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On to Ottawa 


When Canada declared war on Nazi Germany in September, 1939, many Canadians joined up immediately, anxious for work and a place to live after enduring the long, hard years of the Great Depression. The Canadian economy went into full swing, with factories making airplanes, tanks, ships and munitions.

The first years of the war were not good for the Allied nations, which included the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Canada, and other British Commonwealth countries. Germany had taken over most of Europe – Poland, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Britain was next on the list, and in 1940, the Battle of Britain began, with German planes making air assaults on English cities, especially London, in what became known as “The Blitz.” In August, 1942, Canadian troops attempted an invasion of Europe through the French coastal town of Dieppe, with devastating results: more than half the soldiers either died or were taken prisoner.

Harry Culley, Ottawa, 1942
Like many Canadians, Harry Culley wanted to make a contribution. He joined up in early 1942 at the age of 27 as part of the Royal Canadian Air Force #3 Personnel Reception Centre Band, one of three bands that went overseas. Prior to that, he had had difficulty finding steady work. After finishing high school during the early years of the 1930s, he had a number of odd jobs: working as a bookkeeper at a wholesale tobacconist, as a shoe salesman in Eaton’s in Toronto, and as a musician, his first love, playing clarinet and saxophone. But band work was sporadic – he played dances in the Deseronto area of Ontario, worked at the Royal Hotel in Honey Harbour, and played in  a trio during the dinner hour at the Savarin Restaurant in Toronto. Being part of a military band offered him a steady pay cheque and the opportunity to be a full-time musician. He was sent to Ottawa for training at the RCAF Station Rockcliffe.

Helen Reeder, Ottawa, 1942
With many of the men in the services, there was a shortage of workers in offices and manufacturing plants. Thousands of Canadian women rose to the challenge of filling those jobs, moving from farms and small towns to larger centres. Helen Reeder, aged 23, was typical of many young women at that time, leaving the farm in Saskatchewan to earn her living as a secretary in the newly created Department of Munitions and Supply in Ottawa. She had learned shorthand and typing through correspondence courses and at a secretarial school in Victoria, British Columbia where she worked as a nanny after leaving home at 19 years old.

The YMCA ran “Red Triangle” social clubs in several Canadian cities so that service personnel on the move could have some recreation before going overseas. The clubs were so named because of the YMCA’s logo, an inverted red triangle with the words, “mind, body and spirit” on the sides. Volunteer hostesses welcomed the men during the nightly entertainment, which usually consisted of a dance band, variety program, touring army show or Victory Bond drive, to raise much-needed capital for the war effort. Organizations, schools, church groups and businesses threw their energy behind these drives, which raised about $12.5 billion during the six years of the war.

Department of Munitions and Supply, Ottawa

 Socializing at the Red Triangle

“The Red Triangle Club is in that wooden building over there,” Eleanor pointed across the street. “It used to be the badminton club. Every night there’s a different group of men -  they’re moved around so much while they’re in training. Some are only here a day or two. They’re staying at the barracks in Rockcliffe.”

“Where’s that?” Helen asked. She was glad that her friend from Saskatchewan had moved to Ottawa a few months before and could show her around.
“It’s further east along the river. They want us to make the transition easier for the boys – for some of them, it’s their first time away from home, so make an effort to be a bit friendly.”
“I’ll try. I know how they feel. I’m kind of homesick myself, everything is so new and different,” Helen sighed. “I only just arrived here a couple of days ago remember?”

As they entered the building, they could hear excited voices and clanking dishes echoing around the room.
“So here’s the tea, coffee and ginger ale. Wow, look at all the cookies there are tonight. The church ladies have been busy,” Eleanor said.

Helen (centre), Eleanor (right)
Helen looked around at the stylishly dressed volunteers with their carefully coiffed hair. She would have to bring her wardrobe up a notch to fit in with this crowd, she thought. She felt self-conscious in the dress that she’d made back home from her father’s old suit. As soon as she got her first pay cheque, she’d go shopping. She’d also ask Lois at work for some tips on what to do with her hair.

