Authors: Gisela Sherman
Soldiers and Seedlings
Saturday, October 24, 1942
Row upon row of men in brown serge uniforms marched, left, right, left, right, heads up, shoulders back, rifles balanced low on their hips. From where Helene Miller and her friend Peggy stood, the line had no beginning and continued forever, though Helene knew they would turn left at the TH&B railway station on Hunter Street. Hundreds of soldiers marched by. They stared straight aheadâeach face a proud mask hiding whatever hopes, elation, or fears it felt insideâoff to save the world.
The people cheered for their brave boys. Mothers smiled and waved, holding in their tears and terror until they got home. Fathers stood silent, proud, worried. Wives and girlfriends in their prettiest dresses blew kisses. Youngsters ran alongside the columns of marching men, most to revel in the excitementâpretend they too were off to fight this glorious warâand some just to get one last look at Daddy.
“There's the band!” Peggy shouted, dodging a Union Jack waving vigorously beside her. “Wish I could march with them.”
Helene smiled at her. Peggy, her freckled face rosy with exhilaration, her smile infectious as always, loved spontaneous fun and drama. She cheered the band and the young enlistees who followed it.
“Isn't that Theo Brock?” Helene pointed at a blond boy with broad shoulders.
Peggy squealed. “Oooh, he looks handsome in khaki.” She brushed her auburn hair from her face and waved.
“Hey, Peggy!” Theo called.Â “Write to me.”Â Without breaking stride, he tossed a piece of paper toward her.
She caught it, read his address. “Camp Borden. I was stuck on him last year. I'll write him every day!” She waved until he paraded from sight.
“There's another swell-looking guy,” Peggy said, smiling at a tall, dark enlistee.
Helene wondered if her own father had looked that good when he headed off to the Great War. Had young girls squealed over him? They wouldn't have when he returned.
When the tall enlistee's address fluttered her way, Peggy grabbed it. “Now I have two soldiers to write to.”
When a third paper flew their way, Peggy pointed at it. “It's for you, Helene. Catch.”
Such a handsome boy would never write to me,
thought Helene, shaking her head.
“Take it,” Peggy said. “You write better letters than I do.”
Helene pocketed the address and looked up at the big Birks clock on the corner just as the four bronze horsemen charged around its base four times. Two-thirty. “I should go home.”
“Stay a bit longer, Helene. The parade's almost over.” She smiled at another boy and he too tossed an address her way. So did the fellow marching behind him. “Send me your photo,” he called.
When the last row had marched past them, the onlookers drifted home to dinner, and the young soldiers boarded the train to uncertain futures.
Peggy proudly clutched four slips of paper. “I knew we'd have fun today.” Her cheeks were flushed and her blue eyes shone.
Helene agreed. “I'm glad we came.”
“I have an hour before my piano lesson. Want to go for a soda?”
Helene shook her head. “Mama needs me at home.” She imagined Peggy going home to play music and sing with her familyâthey were all so talentedâand then sit down to a good meal. Waiting for Helene were three childrenâone sick, laundry to wash, potatoes and turnips to peel, and a meager supper with six roomers.
Peggy led the way through the crowd. “You want to go write to your soldier,” she teased.
A girl in a gray coat, carrying a small cardboard box, stormed down McNab Street toward them.
I'd rather finish my homework, read my new book, and sleep until noon tomorrow,
The girl stopped at a bench, slammed down the box, and stood staring up the street, fists clenched. When a bus pulled up, she glared at the box and rushed onto the bus. As it pulled away, Helene wondered,
What could have upset her so?
Peggy walked to the bench, studied the box, and gingerly pulled open one corner.
“Peggy, you can't.”
“Watch me.” Peggy peered into the box and whistled. “Chocolate!” She scooped up the box and brought it to Helene. Lifting the cover, she said, “I've gone to heaven. Ten chocolate brownies. I haven't tasted chocolate for a year.” She reached in. “Have one.”
“I can't eat someone else's misery.”
“Won't help her if they go to waste,” Peggy mumbled through a mouthful of brownie.
