Thursday, June 16, 2016

Precious Surprise

Bill Anderson is not unfamiliar with surprises.  Nobody of course is immune or can ever be entirely removed from encounters with the unexpected.  But at 93 years of age he has had some experiences over his many years that are just plain remarkable and a few more that were simply precious.

Recently he was generous about sharing with me some of the great and challenging moments that have popped up in his life.  Bill immediately impressed me, as he probably does a whole lot of others, that he is a true gentleman.  But there is something even more appealing about him.   I can’t help feel that he is at heart a good person, and we had only just met. 

I suspect dapper would be another appropriate adjective that fits Bill well.  We sat in a quiet corner of the Park house.  He is tall and slim and on that day he was dressed in his full Canadian legion regalia.  A blue beret perched perfectly on his thick white hair.  His mustache trimmed so neatly and a well polished cane resting against the table, which he leans on only lightly when he walks.

What stood out most about Bill though were not his words but his eyes.  They danced with the kind of brightness earned only by those who have lived their lives to the fullest and not been beaten down by adversity.

As he elegantly strolls along erect and regal onwards towards his 94th year, his life has seen a lot of unexpected events.  The many assorted kind of things, which both did buffet and lift up his life as well.  Unanticipated moments that are probably on average, an equal blend of both the awful and the wonderful.

His life’s journey has taken him a long way from those now distant days as a young man growing up in Saint John New Brunswick.  He and his wife Betty are now retired and live in a snug little home that sits on the bluff overlooking Lake Huron in Goderich Ontario. 

Ending up there, when he started out life on the other side of the country is a curious, but not an incomprehensible journey.  One whose distance seems like a fairly routine thing today, but compared to the way of life from 90 years ago it would have been considered a radical change.  Back when 1700 km westward along the Trans Canada was a long long way.

You don’t have to talk long with Bill though to be impressed. He has a lot of interesting stories and he tells them well.  He is steadfastly polite and courteous.  His memory and judgment not too tarnished by 93 years of living.  You can tell that he is just the kind of person who did not have to struggle too much in order to find success, both in his professional career, and as a husband and father bringing up his 2 daughters in a loving Toronto home. 

When I ask him what kind of job he had he humbly jokes that he never really had to work.  He mentions something about working with wines and we leave it at that.  At the same time his smiling eyes suggesting that he feels as though his life has been blessed, in all the incomprehensible ways that life has a way of bestowing upon us its true richness.

But tragedy has a way of reaching out as well and tangling up the trajectory of even the kindest and gentlest souls.  Bill and his wife had thought they had settled down to a quiet retirement in Toronto when one of their daughters took sick and the 2 of them had to pick up everything and move to Goderich.  This little town tucked onto eastward edge of lake Huron. 

But surprises, the precious ones at least, come like a breath of fresh air.  Promises that recharge our hopes and ably remind us that life is not always about struggle and futility.  That often, just when we need it most, something wonderful comes along to demonstrate to us that life is sacred after all.

As Bill is talking to me he is wearing his full Canadian legion regalia.  A smart dark blue blazer, and on his chest he wears a serious and glittering cluster of war service medals. 

None more prominent, and or more recent for that matter, than a Legion of Honor medal. It is one of the greatest service honors and Bill received it a little more than a year ago from a representative of the French Government.   It was given in recognition of his distinguished service in the liberation of France in 1944.  The ceremony at the legion was well attended.  The Legion of Honour is a big deal and the French wanted to seriously honor those who had risked so much to liberate them 70 years earlier.  

To Bill it was the nicest kind of surprise and he really had no idea it was coming until just a few months before it happened.  Typically when asked about the medal he is modest and said, “the honor is not for me, but for those who did not come back.”  

Which of course when he does look back and remembers all those he witnessed perish in battle, is something that still manages to cause an ache in his heart.  His sincere wish during those turbulent days of war he says was that, “that every person I served with go home healthy.”  A pledge, no man would not wish for, but also one not even the highest prayers could keep safe.

Bill doesn’t talk a lot about the war with me at least.  He and his regiment landed at Normandy just 6 days after the first big wave of the invasion, which took place on June 6th.  His group saw combat quickly and also almost immediately his commander was killed in action.  At just 22 years of age Bill had to take over the command of his anti tank unit.  Eventually they would fight all the way into Germany, right up until the final days of conflict.

