The War Years

I was born in 1941.   That makes me NOT a Baby Boomer, even if the chronically lazy media lumps our age group in with them on those occasions when specious generalizations are needed to describe a certain age group. Personally, I dislike the Boomers, not intensely, but avidly, and for what I think are reasons definitely unspecious. They are a spoiled generation given to hogging the wealth, the good jobs, and while doing so, never missing an opportunity to ravage the planet and thumb their noses at succeeding generations. Not that our generation was blameless but our numbers were considerably fewer. The Boomers had a rich and optimistic world very literally handed to them and they promptly became vicious ingrates. If you look closely at a crowd of Trump supporters, there is a preponderance of white 50+ year-olds.

So, to repeat, I am not a Boomer. Boomer fathers were mostly war veterans.

We pre-Boomers came from fathers who were home on leave, were exempted from the war for good reason or had important war-time jobs. My father was a butter maker. Okay, so making butter wasn’t crucial – except, of course, to him – but he was a good man and eventually did play a role in the war effort by working with Northwest Airlines on supplying the Aleutian Islands.   Don’t ask me how that came about because he either didn’t tell me or I was listening to the radio when he did. My father’s been dead for over 40 years and I still miss him and his sly smile.   And seldom does a week go by when I don’t think of something I wished I asked him.   Or my mother for that matter. How come we couldn’t think of all the questions when we might have had some answers instead of sitting here slack-jawed and guessing what happened?

More about that sly smile. You know when bombastic people make a pronouncement and bark ‘Right?‘ at the end of it? Like, “The fucking world is flat, RIGHT?” as they park their foul breath inches from your face.   Well, not all people are so aggressive but they, too, would like their listeners to agree with what they are saying. So, instead, they proffer a sly smile while staring intently, hoping their disarming warmth will convince the listener to agree with whatever was said.

Once you know this, the mannerism can be just as annoying as the “Right?” bellower, but it’s decidedly more civilized.   That was my father.   Unfortunately, he also passed this trait on to his three sons, thereby assuring the world that none of the Davidson boys would try too strenuously to convince you of their thoughts. Instead, we would smile and stare intently until you either nodded or chose to dismiss us as witless. Some things can’t be helped.

Anyway I began life in WW2 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but have little memory of the war – or Edmonton for that matter.   There were no air raid sirens screaming in the middle of the Canadian prairie. I do recall going to the butcher shop with my older brother and him brandishing a ration card. I remember our house on 92 street, south of 107 avenue and just north of the CNR passenger rail line into the downtown (It’s now a rapid transit line). I don’t know if we owned this house or rented it (pre-schoolers tend not to care about such things) but it was the standard 2-story wooden house, painted white with a green trim and a nice-sized porch. In the war years, the street faced an open field of some size, ending several hundred yards away at a box factory. Who knew boxes had their own factories?   After the war, the field disappeared under the hideously long and drab Coutts Machinery work shop complex, bestowing on the neighborhood a noxious mix of flux, burnt welding rod and acetylene fumes.

I still have pictures of the house which is probably why I remember it. The house finally succumbed to a wrecking ball about ten years ago, a long overdue meeting. When I last saw the place it was an exceptional eyesore in a neighborhood of run-of-the-mill eyesores. If its neighboring houses were so-called ‘fixer-uppers’ our old home was a “Only-dynamite-could-fix-this-up’ house. One might suspect it had become a meth lab or a grow op or a neglected cash cow for some slum landlord.   The MacCauley district had suffered from bad PR and deteriorating values for several decades.   No one was surprised when the house’s next-to-worthless carcass was consumed by urban vultures. Now the neighborhood is awash in modern infill eyesores, occupied by people driving Range Rovers and devoutly hoping for aggressive civic action to rid the area of any remaining immigrants or aborigines.

