A Different Rustle

I once made a film based on letters I found in a shoebox in the attic of an historic house museum where I was employed as curator. During the turbulent World War II years, new flight training schools were built around the country, and Summerside must have had a good politician at the time, because we got one. Service Flying Training School No. 9 attracted many students and teachers, and accommodation on the base was limited, so private citizens in our small city graciously opened their doors. My film, Bobby's Peace, was about the hospitality extended by locals, and how it helped heal these young flyers who, in many cases, had already served tours overseas and who had also experienced deep personal losses.

There's so much I can say about this but I'll keep it brief - Bobby's Peace, which aired on CBC and Bravo, was a fictional story but it was based on the true lives of three young men - Bruce Powell, from Winnipeg, a handsome fellow with magnetic charm, whose picture I still have on my bulletin board today; John Bryant, from Montreal, a quieter guy with sad eyes, who credits Bruce for helping him deal with the loss of his twin brother overseas, who was suicidal when they met, and who eventually became a doctor; and Bobby Brennan, a tow-headed youngster who likely never knew the other two, but who was born and raised with his two brothers in a grand home that once stood where our Intermediate school's gym is today.

Bobby (John Robert) left home to go to war without telling his mother, Florrie. She wasn't aware of his plans. She was devastated. Eventually she received letters stating that both he and his brother Brun (Charles Arthur) had disappeared - both boys were fighter pilots. The hopeless letters arrived at her doorstep about nine months apart, if I remember correctly (I'm going on memory here - it's been a while since I read about this in the journals of the lovely Miss Wanda Wyatt). My stomach clenches just to think of this…my son is in Vancouver and I miss him terribly. But I can text and write and call and scrawl messages on his Facebook posts and stalk him like crazy. All three of Florrie's sons went to war. Two went missing. One was sought out, found, and sent home, because he was the last remaining son. 

How did Florrie deal with her grief? Well, for one, she kept hoping. The boys' planes were missing. Perhaps her sons were just lost somewhere behind enemy lines, and were trying to make their ways back home? Perhaps some kind farmers were hiding them until such time as it was safe to send them home? In the meantime, Florrie wrote letters. We found them while I was working at the Wyatt Properties…I can't remember where, but they must have been in one of Wanda Wyatt's shoeboxes - she had many filled with letters. Florrie's letters were on thin blue paper that folds onto itself. They were handwritten, and they bled pain.

She wrote of the last time she saw Bobby. He simply said 'good nite', and made his way up the stairs. Florrie mentioned seeing his 'bonny head' for the last time. Her words were imbued with a mother's loss, dripping with tears. She spoke of sitting out under a big tree in the yard, a tree where her youngest son liked to sit and dream the days away. In one letter she said the air was deathly still, yet a rustle went through the tree, like a wind with no beginning and no end, just a lonely gust. Florrie called it 'a different rustle' than any other, and she said 'I know it was you.'

I seem to recall that was before she received the second letter telling of her middle son's disappearance. When that letter came, you can imagine the tone of her future letters. There weren't many more. When final word came that the boys were lost, definitively and surely, she talked of Bobby's young girlfriend coming to the house. The girl laid down on his big bed and she looked so small there, and she sobbed her heartache away. 

Bobby Brennan was nineteen. 

Bobby Brennan

Bobby Brennan

Bobby now rests in a cemetery in the Netherlands. His brother, Brun, rests in Malta.

I need to go back to the archives to dig up those letters. I can get lost in the past so easily, but sometimes it's a painful place to be. This Remembrance Day I will be listening for the names of our hometown men as they're read - boys, actually, most of them. I rarely miss a Remembrance Day ceremony and, I must say, most people from this area make it a point to attend. Summerside has a strong and proud air force tradition, and we support our uniformed men and women, now and from days gone by.

One other note - Wanda kept many journals over the course of her long life. Bruce Powell and John Bryant (from my film) boarded at her home. They were instructors at the air base, and were normal, gregarious boys who made many friends and who lived their lives with passion and gusto. One of Bruce's good friends was Joe McIvor, a good-natured handsome fellow from nearby rural Kinkora. Joe sent letters from his various postings when he went back overseas. In one, he describes surviving a plane crash in Russia. I recall him talking about the snow, and how cold it was. Then - well, Wanda's journals were usually very matter-of-fact. She rarely got emotional when she wrote about the daily events that made up her life. But she vividly described the wild reaction of her young boarder - Bruce was 28 at the time - after hearing that his good friend had been killed. He went tearing out of the house, she said…in search of what?

Joe left a new wife behind. She was expecting their first child. Joe's brother Justin came to visit me at the Wyatt Properties. He was old, then, stooped and tired. He pulled out his wallet. Inside was a crinkled old photograph of his brother Joe. It stayed in Justin's wallet his entire life.

I met Bruce in Calgary. He was in his late 80's, and was confined to a wheelchair. He was living in a nursing home. He was angry, and upset at the fact that he had Parkinson's. This vital man with the big personality was done, and not because he wanted to be, but because life told him he was. I told him that, to me, he was 28, because in the journals I had just read, he was full of beans and vinegar, grabbing each day as it came because he, like others during those turbulent years, didn't know what the future held. He passed away soon after our visit.

Bruce Powell

Bruce Powell

I thank Wanda Wyatt for keeping Florrie's letters, and for keeping journals that described her own pain at the news that the young Brennan boys were missing, and of Bruce's agony at the loss of his friend. Remembrance Day is, to me, one of the most important days of the year. It's a time to remember that the aged men we see marching in military parades were boys, once. And yes, maybe they signed up because they wanted adventure. But in most cases they got more than they bargained for. And now we look into their eyes and wonder how they got past it - the killing, the death, the futility of unbearable loss.

Today, Remembrance Day is more meaningful and poignant than ever. I discovered that I have a very personal connection to the recent killing of a soldier in Quebec. We need to pray for peace. The killing has to stop. Our young boys need to be safe.

This is for you, P. Stay safe, and know that you have a home in Summerside if and when you need it. Because we have a longstanding tradition of caring for our uniformed men and of nurturing them through the tough times. We love you, and we miss you, and - we thank you.