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Sleeping with Our Boots On

by Richard Hughes Liddell

The Walkerville Collegiate Cadet Corps Inspection 1947

In every good horror movie, there’s always that scene where the heroine opens the door to the basement and, despite the screams of everyone in the movie theatre shouting, “Don’t go down into the basement!” she goes down into the basement. In our 1881 home in Bowmanville, I have one of those Silence of the Lambs’ basements that gets my complete attention every time I descend.

I was rummaging through some stuff in that basement last week, looking over my shoulder the whole time, hearing unusual sounds that have never been present before. While eyeballing possibly the world’s biggest spider blocking my return up the stairs, I discovered the box marked “1945 Amiens.” This box has been present for the last three moves of the Liddell clan along with several other containers that continue to sit unopened collecting dust and cobwebs. As I picked up the overstuffed box, a large canvas container popped out and I instantly recognized my Dad’s war kit that included a gas mask. The moment I saw his metal war helmet, I was suddenly transported back to my childhood.

I wish all children of the world could have been born when I was in a country called Canada. I am part of that lucky and spoiled generation of Canadians who never had to go to war. However, I was born one year after WWII ended which made me very aware of its impact. My Dad and Uncle Norm served in World War II as did many of my friends’ fathers. Several of my teachers at Walkerville Collegiate served as well. We even called some of them by their war rankings: Major Allison, Captain Bunt and Colonel O’Brien, for example.

Most teachers who had returned from that war wanted to forget it and move on, so the subject generally remained hidden from everyday events. But it would surface in the form of the Walkerville Collegiate cadet corps or in the stories men would tell at the Air Force Club when kids were invited at Christmas.

Our “wars” were innocent mock events. And we had endless battles of cowboys and Indians. I was Hopalong Cassidy complete with the full outfit including the Hoppy watch given to me by my Aunt Claudia and Uncle Jack for my sixth birthday. As I rode Topper, my faithful white steed (actually a five foot piece of wood) into an ambush I always felt superior and knew no arrow or tomahawk would pierce my uniform.

No one ever wanted to be an Indian and since the tribe always lost to white superiority I guess it can be argued that this childhood pastime was our first hint of racism. (It would take the Meech Lake Accord and the follow-up First Minister Conferences to make me fully understand the native issues in this land. “White superiority” I also came to know for what is was: greed, arrogance and racism.)

However, to a young boy packing two colt pistols, life couldn’t be better. Our cowboy reverie was only cut short when our mothers called us home for dinner or to bed when the streetlights came on. (We went to sleep with our boots on.)

Walt Disney was one of my generation’s greatest mentors and his “Wonderful World of Disney” TV show was constantly pushing our imagination into new lands and new ideas. We learned an Americanized version of the western frontier from the saga of Davey Crockett. I remember our music teacher, Mrs. McKinnon teaching us the “Ballad of Davey Crockett” and unfortunately for any species of animal that resembled a raccoon, the “coonskin” hat craze ran rampant throughout North America – every kid had to have one. Davey’s last stand at the Battle of the Alamo also was intriguing to the boys of Hugh Beaton, so after the Christmas trees were placed in the alleys for garbage pickup, we would collect them to make our own “Fort Alamo” and fight with neighbouring street gangs. The Turner Road gang of Dave Holden, Bob Stewart, and Tim Lamberton, with help from Don and Bob Halstead and Chuck Bannich, were skilled at not only destroying our Amiens fort but also carrying away the trees to make their Alamo even larger. Although snowballs are safer than musket-fire, I can still recall how much they hurt.

Growing up on Amiens Avenue taught me several World War I battles because all the east-west one block streets were named Somme, Arras, Amiens, Ypres, Verdun, Alsace, Vimy and Loraine. For a short time, while two homes on the east side of Kildare between Ypres and Amiens were being constructed, we used to play war using my helmet and gas mask plus other memorabilia our dads had brought back. George Kidd had a great communication radio that was loaded with tubes and neat stuff. We would hurl dirt at the enemy pretending it was a bomb that had just exploded.

Like all wars there were casualties; once Mike Dewar’s nose took a full load of dirt and instantly started bleeding. After my Mom patched him up, she suggested perhaps we stop this game. Then our fathers were called into action that night and we were all told war is not a game – that was the end of that.

On one very hot day in May 1962, a fellow Walkerville C. I. Cadet asked why we had to march. Major Allison screamed, “Because my brother-in-law marched for you and he’s dead!” Ashamed the boy quickly responded, “Then I will march too, sir.” May we never forget those who sacrificed.

In Grade 6, Miss Ford introduced us to a poem that continues to haunt me. It was written by a soldier in the trenches of World War I and although it is specific to a time and a place long ago, John McCrae’s words in the poem’s middle verse could be etched on any memorial for any war:

“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”


 

 

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