I have written some of this story about my “crazy” Uncle, Roman Bird previously – but have since added quite a bit more. He was definitely one of the most unique and colourful characters in the little town of Oliver. Some of you may recognize the story of his unique house off of Bellevue Drive.
A brief history of my wonderful Uncle Roman Bird
by D. A. Bastian (2012) rev 2021
Roman Bird, my distant Uncle wore a gold tooth in one of his front teeth. It shined like a bright sun during his often-boisterous laugh. If you couldn’t help but stare, it would not have bothered him at all for Uncle Roman was extremely comfortable with himself. He laughed often and long especially at his own animated stories. He had no problems whatsoever expressing a very unique and colourful opinion on anything from life to love. His voice was louder than most and filled with unrestrained passion. He interspersed every discussion with his obvious favourite and habitual curse word, I’ll express as “effen” for those who might be offended by something else. It was never uttered to offend; it was simply an adjective, verb, or noun, he employed to better emphasize his strong points of view. If you had just been introduced to him, his uninhibited language might even disgust you. Perhaps you might choose to avoid him in future simply because of it. But I digress.
Roman Bird met the woman who would eventually become his second wife in the midst of World War 2. Fate put Roman and Gerd together in the Norwegian underground where they fought side by side as partisans during the Nazi occupation. Roman came to be in Norway from his far away home in the Ukraine in a most unusual circumstance. Although his grandmother was of German heritage he was actually born to a Russian father where they lived on a farm in the Ukraine. He was fighting as an elite Russian Cossack horse soldier when the Nazis captured him during the later stages of WW2. Luckily for him, at that time, the war was not going very well for Germany. They had lost so many men in battle that they were in desperate need of replacement fighters. Roman was saved by his distant German heritage. During his capture, the Germans offered him a choice, “we can shoot you right now or you can fight for your rightful country.” Of course, he chose the latter. He was immediately sent to battle in Norway. Almost immediately after his arrival he found a way to escape to the Norwegian underground where he renewed his battle against Hitler.
Through his many shared stories with me it was obvious that he had witnessed much death and destruction during the remainder of the war. Even so, whether it was gratitude for his survival or something else, he was the most demonstrably happy person I have ever known. He seemed to live every single day of his life with unbridled passion for life and love for everyone.
The end of the war marked a major crossroads in Roman’s life. As a consequence of his life-saving decision to alter his allegiance from the Russian Cossacks to the German Army, he realized that he would be branded a traitor in either country. He felt he could not risk a return to his home in the Ukraine. He made the agonizing decision to leave his then wife behind while he made application to immigrate to Canada. After exchanging letters with her, she decided that she did not want to leave her home and family in the Ukraine. With obvious sacrifice and love she gave Roman her blessing to move on.
So it was months later that Uncle Roman and Auntie Gerd found themselves travelling to Canada together on the same ship. Obviously they had a strong connection with each other after all they had fought side by side against the Nazi’s. Some time after they reached Canada she became his second wife, the unforgettable, “Gerd Bird.” They settled in Oliver, BC near distant relatives and fellow immigrants from the Ukraine, the large Bastian family. It is ironic and wonderful that over time, Roman and his “two wives,” one in the Ukraine, the other in Canada, would become dear friends, sharing their lives through letters for years after.
Uncle Roman and Auntie Gerd worked hard in the fruit packinghouses, saved their money, and soon had some savings to buy a piece of property. The property he purchased was a small acreage on a hillside that was so steep that a person would have to walk sideways, one step at a time, in order to descend it. If for some reason you slipped on your way down you would likely not stop rolling until you reached the bottom some 300 feet below. No one else in town was remotely interested in what they called a useless piece of property, which probably explains the reason for a nickname that some gave him, “crazy Roman Bird.” As he and Auntie Gerd stood on the edge of Bellevue Drive looking down the steep hill at the property below she shook her head at her husband’s crazy idea of buying this particular piece of property. But she soon succumbed when Uncle Roman pointed out his wonderful vision.