Eleanor glanced over at the musicians setting up.
“Oh, good. It’s the Air Force Band tonight. I like them best of all, they’ve got a lot of swing. Once we’ve been around a few times with the refreshments, we get 15 minutes to dance, then we have to be back on duty. We all take turns. One night a week, we can come and just dance if we like,” Eleanor said.

As the first few notes of “In the Mood” wafted through the room, several women went over to the dance floor. It wasn’t long before the service men in their clean, pressed uniforms cut in. The energy level increased as couples fox trotted and jitterbugged, their bodies twirling and heads bobbing like popcorn on the fire.

 Eleanor and Helen went back to the kitchen to replenish their trays.
“Sales of the bonds are going pretty well,” said Mrs. Gibson, one of the older women. “If we keep feeding them, they might be more inclined to part with their money.”
“Yes, we need to raise as much as possible. Things aren’t looking too good over there,” said Eleanor as she grabbed a tray. “Especially all the Canadians we lost at Dieppe. Helen, did you know that Henry Robinson from home died in that raid?”
“No, I didn’t. His mother and sisters must be devastated,” Helen said, lowering her head.

After half a dozen songs, the band took a break. One of the musicians was heading their way.
 “Hello ladies, could a fellow get something to drink? I think I’m going to dry up, it’s so hot up there,” he asked, pulling at his collar.
“Certainly – here’s some ginger ale.” Helen smiled.
“Thanks. Are you enjoying the music?”
“It’s wonderful. I especially liked the last one – Begin the Beguine,” she said. “We don’t hear much live music like that back where I come from.”
“Where’s that?”
“Thaxted, Saskatchewan. A long ways from here.”
“No kidding. I’m from Toronto, and I thought that was far  away. Welcome to Ontario. Gotta get back.” He placed the empty glass on the tray.
“He’s certainly a handsome one,” Eleanor nudged Helen. “I think he likes you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, he just wanted a drink and happened to come this way.”
“No, really, I could see how intently he was looking at you and smiling. Just wait and see. Look, he’s the one playing the clarinet. Doesn’t he look like Clark Gable with his pencil-thin moustache and slightly greying hair? The trumpeter is more my style,” Eleanor commented. 
“We’re just country girls, why would those sophisticated guys go for us?”
“Oh, you never know. We can always dream, can’t we?”
“All the good-looking guys are going overseas. Why does there have to be a war?” Helen moaned.
“Kiddo, if it wasn’t for the war, we wouldn’t have the jobs we have. We’d be back home working our fingers to the bone on the farm. Just look at us now – we have our own money and a place to live,” Eleanor pointed out.
“You’re right. Let’s just enjoy the music. We’ll bask in their mellow tones and fine-looking faces while we can.”
“Listen, your clarinettist is playing a solo,” Eleanor said.
“Oh, I love this one – “Sweet Georgia Brown” - his tone is so clear, he sounds like Benny Goodman, he’s very good,” Helen said.

After the song, she went to the powder room to refresh her lipstick. In the mirror she saw a skinny, brown-haired country girl who was going to have to overcome her shyness if she was ever going to become a glamorous city girl.
“Come on – let’s dance,” Eleanor grabbed her hand when she came back to the room.
At the end of the evening, the musicians descended from the stage carrying their stands and instruments. The one Helen had served glanced at her, raised his eyebrows and smiled. He was heading in her direction.
“What are you up to now?” 
“Just going home, I guess.”
“How about I walk you there?” he asked shyly.
“It’s quite a ways from Rockcliffe.”
“That’s alright, I can take the bus back,” he said, taking her arm and leading her out the door. “By the way, my name’s Harry, what’s yours?”

