March 14, 1944
…..The mortar platoon…that is good news. The way you seem to attract every bullet and shell fragment that comes your way, I figure the farther you are from the Germans…the better. Or one of these days you might really get hurt!
…..By the way…what’s a mortar?
…..I want you to know we’ve been doing our small bit here to aid the war effort…don’t think we haven’t. The government organizes regular paper drives, to be used for shell casings as well as for wrapping supplies for overseas. And they collect kitchen fat as well—who knew it could be so deadly? In medieval times, they used to pour boiling oil down from castle walls onto the vulnerable heads of attacking soldiers. (I guess the ones who weren’t badly burnt wasted a lot of precious time cleaning up the mess.) Now they use the fat to manufacture explosives—more deadly, and you don’t need to be standing on a wall. Some of the movie theatres would even admit a kid to special Saturday afternoon shows on receipt of a two pound tin of leftover fat or grease. (That was before meat was rationed and roasts became a rarer commodity.) And I bet not a single one of those innocent little tykes would have chosen to miss a show just because their admission fee was being used to kill people.
…..Housing has become scarce since people are being brought in to Toronto to work in the munitions factories. A trailer park has sprung up right on the east side of University Avenue near the hospital! The Housing Registry has been begging people to rent any spare space to war workers and their families, and those who can are eager to oblige. It brings in extra cash, and who couldn’t use some?
…..The only room we have vacant, of course, is yours, Tommy, but they made it sound so much like our patriotic duty that we do occasionally take in a boarder. (Don’t worry…I packed all your most important things away in boxes in my own room…no matter how cramped it is for me. I found a couple of magazines….you’ll know the ones…that I decided weren’t important enough for me to inconvenience myself over, so I threw them out. Shame on you.)
…..One of these paying guests was an eccentric Englishman who was working for a while at the Inglis plant over on Strachan Avenue. (Inglis was converted early in the war and probably made the very Bren guns you’ve been using.) Stan was tall and thin, like a stork, with a mesmerizing Adam’s apple bobbing underneath a great wedge of a nose that would make the statues on Easter Island jealous. One expected him to fall flat on his face at any moment from the very weight of it. And to make things worse, he reminded me immediately of Ichabod Crane from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and nothing about him ever really contradicted that impression.
…..One evening, after dinner, Stanley had disappeared upstairs and the rest of us were relaxing in the living room when the power went out. It seemed sensible to retreat to the kitchen, where we lit a few candles and sat around the table to wait for the electric lights to go back on. There was quite enough light for me to read my book, and Mom was engrossed in a new magazine.
…..The Sunday before, Dad had been intrigued by a radio concert featuring some guy playing the saw, of all things! You know Dad…he was determined to give it a try, although he didn’t have the first idea how it might be done. Anyway, he had borrowed an old violin bow somewhere, and he decided that a blackout was as good a time as any to develop his saw-playing technique. Apparently, you can control the pitch by bending the saw blade or something, and he was eventually able to get some variation of screechy sounds from the thing, although I can’t say they were awfully melodious. Fortunately, the lights came back on before the sound became intolerable.
…..Just as we were preparing to migrate back into the living room where it was more comfortable, our boarder appeared…wrapped in a bath towel and dripping on the hall floor. All of him that we could see—and it was more than enough—was a shade of blue that’s much more becoming on a periwinkle than it was on Stanley, and he was shaking violently from his head to his skinny feet. His teeth were clenched, and it was clear that we’d have to ask the obvious question. Dad stepped into the breach.
…..“Stanley. Is there a problem?”
…..“I was having a bath.”
…..“Yes. We see that.’
…..“The lights. They went out.”
…..“That was some time ago. They’re on again now, Stanley, as you can see.”
…..“But they were off a long time,” Stanley hissed, through his chattering teeth. “It was all right at first, but the water got very cold.” The pipe from the hall stove does a pretty good job of warming upstairs—Dad had a friend install asbestos pads a couple of years ago to protect the walls from the heat—but when the bathroom door is closed, you know how cool it can get in there after a while.
…..“I imagine it did, Stanley. You mean to say you’ve been in the tub the whole time?”
