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the diary thing 
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10.19.00
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 ottawa
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dad in uniformIT'S A BEAUTIFUL FALL DAY when I set out for the National Archives. I walk down Elgin to Wellington, and turn to walk past the Parliament buildings. The usual sight -- tour buses lined up, disgorging clumps of activewear-clad groups, all nylon and goretex and cotton/synthetic blends in bright, sturdy colours, armed with every variety of camera. The eternal flame is out, the fountain around it dry, and roses left in the wake of a former prime minister's death are joined with more flowers and notes announcing support for one or another of the combatants in Israel this week.

I pass the west block, then the Supreme Court buildings before I finally reach the archives, the last building in the row of official national institutions. At the front desk, they haven't heard of me, and no pass is waiting, despite the e-mail I'd sent the previous week. No matter -- I have a new, laminated pass in minutes, and I make my way up to the third floor, where the archives are sandwiched between two floors housing the National Library. 

The documents I'd requested to see, the subject of the e-mail I'd sent (and had acknowledged by some official of the archives) are nowhere to be found, and will take a few hours to retrieve, I'm told. I cross the floor to the photo holdings, and find that all of the images I want to see are stored on microfiche.

Microfiche and its sister, microfilm, in case you've never had to deal with it, is a half-century old technology that librarians and archivists once had limitless faith in -- quite foolishly, it seems. Millions of volumes of magazines, newspapers and files were destroyed or sold once they'd been recorded on polyester-base film, either on small sheets (fiche) or reels (film). Little thought was given to the permanence or resolution of the new storage medium, and in any case, the companies peddling the technology had soothing statistics on hand. 

Today, the film is often chewed up after decades of use, and the fiche -- as I discover -- might be a handy way to store documents, but photos are little more than dim, fuzzy images on the clumsy desktop viewers provided by the archives. I've heard of image stability deteriorating -- fiche and film staining brown and flaking away -- but that isn't near the problem I'm seeing here. 

In some cases, years ago, photos were ganged together under the camera to be recorded -- a convenient, labour-saving tactic. It seems, though, that the images were taken from negatives, not prints, and since the exposure and density of these old sheet-film negs of wartime scenes varies wildly, I find myself squinting at a stygian-dark image at one side of the screen, while the one adjacent to it is a bright, overexposed blur with a few facial features, or the wing of a plane, just discernable.

In any case, I find the image I've been most looking forward to seeing -- a group photo of my dad's squadron -- and find that it's just a small handful of groundcrew standing next to a massive plane. My dad's not in the shot -- it's not the photo my brother and I remember sitting in mom's drawer, a photo long since gone missing -- but I do notice, among the white faces, a single black airman, his arms around his comrades on either side. 

My dad's unit was integrated. I'm somehow pleased to see it, knowing that the American armed forces wouldn't integrate till Korea, and not thoroughly till Vietnam. The liberal in me high fives himself, while still feeling disappointment at not seeing my father's face.

AFTER LUNCH, I GO BACK TO the reference room to look at the four boxes of files I'd requested. They load them onto a wooden trolley, and I wheel it over next to my desk, by the full-lenth window looking out at Hull over the river. I check my list, and open the box supposed to contain the operational records for the 168 Squadron.

Three hours later, I've sifted through all four boxes, and haven't found a single mention of my father. Only a flight sergeant when he left the service, he didn't make it onto the radar of the general staff, his commanding officers of the military bureaucracy who generated these piles of dusty letters, carbon copies, charts, decrypted messages and telegrams. I find one message, however, that matches up with one of his letters:
 

"NO. 168 SQUADRON GROUNDCREW PERSONNEL CONSISTING OF TWO NCOS FOUR AIRMEN NOW AT GOOSE TO BE TRANSPORTED TO ARGENTIA EARLIEST POSSIBLE DATE. THIS CREW REQUIRED FOR ENGINE CHANGE NO. 1 ENGINE ON LIBERATOR 576."

My father was sent all over the Maritimes in the winter of 1945, and bad weather grounded him and his crew in New Brunswick on their way up back up to Argentia from Goose Bay. My father was one of the NCOs in the wire. At the end of my day's work, this is the best I've been able to do -- the only record of my father's existence in the official records of his unit. I pack up the boxes and wheel the trolley back to the desk, thank the librarians and make my way downstairs to meet my friend Jamie.


 
"As a little child riding behind his father, said simply unto him, Father, when you are dead, I shall ride in the saddle.:
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- Stefano Guazzo (1530-1593)
Civil Conversation

 
Day two and three -- the archives, an old friend, and a trip back in time.

JAMIE AND I USED TO WORK TOGETHER at a big downtown record store here in Toronto, and formed a band -- succinctly named Gut -- with Donald, who moved out to Toronto with Jamie from Nova Scotia. They moved back to the Maritimes years ago, after we'd looted the store of everything we thought interesting enough to steal. I'd been fired -- for lateness and insubordination -- while Jamie and Donald just quit, having had enough of Toronto. 

Donald's still in Halifax, while Jamie and his girlfriend Rachel moved to Ottawa a decade ago, where they've bought a house in some far-flung satellite town. I ran into them in a pub in Lunenberg last Christmas, and we've gotten back in touch. Rachel's teaching school, while Jamie works for the ministry of health and gives drum lessons.