I do remember my parents taking in boarders. Either they needed the money or the war effort required everyone make space available for people who came to your city to help out. See, there’s another one of those pesky questions.   At four years of age, I was sent to a convent kindergarten for half-days. I don’t know if I learned anything but those nice nuns won my heart by laying out a daily snack of milk and Oreo cookies. I don’t know if they were called Oreo cookies in 1945 (they’ve been around since 1912) but they were 2 chocolate wafers separated by a white icing. Maybe because it was a convent, they were called St. Anselmo cookies, or Advent cookies. I have no idea.   Anyway, what can you say about a man who can’t remember 5% of his childhood but can recall Oreo cookies on the menu?

My parents obviously had a live-and-let-live attitude toward Roman Catholics, which was not always the case in mid-century Alberta. Actually, they were pretty tolerant toward all religions until later when they both developed a great antipathy to fundamentalist religions of any configuration, but especially Protestants.

Edmonton had a population of about 90,000 at the start of the war and just 110,000 after the war. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that its growth accelerated.   Other than being the provincial capital, the city didn’t have much to recommend it, other than it was a cold but friendly place to live.

Still, the war, excepting the poor men who enlisted to fight Hitler, was good for Edmonton. The local airport, Blatchford field was quickly recognized as a valuable connection to Alaska and the Aleutians. Later, when the decision was made to build the Alaska Highway, Edmonton became ground zero for its start and as a conduit for supplies and materials. The sleepy city was beginning to awaken.

Until he went to work for Northwest Airlines, my father worked for Woodland Dairy up on 95 street. He evidently liked being a butter maker because he forever after slathered it on his meal-time bread in quantities that dared his arteries to cramp. My mother, during the war years, was a house mother or whatever they called them in those days. She was trained as a teacher but having 3 boys in 5 years occupied her time, as one might imagine. That was another question I never got around to asking. Didn’t you resent so much motherhood in such a short period of time?   I don’t know what this says about those years but she did seem reluctant to talk about it. Having gotten to know her better after we were both a lot older, I suspect the answer would have been ‘yes’.

My mother had three sisters and one brother, as did my father. My maternal grandparents lived three blocks away and the paternal pair somewhere in King Edward Park. Family was a big deal then, even with so many off fighting the war.   I think this was when my mother’s clan began the Saturday night poker game.   We seemed to see a lot of all them not in the service but I have few specific memories. They are all gone now. I do recall my paternal grandmother, a human force with a scottish brogue so thick I rarely got past her standard opening phrase, “Mmm, wee Bobbie . . . “.   I was very intimidated as I was meant to be, I think. All you need to know about her is that later in life, as a widow, she decided to move to Vancouver, taking the Greyhound bus and carrying a tote bag and her favorite mop. You can’t make these things up.

I do have a fuzzy memory of Clark Stadium, only slightly more than a block away. The football Eskimos were yet to be born but I recall clinging to the wire fence to watch some game – maybe soccer or junior football – were the Wildcats and Huskies around then?   I remember being as bored with whatever game was being played then as I would be watching the Eskimos today, a throng of over-active thyroids taking perpetual selfies in their minds as they cavort about smacking each other like freshman frat boys.   You’d think mediocre play would generate some humility.

Lastly, I remember my brother, with some friends, roasting potatoes in a garbage can. I have no idea whether this was normal entertainment for the neighborhood or whether a food shortage was in progress. My brother, rest his soul, always eschewed any knowledge of such an unappetizing event. But I know what I saw.

By the time I was ready for the first grade in school, our parents decided to move to a small town and open their own business. But my older brother did get to go to MacCauley public school on 107th avenue for 2 years and the experience prepared him to endure all manner of degradation later in life. What a heritage for a public school.

In 1946, we moved to Wainwright, Alberta and put up a big sign over a small building on the southwest edge of town – ‘Davidson Dairy’.   I was 5, my younger brother, Jack, was 4, and Harvey, the older one, was 8. A new adventure was about to begin, helped along with 2 dray horses, Babe and Bess to pull the milk wagon, and a brand new Fargo pick-up truck.

And those first Baby Boomers were only 2 years old.

Robert Alan Davidson

September, 2017

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