Opposite Directions

Helen and Harry had been dating for close to a year, going to movies, for long walks in the Gatineau Hills, and to Toronto to meet his parents, all the while falling deeply in love. They knew, however, that the time would come when he would have to leave for overseas duty. The word finally came in August, 1943. Not wanting to lose her, Harry  presented her with an engagement ring which she accepted wholeheartedly.
                                                  *            *           *
The din of the crowds resonated through the cavernous Union Station. Helen looked up at the ornately patterned ceiling, but could find no joy in its beauty.
Harry looked dashing in his RCAF uniform, his canvas sack bulging in his arms like a baby. Side by side they made their way through the crowds, looking for the gate for Helen’s train, which was the first to leave. She was travelling west to Saskatchewan to visit her family, then six hours later Harry and the band were leaving for Halifax, before going overseas. Helen felt really uncomfortable in her new high heels and tightly fitted suit with her uncomfortable girdle underneath. But she had wanted Harry to remember her as a glamorous city girl, not the scrawny farm girl of her childhood. Passers-by couldn’t help staring at the attractive couple, so distraught, with the reasons clear to all.
When they reached Platform 5, her train was waiting.
 “It’s so cruel that we’re heading off in different directions, why can’t we be travelling together?” Harry asked, dropping his bag and taking her in his arms.
“We will one day darling, please remember that.” Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Please wait for me. We’ll invite everyone to our wedding.”
”Don’t worry about me, honey. You’re the one who’ll be tempted by all those lonely English girls. There aren’t any men left over there.”
“Never fear about that. I only have eyes for you. And it won’t be long, just you wait and see.”
“Good bye, my love. I’ll miss you with all my heart.”
“I will too. I promise to write every chance I get.”
The loud speaker boomed, “5:15 p.m. train to Vancouver, leaving on Platform 5. All aboard.”
“You’d better get on now. Bye honey,” he said, giving her a hug and kiss.
Forlornly, she climbed aboard, finding a seat near the window. Opening it, she called out and reached down to Harry who was standing below.
As the train began to move, he walked more quickly, and she couldn’t help laughing as he tried to keep pace. Eventually he had to drop her hand. Waving, she called out, “Don’t forget about your bag on the platform!”
Harry ran until he could go no longer, then stopped to watch until the caboose disappeared in the distance, his arms hanging loosely by his side. Slowly, he walked back to pick up his kit bag. The crowds were so thick, he couldn’t see it at first, but then he spotted it near the entranceway. Heaving it onto his shoulders, he headed to the coffee shop for a smoke to kill the six hours until his parents and grandmother came to see him off on his way to Halifax.
*      *       *
Helen settled into her seat, looking out the window as the train sped north through the rock-studded forests of the Canadian Shield, land so different from the prairies where she had grown up.
She had a hard time keeping herself from crying. What a whirlwind the last year had been – dating and dancing with Harry, suppers out, declarations of love, becoming engaged while on a two-week vacation in Toronto, and now a sad parting. Would he stay true to her? How long would the war last? Would he come back alive?
To distract herself, she thought about going home to Thaxted, Saskatchewan, showing off her ring to her girlfriends, and sharing all the details of her new life with her mother and younger sisters. She was bringing them some much needed cash - her purse was laden with $50 in small bills she had been carefully squirreling away over the last year in the preserving jar in her bed-sitting room in Ottawa. It was a peace offering to her parents, to assuage her guilt at leaving them two years before with five of the eleven children still at home. She also brought her ration book for  her mother to help boost their food supplies for the winter.
Helen now had a sense of her importance in the wider world, that she was really doing something for the war effort. Even though her job in Steel Control at the Department of Munitions and Supply was clerical, keeping track of the supplies needed for the factories, typing and mailing the orders for the raw materials, it seemed that her small contribution, when combined with the work of everyone on both sides of the Atlantic, was helping to turn the tide of the war. Her department was handling orders not only from Canada but also from Britain, and supplying much-needed armouries. Things did look better for the Allies than they had even a year ago.
She considered herself fortunate to have landed the job in Ottawa and wondered if it was because C. D. Howe, the Minister of the department, had a soft spot for prairie girls, having been the engineer who designed most of the western grain elevators? Or it could just have been that more women were needed now, with all of the men going overseas.
The rhythmic rattling of the train lulled her into a reverie. Every few hours there’d be a stop, and uniformed men would get on and off – some coming home on leave, others going to different postings. Helen’s brothers, Ray, Murray and Jim had already joined up. At least they’d get to see the world, not like the gang of harvesters who had gotten on the train near Thunder Bay - middle-aged men, whose wrinkled, sun-burned faces told of the time they’d spent outdoors.
Now Harry too was on his way over. Never in her wildest dreams did she ever imagine she would be engaged to such a sophisticated, talented fellow. She had made the right decision in refusing John Fidelic, her boyfriend back home, who was destined to take over his father’s farm. She had seen enough of the drudgery involved in farm work to know that it wasn’t the life for her.
            Helen prayed that neither she nor Harry would lose the feeling they had for each other. Taking out the photo he’d given her before they parted, she felt his presence. Would he come back the same as he went away? She didn’t want him to get a different look in his eyes or for his moustache to grow any bigger.  After kissing his picture, she dozed off to sleep.

