"Incoming!" The scream of the air raid siren sliced through what had been a lovely spring night, laid it wide open, allowing the fires of hell to rain down. Earsplitting, it also drowned out the rhythmic drone of an approaching flock of Messerschmitts, leaving you feeling like a mechanical duck in a shooting gallery; disoriented and trapped, ineffective against the barrage of bullets and bombs.
The siren was a nightly occurrence, or so we had been told. It was our welcoming party, one hell of an effective way to let us know that ‘hell, yes, Dorothy, we weren’t in Kansas anymore’. We were boys in men’s boots, tossed rifles to defend against incendiary bombs, and christened with Hitler’s hellfire and brimstone. Welcome to Greenoch; like Clydebank, it would be another of the war’s dirty little secrets, the pain, the devastation hidden away for years under the guise of national security.
I stood on this bluff that night, my first night in Scotland and, for the most part, became an audience for the half-scripted tragedy. The simple truth that none of us wanted to acknowledge then, and still don’t now, is that when the siren starts to scream, when you hear that drone of a hundred German mosquitoes coming in close to the deck to deliver their special man-made mechanical parasites, it’s already too late. Men and guns against aircraft and bombs for as far as the eye can see makes about as much sense as taking a turtle for protection into a bullfight ring. I was a tank commander. My weapon of choice, while effective as hell on the ground, was nothing more than a target to steel birds with swastika tattoos on their sides and bellies filled with IBs.
Am I sorry I was here? Hell no. I knew what I was doing when I signed on the dotted line, and I know we did, overall make a difference. We were in Scotland to train; our battles were yet to come. The events of May 6th and 7th, 1941, and the fallout from the Greenock Blitz would never leave me, and the memories would have much less to do with the bombing, but everything to do with the bombed.
Blake Calder stood on the bluff, looked down on Greenoch and the Atlantic below then drew a bracing breath. "What the hell am I doing here?"
He leaned one shoulder against an old, familiar oak tree. The lush green hillside was as he remembered it from almost twenty years earlier – sans bomb craters, war ships and planes screaming overhead. He looked at his shoes, no longer spit-shined boots; leather oxfords were the order of the day in civilian life. His toe kicked at the base of the tree, his hand caressed the gnarled bark, a fit enough greeting for an old arboreal friend.
A smile tickled the corners of Blake’s thin lips. Below, azure blue ribbons crept in towards the land. The dark, cold, unforgiving waters of the Atlantic Ocean wandered inwards, like arthritic fingers seeking to grasp hold of terra firma, never wanting to let it go again. Sun danced on the waves, reflecting like tinsel on a Christmas tree. With a deep breath, he drank in the smells of spring, the peat, the new grass, and the salt from the water below. Behind him sat factories and shipyards, the signs of progress that at one time had been branded by the enemy as prime targets for destruction. Many of those old buildings still wore their war wounds, showing they had a limitless ability to rise above adversity.
Pressing his spine to the trunk, he bent his knees as he slid down to sit on a moss-covered rock, the same one he thought twenty years earlier had been specifically designed to suit his backside. Boats bobbed on the water, deceptive dinky toys in a massive bathtub. Blake feasted on the view, the smells, the sounds of his beloved Scotland.
"Why did I wait so long to return?" He knew the answer; it was fear that held him back. It was fear that made him linger now, dangling remember-when’s in front of his own nose, hooked red wigglers in front of a trout. He touched the trunk once again, ran his hand along the deep furrows in the bark of the oak tree, caressing each crevice with calloused fingertips. "Gods to gods, was that a lifetime ago, or perhaps only a few days?" He ran his leathery hand over his head. Thinning hair and deep scar fissures offered confirmation: It was not 1941.
With a deep sigh, he allowed his head to drop back to rest against the trunk. Blake looked past the baby green leaves, considering the clouds high overhead. They were large and billowing, but the flat tops signaled something more ominous. "The anvils of the gods," he quoted his father. "Soon Thor will be in full voice, swinging his hammer while Zeus hurls lightening spears across the sky. I’ve watched it many times from right here on this damned bluff."
