Having just celebrated Father’s Day on Sunday, how would you describe your father? Mine, like the fictional Don Draper in Mad Men, was an enigma only partially revealed over the years.
Dad even looked like Draper, exuding confident charm beneath a crisp business suit and dark hair. Here’s a statement from Wikipedia that describes my father well: “The character of Don Draper demonstrates a strict code of personal ethics, insisting on honesty and chivalry in his subordinates, but not always in himself.” Although smoking disgusted my father and he never did it, he eventually over-imbibed, a weakness that had previously appalled him when demonstrated by other family members. And, being his daughter, of course I overlooked Dad’s womanizing for as long as humanly possible.
It is the image of the suit and Dad’s pleasant, and concerned, face above the starched white collar that is my first life memory. I was pretty thrilled at being raised by my very own Prince Charming, although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that back then as I was only two-years-old and my parents were dropping me off at the hospital to have my tonsils and adenoids removed.
I dreamed, or fantasized, about warplanes a lot in those early years at 1421 Birchmount Road in Scarborough. I’d be holding the hand of a slender woman and we’d be running, through fields, as bombers chased us. Perhaps it was a past-life experience, or perhaps I was just hearing the soundtrack of war movies from the black and white RCA Victor downstairs in the living room. Or, perhaps I was picking up something from Prince Charming, who’d been conscripted in the 1940’s, along with his older brother, Van, and his cousin, Owen, from New Brunswick to go to Europe to participate in WWII.
They’d made a pact, these three men, to refuse active duty. (I’ve done some reading about this and it was probably a challenging stance, rife with ridicule about being cowardly from higher-ups.) My uncle Van apparently peeled a lot of potatoes. But, despite being sons of a horse trader, they were good drivers of vehicles, my uncle and my dad, because they had access to them at a young age. Uncle Van drove a supply truck in Holland and one night made some wrong turns, ending up behind enemy lines. There was a bright moon that night, so he turned off his headlights and used it to guide him on his treacherous and unknown way back to camp. The higher-ups said, “No way. This couldn’t have happened. You couldn’t have made it out of there alive.” They questioned him for three days. Uncle Van thought, well fine, if that’s the way you feel. The Dutch were desperate for supplies – I heard that women boiled tulip bulbs to get something nutritious in water for their babies – so thereafter, when someone needed fuel, he’d say, “My truck’s parked over there.” When army brass got wise and started checking his fuel gauge, Uncle Van discovered that if you tromped real hard on the pedals with your army boots you could break the gauge.
Unfortunately, Dad never told me one war story. I guess they were advised, by army officials and doctors, not to talk about it. Civilians just wouldn’t understand.
My cousins, daughters of Dad’s sister, recently presented me with three letters that my father – Private #G604760 – wrote while stationed in Europe. One, written to his mother when he was 21-years-old, goes as follows:
July 10, 1945
I got two letters from you a while ago. I left The Hague about 3 weeks ago. I was in another place called Amersfoort in Holland, about 50 miles from there. I didn’t like it in Amersfoort. I went back to The Hague quite a few times. The hitch-hiking was very good.
I saw Van last week. He had a 5-day leave and he came to Amersfoort. I think he will be going home, he’s not in the occupation force yet. I’m in the occupation army. I don’t know how long I will be here. I should get a leave to England pretty soon.
We’re allowed to wear brown shoes over here. I wonder if you could get me a pair, size 6-1/2 G-width and a pair of socks and a can of brown shoe polish. We can’t get any dress shoes over here at all.
Well, I guess there isn’t much to write about so will close for now. Write soon.
Dad keeps it vague, says he “didn’t like it in Amersfoort”? Turns out there was a concentration camp there. According to Wikipedia, it was liberated by Canadian soldiers on May 7, 1945. My father either would have participated in this and/or witnessed horrific sights in June as a member of the Canadian Army Occupation Force charged with dismantling the camp.
And, at 21, he asked his mama for dress shoes while overseas? Toward the end of his banking career, Dad was ridiculing himself in his suits as “Fancy Dan”. Changing times, or changing man? Or both?
On social media, we’re prone to oversharing. In Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott wisely says, “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.” A good warning for a girl raised by a handsome man concealing a treasure chest of secrets. I just wish his confident exterior ran deep enough for him to have let some potentially sharable treasures out for inspection from time to time.