(On my last visit with her in 2019, Aunt Fran sent me home with an ancient leather briefcase filled with a variety of papers and files. I put off opening the folder labeled “Creative Writing” until just recently. It held this, which is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I think this belongs among the world’s great war-related literature, because war kills so much more than only soldiers on battlefields.)
The day was a scorcher, I remember it well. It was one of those summer days you don’t feel like doing much, it was so muggy. Some days in August are like that. Six of us girls were home. Big Jerry came in, saying, “it’s coming within hours.” I kept turning the radio dial, hoping to find the first station with the news. It was getting on Gen’s nerves. Jerry was going over to Younge and St. Clair (Toronto) to buy some records, so I jumped at the chance to go with him. His red Chevy had a rumble seat, which I pulled open even though there were only the two of us. He put the radio on a music station, but the news bulletins kept breaking in. I had my brother to myself for the whole morning and maybe he would take me for a ride downtown. He was in an especially good mood that day. He asked me,
“Well, what do you think, Speed? Harry James or Glenn Miller?”
“I like ’em both, get some of each.” Of course, I really didn’t care, I was thrilled to be out with him. We all knew it was going to be a special day. He had called me Speed for as long as I remember.
We were getting reacquainted, you might say, because he had just gotten out of the army. He had been overseas with the Royal Canadian Engineers. I told my friends that he built the airstrips in Scotland, and was an expert on the Bailey bridges and bought his wife a pink negligee on the black market. He was sent over when troop convoys had to zig and zag to avoid German submarines in the north Atlantic early in the war. He was in London during parts of the Blitz, but mostly he was farther north away from immediate danger.
Well, he picked out some Harry James records and we went into a booth so he could make sure they were pieces he liked. We listened to quite a few, and the clerk knocked on the window and told us to hurry up and decide. We played almost all the 78 RPM recordings before we chose the ones Jerry wanted. The sound-proof booth was really small and he was sweating when we came out. I was pretty hot myself. The line waiting to take records into the different booths was long. Everyone liked to listen to records that way, even if they didn’t end up buying any. No one seemed to mind waiting that day. We dawdled a while, looking at the new labels, then wen out onto the street, feeling on top of the world.
Jerry told me that as soon as he wrapped up a few things he was going to head north to be with his wife at their cottage, for a few days anyway. They had married in ’40 when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Engineers then he went overseas. His wife Helen was now expecting their first child. Helen’s nineteen year-old brother Donny had been killed while on a training flight in Ontario. She had taken it very hard; he was the first one in her family to die. She felt sad for a long time.
I was glad to be out of the house whenever possible, because sometimes I was bossed by all seven of my sisters. I remember my mother saying once, “she doesn’t need eight mothers.” So, it was nice to be with my big brother for a change. I was good at running errands, except that, being so eager to please, I’d start out before I knew what I was to do when I got there. Then, I would scream at the top of my lungs, say if it was from the attic, “what do you want?” I think that’s why he gave me the nickname “Speed.”
Walking back to the car we heard the city sirens start up, then the firehouse horns blew, then all the church bells rang out. He picked me up and hugged me tight and whirled me around, right there on the street. He was over six feet tall and I was a thin short drink of water. The street was full of people and they were shouting, “THE WAR IS OVER, THE WAR IS OVER.” They were making the V-for-Victory sign and kissing and hugging and laughing. We stayed and drank it all in. Somebody handed us noisemakers and we swung them around like at New Years.
We blew the car horn and waved the V-for-Victory sign all the way home. I yelled out the car window when I saw someone I knew on the street. Jerry looked too happy for that to bother him. It seemed that everyone I knew was outside celebrating. We had live through the war-time rationing, and all the losses of the war. We knew two boys taken prisoner of war in Germany, and another listed as missing-in-action. Then, there was Helen’s brother, who hadn’t even made it overseas.
I was growing up and my brother had been away almost eight years, first at Queen’s University and then in the Army. A few months later he was sent overseas. He was the only boy in our family and people said he had it made, what with all those sisters to wait on him. He came back from England loving his morning tea. So Speed, that’s me, was the one who took it up to their room whenever he and Helen stayed over. Its funny the things that come to mind at times like these. I remember Helen singing Frankie and Johnny. She belted out the verses and we kept her singing right to the end whenever they got started on that one.
In the car, Jerry asked me if I wanted to go to the cottage with him, but I had a dentist’s appointment, so that killed that. I wanted to go but I knew there wouldn’t be that much for me to do. He and Helen were always smooching when they were at our house, so i guessed they’d be at it at the cottage. He had met her when he was in his senior year, when she was in her first year at Queens. After that there was no one but Helen. Helen this and Helen that all the time. She was second in her freshman class results. She was awfully pretty, black hair, long legs, and what a dancer. That’s how he used to write home about her. i guess she loved him right away too, because she said there had never been anyone like him. They went to the Ex (Canadian National Exhibition) where they danced to the music of some big band from the States. That’s where they decided to marry.