But I had not sat down with Bill to talk about his darkest days but instead to ask him to recall a special memory that involved my Mom, who had also been shipped over to France at about the same time.  She was a nursing sister and she was attached to a mobile hospital that was to have been set up after most of the heavy action had ceased on the Beaches of Normandy.

In a coincidence that just about defies any practical probability it turns out that both Bill and my Mom had sailed to England in early November of 1943 on the same ship, the SS Bayano.  A small-retired banana boat, which had been earlier, scheduled for retirement but instead, with the start of World War 2 had been called back into service.

Now the odd thing about this is that though both my Dad and Mom had taken part in legion activates in Goderich for a number of years, this startling coincidence had never come up.  It was only because of a simple fluke that it had even been brought to light at all. 

Bill had gone to my Moms residence to pick up a friend who was late and he noticed a number of veterans all with their medals on waiting for rides.  Bill said to my Mom, “Those are nice medals that you are wearing.” Her response simply was that she had served in the war as a nursing sister.  He then told my Mom that he had sailed on a ship with 10 nursing sisters.  

Once the facts were out it was only then that they both realized, to their mutual surprise that they had sailed to England together.  Though to be honest neither remembered the other.  Bill fondly adds that everyone treated the small group of nursing sisters like Queens.  “The men couldn’t do enough.”

“It took 19 days.  It was beautiful balmy weather.  It was a British ship, which normally had 70 passengers, but it had 75 this time.  It was all officers.  I was a lieutenant in the artillery”

Now if this were not already remarkable enough the surprises only continue.  On the way home from the Remembrance Day service they had a further conversation about where each other wass from. 

Mom: “Where are you from?”

Bill: “I said Saint John.”

There was a funny silence

Mom: “I graduated from Saint John High school.”

Bill: “I said so did I.”

Mom: “Where did you live?”

Bill: “I said King street east.”

Mom: “What number?”

Bill: “I said 203 and I was getting a little impatient.  I wondered why she would ask this.”

Mom: “My cousin lived 2 doors up the street from you.”

Bill tells me the revelation was spirit lifting.  “I was so overjoyed.”

Now there is just one small event that adds one last amazing layer to this great adventure.  Bill tells me that 35 years after the end of the war he went, quite by accident into an antique store off of Bloor St. in Toronto.  There to his amazement he found a silver cigarette box with the name SS Bayano engraved on it.  

“I asked him how much and they said $35.”

“I said that is too much, and they said, but it is Sterling silver.”

He told them that the price was too much and then they volunteered to rub the name off if he wished.   He suggested to the shopkeeper to simply leave the box as it was and left.  Never letting on just how significant a find the little object was to him. 

“Between the Friday when I saw it and the Tuesday when I bought it I talked to or had been with 3 of the people who had been with me on that ship.” To no ones surprise Bill bought the box and eventually was able to lend it to my Mom briefly before she passed away this past February. 

Earlier in the day we had my Mom’s internment service.  In another kind of remarkable coincidence it took place on June 11th.  Just about 72 years to the day that Bill came ashore on the beaches of Normandy.  

Also there was a group of 24 veterans were there to pay tribute as my Mom’s ashes were placed into the wall niche next to my Dad’s.  It was a moving ceremony, not just for her 4 children and 9 grand children but also for all the old service men and women who marched down the gravel drive and stood at attention.  The warm Spring sun blessing us all with its brilliance and doing its best to discourage all our tears. 

At the end of the service each old veteran took off their poppy that they were wearing and placed it inside the niche beside my Father’s and my Mother’s urn. 

As Bill and I are talking, just a few hours have passed since the ceremony.  He has spent an hour or so with his legion comrades at the Park House and is getting anxious about getting home to his Betty. Bill has graciously and patiently answered all my questions that I have asked about his life and how it so interestingly intersected in such a brief and profound way with my Mother.  

By this point we are both getting emotional.  Tears have come to our eyes and his hand trembles as it rests on the table so I hold it in my own.  Bill shares one last thing before he goes. “Today I have thought a whole lot about that box and your mom.  I love knowing your Mother.  She was just great.  We go a long way back.”

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1 comment:

SDL said...

aunt mary was an amazing woman in so many different ways