Toronto – August 8, 1943

(Dodging Shells gave you Tommy’s letters from the front. But what was life like back in Toronto during wartime? Well, there were no great hardships–but here’s one of his twin sister Kathy’s letters to Tommy. See for yourself…)

August 8, 1943

Dear Tommy,
…..It’s great to hear you sounding like your old self. I knew sooner or later you’d want to chat. I assumed, from the pathetically inadequate letters I’ve been receiving, that you were distracted by your new and dissipated cosmopolitan life and I certainly didn’t want to intrude. But now I can feel free to blab away as if you were back home again. I’ve missed you.

…..…I’m sure I wrote to you when I was hired as an elevator operator at Simpson’s department store about a week after graduating from high school. But did I mention last year that I was switched to operating the executive elevator? Surely you didn’t think the executives of such a huge store would take the public elevators like everyone else and get jostled around with the crowds, did you? You may never have even noticed the executive elevator. It’s not with the others; it’s over by the corner of Queen and Bay Streets. It’s an older elevator, and trickier to operate, but quite beautiful–all scrolly brass grillwork and satiny hardwood. And I don’t have to stand on my feet all day, endlessly pulling the doors open and closed for people–oh, no! I wait. When an executive needs the elevator, he rings for me and I appear, like a genie in an ever-so-smart tailored uniform, and transport him down to the ground floor…or up to the executive floor, as the case may be. The elevator is an express–it doesn’t deign to visit any of the more plebeian floors.
…..And between calls there’s a neat little fold-up seat where I can park, in this jewel case of an elevator, and read. The pay is meagre ($13.50 a week, to be painfully exact) but I can eavesdrop on the rich and famous, and you wouldn’t believe how many books I’ve been able to enjoy in the past year. The company has stocked a handy library on the main floor for the use of the employees; I guess they hope it will distract us from more disruptive mischief. Imagine my delight!
…..Of course, if any of the executives work late, I have to stay overtime to provide elevator service or the poor dears would be stranded up there in management heaven. But it doesn’t happen often, and I don’t really mind.

…..…I still put in the occasional week operating the public elevators. It’s certainly livelier over there–in fact, last year it was sometimes absolutely manic. The war wasn’t going well at that time (I’m sure you noticed), and apparently there were some folks in Toronto who were convinced that the Germans might start bombing the city at any moment; I suspect they had no realistic grasp of the distances involved. In any case, Simpson’s carried out air raid tests, and management bragged about our ability to evacuate the entire store in less than eight minutes. I’ll leave it to you to imagine the strain on the elevator operators!
…..It wasn’t just us–there were simulated air raid attacks across Toronto, complete with city-wide blackouts.
…..In May, a German prisoner of war escaped from the Bowmanville detention camp, prompting the timid to cower in their homes, picturing him prowling evilly through darkened city streets, no doubt. He was soon found and returned to the camp, where he could enjoy his three square meals a day again with a clear conscience, his duty as a loyal Nazi and an unwilling detainee having been fulfilled.
…..In the fall, I actually saw a convoy of jeeps and tanks clanking along Lakeshore Road, heading for a mock attack on ‘enemy’ troops dug in at Sunnyside Park. (I wonder if they dismantled the kiddie rides, or just fought around them.) I understand that a ‘Canadian’ force stormed the beach from boats moored in Humber Bay, and ‘Jerry’ was soundly and promptly defeated. We all rested easier knowing what would befall any evildoers who thought of invading our staunch city.
…..But now that you Canadian boys have gotten involved, we’re all a lot less nervous about the outcome. We know you’ll trounce them–it’s just a matter of time. I remember that, right from the beginning, it was predicted that the war would last for three years. We didn’t believe it then, but how could we know they’d keep you out of it for so long? Now that you’re there, they can wrap it up and we’ll all be able to get on with less disruptive dramas.

…..…I met the girls at the Savarin Restaurant on Bay Street. The five of us were seated at a round table and did our best to do justice to the white linen and silverware atmosphere, sharing compliments and commonplaces in a most reserved and genteel manner–for a while. But the Savarin had been chosen because it serves buffet-style. That’s quite fashionable somewhere–I don’t know where–and we were eager to try it. Furthermore, they served lobster. Lobster!

