Early Days – Lasting Lessons
My father died twenty years ago this year. He was born on an Alberta ranch, finished Grade 8 in a one-room school, and left home on his horse for good reason at the age of 16 in the Spring of ’37 to do the only thing he knew – cowboying. He didn’t even come home in the Winter of ‘37/’38 after he washed his long underwear in hot water.
He spent the Winter of ‘38/’39 packing supplies without a horse from town to a logging camp in the foothills. He would pack 100 pounds a mile down the road, leave it and go back to the start to pack another 100 pounds two miles down the road, leave it and go back a mile to the first one and take it two miles further. Rinse. Repeat. Come Spring, the boss refused to pay him. He moved on and never went back to Alberta.
He spent the Winter of ‘39/’40 in the Britannia Mines until some fool set off a charge without warning. He took the next boat out and never came back. He spent some time in a lumber mill on Burrard Inlet but left after seeing too many guys get chewed up in the saws.
Before the end of 1940, he was in the RCAF. I have his enlistment papers: Lorne Thompson Syme, age 20, five foot eleven, two hundred and four pounds, twenty-eight-inch waist, and flaming red hair. He came back from wartime England with the nickname “Lucky”. Never told me how he got it. After one of my trips to the UK, I mentioned being down in Devon. He asked if I had been to Exton. I hadn’t and probably missed a clue. He was Lucky until he hung up the uniform in ’68 and then he was Lorne.
He spent the Winter of ‘45/’46 in a Newfoundland backwater. Just him and four others who had opted to stay in after the war. They had one Norseman. They flew medevacs, sometimes on skis, sometimes on floats, sometimes on wheels. You might think this posting was a reward but actually these five had been sent there to atone.
My most vivid childhood memories begin in the early ‘50’s at an RCAF Station in Manitoba. Good place for a kid to grow up. By this time he had a dozen years in and was a very good metal-worker machinist. He was a Corporal and the pay was poor. We didn’t have a car, a TV, or even a phone. But neither did most. A few had cars and dad would borrow one once a month for grocery shopping and doctor appointments in Portage la Prairie about 20 miles away. That’s right – once a month to Safeway, and doctors had office hours on Saturdays for rural folks. Bread, eggs, and milk were delivered every week. Many of our neighbours went hunting or fishing and it was not uncommon to have ducks, venison, and fish come in the back door. It was a family of ninety-nine air force households.
He was in his early 30’s then. He played fastball in the Spring, curled in the Winter, and was Akela to the Cub Pack all year round.
On every station there was a hobby shop. They were equipped with tools and benches, and stocked with wood and leather. You could buy all the materials for your project right there, work on it right there, and leave it on one of the benches until you had time to return to it. My father took the job of running the hobby shop. He was there some evenings and every weekend. The pay would buy a car eventually – I remember a three-year old Austin that really didn’t like the Manitoba winters. Meanwhile, he could do a few of his own projects in leather and wood. And, because he was good at it, lots of people valued his advice and help.
Came the day when the Air Force Police showed up and took him over to their place. They left him in a room with two pieces of paper and instructions to think about what he had done.
It took about a minute to realize that one piece of paper was his monthly stock inventory from the hobby shop and the second piece of paper was the auditor’s inventory of the same stock. The dollar values were different but the quantities were pretty much the same.
When the investigator returned to confront his suspected thief, he was met with the simple explanation that the monthly inventory has always been valued at wholesale not retail. Somebody should tell the auditor.
He left the keys on the table and walked out the door.