with additional recollections from Doug, and editing by Lynn
It was late in the fall of 1944 in the North of France. The young artilleryman looked forward to his fourth Christmas overseas with renewed optimism. The food was better than it had been in England. The monotony of long nights in the anti-aircraft pits was over and they were seeing new country almost every day. There was a rumour that they were going to Holland.
When word came that he was to report to the Captain he wasn’t worried. His history of tours in the punishment camps and special fatigue duties was long behind him. He wasn’t aware of any recent sins; at least any that the Captain would know of.
“Pack your kit, Gunner, you’re going home!”
“Sir, the war isn’t over.”
“It is for you.”
“You applied for compassionate leave.”
“That was three years ago. There’s no need now as it’s all done and over with. I was looking forward to seeing Holland.”
“Don’t be a fool! You’ll be home for Christmas. Pack your bag. That’s an order!”
Since the trip wasn’t necessary, the usual foul-ups didn’t occur. He was back to Normandy, onto a troopship (The Louis Pasteur) almost before he knew what had happened. The weather and the u-boats cooperated to provide a fast and safe passage. By the time they reached Halifax, many of the men on board began to believe that they might actually be home for Christmas.
The paperwork fell into place and within a day or so they were on a troop train loaded with men on leave, and with the walking wounded. By the late evening of the 22nd of December, they were in Montreal. Those from the west coast had given up hope of arriving home before Christmas. Those from the prairies were skeptical. The men from Ontario were feeling good. While waiting for the transfer to Toronto, some of the soldiers had a chance to talk with the locomotive engineer. They all had the same question…
“Will we be home for Christmas?”
The engineer was in his glory delivering good news.
“This is a brand-new locomotive and it can reach a top speed of 100 MPH”, (which was even faster than the Rapido, a 1960’s express train). “The tracks are being cleared between here and Toronto, so there is no waiting for slow-moving freight.” True to his word, they moved quickly. The engineer would open the whistle at all town limits and let it close as they came out on the other side. The only stop was for water in Brockville.
There is no real way of knowing what time troop trains arrived and departed Toronto at the station facility at The Canadian National Exhibition grounds. The Horse Palace was a main mustering area and provided temporary sleeping accommodations for soldiers. The last mile or two into Toronto entailed travel through extensive switching yards and then the main building at Union Station before continuing a short way to the CNE grounds. The train cars shook violently and the track noise was incredible. Many of the men who had just finished several years of war were now on their knees crying and praying, certain they were going to be killed, not in the battlefield but within a mile of their home destination. Along with the track noise the engineer held the whistle right through Union Station, demonstrating his determination to deliver these soldiers to their homes and families before Christmas.
The word was out in Toronto. Men had called from Montreal for someone to meet them at the station, but our soldier hadn’t bothered since he knew that there could be no one in Toronto for him. It was three a.m. but the station at Exhibition grounds was crowded with people looking for loved ones. Parents, children, families and friends were hugging and crying and laughing. He wasn’t looking for anyone as he headed through the crowds to find a phone. There were long lines at the telephone and everyone was scrambling, trying to find enough change to make a call on the payphones. A middle-aged woman threw her arms around him and told him how glad she was to see him and how well he looked. He finally overcame his surprise enough to tell her that he didn’t know her.
“I know dear, but you seemed all alone and I wanted to make you welcome. I come down and welcome those who don’t have anyone to meet them. I hope you didn’t mind. You see, my son won’t be coming home.”
He gave her a warm hug and thanked her. Then he pushed on to find a phone. They had been told on the train that their paperwork would be sorted out in the morning and then they would be free to go on leave. With his quick departure from France, there had been no chance to alert his family that he was coming home. It wouldn’t have made much difference since he had been travelling as fast as the mail in any event. He knew that his homecoming would be utterly unexpected by his loved ones.
The North River Telephone Company linked ten to twelve homes on each of the exposed strands that ran out of Coldwater. No one made calls at 3 a.m. and everyone knew that incoming calls at that hour in those years often brought the worst kind of heartache. There had been a gap of a week or two in the soldier’s letters, and while that wasn’t unusual, this wee hours call could be the worst news possible. The three-two ring brought all five of his family members running down the stairs to the cold main room. The neighbours were sure to be awakened too, and numerous would be listening in to the call with no regard for privacy.
The soldier’s mother lifted the receiver with trepidation and shouted into the mouthpiece in the fashion that was necessary on that equipment. “Hello!”
“Mumma” was all he was able to say, but that was enough. She knew. She knew it was her son. She knew he was alive. She knew that four years of daily fervent prayer had been answered. She was only able to say his name into the old wall-mounted telephone “Morley, she cried out.” Then there was silence. He could hear his young sister Gladdie shouting in the background “Ma, who is it? Is it Morley, Ma?” His father’s hands shook as he took the receiver and shouted “Is it really you, son?
There was silence on the other end.
After a few seconds that seemed like minutes, everyone recovered the power of speech. “It’s me, Mumma. I’m coming home for Christmas.” I’ll be on the 7:00 p.m. at Medonte Station. The operator came on to tell them that their time was up.
As the train left Toronto that afternoon, the soldier was worried. It was snowing quite steadily as the train wound its way into the snowbelt. The station sat all alone, miles across the flat river plain from the farm. The concession roads were ploughed infrequently if at all. How would his dad get the old car off the farm and down the ten miles to the station? Would there be anyone to meet him? As the train drew in, he felt better, as the station was uncharacteristically flooded by light. There was a crowd on the platform. He was sure that someone important must be on that train. But it turned out that he was the only one disembarking.
They were all there for him, his family, friends, neighbours and people he had never seen before. The good news had spread all day, stemming from that 3 am party-line call. Even the Coldwater Boys Bugle Band was there to welcome home the first local lad to come back from the war. Many people went to the station that Christmas Eve to be part of the historic moment. Most of them had attended many church services during the war years. Praying for the safe return of soldiers fighting a war halfway around the world was part of every service. These people were ready to be part of some good news.
After all the celebrating with all the well-wishers at the station, the family made their way home up the long driveway to the North River farm. Grandma was overwhelmed by the events of the past twenty-four hours. Like mothers around the world always do, she made a bed-check on her children before going to her own bed. The first room she checked was that of her returned soldier son. She found him sleeping soundly with one younger brother tucked under each arm, two boys with their very own super-hero. They looked up to him their whole lives. Grandma never missed her bedtime prayers, as her faith in God carried her through good times and difficult times. One can be sure that her prayers that night were of gratitude.
I am sure though there was no happier family anywhere than the Abbott’s at North River that extra special Christmas Eve.
This was the first of forty Christmases Dad had back home, but it is the one that I wanted to record for our family to remember. I can recite it from beginning to end, even though it happened before I was born. I hope that fifty years from now my children are still telling it as though they had heard it first-hand from their grandfather.