…..“I’m not kidding!” Stanley summoned up enough energy to snap this out. “I’m bloody freezing.”
…..“Well, why on earth didn’t you get out of the tub and towel off?”
…..“It was dark.”
…..“Well, yes. It was dark. So what?”
…..“And there were sounds in the room”
…..“Yes. Horrible sounds. You can’t imagine…didn’t you hear the sounds?” He was whispering now.
…..“Oh. That. Well, I was playing the saw. I suppose I’m not very good at it.” I think Dad was a bit miffed that the word music had not come to Stanley’s mind.
…..“No! It was right in the bathroom.”
…..Tommy, remember how we used to sit at the grating in the bathroom floor to hear Mom and Dad talking in the kitchen when we were kids? It never hurt to know which of our misdeeds they were wise to. You can hear everything up there. You remember…the grating…by the bathtub.
…..“So…you just stayed in the tub.”
…..“Yes. I was terrified!” His Adam’s apple bobbed.
…..“You just stayed there and shivered.”
…..“Yes! I thought I might be safe…as long as I didn’t move. I thought they might not notice I was there.”
…..“Well…whatever was making those awful sounds.”
…..“I told you. It was me. Playing the saw. In the kitchen.”
…..Stanley stared blankly. “Playing the saw?”
…..“Never mind, Stanley. Go get dressed. It’s over now.”
…..“Come down when you’re ready,” I choked. “I’ll put on some coffee. Hot coffee will warm you up.”
…..We laughed until we nearly peed, but we didn’t dare go upstairs, and we kept well clear of the kitchen grate until we were under control…just in case.
…..I haven’t bothered to explain why Stanley is not in the armed forces. I think it’s clear why anyone with a heart would excuse him from seeking any active duty. And I just know you fellows would much prefer that he stay right here.
…..I can understand why newcomers like Stanley begin to wonder, by March, whether winter here is ever going to end—impromptu blackouts and bitter cold and clambering over thigh-high snowbanks to reach the road, only to step into a lake of freezing slush—it’s a tough country to get used to in the wintertime. But it has its compensations.
…..Have you ever gone skating at the Jolly Miller’s Tavern up on Yonge Street? One Saturday last month, I met a few of the girls at the street car, and we headed north, with our skates slung around our necks and our woolliest underwear well hidden by warm slacks and several layers of sweaters. Well…almost all of us did. Alice showed up decked out in a black velvet skating skirt with a matching tiny jacket. Her skates were stashed in a darling velvet bag and she had only a pair of tights covering her legs. She looked like a pro…ready for the Ice Capades!
…..Oh…I forgot…you wouldn’t know. The Ice Capades is a Hollywood-style cabaret show on ice…lots of scantily-clad girls with spangles, on skates. Anyway…she really looked like she knew what she was doing.
…..“Hey, Alice…are you sure you’re going to be warm enough?”
…..“Sure! The sun’s out.” (It was.) “And anyway…I brought a scarf.” It was tiny and fluffy and ethereal and it looked great with her tiny, fluffy hat. “There’s no harm in looking good, is there?” She glanced ever so briefly at our more pedestrian garb. “There are sure to be some guys there…soldiers skate, don’t they?”
…..“Sure…soldiers skate. You look adorable. Let’s go.”
…..At the end of the line, we switched to the radial car and continued up Yonge Street. The radial is great fun! It’s an old, double-ended reversible streetcar that goes back and forth on a single set of tracks. When it gets to the end, the back becomes the front, and south it comes again. There’s an old iron coal stove in the centre of the car, and the conductor sits across the aisle from it. When he’s not taking fares, he tends the fire, scooping the coal out of the storage bin with a handy little black shovel. The seats aren’t upholstered like they are in the city; they’re wooden. And the floors are made of wooden slats, so the melted snow from our boots just trickled down and there were no puddles (which just goes to show you that modern improvements have their price—the modern cars have no-skid floors, but the puddles in the winter can make a soggy mess of your pant cuffs). We felt a bit like we were going back in time…and the Jolly Miller, once we reached it, fit neatly into the illusion.
