A Product of Chance

Author’s Note: Today, December 15, 2013, would have been my grandfather’s 91st birthday. The story below, a piece I wrote while still at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, stands as testament, not only to the importance of memory, but so that of my grandfather —his knowledge, guidance as a role model— who still, to me, appears larger than life. For the years that I knew him —he passed away when I was just 12—he certainly left his mark. It is in celebration, not memoriam, that I’ve published the work below.
-am

***

“Are you ok?” Joan asked, straightening her calf-length skirt and brushing dust off the shoulder of her coat.

“I’m fine,” Vera replied, standing slowly and unfolding her arms, which just minutes ago were tightly wrapped around her head, she scrambled up the crumbling dirt wall of the ditch and onto the road.

The night air was cool, the sky clear and the girls’ shawls kept the chill from their necks. With the pulsing air raid siren fading softly into dark, the danger was gone.

“We’re going to be late for the dance,” Joan said, breaking the brief silence, as they walked with quickening steps down the hedge-lined streets of Aldershot, a small town in rural England.

Following the drifting Big Band melodies that poured from the town’s hall, the two women entered the main room, the air warmed by bodies in military uniform. Joan wondered if the soldiers had even noticed, let alone taken cover, from the German bomber caught in the searchlights that had just passed overhead.

Doubtful, she thought to herself, as she removed her coat and scanned the hall. Everywhere British, American, and Canadian soldiers lost their inhibitions to passing drinks—offering dances and promises to local women. It may have been wartime, but every Friday and Saturday night seemed to be their time.

Before long, Joan spotted a dark-haired soldier leering in her direction from the opposite corner of the room. In a double-breasted, dark khaki coat  —a size too large, she thought— with pale blue emblems on the shoulders, John McCulloch kept pace with the music and closed the space between them with his long strides.

“Hey Red, can I have the next dance?” he asked confidently, searching Joan’s eyes for a reaction. Registering her subtle nod, and her offered hand, he led her onto the dance floor.

“Why did it take you guys so long to get here?” Joan asked him, after noticing his uniform’s flag and markings.

John, a member of the 3rd Infantry of the Canadian Military, was supposed to have arrived a month earlier, but their entire division had been struck by Scarlet Fever while training in the Canadian Prairies. The illness had cost John two weeks in hospital and nearly 20 pounds. His once-fitted military uniform now hung loosely around the neck and waist.

Before he could answer her, however, another soldier jutted in, sweeping Joan away and into the mass of swaying bodies. John watched as Joan traded one uniformed soldier for another, before the evening ran out of songs. Joan and Vera left the hall with two soldiers by their side.

 ***

John McCulloch was a first generation Canadian, born in 1922 in the small town of Drumheller, Alberta —founded by a colonel-turned-miner, in the mineral rich valley in the Canadian west. John’s father, Jack McCulloch, had been a successful Scottish businessman who wisely invested in a series of mines soon connected by the new Canadian railroad. With his profits, Jack retired at the comfortable age of 40, moving the family of four to Comox, a small, seaside town on the northwest of Vancouver Island, when John was 14 years old.

By age 17, in 1939, John watched as his peers suited up for war. Driven by a love of his country, and, in no small measure, a desire to get out of his small town, John travelled three hours south to Victoria in the hopes of enlisting. He had never travelled outside of Canada, much less North America, but he told his friends that he’d longed to be an air force pilot. But after presenting himself to the recruiting officers and filling out the necessary forms at the street-side booth, officials told him he wasn’t old enough to serve.

Despite his pleading, the air force’s refusal was final. Undeterred, John walked two blocks down the street into the Canadian Army recruitment office and quickly signed new forms. In the field for age, John wrote “18,” adding his signature to the dotted line. Eight months later, Aldershot was his first outpost.

***

The war was nothing new for Joan Poulter. Aldershot had always been a military town and she had always lived in it. She’d watched the British soldiers march in full-dress —khaki-green wool, adorned with gold, silver or bronze shoulder badges— for as long as she could remember. As a child, she recalled the excitement of watching soldiers gallup through town on horseback. She could still remember the sound of the steeds’ huffing breathes and the choreographed movements of soldiers in tight formation. Even inside her house, where Joan once found her father’s British battle dress hanging in his bedroom closet, war’s fingerprints were everywhere.

Frederick Poulter, Joan’s father, had studied to be a teacher at Winchester College before the First World War took him to India. A bad case of malaria kept him from returning when his battalion was recalled in 1918. After recovering, Fredrick accepted a job with an Indian tea merchant, falling in love with the country he stayed for nearly a year until his waiting wife called him home.

Born two years after his homecoming, Joan would grow to idolize her studious father —a man who seemed to have limitless stories about the world outside of Aldershot. With a curiosity cultivated from such a young age, Joan grew to love history deeply, along with the man who taught it to her.