The tree and its surroundings became a conduit, whisking him many miles, many years, away from the cliff overlooking Greenoch. As he watched it, the blue of the ocean, that dark and unyielding water, faded from sight. It still waved, undulating, exotic, under the building storm clouds. In his memory it was now golden fields of wheat rising and falling in the wind for as far as the eye could see.
1928 was a memorable year for Blake Calder, and in fact, for the whole Calder family. It was the last wonderful year Blake could remember. There had been trials for them before 1928, but nothing that could hold a candle to the events that followed his eleventh birthday.
The scene unfolded before him as if he was sitting in a theatre in the city but without the grand marquee and popcorn. He, his father and his Uncle Stephen were walking through the wheat field. A stem of the grain hung from the corner of a very young Blake’s bow lips in perfect imitation of his father. He could remember Uncle Stephen looking down at him and chuckling. It was something Uncle did often. Blake however was never trying to be funny or amusing.
Mother Nature had been kind to Alberta farmers that year. The rain had come at just the right time, in just the right amount, to produce long stalks and very full heads of grain. The gardens were lush, green, and guaranteed no one would go hungry over the winter. The cattle and hogs were round and happy; the turkeys had filled out.
Blake was awestruck at the power wielded by the prairie soil. It had the ability to produce life that was able to sustain even more life. It provided almost everything they needed, and there was so much of it. The soil here sported fields of yellow grain that stretched all the way to the horizon. Far off to the west, he could see the outline of the Rocky Mountains, a sight he could only imagine up close, but one that intrigued him. To the east, the north and the south, there was nothing but fertile soil.
"Pa, how far away are the mountains from us?" Blake asked as he chewed on his stem.
Regen Calder looked down at his oldest boy before following his gaze westward. "Well, they’re about a hundred miles away, Son."
Blake’s smooth brow furrowed as he considered the answer. "My teacher said they grow wheat like this all across Alberta and Saskatchewan and Manitoba. How far do you think that would be?"
Regen laughed. "It’s a very long way, and a whole lot of wheat."
The little boy nodded. "That’s what I thought. Guess we never need to worry about Ma not being able to make bread for us."
"No, son," Regen agreed. "I can’t imagine anything that could cause her that problem. There might be fires or floods to take out small pieces here and there, but only for a little while, and those would all recover in a year or two. The fires and floods, in the long run, help out the crops, but it takes time; we just don’t see that right away." He rested his fists on his hips. "This is what God intended when he made this land, and we would be well advised to not mess with his plan. It seems to be working fine. We’re all happy and fit; no one in our family will go hungry. That makes us a whole lot better off than many other people in the world."
Blake stuck his hands in the back pockets of his overalls, a miniature version of those worn by the two older men, and sauntered further along in the field. He stopped, looked up at both adults after several minutes of silence. "You think I’ll ever get to see just how far this wheat stretches? You think I’ll ever have the chance to see the mountains, or even Saskatchewan?"
Regen lifted Blake’s hat off his head and tussled the full crop of dark hair before slapping the cap back down, backwards. "Son, I think you’ll be able to go anywhere you want to in a few years. I think you could even get to see the whole world if you want."
Over the years, the words repeated in Blake’s mind. They had never been a superstitious family. In fact, any talk of good luck charms or curses or anything of the kind was forbidden within hearing of a Calder. The only influence outside of hard work with their calloused hands or the normal human frailties and strengths was the Divine intervention that came from above, and that had nothing to do with luck or charms. Those words, though, spoken in awe in the middle of a field, would be all the proof Blake Dalton Calder would need to later reverse his thinking. Karma didn’t exist back then, and he had never heard of tempting the Fates. Regardless of the catechism from the Catholic Church being drilled into his brain from the moment he was born, soon after that conversation, he knew something was wrong. If it was all God’s doing, then Blake wasn’t so sure he needed or wanted that God.