…..By the time we got there, the city had gradually been left behind and the tavern, along with a general store, was pretty much alone in Hogg’s Hollow. (I’m not kidding. It’s called Hogg’s Hollow.) Even the old streetcar seemed modern and out of place. The effect was charming.
…..The Jolly Miller is a huge old rectangular building with a wonderful signboard out front featuring—you guessed it—an appropriately jolly miller. The rink has been built on the flats in back. And there’s a cozy change room in Hogg General Store, neighbouring the tavern, with washrooms available there. (This is a good thing, considering how far it is from the city. Just imagine! No place can appear quaint surrounded by yellow snow.) I guess they don’t want kids traipsing through the tavern—and the store probably figures they’ll do enough business in snacks to make it worth their while.
…..Out on the ice, it was easy to forget time and place. The sun glinted off the snow and frosted tree limbs all around, and helped our own motion to keep us warm. Even the crisp air seemed to sparkle, and the hiss of skate blades was mesmerizing. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to realize that Alice definitely did not know what she was doing, after all.
…..Oh, she looked like the most graceful of snow fairies, in black velvet and fluff. She was exquisite…while she was upright. But when I first noticed her on the rink, she was sprawled flat on her butt. I almost tripped over her.
…..“Alice! Are you okay?” I blurted. “Here…let me help you up.”
…..“Thanks, Kath. No! Not under my arms…it looks so awkward…just give me your arm…” She wobbled to her feet (or, rather, to her blades), and brought her legs together in a pose that would have been perfectly ladylike if her skate blades had been perpendicular to the ice. But they were splayed out sideways…her ankles wouldn’t hold her weight.
…..“Come on over here and sit down,” I ordered. “I’ll re-tie your laces. They’re all wrong.”
…..She parked (gracefully, I’m bound to add) on a bench beside the rink.
…..“Did anybody see me, do you think?” she asked.
…..“I don’t see how they could miss you. Brush the snow off your ass. Here. Leave the laces comfortable at the bottom, so you won’t cut off your circulation. Then real tight at the ankle, for support. Looser up the leg.”
…..“Oooh! They’re too tight!”
…..“They’re not. You’ll get used to it.”
…..“Do they pinch?”
…..“They’re fine. Leave them alone. Now stand up!”
…..Now her blades met the ice at a clean right ankle. For a while.
…..“They feel funny,” she complained. “I feel teetery.”
“That’s because you’re perched on blades instead of sliding around on your ankles! Now come on…and keep your legs apart and your hands out, for balance, until you get better at it.”
…..“But that looks so clumsy!”
…..“Not as clumsy as wiping the ice with your butt!”
…..“You go ahead…” She crossed her ankles demurely and arranged herself to best advantage. “I think I’ll just sit here awhile and see who’s on the ice.”
…..The next time I noticed her, she was skidding around the rink helplessly, clinging to the arm of a handsome stranger. He guided her, protectively. She gazed up at him trustingly. It was very touching. She had loosened her laces.
…..While the sun shone, the other girls and I skimmed around the rink, joking and chatting, and I had no trouble putting Alice out of my mind. But after a couple of hours, the sky became overcast and it started to snow. We were deciding to catch the next streetcar for home when we heard a shriek and saw a crowd gathering at the other end of the ice. It was Alice, collapsed on the ice again…and this time she couldn’t get up.
…..She was sobbing, and none too gracefully. Her nose was running and her skirt had gotten bunched up under her in a manner nobody could call ladylike. “My ankle is broken!” she wailed. “It hurts!”
…..We practically had to carry her back to the change room—she was making a really embarrassing fuss—and we wrestled her skates off.
…..May felt around the ankle a bit. (May works in a doctor’s office.) Alice, of course, howled.
…..“Knock it off!” ordered May. Patience isn’t one of her strongest traits. “It doesn’t seem like any bones are broken. You’ve probably sprained your ankle.”
…..“Oh my God! What are we going to do? What if it is broken…what do you know?” She was whipping herself into a frenzy. “We’re stranded here in the middle of nowhere…we’re helpless!” Handsome had long since disappeared. I don’t blame him.