Her mother, Nellie Poulter, was neither interested in the numerous “historical journeys” father and daughter would take, nor the tales they would giddily share upon their return. It was Frederick who taught Joan the importance of asking questions, prodding  her to speak up for herself —even as a young girl. And her small town had many answers to give.

Aldershot was a village before the military made it a town. Caught between the rolling farmlands and pine forests of Hampshire County, it sits nearly 40 miles southwest of London. A small network of Roman-paved streets connected the town’s farm homes; those lumpy rocks, smoothed by use, were tarred each spring to keep the dust down. Aldershot had four schools and a main street that connected the surrounding homes with the luxuries of downtown: a butcher, a shoemaker, seamstress and a baker.

During wartime, however, those small luxuries were no match for the parade of soldiers.

Residents of Aldershot, like Joan’s mother Nellie, would open their homes to service men. Thousands of miles from their families, the young men found comfort and much-needed sustenance in these residences. Soldiers would bring portions of their military-issued rations for Nellie to heat up. Joan, and her friend Vera, would share tea and biscuits with the soldiers, listening to them share stories of their latest tours, their hometowns and their families.

The soldiers came for the company, but they made for a busy home. As the war grew, the small Poulter house added nephews, nieces and cousins who fled a besieged London for the safety of the countryside.

Nellie always felt sorry for the boys, though, most of whom were from Canada, and began flooding through town three months after the war began. There were “men from the cities and the prairies; the lakes; the forests; the ranches and the factories,” remembered Town Clerk D. Llewellyn Griffiths, addressing the departing soldiers after the end of the war. They were “farmers and lawyers, factors and clerks, lumbermen and scientists, trappers and doctors.” But for Nellie, the one that stuck out most, was a young man named John McCulloch.

John started visiting not long after his first dance with Joan, and quickly grew close to the family. Even Frederick, who was distrustful of many young soldiers, warmed to him. But like most soldiers in town, John could be—and often was— whisked away without warning. Time after time, however, he always found his way back to Joan and her family.

It wasn’t surprising then, months later, when John asked for Joan’s hand in marriage. Eighteen-years-old and awoken by war, the young offers of marriage were numerous, but the many who made such promises knew it was a commitment difficult to keep.

While Nellie and Fredrick liked John just fine, they felt the couple wasn’t ready for marriage. They hardly knew anything about their proposed son-in-law beyond the Canadian patches on his shoulders and the stories he’d chosen to share. So Joan’s parents wrote to John’s family in Canada. After extensive correspondence, both families agreed that the two could marry when they turned 22. They just had to survive the next four years.

***

The German air raids started with a flurry on September 7, 1940. Darkening the afternoon skies over London. That day, 300 German bombers dropped their explosive cargo on the city, christening a siege that would continue for 76 consecutive days.

In Aldershot, Joan’s father accepted a position as a night constable, often riding his bicycle around town in search of bombs and other incendiary devices that would often fall under the cover of darkness. Each evening, guards scanned the night sky with spotlights in search of Jerries (German aircrafts like the Dornier Do and Heinkel He) on attack from on-high. The comfort found in spotting a plane was immediately followed by pitched fear: discovered pilots would indiscriminently drop their their explosive cargo on whatever happened to lie below.

On the battlefield, John McCulloch worked as a dispatch rider for the Canadian Army Service Corps. He was responsible for traveling to the front lines to gather information and to return with it to headquarters. This data helped commanding officers deploy medical personnel were they were needed most.

John canvassed the tattered landscapes of combat, crunching empty shell casings under his feet and stepping carefully around the unexploded ordinances and dead bodies that littered the fields. He counted corpses as he went, breathing through his nose to avoid the fetor of death. When he could count no more, he made his way to the commanding officer, asking quickly for a tally of the wounded.

He knew the ambulance battalion would arrive too late for most, but he’d commit their conditions carefully to a writing pad he kept in his right jacket pocket. Then, often with a cacophony of gunfire overhead, he would mount his motorcycle, revving the engine loudly as he sped away.

He often hoped that the cool winds —so sharp they burned his cheeks— might force the rotten air out of his lungs and that the tear-inducing breeze would wash the images from his mind. Instead, however, he rode each trip —his head down— wondering whether one of the day’s bullets had his name on it.

***

By 1941, the war had swallowed everyone in Aldershot. Surrounded by soldiers in constant movement, the locals had felt the cost of the war. German attacks had erased the homes and lives of a number of families. Patrols, like the one Frederick Poulter made each night, were constantly on the lookout for potential German paratroopers —enemies that might slip into the small town unknown.

Each evening, donning tin hats and mounting bicycles, safety brigades would circle the town, making sure that homes had extinguished all lights —beacons that might inspire attacks from above. But the days, too, inspired their own brand of anxiety.

One morning, Joan’s mother Nellie was walking down Aldershot’s main street when German bombers opened strafing fire, flying at low altitude, over the town. She was saved when a quick-thinking butcher pulled her inside his shop, just as bullets pockmarked the street.

