September 10, 1943
…..I know that you must have gone across into Italy and won’t get my letters for a while, but by the time they reach you, you may need a laugh or two, and they’ll be waiting.
…..Your last two letters arrived only two days apart, so I guess I’m pretty much up to date…on Tommy’s Exciting Adventures in Sicily, at least. I might want to do some travelling myself some day, but I think I’ll pick a time when I can learn something about the country other than how to blow a hole in it. I’ll be looking for the best places to eat pasta and sip Chianti…not the best places to hide from large, humourless guys aiming deadly weapons. (I’m assuming that you and the Jerries have left a bit of country behind for the rest of us to see.)
…..Dad was quieter than usual at the dinner table yesterday. I could see he was struggling with something. Something he wasn’t sure he wanted to tell us.
…..“Well,” he said finally, “I went down to enlist today.”
…..I was stunned. Pearl started brewing up a hearty scene.
…..“No…don’t get excited.” he added. “They turned me down.”
…..“What a stupid thing to do!” She launched in. “You’re fifty-two years old! They won’t want you! Well, maybe for something right here…but what if the war goes on?” Her voice started to slide up an octave. “You could be shipped overseas! How did you think we were going to manage?”
…..“Pearl, I said they refused my offer. Relax.”
…..“Why did they turn you down, Dad?” Maybe I could shift the focus. It was worth a try.
…..“Bad lungs.” (He has been coughing more the past year or so.) “I told them I fought in the Canadian army at Ypres in the First World War and was gassed in the trenches.
…..“‘You’re a lucky man,’ the medical officer remarked. ‘So many good men died from the chlorine gas.’
…..“‘Lucky be damned,’ I told him. ‘Men were dying all around me! But I’d been training for years.’
…..“‘You see, I never passed up an opportunity to share a pint with good company…not since I was old enough. And by the time I joined the army, my bladder had expanded to accommodate my recreation without the need for inconvenient bathroom breaks.’
…..“‘Well, it was most inconvenient to relieve oneself during the heat of battle, so when the gas settled into the trench and others succumbed, I had no trouble soaking my handkerchief. It was breathing through that urine-soaked handkerchief that saved my life. And I drink whenever I can, in appreciation, to this very day.’”
…..I’m sure Dad knew they’d turn him down. But he had to feel he was doing what he could to help you over there. He wants me to ask you if you carry a gas mask with you. Is it always handy? Don’t rely on peeing on a rag.
…..Actually, I was thinking about signing up, myself. They make it sound so good. Women in the armed forces are doing exciting things these days: They’re piloting war planes from factory to operational bases, flying alone and doing their own navigation…they’re training as battlefield drivers, prepared to do their own repairs and maintenance…there’s even one Lieutenant who’s authorized to ride a motorcycle and who trained with the men.
…..Okay, okay. I don’t even drive a civilian car and I have no appreciable mechanical ability. I know that. I’m trying to make a point, here.
…..The point is that women are going to war now…or if not now, then soon. They’re not all just tucked safely behind the scenes, supporting the work that the men do. And they’re willing to fight in the front lines if they get the chance. Women work as coders, plotters, signallers, telegraphers…all jobs with impact that could actually be more in my line. Oh, I know that most of the jobs the women get are still clerical. And I’m sure the women don’t get to choose for themselves, any more than the men do. But that’s ok. I could enjoy clerical work, if that was how the chips fell. That’s not what made me hesitate.
…..And the possibility that I might someday have to get in shape and learn to fire a weapon with intent to kill…well, that doesn’t trouble me either! Granted, sports have never been my passion, but I’ve always been healthier than I probably deserve to be and I guess I could handle it. (I was pretty good with a bow and arrow in PT…does that count?) There’s a woman in Winnipeg who’s hoping to form an all-woman fighting regiment. That’ll probably come to nothing, but the idea is kind of interesting.
…..To tell the truth, I just can’t see myself living with a batch of other girls. All that jolly companionship and girlish giggling–my threshold for girlish giggling is not high, and too much companionship…well, it would be a strain. I find that my girlish charm benefits from a lot of time spent alone.
…..There was an ad in the Toronto Star the other day for a clerical position at a large publishing firm downtown. I’d enjoy working near books…it might lead to something. Who knows? (A clerical job…oh yes. That’s the path to the editor’s chair.) But there’s a war on. The Department of Labour won’t just allow people to change to a non-essential job, regardless of how feeble a career step it may represent. One has to apply for permission. And I suspect that publishing books wouldn’t be considered significantly more essential to the war effort than ferrying executives up and down a tall building.
