I spent about 25 years in jail.
Well, to clarify, it was in 8 to 16 hour instalments, and I was being paid to be there. I was hired in 1999 as a Security Officer at a maximum security B.C. provincial correctional centre and over the next two decades spent countless hours supervising various prison living units (a sort of self-contained pod of 18 to 38 inmates). I have dealt with untold numbers of young men leading broken, pitiful lives during the time I spent as a Correctional Officer. Over the years I have often been asked by friends and family if there was some single factor that led to these lives being wasted in jail. As an aside, don’t let anyone con you into believing prison is about rehabilitation – it is little more than a warehouse. It at least allows offenders an opportunity to get clean and do some serious thinking about the direction of their lives, but there is no situation I can think of that proves the old saying “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” than a criminal serving time in prison. Mind you, the powers-that-be in charge of the prison don’t help much – what sort of facility that is supposedly focused on rehabilitation has no library, but does put colour TVs (and 24/7 satellite TV service) into every cell?
As far as the reasons that young people end up in such a dead end, for a long time I felt that the underlying factor was almost always drugs. The men I dealt with very often told me they were either on drugs when they offended, committed crimes to pay for drugs, or were involved in the drug trade, even if they didn’t “use” themselves. I accepted this answer for years, but slowly I realized that this answer begged a question – why did they turn to drugs and gangs in the first place? A new, more profound answer presented itself – most of these young men lacked any kind of father figure in their lives. The best that many could hope for was a string of abusive stepfathers or mom’s boyfriends. One young man, not even out of his teens, told me about the time his stepfather shot his dog in front of him to punish the boy – little wonder the boy turned to drugs to ease the anguish in his life.
As I researched my Dad’s time in the RCAF and spoke to the sons and daughters of his crewmates, I began to realize how fortunate we had been to have men of character in our lives, mentoring, guiding and setting an example.
I vividly remember an incident that occurred when I was about 16, working after school in Dad’s small business, an appliance repair shop. One of our repairmen, a young man named Ron, who I looked up to, died in a sad drowning accident. A few days after we got the news, Dad asked me to help him pack up Ron’s tools. As we sorted and packed Ron’s toolbox, Dad quietly commented “You know son, this will probably be a painful package for Ron’s Mom and Dad to get, but it is the right thing to do – these tools aren’t ours, they belong to his family now.”
Lessons like that stick with you, and although I know it will sound hopelessly old fashioned, a boy needs a father to teach them.
One day at work a fellow Correctional Supervisor (I will call him Dan) and I were discussing our shift’s daily staff compliment. I reminded him that one of our Correctional Officers was off for the day, having taken a special leave day due to his father passing away. Dan was dismissive: “why would you waste a special leave day for that? ... if someone called me and told me my old man was dead I would tell them not to bother me at work. I couldn’t care less”.
I was shocked, but I kept it to myself – but it sure brought home to me that not everyone is fortunate enough to have a man worthy of being looked up to as a father.
More that once I have pondered the fact that every family member of my Dad’s crewmates that I contacted respected and revered their fathers without exception....is that just a coincidence, or was author Tom Brokaw right in calling them “The Greatest Generation”?
During my time researching my Dad’s time in the RCAF, I read about a wide variety of subjects, from Atlantic convoys to tank warfare on the Russian front, from Nachtjaeger squadrons in France to the building of airfields on the Canadian prairie. One character popped up at every location and situation I read about: the animal.
Innocent animals have always been caught up in the human insanity we call war, whether pressed into servitude, caught in the crossfire as their habitats became battlefields or kept as companions. WW2 was no different, and from cats on battleships, dogs on guard duty, horses pulling artillery (the German army used in excess of 3,000,000 horses from 1939-45) to pigeons flying messages, animals were there in the front lines.
Bomber Command made use of homing pigeons until early 1944, and all aircrew took a pair of them in a cage on every operation, usually in the care of the Wireless Operator. If they had to ditch in the North Sea, a message with their location would be tied to the leg of the birds and they would be sent on their way. A surprising number of aircrew were rescued from near certain-deaths by these humble birds.
The British even had a medal for brave animals, the Dicken Medal, which was awarded to heroic deeds by dogs, pigeons and horses (and a single cat, in 1949.)
One of my favourite stories from WW2 is from the wonderful (and not widely known) book Six War Years by Barry Broadfoot. Broadfoot travelled Canada in the 1970s, sticking a microphone into stranger’s faces and asking simply “what did you do in the war?” The stories cover everything from being a kid on the home front to harrowing memories of combat in places like Italy and Normandy and are transcribed almost verbatim, without commentary.
The story I recall so fondly took place in the middle of the North Atlantic. An unarmed repair ship itself broke down halfway to England and the convoy it was part of had to leave it behind. While the small crew worked frantically to fix the problem so they could try to catch up, the conning tower of a German U Boat suddenly broke the surface of the ocean not far away. Much to the crew’s amazement, the hatch opened, a dingy was inflated and several German sailors began to row the short distance towards them. When the dingy came alongside, the captain of the repair ship was astonished to see that the German officer in the dingy was holding a large fluffy cat.
“The captain of our submarine wishes to know if you might have some milk for his cat?” asked the officer.
The captain of the repair ship immediately sent one of his men below to the galley to fetch some condensed milk. A net bag with several cans was duly passed to the German officer, who gave his thanks and had his men row back to the U Boat, which then peacefully submerged and went on its way...
Apparently the Coffey crew, in Tholthorpe in the spring of 1944, shared their home with a small menagerie of birds and animals. The 420 Squadron Operational Records Book notes on May 29th, 1944 that “...the Squadron is getting to look like a zoo more and more every day. The following is the strength of pets: 1 fox, 2 dogs, 3 cats, 2 rabbits, 8 ducks 2 geese and one hen.”
The entry appears lighthearted, but it doesn’t have a happy ending, and it continues: “...the killing order was given. Now the old hen lies well roasted on its back in the Officers Mess kitchen to be devoured at noon. No more eggs for the batman!”
War is hell, as they say.
Clint L. Coffey is the author of The Job To Be Done, available now through FriesenPress. Check back soon for new blog posts