Back on the Farm

“How are the crops this year Dad?” Helen asked as she climbed into the old Model T Ford. Her father had driven in to town to meet her bus.
“We could have used more rain this summer, but it was no where near as bad as in the thirties.”
“How are you managing without the older boys?”
“It’s tough, but Lloyd and Jack can almost do the full day’s work of a man. I tried to talk Ray, Jim and Murray out of signing up, but you know boys - always out for an adventure. Earl comes back to help whenever I need him.”
Helen with Model T Ford
Helen cried when she saw her mother coming down the steps of the old wooden farm house. With more wrinkles and her shoulders sagging further down, her body told the tale of bearing and caring for 11 children.
“Oh Helen, it’s so good to see you. Don’t you look beautiful! You’re going to be a fine married lady, living in the big city.” Louisa clasped Helen to her bosom.
“Yes, Mother, can you believe it? I still can’t.”
Helen’s five younger brothers and sisters ran out to greet her and clamoured to see her ring.
After the initial excitement, Helen settled into the routine of farm life, spending the mornings baking bread, helping the children with their homework in the afternoon, churning the butter and relieving her mother of whatever housework she could.
Helen Reeder's younger brothers and sisters
*        *            *
Bounding up the stairs, Jean breathlessly read the words on the top envelope. “Miss Helen Reeder, Thaxted, Saskatchewan, Canada.” You have two letters!” she said excitedly to her older sister.
“Oh, they’re from Harry.” Helen had been waiting, wondering if he would write. She tore open the first one.

Miss Helen Reeder, Thaxted, Saskatchewan
Halifax, Monday, Aug. 9, 1943
My darling Helen,
Well, here I am in Halifax. We landed last night in the rain after a very tiresome trip. The train didn’t leave until 12:30 but we got a seat alright and played poker for a couple of hours (I won 11 cents). It kept my mind busy and I didn’t brood.
I hope you had a nice trip darling, anyway you had an air-conditioned car. We pulled down a double seat and made a bed for the three of us. It’s a good trick but you can only do it on these old cars. I’m always thinking of you darling the way you looked Thursday night.
I certainly miss you terribly every day and whenever I’m by myself I think of those last two days. Every detail seems to stick in my mind and everything we talked about is as clear as though we were together only last night. It’s frightening to think how far we are apart and how much father we will be apart. My only regret is that we aren’t married. However, I guess it’s all for the best honey. I can’t express my feelings very well, but you know how deeply I love you Helen and always will. Thank God we have memories to look back on sweetheart. O! for one kiss!
I’ll have to close for now, be sure and have a good time at home. All my love darling, Harry.

