The day after I got back I started reintegrating into Thunder Bay life. When I was renovating the Whalen Street house I became interested in Interior Design. That September I signed up for an evening course at Confederation College called “The Theory of Colour,” the first of five courses which I took over the next year and a half to earn a certificate in Interior Decorating. I was the single male out of an average 20 participants in each course. At first I felt like a fish out of water. But I got to like being the only man there and I developed a good rapport with the ladies. To this day Interior Design is a keen interest of mine.
Dad’s parents wanted him to be a commercial artist but Dad had his mind set on becoming an engineer like his Uncle Ted. Dad was always doodling caricatures of people and he was good at it. I’ve kept all of his drawings and one of his paintings hangs over my desk. I wondered if I had inherited any of his artistic skills. I signed up for a painting class as well. We made landscape and still life oil paintings and sketches. I found I did have some talent. I joined a painting group in January and found my niche in painting colourful landscapes.
I applied for work in other private labs in Thunder Bay and just about any job I thought I could do but to no avail. Nobody wanted me. There is no doubt in my mind that my general appearance shocked most potential employers. I got to know the expression on the face of a job interviewer seeing me for the first time. His/her eyes would widen slightly and gasp a bit while straightening up in the chair. They would be at a loss for words until I said hello. We politely went through the interview but I knew I didn’t have the job before we started. When I saw night work at the newspaper I applied for it. “At least nobody has to see me on the midnight shift,” I said to myself. I didn’t get past that interviewer either. The interviewers whom I met assumed my physical disabilities impaired my basic intellectual skills. That was their first impression of me and those perceptions are hard to change.
I vented my frustrations to my long time friend, Olga. She thought how unfair it was to turn someone down because of their appearance. Olga had left teaching to become a successful insurance agent and had joined a Rotary club. Twice she took me to a Rotary meeting to introduce me to her business contacts. Olga knew what I was able to do and her contacts would take her word for it regardless of what they thought when they saw me. But I shied away from Rotary. I was feeling very unsure of myself emotionally. The thought of working with confident, self-assured people was daunting. I didn’t join Rotary and I spent many frustrating years searching to find, on my own, those contacts Olga had tried to provide me with. I spoke to Olga a few years later and admitted, “Getting me out to Rotary to find contact people was exactly what I needed.”
Olga looked at me and said, “Brian, you weren’t ready for it.”
In many ways I was lost. In the split second when I found Mom dead in bed the tapestry of the protected world that my parents made for me unravelled. A big chunk of me jumped out of the middle of my chest, out through her bedroom window and away into the sky. It left a fathoms-deep, dark, cold, craggy-edged hole that I wanted to fill with whatever departed. I didn’t know what had left me but I knew I wanted it back. I felt the weight of that hole with every breath.
The effects of the shock wave that hit me that fateful morning when I found my mother dead stayed with me for a year. I shut down emotionally and yet my heart ached with an emptiness I could not suppress. Tears left me that morning and I have not shed a tear since. For the first two months I hurt twenty-four seven. As the year progressed I wasn’t hurting all the time and I felt guilty for not hurting. We’re strange creatures, aren’t we? The hurt turned into what I came to know as anxiety and depression. It was with me all the time dogging every aspect of my life – like wading through waste deep water impeding my progress to do things. Nearly everything I did was such an arduous task that any feeling of accomplishment was taken away and replaced with relief that it was finally done. For ten years I searched for a way to get rid of the grief my nerves caused me.
“I don’t control my nerves anymore. They control me. If only I could find what left me I’d be better.”
Once the first year had passed my anxiety and depression were at their worst from mid November through January. Maybe it was the seasonal bleak, cold weather, the approach of the Christmas season or both. Once November set in I dreaded the coming of Christmas. When the holidays arrived I wished the days away even though I still liked the cakes, goodies and get-togethers that came with that time of year. I breathed a sigh of relief when February came and an even bigger sigh when March arrived.
When Dad was 14 he got a job at The Northampton Electric Light and Power Company in nearby Northampton. He fixed fridges and stoves, well pumps, installed wiring in houses that had never had electricity until then and wired up runway lights at Northolt Aerodrome so the allied bombers could land at night. World War II was raging in Europe at the time. Northampton, not being of industrial importance, was unscathed by German bombing raids. Dad remembered seeing from where he lived 20 miles away in Lower Harlestone the night glow of the manufacturing centre of Coventry burning from German bombs.
Dad could wire up anything. When I was growing up if any wiring needed doing around the house such as installing a light or electrical switch Dad would take care of it. I helped and he showed me a few basic things such as how to properly connect two wires. But on the whole Dad was left to do it. As a kid I accepted that this was Dad’s job. As an adult, and especially after Dad died, I wish I had learned more from him when I had the chance.
I listened as he told me about the people he met on his travels around the district to do various jobs. Roger, the butler of one of the houses Dad wired up sat him down at the pantry table when he had finished and said, “Here, have these.” Dad looked at the plate of different kinds of chocolates in front him that was unavailable to most people during the war.
“Where did you get these?” Dad asked.
The butler replied, “This is too good for those people,” referring to the Lord and Lady of the manner.
An elderly man in Northampton, Mr. Thomson, called regularly to have something fixed. He often asked specifically for Peter Spare. Dad showed up to fix the stove or whatever Mr. Thomson needed doing. Usually there was nothing wrong with it. He just wanted someone to talk to and he liked talking to Dad. All the jobs were timed so they knew at the shop about how long it would take him to return. Dad said, “I have to go they’re expecting me.”
