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When you start pushing fifty, time suddenly feels compressed and ‘yesterday’ has slipped through your fingers like desert sand.
I can only imagine how my father feels at eighty.
As the days of his Easter holiday rolled on, he regaled us with stories about the rites of initiation for kids growing up in the 1930s and 40s—and Alex and Lizzie would giggle in one moment, only to be dumbstruck with awe in the next.
If nothing else, the Depression era was rich with creativity—those with little had to make the most of what they had.
And their antics were enough to make MacGyver (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/MacGyver) look like an amateur.
In the winter, skis were homemade of out old wine barrel stakes, boiled and bent to create tips, then sanded down with holes drilled through the breadth where binding ropes would pass, while rubber preserve jar rings were makeshift stirrups.
Poles were converted broom handles with nails hammered into the ends.
At five, my father—who didn’t own a pair of ice skates—‘borrowed’ his older brother Andy’s and filled in the gaps by keeping his shoes on inside.
In 1938, my father’s eldest brother Tony was 16 when he landed a prize job at the Peterborough Lock Co.
“In those days” says my father, “kids left school to get jobs and support their families.”
With his first pay check (a princely sum of $12 per week), Tony bought his first suit.
It was chocolate brown with pin stripes and bell bottoms (invented before the 70s). In the 30s, every suit came with 2 pairs of pants and vest.
It cost him $7.
As Tony was the only young man on the street who had a job, it was declared that the suit—at one time or another—was borrowed by every young man on ‘Spaghetti Drive’ who had a date with a special girl.
In 1939—only a year later—the lives of the Peterborough families changed forever as war broke out in Europe.
My father was 10 years old and Tony, now 17, lied about his age and signed up in December with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, in the 1st Canadian Division (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/1st_Canadian_Infantry_Division) of infantry—or the “Hasty P’s” (http://www NULL.theregiment NULL.ca/hastypee NULL.html).
Tony was the first young man from Peterborough to volunteer for WWII.
And his father Michele—born in 1892 and having served in WWI for Italy from1914—knew only too well the carnage his teenage son had signed up for.
In fact, decades later in 1972—when I was 11—Michele Basciano was knighted by the Italian government for aiding in the rescue of wounded soldiers while under fire, and himself wounded.
For the ensuing 6 years of WWII, my father became a ‘war correspondent’ of sorts, writing letters on behalf of Michele—along with many of their Italian neighbors (whose English was limited)—to their sons at the front.
Tony was later followed into war by two younger brothers—Ernie, who took up with the 3rd Canadian Division of infantry and Andy, who joined the navy.
Andy, whose first ship was a corvette , the HMCS Lasalle (http://www NULL.uboat NULL.net/allies/warships/ship/186 NULL.html), wrote home to say he got a “95 cent raise” after qualifying as a radar operator.
After combat training in Altershot, England, Tony contracted malaria when his regiment was sent to North Africa, where they fought with the Eighth Army under Field Marshall Montgomery against Rommel.
In 1943, the First Division moved to Sicily and then on to the Italian mainland—it was there in Southern Italy where they faced the fiercest opposition.
At Ortona (http://wwii NULL.ca/page44 NULL.html) , near Michele’s home town in Italy, the Germans and Canadians fought one of the notoriously bloody battles of the war.
Tony obtained a weekend pass, leapt on a motorcycle, and reunited with his 99-year-old maternal grandfather in nearby Rocca San Giovanni (http://www NULL.fornozulli NULL.it/immagini/cartina NULL.gif). It was a meeting where, by all accounts, the “homemade wine flowed”.
Fluent in Italian, Tony would often conduct solitary reconnaissance ahead of the troops to gain intelligence on German positions.
One day, my father recalls, the flow of letters from his brother just dried up—and Michele began to fear the worst.
A returning soldier from his regiment who had been badly wounded arrived in Peterborough with news—he reported that Tony was critically wounded, having lost an eye, with half of his face obliterated.
But, like all second-hand news, it had lost its credibility in the passing.
They eventually discovered that, on one of his lone forays, Tony had been injured by a hand grenade, with shrapnel wounds in his legs, and was suffering from shell shock.
He was hospitalized for weeks, then sent back to the front.
The “Hasty P’s” moved on to France (1944) and Belgium, on to Holland (where Tony was part of the liberating forces) then into German territory.
The 3rd Division had joined the 1st in Belgium as reinforcements where Tony was quick to exercise his right to claim his sibling, and had his brother Ernie transferred to his own regiment.
Ernie and Tony would spend the rest of the war together.
By the time he returned to Canada in 1945 after the war ended, Tony was an Acting Sergeant Major.
From the pounding his regiment took in Southern Italy, only 3 (including himself) of his original platoon of 35 men were left alive.
After VE Day in Europe, my father’s brother Ernie volunteered to fight in the Pacific against the Japanese (although Canadians were not required to go) and returned to Peterborough after the short-lived campaign.
Andy, too, arrived home safely to be reunited with his family.
Another miracle on Elm Street.
As a child growing up in the 60s, Tony was my favorite Uncle—to me, a tender ‘giant’ easily moved to tears, who behaved with a faultless generosity of spirit, and always counted his blessings.
My father, who happened to turn 16 when the war ended, always says that he “just missed it”.
Instead, he waged war on the ice, as a fierce hockey player, winning the Bantam championship of Canada in 1944.
Nicknamed “Flash” for his speed, he went on to play hockey for 3 different leagues simultaneously, including the OHA (Ontario Hockey Association) Junior League, and the Peterborough & District Rural and Industrial Leagues.
“Hockey was religion in those days” he says, “if you beat the home team, you were lucky to get out of the arena without being beaten up by their fans.”
One of his most poignant memories was being coached in the Junior League by hockey legend Dit Clapper (http://bruinslegends NULL.blogspot NULL.com/2007/03/dit-clapper NULL.html)—a native of Ontario—who played in the NHL for the Boston Bruins during the 1930s and 40s, and was later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (http://www NULL.legendsofhockey NULL.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/LegendsMember NULL.jsp?mem=p194701&type=Player&page=bio&list=#photo) in 1947.
“He was one of the greatest defensemen in the NHL” says my father, “and he taught me the real technique for legal body checking.”
Years later, one of his closest friends from the OHA Junior league went on to greater heights—Red Sullivan (http://www NULL.legendsofhockey NULL.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer NULL.jsp?player=14482), who played in the NHL from 1949 to 1961 for the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks and New York Rangers.
Over Easter, when we took my father—now eighty—up to San Jose for his grandson’s Mites game in the hockey Youth League at Shark’s Ice, my father watched him like a hawk as Alex played defense.
Later that night, as we all gathered in front of the fire, I saw time stand still.
In the soft light, my father and my son were laughing and leaping at each other like gazelles across the hardwood floor, as Dit Clapper’s famous body check came to life and was passed down the generations.
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