Reluctantly, Helene took one and bit into it. Her mouth, her whole body sighed with joy. Rich, creamy chocolate. She hadn't eaten anything so heavenly for a long time.
Carrying the box like a trophy, Peggy led the way west. They compared the looks of the boys whose addresses they carried, and made up stories about why the girl in the gray coat was so angry. Twenty minutes later, they turned onto Locke Street. Peggy tore the box in half, divided the brownies equally, and handed one side to Helene. “See you Monday,” she said and continued south.
Helene, careful to avoid the broken step, jumped up her front stairs with her treasure.
That night after they'd washed the dishes, and the boarders retired to their rooms, Mama boiled two weak cups of coffee, poured milk for the twins, and the family sat at the kitchen table for their special treat.
It's easy to laugh with chocolate in your mouth,
Helene thought, and silently thanked the unhappy girl in gray.
Once Willy and Peter were in bed, Helene sat at the table to do her homework while her mother ironed sheets nearby. She looked up from her history book and saw her mother's tired face. Her mama put in a full day making tires for army trucks at Firestone, caring for the boys and the house. Mr. Perkins' shirts still needed ironing. And always there was the worryâabout bills, the war, Papa. Mama's hair was once light brown like Helene's. Now it was dull, streaked with white, and knotted into a practical bun. Her face was lined, her hands red and rough. Again, Helene wondered if she should leave school like some other girls, work in a factory, and earn more money. But then she'd never escape. She had to do well in school, do better than this life.
Finally, her homework finished, she cleared away her books and folded the sheets and pillowcases her mother was ironingâan endless job when you had to rent out rooms to pay your bills.
“Those brownies were a real treat,” said her mother, smiling. “The last time I ate something so delicious was at cousin Anna's wedding. That was some feast. Roast beef, rich gravy on dumplings, fresh peas.”
“My favorite meal is roast chicken, stuffing, and a cherry pie,” said Helene. “Topped with ice cream and a cup of strong coffee.”
“How about a butler to serve it and then wash the dishes?” said her mother. By now they were laughing.
“Why not a chauffeur in a glamorous limousine too? We'd drive all over the countryside, picking up meat, fresh eggs, and fruit.”
Her mother pulled the plug on the iron and sighed. “That's how it used to beâwithout the car and servants, of course.” She folded the ironing board away. “I'll just check the boys' shoes are clean for tomorrow, then turn in. Goodnight, my dear.”
“Goodnight, Mama.” Helene finished the sheets, then read twenty pages of
Lassie Come Home
before she went to bed. She would have liked a dog, but they could barely afford to feed themselves, let alone a pet.
By midnight, the rest of the house was dark. Down the hall, Mr. Perkins' radio still blared news about the German siege of Stalingrad, and Japanese attacks at Savo Island. He was hard of hearing and obsessed about the latest war news. But the volume forced everyone else to listen too. From the room below her, Helene heard sobbingâmuffled but heart-wrenching. She wished she could comfort Alva, but what could she say to a woman with a sick toddler and a husband taken prisoner of war in Hong Kong?
A cool draft chilled the room. An uneven progression of snorts, grunts, and whistles began in the room to the right. Helene wished she could turn on the light and read, but then she'd wake her mother, asleep in the bed along the opposite wall. The boys slept across the hall. The other two bedrooms, the attic, and the dining room were rented out. Times had been tough since Helene could remember. When she was younger, Papa managed odd jobs and day labor between his bouts of anger and listlessness. The Depression meant no work at all, until hitchhiking to Ottawa to build highways became the only answer. This war brought relief of a sort. Women could find employment too. Now her mother brought in enough income to repay their debts and start over.
Someone stepped furtively down the hall, stopped at her door, then continued downstairs. Who? Why? Were they simply trying to be considerate and not wake anyone, or were they sneaking into the supply of food in the cupboard? It seemed everyone in this house held some secret or sorrow.
When Binxie Rutherford saw the little yellow coupe parked in her drive, she hurried up Roxborough Street, across her lawn, and yanked open the front door. “Kathryn!” she called as she rushed down the hall.