Now here’s another thing I remember about Jerry. He had played running back on the rugby* team until he broke his collar bone. My dad had taken me to see him in the U of T versus Queens game. Jerry bought me a yellow chrysanthemum. I was sure everyone in the stadium knew of him. My dad was just as proud of him as I was, maybe more. I kept yelling his name when he was in the play. Somebody stole the flower right off my jacket. I don’t recall who won or lost that day. Now that he was back, Jerry was hoping to play for the Argos rugby team the next year. Teddy Reeves, a Globe sportswriter had called him “big Jerry” in one of his columns.
So all afternoon we celebrated the end of the war. our neighbors came over. Everyone knew someone coming home soon. No more rationing; there would be sugar and gas again, and more meat and butter. We went through everything that came to mind. We laughed about the citizen wardens who had been keeping an eye on the neighborhood at night. They saw who left their curtains open, and so they would invite themselves in for a drink.
Then we talked about the children who had been evacuated from England to Canada “for the duration.” We wondered what “home” they would find when they returned. That was a big question. i remember their stories of running to air-raid shelters, and their seeing babies with gas-masks covering the whole of their little faces. That’s when I thought that we hadn’t had it so bad after all. At least the bombs hadn’t been dropped in our backyards.
The CARE box effort that we had going on in our basement every week wasn’t needed now. We had written notes to cheer the soldiers when we sent the packages. And my sisters were going to miss the knights of Columbus dances for the boys in the service. At times they acted s ‘hostesses.” But you can be sure my father knew any boy they brought home for a meal. “Buy Bonds for Victory,” and Churchill’s Fight ‘m on the Beaches” slogans already were a thing of the past.
We laughed about the day Jerry had called when his troop ship had landed. I had answered, so I was the first to hear his voice on this side of the ocean. I screamed to my dad, “it’s Jerry.” Dad wasn’t expecting him, none of us were. Troop movements ere kept secret. I was so excited; dad thought it was bad news. He took the phone and once he heard Jerry was in New York he started shouting. I guess he thought that was the way to be heard long distance.
Dad cried that night. It was the only time I saw him weep. He was usually the one who made up fun things for us to do. He started MacNamara’s Band at our house whenever thee was a party. we used combs, spoons, tops of pots and my sister Rose played the piano while we sang. His favorite saying was, “for poor folks we have a lot of fun.” My mom had us all take music lessons. Even Jerry had started on the violin when he was very little, but he cut that out after about a year. Three of us girls were part of the school band. Mom loved having us play together. She made the navy cpes and the chin-strapped pillboxes for the whole band. We grew out of that pretty quick.
Jerry called Helen to talk about the declaration of peace, and to say he was at our house and that he was leaving the city soon. We helped him pack the car. I took care that his records were tucked in between some blankets because they were breakable and that was one thing that bothered him. He knew Helen loved Harry James’ music too. I pictured them dancing under the northern lights by Lake Orr, with the record player on and all the new records. That’s why I decided it wasn’t the time for me to go with him; what with the war just over and their baby due in a couple of months. Well, he hung around for dinner and then left, saying he thought the traffic might be thinner now. Everyone had closed shop early that dy, right after the declaration.
* * * *
It must have been around 5:30 the next morning when the phone rang. I woke up and ran to get it. The sky was still dark, and the house was very, very quiet. It was so dark the night sky made me think it was about three in the morning. It was Helen’s father, Mr. Byrne, and he asked to speak with my sister Gen. I said she was sleeping and I could take the message. But he said “no” in such a firm voice I thought he was getting angry. He never called our house. We hardly knew them because they lived in another city.
Gen wasn’t the easiest person to wake up. We had all stayed up late, talking and listening on the radio to the celebrations. We had been able to get Times Square on a New York station. She picked up the phone and said “hello” in a groggy voice. She caught her hand in the cord and nearly dropped the phone. from then on he did the talking. Her eyes filled and the tears started pouring down her cheeks. i started crying just watching her. When she finally hung up the receiver she was white as a ghost. She let out one blood-curdling scream. I ran to get the others up out of bed.
It took a while before she stopped weeping enough to tell us what Mr. Byrne had said. It came out little by little – big Jerry had crashed the car on one of the dirt roads leading down to Lake orr. The police said he must have fallen asleep at the wheel, sometime around nine-thirty. It took them a while to identify him. They called Mr. Byrne to come up to Barrie because they found his name on something Jerry had with him. He had hit a tree and around eleven he died of some kind of internal injuries. After mr. Byrne confirmed it was Jerry he drove to the cottage to tell Helen. Jerry was only five miles from the cottage when it happened.
I took off downstairs and out the back door to a corner behind the garage. I kicked the door and fell down sobbing. Every thought I had about him started the tears again. Helen – the baby coming – not having him to turn to when I needed him. I wasn’t going to let anyone else call me Speed. it wasn’t fair. I didn’t have the chance to really get to know him.
By M. Frances Conlin (1928-2019)
Editor’s note: My aunt Fran withheld from this account of her brother’s death, the deaths of their mother and father, four and two years earlier.
* I think “rugby” should be “football” – but that wouldn’t have mattered to big Jerry’s little sister. The “Argos” are a professional football team in Toronto, recent winners of the Grey Cup.
Here is my eulogy at Fran’s funeral, March 17, 2019.