Gut never played live, but we recorded every rehearsal, and that seemed like quite enough. We basically made an awful, sinister noise; Jaime would beat out a relentless rhythm while I worried sheets of feedback from my amp. Donald would sit at his four-track and layer on successive dollops of this noise, while adding bleeps and bloops from his synth and snippets of "found sound" from the trove of records and CDs we'd pilfered from the store. I suppose today it would be called "sampling", of the most primitive sort. It was a lot of fun, from what I remember, though we were usually stoned out of our gourds when we deemed it time for a "session".

Jamie still has a committment to making ungodly noise, albeit in the framework of "improvised music", and since he was always the most accomplished musician in the bunch, it's probably a good thing. I was probably a better critic than a musician, in the end, while we were both curious about what Donald -- the "brains" of the scrambled operation -- might have accomplished. He's quite devoted to his daughter, back in Halifax, and hasn't pulled out his keyboard or four-track in years, from what he told me last Christmas.

We pile into Jamie's car and he takes me for a tour of the city, which mostly involves driving aimlessly around the mansions of Rockcliffe while making obscene, scatological comments on the inhabitants. "It can use an enema, this town," Jamie tells me, "but I like it more than Toronto."

We find a Sri Lankan restaurant Jamie thought had closed, and tuck into a few nice plates of curry. Back in the car, we head out into the suburbs, driving up and down the canal and through the Health Canada complex where Jamie used to work -- a chilly, desolate landscape of ugly office towers and squat, windowless bunkers where they used to experiment on monkeys.

Jamie and I have always based our relationship on sarcasm, and a mildly competitive dialogue on the sheer absurdity of the world we live in. It was a frantic, agitated way to be, especially when we were young and brimming with amused outrage, but we manage to mull over more personal topics tonight -- our status as "married men", the possibility of children, by-products of finally having found a sort of "groove" in our lives. It's a shame, I think to myself, that so many of my best friends live so far away these days -- payback, I suppose, for my onetime, constant insistence on my own isolation and self-reliance. 

It's a good night, though, and Jamie drops me off at the b&b with a standing offer to stay at their place nest time I come to town.

MY LAST DAY IN OTTAWA was always reserved for one task -- finding the airbase where my dad spent the last two years of the war. It doesn't take much more than a glimpse at a map to see that Rockcliffe Airbase is still in operation -- as a civil airport and the site of the Canada Aviation Museum. I pack my bags and negotiate the bus ride out there, thank the proprietors of the b&b and make my way down Elgin to the bus stop.

Less than an hour later, the bus -- after a circuitous tour of the suburbs that takes me in a long arc around the city -- drops me at the door of the museum, a huge, triangular white hangar in the middle of the three runways of my father's base. I stroll past the entrance to look at the field -- the runways still there, but the hangars, offices and barrack buildings long gone. The civil airport, full of little one-engine aircraft, has taken the runway parallel to the river, while the museum sits adjacent to the tarmac that once ran past the hangars. I'm here, I think to myself, and I head into the museum.

I pay my admission, put my suitcase in a locker, and make my way through the exhibits. I've been obsessed with aviation, lately, and not just the military kind -- early commercial airlines, flying boats, and the first passenger jets make up most of the obsession, and I've picked up a copy of a flight simulator program that I probably can't use on my current laptop, with a plug-in program that'll let me fly a DC-3. This is a depth of geekishness I wouldn't have thought myself capable of reaching.

The museum, needless to say, is a real thrill. I'm glad I'm here alone -- I can't think of too many friends, never mind K., being as willing to spend as much time scrutinizing the aircraft for as long as I do. I find a display devoted to Rockcliffe, with the old sign than hung above the front gate, and several photos and paragraphs that talk about the 168 Squadron. I take a picture of the sign, and make my way out the hangar door onto the field, where a pilot is taking visitors up in a vintage biplane. Parked along the tarmac are several big planes, mostly massive two- and four-engine prop models, falling to pieces in the weather due to lack of space for them inside, or funds to put them back together. I get a museum official to let me out past the fence, to where I can take pictures of the C-47 -- the military version of the DC-3 -- way at the end of the row. 

It's a beautiful day, the temperature hovering just above cool, and the sun bright. I look around me and imagine my dad walking underneath huge planes just like these, on this same spot, over fifty years ago. When I finally finish with the museum, I check the bus schedule and decide I've just enough time to wander out into the long grass next to the abandoned airstrip.

While I stand there taking a few pictures, a motorcycle roars up, a guy taking his girlfriend out for a joy ride. She gets off when he comes to a stop at the top of the airstrip, and he points the bike down the tarmac and takes off at roaring speed. On the way back, he pulls a wheelie -- exhuberant, pointless, dangerous behaviour. I bet he's having a great time.

I wander to the edge of the tarmac, and look over the spot where the hangars once stood, opposite the museum. On a day like today, my dad might have wandered past the converted American bombers he serviced, as they were loaded up with mail for the overseas run to the Azores, Gibraltar, and Britain. 

The sun would have cast the same long shadows, and he would probably have deemed the weather just as perfect as I did. He would have thought about my mother, and home, with a longing different from the more than faintly sad feeling I have right now. He'd be home soon, on leave, and then for good, while I'm standing here trying to connect with a time long passed and a man I barely knew. I see the bus come down the long driveway, pick up my bags and run for it, imagining for a second that my dad might have done the same thing, half a century ago, looking forward to the train home.

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©2000
Rick McGinnis
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