No answer. Binxie headed for the kitchen, where she found the housekeeper singing “Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree” and peeling potatoes at the sink.
“Hello, Sadie. Is Kathryn home? Where is she?”
“In the study. With your parents.”
Sadie's expression told Binxie things weren't good. She went to the study, the thick Persian carpets muffling her steps. Even the solid oak door couldn't block out the emotion in the voices inside the room. She held her ear to the door. What was it this time? She was annoyed. At seventeen, she was old enough to be told things without having to eavesdrop.
One of the voices came closer. Binxie stepped back just as the door flung open and her sister strode into the hall and up the stairs. She caught a quick glimpse of her fatherâtight-lipped with anger, a comforting arm around her motherâbefore turning to follow her sister up to a bedroom full of ornate cherrywood furniture. The lone ornamentâa gold-framed photo of Kathryn and Binxie perched on a sailboat at the lakeâsat on the dresser. Both sisters loved sailing and sports. Now Kathryn slammed clothes into, then out of, and back into her open suitcase.
“Don't go yet.”
Kathryn sat on her bed and patted a spot beside her. “How are you?”
“Glad you're home. Why aren't they?”
Kathryn smiled. “Oh, they're happy to see me, just not pleased with my decision.”
Binxie grinned nervously. “What is it this time, you rebel?”
“I like your hair that way. Shorter. Very sophisticated.”
“Don't try to change the subject. How long can you stay? Can we do something together?
Somewhere I'll Find You
is playing at The Bloor. Clark Gable and Lana Turner.”
Kathryn laughed. “Let's walk in the garden. It's been months since I've seen it. Sadie tells me she harvested a record crop of tomatoes and beans in Mother's prize rose garden.”
“It's the patriotic thing to do. Wish we could grow sugar and butter too. What are you planning to do that so upsets Mother and Father?”
The girls stepped out the back door, and Kathryn paused to admire a border of yellow chrysanthemums.
“I'll find out anyway, and if you tell me first, I can take your side.”
“You know how much I love flying.”
Binxie nodded. “You were piloting planes up in the tree house when you were ten.”
“I was set to join the women's division of the RCAF so I could do more in this war than cook jam and knit socks.”
Binxie rolled her eyes. “But that's what young ladies from good families do,” she quoted in a savage imitation of her mother's voice.
“You and I have minds of our own,” said Kathryn. “But they won't allow women to fly planesâeverâno matter how skilled they are. I'm an excellent pilot, two hundred and sixty hours flying time and top marks in my class. I'm as able as any man, but they say it's too dangerous for women. They're training us to cook, Binxie. To become chauffeurs, hairdressers, parachute riggers, dental assistantsâ¦laundry staff, for Pete's sake. I could do all that at home.”
“Actually, Sadie does most of that at home.”
Kathryn laughed. “The United States Army Air Forces won't allow women to fly either. Jackie Cochran is campaigning to let women ferry planes, but so far they're just talking.”
“So what will you do?” Binxie knew she wouldn't like the answer.
Kathryn studied a maple tree in full crimson splendor. “Do you remember Helen Harrison, my flying instructor from Hamilton?”
“She contacted some of us to come join her in the Air Transport Auxiliary. I'm going to become a ferry pilot in England!”
“England! But that's too far away. And closer to the fighting. I agree with Mother and Father. You can't go.”
“None of you objected when our brothers went to war.”
“Duncan is sitting in an office in Washington, and Charlie is directing something in Ottawa.”
“Binxie, this war must be won. A lot of fine people are working on that. I need to be one of them.”
“But flying planes over a country that's being bombed every night. That's dangerous.”
“Just as awful for the young men who do it every evening.”
“Why fly? Why not help the war effort on land, where the least mistake won't kill you?”
“I've talked to returned soldiers. They fight from trenches full of mud, blood, and rats. I prefer the open sky. Binxie, when I'm up in the air, I feel alive. I'm in control and free. Down here I'm bound by rules that don't make sense. This war will be won in the air. If I'm going to fly, I have to go to England.”
Binxie hugged her sister. “I want to sign up too.”
“I'm twenty-three. You're seventeen.”