One hundred years ago today, March 16, 1913, my dad, Raymond, was born. He was the second of seven brothers (although the seventh boy died in infancy) born to John Willie and Jeanie in their farmhouse near where John Willie had come at the age of 4 with his homesteading parents, in 1882. Our family’s roots grow deep in that place. (In the picture to the left, Dad is the smaller one. My cousin Bev’s dad, Arthur, is the taller of the two.)
Although Dad didn’t get to celebrate his hundredth birthday, since he died just over two years ago on January 15, 2011, I still wanted to pay tribute to him today, and salute him for the wonderful man he was. (RCAF salute, done the way my dad taught me — open hand, palm facing front, longest way up, shortest way down.)
Dad’s schooling was Grade 10 plus one year of technical school, yet he taught me so much over the years by the way he lived each day, by the stories he told, by his consistent drive to help others in whatever way he could.
Dad joined the Air Force, as did so many young people during the Second World War. He wasn’t accepted as a pilot, so he trained as an aeroengine mechanic, and after some time in England, served for three years in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) working on Catalina flying boats. From the time I was very small, I learned that Catalinas were the best aircraft in the world. (Dad may have been just slightly biased.)
When Dad was in his 80s, Mum suggested that it was time he wrote the story of his time in the R.C.A.F. and so he sat down and wrote what we fondly refer to as ‘his book’ — a small booklet, written from the heart, about his four years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. In it he told stories that I’d heard many times before, stories of elephants and kabaragoyas, of women carrying stone to build a road in baskets on their heads, of sleeping under mosquito netting, but still contracting dengue fever. So many stories…
One story he never shared, at least not with me and likely not with Mum, was told to me by our church minister after Dad’s death. I had always wondered why, when a movie would show an Air Force ground crew lining up by the runway, waiting for a plane to come in, Dad would immediately turn the channel to something else. Our minister told me that Dad had shared with him that the ground crew had to go over all aircraft returning from a mission, and it was their responsibility to clean the plane — and sometimes that task was a grisly one. Now, when I watch a movie and see the ground crew lining up as dawn patrol returns to base, I remember that.
A couple of weeks ago, I was idly leafing through a catalog when the mention of DVDs of classic aircraft caught my attention. I ordered one, and so, as part of my commemoration of Dad’s birthday, I will be rumbling through the skies in my imagination, as the DVD takes me into the cockpit of a PBY Catalina. What could be more fitting?
Dad taught me much about following one’s dreams and passions, no matter one’s age. When he was nine years old, in 1922, he saw his first airplane. At that moment, the dream of flying was kindled in his mind and heart. He kept that dream alive by reading flying magazines avidly, by going to air shows, by plane watching whenever he could (any road trip we took involved stopping at many small airports along the way). Many years later, when we moved to the city, he decided that if he were ever going to learn to fly, that was the time. He got his pilot’s license at the age of 62, and bought a small plane. Dreams really do come true.
Dad used to spend winters out in Vancouver. As a farmer who didn’t have livestock, he was able to do this. I am very grateful that he did! The winter of 1953-54, his cousin introduced him to a friend of hers. Sixteen days after their first date, they were engaged. Dad was 41, Mum was 33. They were married for 56 years (Mum died two months before Dad, in November 2010). They shared so much, including a love of nature.
Dad lived a life of service to others. He found the perfect expression of his life’s motto in a saying which he wrote in my autograph book when I was almost nine years old.
Thanks, Dad, for being such a great role model over the years, for teaching me so much, for doing all those good and kind things. I’m so grateful for the years we had together.