…..I’ve enjoyed my job as an elevator operator, but it does just take me up and down…and I’m beginning to think I need to move forward! And the pay stinks. There’s plenty of work in the war industry, of course. I could apply at Massey-Harris; it’s an arsenal plant now. The pay is good and they’re offering to train for the future, but I suspect when the war ends and the men come back, it’ll be a long time before women will be welcome in any important factory position.
…..So I visited the employment office at Simpson’s–there’s no problem changing jobs within the same company–and asked to transfer to a clerical position. Not awfully exciting, maybe, but at least it’s a step in some sort of direction. They sat me down in a small office in front of a desk neatly stacked with very confidential-looking files to talk to the personnel manager. He seemed pleasant, in a carefully polite sort of way. As usual, he was grey-haired. I guess all the younger managers are now colonels or majors. That’s fine with me.
…..We talked about my education…my strong subjects…my interests. (Why should he care?) I told him why I wanted a change.
…..“I see that you’ve been operating the executive elevator,” he remarked.
…..I agreed that I had.
…..“I believe I’ve noticed you there.”
…..“Yes…I’m sure I remember seeing you,” I said, to show how very alert I am. I remembered no such thing.
…..“Please be comfortable for a few minutes. I’ll be right back.”
…..He left the office long enough to make a phone call or two…checking on me, no doubt. Subtle.
…..When he returned, he sat down and considered me, in much the same way you might consider buying a new washing machine that had been recommended, but came with a very limited warranty.
…..“Miss Smith,” he said, “How would you like to work for me here in the employment office?”
…..It was that easy.
…..So now I’m working in the employment office, making entries on cards, filing papers, doing mysterious things with numbers…even handling a very little bit of hunt-and-peck typing, from time to time. (Typing will never be my strength.) When I get my bearings, I’m sure it’ll be much more interesting than it sounds. The people seem nice…and I don’t have to live with them.
…..The only drawback is that I have to turn in my snazzy uniforms and prepare to dress for the office. It’s lucky I can make my own clothes, because the government has been controlling the styles that can be produced and one off-the-rack garment looks a whole lot like another.
…..So when I’m at home, I’m up to my armpits in fabric and there are pattern pieces strewn all over the furniture. I bought a reliable sewing machine when I started working at Simpson’s, so I’ll be appropriately attired in no time.
…..Oh…somehow, a pattern for slacks snuck into the pile. I tried on a beautiful pair of silk and linen slacks at Creeds (of course I wouldn’t dream of buying anything at Creeds–it’s far too expensive–I was just pretending) and I couldn’t resist trying to whip up a similar pair for myself. What with army nurses starting to wear trousers in the field and women wearing overalls to the factories, slacks are becoming the practical choice for casual wear. Now, if I could only wear them to the office…no, I guess not.
…..I couldn’t let the summer go by without visiting an amusement park of some sort. So I rounded up a few of my girlfriends for a Saturday at Sunnyside a couple of weeks ago. If you squint a little, you can almost believe you’re on the Midway at the CNE: you have the rumbling rides, the bellowing hawkers, the highly questionable games and the roaring, pushing crowds…hey, you even have the fighting men themselves. Soldiers, sailors, airmen…they all drift over to Sunnyside whenever they get the chance. After all, that’s where the girls go!
…..In fact, about the only things missing are the sleazy side shows. You remember the ones: Ladies and gentlemen! Step this way! See the most exotic jewels of the desert…sloe-eyed beauties from Arabia!
…..The last time I walked past that one…it was a couple of years ago…I noticed a gangly young guy who had stopped to ogle the sample lovelies as they shimmied across the stage out front, all decked out in their spangly flimsies. He seemed too young to be taking such an avid interest. (That’s how naïve I am.) Suddenly his jaw dropped.
…..“That there is Flo!” He grinned. “Hey guys…look! That’s Flo, from down the street! Hi, Flo!”
…..We took the streetcar down to the lake and by the time we’d strolled along the boardwalk to the rides, we’d already downed our share of fries in those little paper cone things and red hots and Honey Dews and double-dip ice cream cones. And of course Downey Flake Donuts. (Yes, of course we stopped for a while to watch the darling little dough rings in the front window, plopping into the hot fat and sailing along obediently until they turn golden brown. How can this be fun every time?) Anyway, you’d think we would have been just about stuffed by the time we reached the Pavilion restaurant, but Julie decided she wanted to go in for fish and chips. You remember Julie? She’s an awful slop, and I’d really much rather she ate in the open air than in a dining establishment, where she might be subject to closer scrutiny…but she was quite determined, so in we went. We’d barely gotten in the door when we noticed a scuffle at the other side of the room.