"There was one man who got me through it all, you know." I spoke to the tree. It’s a Calder thing, I guess, talking to something that can’t talk back. It saves time on the arguing. "No, that’s not true, either. There were a lot of great men… boys… like me… who got me through it all, but every day in that Kraut-created hell, I drew strength from one. He was an unlikely hero to just about everyone. That was their loss. A simple man, a man of no great physical standing, he was still my hero. Damn it all, I should have told him." I shut up for a minute, waited. I thought perhaps the tree would rebuke me for being amiss in that regard, but it remained silent – proof that it was a kindred soul, a hardened soldier itself. "When I think of what he went through, what he saw in the trenches in France, yet he always smiled, always was able to see something inspiring."
Uncle Stephen, as much as any man fighting beside me, got me through what, up until the age of eighteen, I believed no man could endure. He endured. In fact, he flourished. Yeah, I read about crusades, great battles, Napoleon and Alexander the Great… but none of that was real; Uncle Stephen was.
"We’re on our way to the station," Regen Calder shouted from the kitchen door. "Come on, let’s get a wiggle on. We don’t want to be late."
Odette herded her brood towards the door. "Way you go. Keep clean. Maureen Rose, you make sure those twins mind your father, and everyone keep your clothes clean. I’ll have dinner ready for when you get home." She kissed each child on the head then gave her husband a hug and a lingering kiss. "I can hardly believe he’s coming home." She squeezed then took a step back, straightening her long skirt. "Get going. I’ll not hear of him standing and waiting on the platform because you all dawdled."
"Are you sure you’ll be okay?" Regen ran his hand over her extended maternity bump, concern in his voice.
"I’m fine. The baby is not coming today."
"But…" The vision of the four small Calder graves on the edge of town was indelibly etched in his memory. He knew the same thoughts, the same fears, had to be carried by his wife as well.
She shook her head, putting her hand over his as it caressed their yet-to-be-born baby. "We’re fine. Don’t worry." She stood on her toes, gave him a kiss. "Now, get going. Do not keep Stephen waiting."
She watched from the door as Regen loaded Mo, Blake and the twins onto the buckboard, and waved as they pulled out of the driveway. Blake smiled and waved back, then blew his mother a kiss.
"Pa, who is Uncle Stephen?" Morgan held tight to the tail of the reins, pretending to drive the horses with his father.
Regen looked down at the son sitting beside him, smiled and played along with the conversation. "You know all of this, silly. He’s my brother, my youngest brother."
"We’re excited to see him, right?" Vince asked, caution in his voice as he reached across his father’s lap to grab the leather rein from his twin’s hand.
"Yes, we are. We are very excited to see him, and very thankful God brought him home to us."
"Uncle Stephen is special." Mo held her head high, comfortable with filling in the matriarchal role in her mother’s absence. She kept her hands folded on her lap. "He’s the sweetest, kindest man you could ever hope to meet."
Regen chuckled. Blake rolled his eyes at the parroting of their mother’s words from earlier in the week when she had been discussing the arrival with the ladies of the church guild.
"He was the brother who went into the orphanage, right, Pa? When your parents died and there was no one to take care of him?"
"Yes, Mo. He’s the one."
Morgan frowned. "Then how come he’s still your brother?"
"Because your mother and I, when we got married, went to the orphanage and got him out to take care of him ourselves. He’s been with us ever since. He’ll always be my brother. Nothing can ever change that."
Blake stood in the back of the wagon, leaned forward on his father’s shoulder to hear what was being said.
"Then you moved here to Canada and built our home."
Blake twisted his mouth, shook his head. "Know-it-all."
Regen ignored Blake’s gibe at his older sister. "Yes, we did. We lived in a tent for the first two years while we built the house."
"Wow! Even in winter?"
Both twins had moved to the edge of the bench seat.
