I was West Coast born and raised rough. My birthplace was the Vancouver General Hospital, on December 19, 1941. My father, Francis Dwyer came from a large Irish-Canadian family, farming near Peterborough, Ontario. He had come west to work on construction, on the prairie wheat fields and in coastal logging. My mother, Annie McGowan, remains mostly unknown to me. My father informed me during my boyhood that, “she died from the rheumatic heart when you were ten months.”
The army rejected him for wartime service, because he had a blind right eye and a bad foot. Boyhood farm accidents caused those impediments. His older brother’s wildly aimed pitchfork toss crushed the optic nerve but left the eyeball intact. Dad’s own badly judged axe swing split the foot. Bound up with rags, he hobbled some nine miles, using an improvised crutch, over snow stuffed roads to reach the Peterborough hospital. He was raised rougher than me. A quiet, but sweetly gentle man, he could make a taciturn fellow seem like a windbag. He was kind and a hard worker, except when he was, “on a toot,” meaning under the influence, which was often all the weekend long. (Aside: It was some fifty years later that I learned that Annie Bernice McGowan had left him. She apparently lived out her life on Vancouver Island and had two daughters.)
I knew few things about my mom – her birthplace, on the prairies, is about all. I had long imagined that my dad met her at a barn dance in Hannah, Alberta while he was working on a transient threshing gang. His story, about my mom dying when I was small, had the tone of a closed subject. He did not look at me as he spoke. If not challenged by a listener, lies are typically brief and spoken with seeming certainly. If Annie is a ghost to me, she must have been a permanent and crushing blow to him.
Unfit for service in the army, and with an infant son, Dad somehow wound up in Toronto working at the Downsview Mosquito bomber factory, de Havilland’s Factory no. 1. I have my earliest and fragmentary memory from that time. I remember finding a stack of carefully flattened cigarette foil sheets in a closet. They were saving all metal for the war effort. I must have been scolded, for it to so stick in my memory. Along with that, and related, I remember playing with flat fifty cigarette packs. There was always the smell of cigarettes. I faintly recall women, different women.
It was likely 1944 or early in 45, when we returned to the West. This grueling trip formed my first memories that are not fragments. I remember the great steam train, especially the washroom where brawny men, wearing suspenders, their collars unbuttoned, shaving with razors – some of them the lethal straight kind – while the car swayed and juddered. I remember the brass spittoons in the smoking car, the stale cheese sandwiches. We must have traveled coach slept on seats. I do not remember the journey’s end, but later events tell we had wound up in Calgary.
I have fragmentary memories of our early days back out west, dad and me alone. They include dance halls with men swinging the ladies off their feet, polkas, the schottisches, two step, all of it wild, thumping exuberance. I often fell asleep at the foot of the stage, while the night and the music swirled on. We lived in shacks, rooming houses and, sometimes, seedy flops. It all culminated in a single, unstructured and devastating memory from that basement flop house. I woke up to shouting and crashing. There was blood and terror. Maybe it was a knife fight and I, then four years and ten months was found in the aftermath. I’m guessing, but it’s likely a policeman told my dad that a boy should not be living in such a place.
So it was that he and I took the long trolley car ride out to Bowness, on the western flank of Calgary, late in the day on November 4th, 1946. I remember the pitching of the trolley car, how small it was. It rained. We stopped at one point. There was a short section of track where it dipped, flooded there. We stepped off, while the driver took the car through, and my father carried me in his arms as he waded, maybe calf deep, to regain the trolley. At the end we walked a long way, dad wearing a long coat and a fedora. That was the fashion, and it was cold. We walked through gates and up a long, cinder coated drive to an immense house.
We had come to the Wood’s Christian Home. My memory of that arrival is singular and it is searing still. We were in a formal room, with fancy furniture and a fireplace. There were two ladies who pulled me away from my father’s trouser leg. I can remember the smell of the wet wool that I clung to, wailing. They took me. That is the single most traumatic memory of my childhood. I was now in the care of the Home, a Wood’s kid.
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