Another afternoon, Joan was tidying the upper floor of the family home when her four-year-old cousin burst through the front door.

“Buzz bomb coming” Janet said, calling Joan “Nana”, as she was known to her family.

Buzz bombs emitted a high-pitched whir, like a mechanical mosquito, and were often first heard by younger, more sensitive ears. The noise, however, was not the most worrisome part. It was when the noise stopped that the bomb would detonate. That day, Joan and Janet quickly crawled under the table as the bomb landed some distance away, exploding without casualties. Life in war would always be unpredictable, but many people refused to let fear take over. If they ceased to live as they had, the saying went, the war was already lost.

Eventually, necessity pulled Joan out of Aldershot, as she joined British Ministry of Agriculture in London.  There, swept up into the fervor of wartime England, she assisted scientists testing samples of animal blood for potential toxins. Officials were concerned about possible anthrax attacks after rumors that German planes has been spotted dusting animal feeding grounds with unknown substances.

While the war expanded in Europe, the cause demanded more of everyone, even those in Aldershot. In addition to his nightly patrols, Joan’s father continued to grow flowers, vegetables and raised rabbits for stew. With the country’s food shortage, farms, farmers or the hunger with land, produced whatever they could. Nothing could go to waste. In Aldershot, Fredrick donated rabbit pelts to school children who made mittens for soldiers departing to the frontlines.

***

By May 1944, John and Joan had finalized plans for their wedding, to be held on April 15th. John spent the weeks leading up to the date deployed in the south of England. But after losing contact with him as the date grew nearer, Joan and Nellie began to worry he wouldn’t make it back in time. With 14 hours to go before the ceremony, John finally arrived with his cousin, David Figgins, and his best man Archie Rattray —a trek which saw the three men jump from town to town on various military supply trains.

Nearly four years from the night they met, with John’s collar still hanging loose, the young couple placed two crude gold bands on each other’s hands. But war had a way of keeping celebrations short. Within days, John was gone again.

In November, shortly after the D-Day invasion, Joan received word that John had been wounded on the battlefield and was being treated at a military hospital in Nijmegen, Holland.

John, she learned, had been riding from headquarters to the front lines, a few miles inside the German territory, when he was shot in the leg, sustaining a number of subsequent injuries before he could make it to safety. After the incident, John had lost vision in his left eye. Doctors later discovered a small piece of shrapnel lodged inside, but struggled to treat it. After days of medical mistakes and an improperly applied chemical bandage, John’s face was disfigured and his left eye irreparably lost.

John was livid with his doctors. He’d been lucky during most of the war, avoiding the bullets that undid the lives of 45,000 Canadian soldiers, but John worried that the jarring reality of the war’s physical cost —his scarred face— might send Joan running. He hadn’t seen his wife since their marriage the previous spring. His worries were quickly staid by Joan’s reaction. Scarred or not, she loved a man who happened to fight, and by being wounded, might finally get to go home.

John and Joan McCulloch on their 50th wedding anniversary.
John and Joan McCulloch on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1994.

In December 1944, John McCulloch was granted a medical release the army. Within weeks he was shipped back to Canada on a transatlantic medical ship. Joan would follow, becoming one of World War II’s 64,000 brides who came to Canada from Europe.

On the seven-day voyage across the ocean, Joan McCulloch —24-years-old and pregnant— had time to reflect. She’d left all she knew back in England to start over in Canada. But as much as she wanted to leave the war behind her, she couldn’t help but think of the sheer number of bombs, the profusion of bullets and the scourge of illness that the couple had dodged over the last five years. At any time, just one could have ended her, or John’s, young life. Barely a quarter century old, she was part of a new generation —their lives the product of chance.

***

Twenty years after the war, Joan’s father Fredrick decided to expand the large, English garden adjacent their Aldershot house. Lined with the deep purple-blue of blossoming Delphiniums, scarlet-red Petunias and the tangled vines of cream-white Honeysuckle, the garden was a point of personal pride, a reminder that beauty in nature always returned.

While turning over the soil that morning, however, Fredrick’s shovel struck something metal, a couple of feet deep in the rich, dark-brown earth. On his hands and knees, he swept aside the loose soil with his bare hands. After exposing the object’s burnished edge, Fredrick leaned in closer. He could just make out the markings of a faded, unexploded German buzz bomb, one of the many that fell, stealing young lives in a war now twenty years passed. He paused, only for a moment, before turning his shovel on an untouched patch of earth.

Joan and John McCulloch walking in Midland, Michigan. A fan of the outdoors, John retired in the mid-1980s, spending most of the year fishing off British Columbia's west coast.
Joan and John McCulloch walking in Midland, Michigan. A fan of the outdoors, John retired in the mid-1980s, spending most of the year fishing off British Columbia’s west coast.
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