‘What was it like for you when there was a war?’

As Remembrance Day approaches, Victoria resident Shirley McBride recalls life during the Second World War

It’s most appropriate as Remembrance Day approaches to pay tribute to those who risked and gave their lives to preserve and protect our way of life. However, it took the question of a child to put some perspective on an aspect of the war years that is sometimes lost: “Grandma, what was it like for you when there was a war?”

That question provoked some retrospective on growing up in the war years. It was a small town — it could have been any small town anywhere in the country. When Pete Seeger sang “Where have all the young men gone?” he could have been singing about that town — with an overwhelming population of women (many raising children on their own) and old men.

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Having been born just about the time that the Second World War began, the earliest war years are not in my memory bank — but by the age of 3 the memories are crystal-clear. The first of these was the awareness that, unlike some of the other kids on the block, I didn’t have a father. He had gone to war and never returned.

There was a shortage of workers, because so many young men had gone off to war. My mother returned to teaching, in part to help support the family and in part because teachers were sorely needed. She taught in another town 100 miles away. I lived with grandparents. Mother came to stay during school breaks.

There were three uncles whom I had never seen. Two were in the air force — George Vinish was a pilot and Henry Vinish was a navigator. The third, Paul Vinish, was a sailor on a supply ship in the North Atlantic. There was also an aunt who visited infrequently — she worked in a factory near Vancouver. I came to think of her as one of the original “Rosie the Riveters.”

Grandpa ran a meat market and grocery store. The store was opened every day except Wednesday afternoons and Sundays. Wednesday was reserved for slaughtering animals to keep the meat market supplied. Sundays were spent going to church in the morning to pray for “the boys.”

Following Sunday dinner, Grandpa set to work doing book-keeping. Much of it involved keeping track of the food ration stamps that customers were required present when they bought their groceries, to make sure his reports to the government were an accurate representation of sales.

Grandma spent many hours in a large Victory Garden that supplied all of our vegetables, some fruit and some produce to give to families in need. Most of the neighbours also had Victory Gardens. Some kept a few chickens for eggs. It was a way of producing enough food within the country so that we could feed everyone without importing food. In that way, other resources could be spent on the war effort.

Everything was saved, re-used or recycled. Cloth shopping bags were standard fare (before the era of plastic took over). Old worn wool sweaters that were beyond repair or outgrown were washed and torn apart, the wool saved and knitted into something else. Worn-out clothing was ripped apart and fashioned into rag rugs. Cooking fats were saved and made into soap. Nothing was wasted.

Every evening at 8 p.m., the CBC news came on the radio. The booming voice of Lorne Greene (later of TV’s Bonanza fame) announced in his deep tones: “This is the news.” At that moment, the house fell silent. The map of Europe was laid out on the dining room table as they listened to news about the war and tried to figure out where the action was relative to the latest news about their three sons.

One day, a telegram from the military informed my grandparents that Henry Vinish was missing in action. His plane had been shot down over Germany. I asked if that meant that my uncle was never coming home, and Grandma replied softly: “I hope not.”

Some time later, our elderly neighbour came hobbling over excitedly to tell my grandparents that their son, a pilot, had just been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for having brought a disabled plane back safely from its bombing mission. He was to be presented the medal by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.

My grandparents were clearly relieved that he was safe and proud that he had done a good job, but the real excitement came upon word that their other son, missing in action, had been found in a German prison camp by the Americans. His leg was badly injured and he was being sent to a hospital in England.

The war years in town were punctuated by local fundraising efforts, with young women singing songs such as When the Boys Come Home and various funding drives for charities and the war effort. The major celebration, however, occurred upon news of the Armistice. I expected my uncles would be home the next day, but, of course, that time was still a long way off.

The Christmas after the war was over was memorable. George Vinish was home, with his new British war bride in tow. Paul Vinish was home, despondent because his fiancée had decided he was never coming home and had married someone else. And Henry Vinish was home, walking on crutches, reunited with his Canadian wife.

Grandpa was celebrating seeing the last of ration stamps. During the war, toys had been hard to come by and the only doll I had ever owned was a rag doll made by Grandma. Under the tree that Christmas was my first “real” doll — with eyes that closed.

We were grateful for the safe return of my uncles. The boy next door never came home. He was killed in an effort to win the peace — a sacrifice for which everyone was grateful. At dinner, we remembered that sacrifice, and gave thanks for the safe return of my uncles.

Every family will have their own stories of those times. Those who came home tried to shield us from stories of the horrors they had seen and experienced, but we understand their sacrifice. Each year we remember and thank them for it, and we thank those who now serve to keep us safe.

Shirley R. McBride, PhD, lives in Victoria and is an international consultant who works to better the lives of children with special needs.

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