…..A bunch of young airmen in uniform were having a heated discussion with a small and colourful gang of zoot-suiters. It was clear to any observer that these two groups were never going to play well together. There were irreconcilable differences.
…..“Move over, Sonny,” One of the airmen clearly felt crowded.
…..“Who you calling Sonny?”
…..“That’d be you. Say…why you wearing your daddy’s jacket?”
…..“Don’t get smart, fly-boy.”
…..“Be careful you don’t trip over those baggy pants, son.”
…..“Aw, listen to the guy in the monkey-suit!”
…..“You better show some respect, junior!” To be fair, the airmen didn’t look a minute older than their adversaries.
…..“You gonna make me?
…..“Hey…if you really wanted to fight, you’d join the forces and get into man’s battle. What’s your problem? You too yellow, or what?”
…..Fists started flying. We quickly backed out the door, and stood aside as a squad of Toronto police waded through the crowd. (They still wear those silly-looking British-style bobby hats…why is that?) Soon a group of R.C.A.F. service police showed up, just to make it fair.
…..By the time the place had calmed down, Julie had lost her appetite for a sit-down meal, and we were able to talk her into stopping at a stand for a burger instead (which she promptly crumbled down the front of her dress, of course.)
…..We were watching a group of sailors and their girls play Lilliput Golf when a couple of very attractive soldiers stopped and began dropping compliments in our direction…in French. (The French I’ve retained from school is pretty rudimentary, but I could hardly mistake ‘belle’ and ‘tres jolies’). They wore Royal 22nd arm patches, which explained the exotic language choice. Lil–the plain-looking girl I told you about, from Simpson’s–made an irritating show of being offended (why is it always the homely ones?), but I found it rather charming. I mean…they weren’t trying to insult us, for god’s sake…they were just showing some appreciation! What’s the harm? (Lil’s not really a particular friend of mine, but I’d met her on the elevator yesterday and had invited her along. I kind of wish I hadn’t.)
…..Anyway, these fellows from the Van Dooz spoke very little English.
…..“Parlez-vous francais?” asked one (his name was Anton).
…..“Un peu…” I managed, holding up my thumb and index finger and indicating a very little bit indeed.
…..We could all see that any degree of glib conversation was unlikely, but they suggested that we go dancing with them at the Seabreeze. The language barrier wasn’t likely to hamper us there, and since it’s an open-air dance floor, we couldn’t see any harm in it. It was barely nine o’clock, and we hadn’t planned to leave for home until ten anyway. It turns out that dancing in French is much like dancing in English, so we all had a wonderful time–even Lil, who overcame her scruples as soon as she found herself in the arms of a handsome young soldier. Since I was the only one who understood French even ‘un peu’, it was left to me to do most of the communicating. My greatest challenge was to explain the sign on the wall: “No Jitterbug or Fancy Dancing allowed”; that is…without a demonstration (which was, clearly, um, not allowed!) However, just at that moment, yet another flashy zoot-suiter–they seem to be everywhere they’re not wanted–launched into an impromptu jitterbug routine, inadvertently clipping his partner smartly alongside the head with his massive watch chain before being ushered off the dance floor by the management. The blow from the chain raised a welt on the unfortunate girl, neatly illustrating the dangers of jitterbugging on a crowded dance floor for our inquisitive new French friends.
…..When ten o’clock rolled around–alas, way too soon!–Anton and his friend begged to be allowed to walk us home.
…..“Only along the boardwalk,” I decreed. It was a lovely walk along the lake in the moonlight, and I admit I was tempted to relent, but I was unclear what had brought them to Toronto (my French comprehension wasn’t equal to the task) and I figured it was unlikely that they’d come again; it would have been a bad idea to encourage anything more. But, oh, it was a romantic stroll, and yes, Anton stole a kiss from your sister. And the boardwalk came to an end and the streetcar appeared right on time…much too promptly.
…..Did you know German prophets had assured the world that Hitler would march into London with his victorious hordes on August 15, 1943? What went amiss, I wonder? London was waiting to greet them. That day, one newspaper cartoonist depicted four uniformed Tommies identified as United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, standing shoulder to shoulder under an arch decorated with a big banner:
…..“August 15th: Welcome to our distinguished visitor.”
…..Well, here it is…September 7th, and as far as I know not a single goosestep has stomped through London so far. Something must have held them up.
…..I would have mentioned this to you in my last letter, but I thought they might have been just running a bit late, and I didn’t want to give you false hope.
Always ready with an encouraging word,