A life left behind in an army tin box

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Sun Media, Friday, November 11, 2011

My father was in the Canadian Army between 1939 and 1945, for the entirety of the Second World War.

An electrical engineer, he joined out of Nova Scotia Tech and Acadia University and after training at Camp Aldershot in Nova Scotia, was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Before long, at the age of 26, he was the youngest major in the army, in charge of all lighthouses and electrical installations on the east coast of Canada and Newfoundland.

He later joked that his overseas service consisted of inspection tours of Newfoundland, which didn’t join Canada until 1949.

Later, he moved with my mother and their young daughter to Ottawa, where he was in charge of all electrical equipment purchases by the army.

As my sister recalls, he was out of uniform at the time because soldiers in uniform weren’t supposed to be in the capital, they were supposed to be overseas.

Later, he never talked about his military service. As my sister says: “No one did.”

He died of a heart attack in 1958, when he was only 43 and I was just 10.

But he left behind his life in a box, a black tin army kit box with handles.

His name was in letters on top of the box — A.L. MacDonald, RCE. Arthur Lamond MacDonald, Royal Canadian Engineers.

The box was in a basement of our house in Montreal, and inside were his service medals, and pictures from his army and university years, some of them in albums.

Every now and then I would open the box and look at them, because I suppose they connected me to the vanished narrative of his life.

There he was in college at Acadia, and on the parade ground at Aldershot, or leading a team on some inspection.

And there was a studio portrait of him in his major’s uniform.

How could someone so young, I’ve often wondered, have been in charge of so much? Perhaps it was the times.

For years, Grace MacDonald kept the framed picture of her grandfather in her room.

She would often say: “Tell me about Grandpa Arthur.”

At our cottage on a lake in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, the sun sets off the end of the dock.

Grace decided that the first star to come out at night was “Grandpa Arthur’s star” and we’ve often sat out and talked to him.

We once told him how, on a speaking engagement, I discovered a trophy named for him on a shelf at the Royal Montreal Curling Club.

It’s now put up in a friendly annual bonspiel that’s raised thousands of dollars for the Montreal Gazette’s Christmas Fund. He would have liked that.

Grace’s grandmother, Marian MacDonald, served on the homefront as a nurse during the war.

Like millions of Canadian women, she endured the loneliness and uncertainty of their husbands’ long absences from their families.

Her connection with the military continued when she later became the head nurse, or matron, of the Queen Mary Veterans’ Hospital.

They didn’t talk about post-traumatic stress in those days, though a lot of the men in the nurses’ care suffered from it.

It is thanks to the men and women of Grace’s grandparents’ generation that we live in such a free, peaceful and prosperous land.

On this Remembrance Day, thanks to them all, for their love of our country.

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