"Yes, sir, even in winter. We stacked hay bales around the walls to keep us warm. We did just fine."
"But the house is much nicer, isn’t it?" Maureen straightened her skirt, just like her mother would have done.
"Yes, I believe it is."
Blake had watched the train pull in to the station hundreds of times, but he could never remember standing there on the platform to meet someone getting off the train. "He must be someone very important if he’s arriving this way," he said to Mo, his hands deep in his pockets. He stood straighter, realizing that everyone in town must be watching them, impressed that the Calder family had someone arriving by train. He twitched with excitement when the train came into view. The heavy wheels screamed, groaned with the pain and strain of controlling thousands of tons of metal, as the train pulled to a stop. The noise hurt Blake’s ears. He covered them with his hands then felt a tug as he received a sharp rebuke from his older sister.
"It’s rude to meet someone important with your hands over your ears. None of the grown-ups are covering their ears, so you can’t, Blake. Besides, you have to set the right example for Vince and Morgan. You’re the oldest brother."
The engine blew off thick clouds of smoke, evoking images of crazed dragons in Blake’s mind. He was excited, but intimidated by the machine.
The man who got off the train was the most impressive-looking individual Blake could ever hope to encounter. As the little boy looked up at his uncle for the first time, he was sure there was no one in the world more important than this tower of military uniform who stood before him. The Canadian Expeditionary Forces uniform was worn and frayed in places, patched many times by Stephen’s own hand but none of the blemishes were visible to Blake.
More than the scuffed-but-nevertheless-polished boots and the dirty cap on his head, the things Blake would always remember were the smile and laugh he heard the minute Uncle Stephen stepped onto the train platform. Regen had to fight back any show of emotion as Stephen hugged his brother tight, but Stephen chuckled and winked down at the gaggle of children gathered around them. He then focused his full attention on each child in turn.
Mo was scooped up into her uncle’s arms, giggling in response to Stephen’s infectious laugh. He kissed and hugged her. "Wow, my princess, look at how grown-up you are. How did that happen? And let me say right here, right now, that of all the beautiful women I’ve seen in all of France and Canada, you are the most lovely."
Mo blushed and hugged him back. "I missed you, Uncle Stephen. I’m so glad you came home. I prayed very hard for you every day."
"That was very good of you. Thank you. I missed you too." Setting her back down on her tiny feet with a kiss on the top of her blonde curls, he reached to treat Blake to the same introduction, but was confronted by an offered handshake instead. Stephen became formal, shaking the hand, firm and professional, with a slight bow of his head and a bright sparkle in his eye. "Well, this is a fine Calder specimen. Blake, I am delighted and honored to finally meet you. Every word your mother told me about you in her letters was spot on." Odette had made sure she wrote every detail of what the children were doing so there were be little need for a time of adjustment or familiarization when he returned. Uncle Stephen knew everything about the little man in front of him, and was not surprised by this formal greeting.
Blake couldn’t help but notice his uncle’s eyes. They seemed to dance as they took in every aspect of the boy. Blake was sure his uncle’s eyes could see right through his skin and into his soul, but he was also sure that Uncle Stephen liked what he saw.
The twins wasted no time on formalities. For all of their lives, they had heard the stories of Uncle Stephen, and when their turn came to welcome him, they almost tackled him in their exuberance. The boys were not identical twins, but the differences were slight. They had the Calder dark hair and facial structure, they had the same smiles and laughs, but everyone knew the truth to each boy’s identity lay in his eyes. Morgan had his mother’s bright blue eyes, while Vincent’s were all Calder – very dark brown already, despite his young age.
Blake would always remember that day as one that heralded a change in their world. While Odette always sang in the house and taught the children many songs, when Uncle Stephen returned from the Great War, the War to End All Wars, the party started that night, and carried on for many years. There was singing, dancing and never-ending laughter in the house, especially when, a few weeks later, Tristan Patrick was born.