stalling technique.

Stalag-Luft-III-Original-huts-300x207I also wanted to explain some of the cryptic things Dad had said in his letters. In his first letter home from the prison camp, for example, he wrote, “This camp is a swell place.” What? A swell place? I asked him, how could that be? You had just bailed out of a burning bomber, two of your crew were dead, you were prisoner of war number 1338 in Hitler’s Germany while World War II raged on, you were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. What could be swell about any of that? Dad was sheepish when I asked him what he thought he’d meant by that. But the more time I spent with him and his letters, the more I realized how very simple the answer was: he was alive.
Yes, he was a prisoner of war, but unlike so many others, he was uninjured, had food to eat, a roof over his head, the support of the International Red Cross and, so far anyway, the protection of the Geneva Convention. It beat the alternative.

Getting Dad to talk about his feelings was another challenge. When I asked him to tell me about his friends at the Squadron base in England where he lived for three and a half months, for example, he begged off, claiming that “guys were here today and gone tomorrow so it was hard to get to know anyone.” I didn’t completely buy that, guessing that he was likely as social then as he is now. What I did believe, however, was that it was easier not to talk about how commonplace it became to see guys at dinner one night but not at breakfast the next morning, their names simply erased from the crew board as if they had never existed. There wasn’t time or energy enough for grieving when there was a job to be done.

My Danish researcher friend recently pointed me to a website that lists every air operation flown by many of the Canadian Bomber Command Squadrons: the date, the target, the crews listed by name and rank, their fate. Every crew member who was killed has a little red poppy beside his name. The sea of poppies is sad and sobering, and I can’t even begin to comprehend what it must have been like for the men to live through that, always mourning friends and acquaintances, and wondering when it would be their turn. This is where my mock journal approach came in handy. If Dad was unable or unwilling to articulate his feelings, I would put on my “Dad hat,” transport myself as best I could back in time and into his shoes—and write from my heart. The journal approach too made it easier to keep entries brief and crisp, more in line with Dad’s personality anyway. When we got to the feedback stage, he would have free rein to tell me that what I’d written was wrong, or that he didn’t like it. Either way, I hoped a door would open to a new conversation about how he would prefer it to read (and why).

Asking Dad questions about his wartime girlfriends was also a bit dodgy. Although he didn’t meet and marry Mom until years after the war, in a typical father–daughter conversation, the topic of former sweethearts is not an easy one. Although the stage was set for me because their names appeared in his letters, he was vague on details in our interviews, and I found myself unable to take up the Harlequin Romance writer’s pen and make up details beyond the benign.

graves-300x199Throughout the interviewing and writing process, I did copious amounts of research to fill in gaps in time and check facts. Sometimes I’d be giddy with excitement at some little discovery—one I wasn’t sure anyone else would have the slightest interest in. Other times I’d be worn down by a lengthy head-banging search that led nowhere. I read other Stalag Luft III ex-PoW accounts: their published books, self-published memoirs, Web-based stories. I interviewed Stuart, a dear friend of Dad’s who was a roommate in the camp. I chatted with Dad’s other ex–Stalag Luft III PoW friends at social events. I read books about the Great Escape written by historians and history buffs. I watched documentaries, all the while scribbling notes. I researched the major events and timelines of World War II so I could realistically integrate them (but only the BBC version, because I knew that’s what the men listened to in the prison camp on their secret radio). I looked up Dad’s friends and colleagues from his training days and his Squadron who were killed in action, and found pictures of their perfectly maintained graves neatly lined up in war cemeteries in Holland, Germany, Belgium and England. (I’m so impressed and touched by the people around the world who have devoted themselves to honouring our war dead by making this kind of information so accessible online.)

As well, in moments of pure serendipity, I met many wonderful people through online forums, some who, like me, were searching for family information, and others who wanted nothing more than to help for the love of it. I struck up conversations all over the place, all made possible by the Internet. Meeting Allyson, too, at that first memoir workshop I attended last year and then participating in her Sabino Springs Writers’ Retreat in Tucson in January 2011 encouraged me and bolstered my self-confidence. I’m more certain now than ever that it was all meant to be.

So where are Dad and I in this adventure? The exceptional Sabino Springs retreat inspired me to set myself a deadline to finish a first draft, and finally screw up the courage to give it to Dad to read, come what may. I hadn’t shown him anything along the way, firmly believing that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” That was my story, anyway. The truth is, the further along I got with it, the more afraid I was to show it to him.

What if he didn’t like me including his personal letters? What if he didn’t like my journal approach? I was finally realizing what a risky undertaking this had been. What had I been thinking? But then I told myself that even if Dad didn’t love it, aside from being enormously disappointed I would have no regrets and would focus on the lessons learned.

After I handed over the manuscript, a few anxious days passed before Dad phoned me, and his buoyant voice said it all. He’d read the draft and had some changes for me, but overall thought my approach was “different” and “interesting”—such ambiguous words. And then, best of all, “marvellous.”

Barbara with her father in Kamloops, May 2011

Barbara with her father in Kamloops, May 2011

We got together for a feedback meeting and had a great conversation. He corrected some things, edited others, changed the timing of certain events and even added some new memories that the journal had prompted. And then . . . he magically produced an old, falling-apart, war-era photo album—one I hadn’t thus far seen—from which we picked a few snaps to include. It continues to amaze me what can emerge once you start looking, and, most importantly, asking questions.

Looking back, I see that the task I set myself was huge. And the decision as to where and how to start seemed overwhelming until I stopped researching, put my head down and just began to write. But even now I have these irrational ideas bumping into each other in my head: one, that when I stop writing about Dad I’ll somehow lose him; and two, that if I don’t hurry up he’ll never see a finished product. And what that finished product will look like remains to be seen. Finding a publisher would be a dream, self-publishing would be more realistic, creating books for family and friends is an option, and starting a blog would make sense in the short term.
There’s still much work to be done, but we are well on the road. I feel blessed that Dad is alive and well, in body, mind and spirit at age 90, and that we’ve been able to take this journey together. It’s made me love him even more, if that’s possible, to understand how his World War II experiences helped shape the man, and the father, he became.

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