…..“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “We’ll get you back to the city and to the doctor…that’s what we’re going to do.”
…..We barely had time to buy a couple of candy bars to share on the trip home when the radial arrived. Nothing is all bad. Alice looked so pathetic that we were immediately offered seats right by the stove.
…..“Oh, well,” she sniffed. “I was getting cold out there anyway.”
…..“Imagine that,” I responded, unsympathetically. It’s lucky I have no desire to be a nurse. I haven’t got the personality for it.
…..I was glad we hadn’t stayed longer. It was really snowing now. We were well on our way back through time toward the city when Alice sat bolt upright.
…..“Oh, shit!” she yelped. (So much for demure propriety.)
…..“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did someone joggle your ankle?”
…..“No, nothing like that…” she moaned, tears starting to roll down her cheeks. And, believe me, her makeup was already the worse for wear without this additional damage. “It’s the Leap Year dance next week at the Columbus Hall—I won’t be able to dance!”
…..“Oh, for Pete’s sake! If that’s all you’re worried about, your leg can’t be hurting so damned bad.”
…..“It does so hurt,” she pouted. “But I was looking forward to the dance.”
…..“What’s the big deal?”
…..“You know…it’s leap year…the girls get to ask the guys we really want to go with, for a change. I was thinking about asking that fellow I was skating with. Did you see him?”
…..“Who…handsome? Oh, he faded out as soon as that last fall shattered the romance. If there’s someone you want to go dancing with, why don’t you just ask them to another dance…when your ankle’s better?”
…..“Oh, you know I can’t do that! What would they think?”
…..“They’d think you wanted to go to a dance with them.”
…..“Oh, don’t be so silly…but leap year…at the Leap Year Dance, it’s okay! And now I’ll have to wait four more years!”
…..“So who made up this stupid rule, anyway?”
…..“It’s not stupid! It’s tradition. Some old saint, back in the dark ages…Saint Brigid, I think…arranged it with Saint Patrick. To give the women a chance. But then it lasted all year! We only get one day.” The injustice brought tears to her eyes again.
…..“All year. So much dancing…they couldn’t have gotten a lot of work done…”
…..“Don’t be ridiculous! In those days, the women could propose to the men during each leap year.”
…..“Of course marriage. What else?”
…..“Oh, I could think of several interesting possibilities.”
…..“What…? Oh, shame on you!”
…..We got Alice back to the city and into the doctor’s office before he closed for the day. Her ankle was sprained. She’ll be fine…but not by next Saturday.
…..I just thought I’d give you a heads-up about that leap year thing. It comes up every four years. When you get back…well, four years is barely enough time to prepare yourself. You’ll want to keep in trim.
…..I read a wonderfully inspiring piece in the Toronto Star. Apparently, the Russian peasants are among the richest people in their country. Rationing is tight, and the people are so hungry that they will pay 15 roubles—that’s nearly $3—for a glass of milk and 600 roubles for a kilo of butter. The peasants, who are allowed to tend their little victory gardens in their spare time, naturally pour the proceeds of their sales back into the government. One reporter who was over there tells of a girl on a collective farm who bought a fighter plane with her savings and generously presented it to the Red air force.
…..A fighter plane. I wonder if he actually met the girl and saw the plane, or if he just believes everything he reads in the newspaper!
…..On a more realistic note, American girls have been crossing the border into Canada, hitchhiking if necessary, to join the Canadian army. You see, they had to be 20 to join the W.A.C.’s, but the minimum age up here was 18. Enlistment of U.S. girls in the C.W.A.C. has been stopped recently, but those who were already in can stay and continue to learn to type or repair cars or whatever they can do to help win the war. I’m sure glad, because I seriously doubt that any amount of effort at home would earn them a fighter plane, however fervidly they might want to donate one to their air force. And Russia—well, it’s just much too far to hike!
…..Tommy, even though you’re in the mortar platoon—way back, yards and yards behind the front lines—I know you can find ways to get yourself into trouble. So I won’t be happy until you get out of there altogether. Until then, take care of yourself.
…..Now, that’s an order, soldier!