“Oh, tell them the kitchen light and the fridge needed fixing as well,” Mr. Thomson was lonely. He had the money to pay for the all the work and having Dad’s company was well worth the expense.
One afternoon Dad arrived at what should have been another routine job. A Mrs. Jenkins had a problem with her space heater. He knocked on the door. No reply. So he opened the door a little and called in. Dad listened and heard a faint, ”Help! Help!”
Dad went in to discover Mrs. Jenkins elderly mother in bed with the bed clothes on fire. The space heater had shorted out and set the fire. Mrs. Jenkins mother was bed ridden and couldn’t get out. Dad pulled the burning bed clothes off and threw them outside before the flames got to her. Mrs. Jenkins had just gone to the barn when Dad arrived and would not have been back in time to help her mother. Needless to say both women were very grateful.
When he wasn’t telling me about his days in Lower Harlestone Dad talked about his time in the Royal Air Force and his posting to India. Dad volunteered for the RAF when he was 17 rather than be drafted into the army at 18. His Uncle Ted was an engineer in the RAF stationed in Dayton, Ohio, developing the jet engine with the US Air Force. Ted was Dad’s idol and the reason Dad wanted to be an engineer. But that would have to wait until after the war. Dad wanted to work with radar – the new technology of the day. The RAF wasn’t hiring for that position but they needed people in the medical lab. So Dad changed his plan. It turned out to be his life’s career.
When Dad was signing up the officer taking down the personal information asked the Irishman in the line in front of him, “Name?” then, “Occupation?”
The Irishman and his friends had been smuggling goods across the Irish Sea. When they realized that the authorities were catching up with them they decided to enlist.
“Smuggler,” the Irishman replied.
“A what? I can’t put that down,” said the astonished officer.
The Irishman turned to his friend further back in the line, “Seamus, I’m a smuggler, right?” Seamus confirmed this. The Irishman looked at the officer who thought for a moment and then wrote transportation.
The new recruits were sent to Yorkshire in the north of England for three months of basic training and to life in the RAF. All kinds of people from every walk of life were thrown together to work as a team. Some of the men in the unit couldn’t take it and broke down. Dad’s non-judgmental nature allowed him to accept people as they were and to make the best of whatever situation he was in. It enabled him to both endure and prosper by seeing the good side of whatever he did, wherever he was, or whomever he was with. Throughout his life Dad could see the humanity in people that made them who they were and accept them for it. He would find people who were interesting for what they knew. But moreover he liked people because of their character that made them different in some way. It’s what I learned to like about people too.
Dad and the other recruits were each issued a riffle and taught how to use it. Then they were ordered to board a Lancaster bomber for the long flight to Karachi which was in India at that time. The men sat on hammocks strung over the bomb bay doors that didn’t quite close. Their hammocks were strung low enough that when they sat on them the men could put their feet on the bomb bay doors and watch the land or sea go by through the crack. They all hoped nobody opened the doors. In Karachi they helped to run the RAF #10 base hospital.
The war in Europe was coming to an end so the hospital’s main function was to treat British casualties who fought the Japanese in Burma along with receiving British POWs held by the Japanese. Dad squeamishly talked about the huge jungle sores he saw on the casualties and the emaciated state of the POWs. The jungle sores and other injuries were treated and the POWs were fattened up before they were allowed to return to Britain. They also provided medical treatment for the local people.
The RAF brass regularly ordered the British lab staff out on a route march. A sign was posted on the bulletin board giving them notice: ROUTE MARCH WEDNESDAY 0900 HOURS. Dad’s commanding officer, who was a physician, called to head office, “Look, we don’t have time for this. We’re trying to run a hospital.”
A note to state that the march was cancelled was later attached to the bottom of the sign. The RAF brass didn’t catch on. They kept ordering route marches and Dad’s CO would be on the phone to get them cancelled.
After four years in Karachi Dad was sent back to Britain. He always spoke warmly of the Indian people and his time there. Although Dad never went back to Karachi a part of him never left.
Dad returned to Lower Harlestone and to the job he had before he left. He now wanted to become a Clinical Chemist and work in a hospital. The regular program in London at the University of London was full. So Dad worked full time during the day and took evening courses in Northampton set by the University of London for four years to earn his degree.
After a full day’s work Dad often came home to find that he had been volunteered, usually by his mother, to repair the stove or a light for a neighbour. Everyone helped each other in a small village. He had to squeeze it in between supper, going to class and/or studying. By the time he graduated Dad was tired of being Mr. Fix-it. Uncle Ted told Dad that he couldn’t stay where he was if he wanted to get ahead in life. Dad decided then that he would leave the UK.
In 1952, when Dad received his degree, he took a job as assistant Clinical Chemist at Hillingdon Hospital in Uxbridge in Northwest London. Before he left to go to London his father, Pop, advised Dad, “Son, if you need a helping hand you’ll find one at the end of your arm.”
Dad never forgot it and it influenced many decisions he made throughout his life. He would do things by his own device rather than seek help – an ideal that also influenced me.
One Saturday morning close to a year before he died Dad reminisced about his boyhood years in Lower Harlestone. He looked straight at me with an expression of sudden realization on his face and said, “You and I would have been good friends.” I have no doubt we would have.
Instead Dad and I enjoyed a close friendship as father and son. Dad called me Pal. I was his pal and he was certainly mine. My heart ached when I realized I would never hear him call me Pal again.