“What does he say?” Jean was watching her intently, waiting for any morsel of information.
“Well, he got to Halifax alright, thank goodness,” Helen sighed. “Now, leave me alone so I can read the second one in peace.”The second letter was dated two days later.

Halifax, Aug. 11, 1943
Dearest Helen,
How are you sweetheart? I’ll be looking for a letter from you when you get home [to Ottawa] Darling and do have a nice vacation, you deserve it. Don’t worry about me because everything is fine here and well-organized.
I guess the holidays [out west] have gone rather fast for you, what with meeting old friends again and going to those wild barn dances. I know what they are because I’ve played them. Ottawa will seem pretty dull by comparison.
Well, Darling, all I can think of is you. I guess you would say, ‘There he is with too much time on his hands again.’ I suppose you’re right as we don’t have very much to do. I am playing a dance tonight at the officer’s mess for which I get paid, believe it or not. So things aren’t too bad you see. The first couple of days down here were pretty grim, darling, but once you get over the shock I guess it’s not too bad, is it?
I saw your brother Jim last night, Murray was out as usual. Jim sure is a nice fellow and reminded me of you honey. We don’t go into town very often, as the rumour goes that there are so many tough sailors around that they gang up on the airmen. 
Helen's brother Jim who was in the Navy
We’re just living from day to day here because we don’t know when we’ll be leaving for overseas. I hope you still think of me now and then sweetheart.
Seeing that I’ve started every paragraph with I, which is very bad letter writing, I’d better finish it up right to the end. . . . I’ll try and get in another groove as you call it. Do they talk that language away out there too? . . .
I don’t think I’ll give you any reason to worry about me. You know me well enough to know that I’m sincere when I say that.
I don’t want you to feel alone ever, darling. I know it will be harder for you than it will be for me this winter, but with your kind of faith I know it will work out for the best for us both.
The day you accepted the ring was the happiest day in my life darling. That park will always be our park won’t it sweetheart. This has been the happiest year of my life. It seems as if I’d known you for a long long time darling, we used to get along so well together, thanks to your patient and forgiving nature. I know I’m very trying at times.
All my love angel, Harry.
Helen ran downstairs, her heart pounding.
“Harry says that he saw Jim in Halifax, really likes him, and that Jim reminds him of me.”
“Well, that’s a relief that they’re both still safe,” her mother said, wiping the flour off her hands and hanging up her apron.
“Yes, and amazing that they found each other in such a large city.”
“Helen, I think you should wait out the war here. We’d love your company, and you could help with the girls.”
“But I have a job to go back to in Ottawa, remember?”
“You could make some money here, keeping house for Mrs. Brown down the road. And we’re hoping to move closer to town in the fall so the girls can go to high school.”
“Let’s talk about it later. Right now I’m going to write Harry, so it can go in the mail today.”

Thaxted, Saskatchewan, Aug. 21, 1943
Dearest Harry,
It was a lovely day here; we were in town this morning and Mother and I finished quilting the comforter this afternoon. I’ll bring it back with me for my hope chest.
I saw the most beautiful sunset last night, and I just sat gazing at it, thinking of the time we waited three hours to see one and it disappointed us, but we had a nice time waiting anyway, didn’t we?
I know I’m going to feel so much alone without seeing you every other night. I think I only told you once that I loved you, but you always knew, didn’t you? Well, I still do and as long as you feel the same about me, I couldn’t do anything else but wait for you to come back to me.
My brother wanted me to go to another dance last night, but I didn’t. There happens to be two or three old boyfriends around here that I don’t care for anymore. Therefore, I try to avoid them. I just think about you all the time anyway, and I can stay home and do that.
I hear the clatter of dishes, so I should go and make myself useful. Hope your Sunday isn’t too lonesome. How I wish you could come up and see me!
Goodbye dear.
Yours with love, Helen

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