…..…When we left the restaurant, it was with restraint and decorum–resisting the urge to pocket the sugar packets and butter pats. It was most satisfying to see the remains of them peeking out of their little dishes on the tabletop. It proved that we were ladies, and were accustomed to dining in fine restaurants quite regularly. (We weren’t.)
…..You see, sugar and butter are rationed, and jam and honey, too. But rationing doesn’t apply to restaurants, so we’ve all gotten accustomed to grabbing up (with wildly varying degrees of subtlety) any leftovers and taking them home to use later. Honestly, though, we never seem to do without much. The rationing is mostly just an inconvenience. We get ration books every month, and tear the little stamp-sized coupons off to present every time we shop. The rules for meat are ridiculously complicated…depending on what cut you buy. But we just let the butcher figure it out. We can never afford to buy more than the ration allows anyway. And if we did go over just a bit–well, a little smile aimed at the shopkeeper can work wonders, you know!
…..Of course, a black market promptly sprung up. Do you remember little Bobby Freed down the block? Well, he and one of his pals drove to Acton, where they broke into a creamery and made off with seventeen boxes of butter (that’s 850 pounds of butter!) And three chickens. He could hardly deny it; when the police searched his house, they found butter everywhere: in the dining room, in the parlour drawers, in the sewing machine, and especially in the basement–along with the three chickens. Unless the young crook was planning a really big party to which he certainly didn’t invite me, he intended to make a tidy profit from people who are a lot more greedy than patriotic. So Bobby, at the tender age of eighteen, will be spending the next year in the Guelph reformatory, where his consumption of butter will, no doubt, be strictly monitored.
…..Naturally, stockpiling is not encouraged, but I know that Grandma Marshall tucked away quite an impressive stash of canned salmon in anticipation of rationing, along with God only knows what other delicacies. (She insisted on offering me a couple of tins when I visited last month, and I would have pointedly refused them…except I really love salmon!) Her conscience may be tweaking her a bit, though, because I hear that the soldiers she regularly invites for dinner always leave with a few tins as a sort of edible going away gift.

…..…I don’t know how you’re going to adjust when you get back, I’m sure. You still can’t buy even a glass of wine here without ordering a meal and Toronto the Good would immediately burst into righteous flames if hard liquor were to be consumed publicly. Sundays are just as deadly as ever…no shopping, no movies, no sports–even the newspapers can’t publish on Sunday. Are you sure you’re not just killing time over there so you don’t have to come home to Toronto Sundays?

…..I’ve been wanting to ask you about an incident mentioned in the Toronto Star a couple of months ago. It seems that a group of English mothers met in their local church to discuss some worthy patriotic endeavour or other, leaving a small fleet of perambulators parked on the lawn. Inside each pram was a rosy British infant, enjoying the spring sunshine in whatever fashion British infants deem suitable. If they’re at all like our own Canadian babies, many were probably snoozing, and others were gurgling at the light and shadows peeking through those ancient trees that adorn all English churchyards, we’re told. But a restless few showed signs of becoming just a bit bored and fretful. These last few attracted the attention of a couple of Canadian soldiers who were strolling by. Fearing the spread of rebellion among the tiny Brits, no doubt, the helpful Canadians gently lifted the tots (the babies didn’t mind at all) and replaced each one in a different perambulator, providing all with a refreshing change of venue. Their benevolent work completed, they strolled over to a nearby bench–well, not too nearby–and considerately sat down to see that no harm came to the little dears.
…..As the meeting concluded, the ladies hurried out and began trundling the prams down the road toward their respective homes. Suddenly one pram jerked to a halt, and a shriek from the attendant mother shook a few leaves right out of the venerable trees. It was the first of a chorus of wails and shouts as the indignant women sorted out their offspring. The soldiers, by this time, had discreetly abandoned their post and made a strategic retreat into the surrounding shrubberies. I believe the women are still searching for the culprits.
…..Was that you? Were you there? Tell me the truth…when did you leave England? No, never mind. I won’t believe you anyway. I’m sure those women would have caught a glimpse of red hair disappearing through those bushes, if they’d only looked closely enough.

…..Everyone at home is fine: Dad…Mom…all the assorted relatives. In fact, it’s embarrassing to admit just how comfortable we are while you trudge around over there in the heat and the dust, keeping us all safe. Please take care of yourself. Try to come back without getting anything bent, broken or perforated, won’t you?

Heaps of Love (whether you deserve it or not),


About Wendy Bertsch

I’m a Canadian author—a pragmatic optimist with rather eclectic interests and a pervasive sense of humour. Toronto born and bred, I live by the lake with a motley array of dogs and a cat, all but myself being of unknown origin, in a comfortable old house filled with books. Over a thousand books. Books in every nook and cranny. And now, since there can never be too many books, I'm writing more. Once More, From the Beginning highlights the women in the bible. It's about time! And believe me, they see things quite differently. And in Dodging Shells, you'll meet the irrepressible Tommy, as he fights his way through Italy in World War II. You'll love Tommy. I do. Next? Well, that's a secret yet. Stay tuned... I recently initiated the fledgling Ocean Highway Books, providing editing, formatting and cover design services to authors wishing to self-publish.
This entry was posted in Canadian army, Dodging Shells, historical fiction, history, humour, Kathy's letters, Tommy, Toronto, World War II and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Toronto – August 8, 1943

  1. Robert Davidson says:

    Kath’ys letter is wonderfully sculpted in effervescent prose – lively, active, revealingly accurate and a gem of wit and laid back humour. Author! Author! Take a bow!

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