They soon began the hard work of digging into the steep hillside with nothing more than two shovels and a pick until they had a narrow path leading diagonally some 50 feet down the hillside before Roman decided it was the perfect spot to start digging into the hillside. From that vantage point some 200 feet above the valley floor, they could see the Okanagan River meandering aimlessly through the little farms and grazing lands below. One shovel full after another they dug into the hillside, throwing each bite of sand and gravel down the hillside. Over the course of several weeks they had made good progress until they came upon the tip of a huge boulder jutting up into the middle of where their house was to sit. They started digging around it in hopes of loosening it to the point where they could shove it down the hill. Unfortunately, the further down they dug, the bigger the boulder got. Rather than change the location of the house, which meant sacrificing all the hard work he and Gerd had already done, Roman decided to simply build around it. This decision resulted in a somewhat unique and quirky feature of the house once it was finished. To travel from the kitchen to the living room involved walking up several cement steps that rose up over the boulder, while ducking in the process to avoid bumping one’s head on the concrete ceiling, and then descend steps on the other side to arrive in the living room. Guests most often chose the easier route of exiting to the outside at the kitchen door and then re-entering the house through the living room door.
Uncle Roman had constructed his entire home of cement, mixing and pouring all of it by his own hand. In the end it looked somewhat like a castle with a flat roof and abutments at the roofline. He poured a 6-foot wide patio along the entire front of the house. He installed protective railings along the edge using discarded metal bedposts from the local dump. He painted them bright reds, yellow, and blue to make them to his taste. As years went by, he terraced large sections on either side of his house and planted grapes. Within a couple of years he had grapes, which he converted to wine in short order. Roman loved his wine and always kept a good supply on hand. He built a bird aviary and stocked it with budgies, which he sold to the public. He built a pigeon coup and kept a flock of 15 or 20 on hand. It was quite a sight to be sitting on a patio watching them take off every 20 minutes or so to fly out over the valley.
There are many stories about Uncle Roman’s robust character that I could tell but my most favourite of all was the event that resulted in loss of his driver’s license. It was Roman’s almost daily habit to drive down to the Reopel Hotel to join some of his friends, often including my father, to partake of a beer or two. On one occasion, after a few more than two, he drove out of the beer parlour parking lot and was proceeding down the main drag when he was pulled over less than a block away by the local RCMP. He was given a roadside sobriety test, which he failed, resulting in the officer issuing him a notice to appear in court a few weeks later. Standing in front of the judge on the appointed day, the judge asked Roman for an explanation for his drinking and driving. As previously mentioned Uncle Roman was never afraid to speak his mind particularly when he was pissed off. Today was going to be that kind of day. He started in on the judge. First of all, he loudly explained, “I have been going for a effen beer with my friends almost every effen day for years and never been stopped before until this effen asshole was waiting on the effen street right outside the beer parlour.” He pointed at the officer. Why was he waiting outside the effen beer parlour like the Gestapo? I fought in the effen war for this country to stop that kind of bullshit. This should not be allowed in a free country.” The judge banged his gavel to interrupt, “Mr. Bird, I will not allow you to use that kind of language in my court. If you do that again I will find you in contempt of court.” Roman became even more upset, “you asked me what effen happened and I am telling you.” The judge banged his gavel. “I warned you Mr. Bird. You are in contempt and that will be a $50.00 fine. “FOR WHAT! yelled Roman, THAT’S EFFEN BULLSHIT JUDGE. The judge banged his gavel again, “that’s another $50.00,” he said, “and at this point I would advise you to not speak any further.” At this point the judge levied a fine for Roman driving while drunk and said, “I am suspending your license for the next 3 months Mr. Bird after which you can apply to get it back.” He banged his gavel to end the proceeding.” As Roman turned to walk out of the courtroom, he couldn’t help himself. “To hell with 3 months judge, you can keep my effen drivers license.” True to his word he never drove again.
My crazy Uncle Roman died at the age of 79 having lived a full life of colour, passion, love, and fulfillment. Auntie Gerd died some years later leaving their property and home on the hillside to the local Legion, an organization they both felt close to having had many friends there who had also survived the war. To this day the home sits empty and abandoned. If I could meet with Uncle Roman once again and talk to him about life as I often did when he was alive, I’m sure the first thing he would do is pour us both a large glass of wine as we sit below the kitchen window at the outdoor cafe table, the one that was covered with the cheap plastic red and white checkered tablecloth. We will lean back and stare out over the valley as the pigeons zigzag about. He will tell his stories and offer his strong opinions on everything from life to love, sometimes laughing boisterously at his own mistakes, while I will hang on his every word.