Last week was filled with the kind of magic and wonder that easily over-rides petty assumptions and prejudices that needle their way at intervals into my daily life. It began with a wedding – an opportunity to hitch a ride on that between-worlds wedding-energy that lasts for one day and then turns into a marriage. From the wedding to an evening with my family in Medicine Hat where I got to reconnect with my nephew and traveling pal, Daniel. Daniel is on tour at the moment with his latest opus, a collection of dazzling and between-world piano pieces that can set a weary soul afire.
I knew the combination of friends and family – plus some wine and aged scotch – would create an evening of great stories, new perspectives, enchanting anecdotes and lotsa laughs. What I couldn’t have predicted was that Bill would arrive, fresh from a Robby Burns night, and would willingly recite a good half hour’s worth of the bard’s best, as well as The Shooting of Dan McGrew and the Cremation of Sam McGee in their totality. And while I knew that Dan was working on a book of poetry, I wasn’t expecting that he’d already have a chapbook published and had memorized an Ode and a Rap for our listening pleasure.
Seeing as our next stop was Maple Creek for my Apron Pocket Archive performance, a kind of gateway into my beloved collages which hang at the Centre til November, I offered a preview of my monologue. It’s never hard to decide what snippet to serve up, when someone asks for a teaser. There’s always one character in the lot itching to be heard, to burst forth from my heart, yearning to be part of the party, to give it his or her all to the spirit of the evening. If anything, it’s harder to get them to hush, to go to bed because they’ve got a big day ahead of them tomorrow.
And so up pops Annie, of the Women’s Land Army, stationed in England where she can be close by her new husband Thom, who has joined the army. And where there’s Annie, there’s Dell, a pilot in the Women’s Air Force Service. Dell ferried new planes across the ocean to awaiting fighters. This segment begins with Annie, recalling the night she met Dell.
“Hadn’t we just inherited the farm when my husband turned around and goes right back to where we came from. To fight the Germans, And I followed him from Saskatchewan to England, from falling stars to bombs dropping out of the sky. From wondrous to fearful – there’s life for you in a nutshell.
I followed and joined the Women’s Land Army. Perky posters everywhere beseeched Brits to:
“Get behind the girl who got behind her man!”And so A Land Gal I Be & A Land Gal I Shall Remain.”
I worked in the orchards in Seaford Sussex. While waiting for my new exhaust pipe, so I could maneuver round the fruit trees, I staked beans and picked peas. I prepared for cauliflower and Christmas cabbages. I tilled the land, changed ploughshares, I stooked under a sliver of a moon.
I groped my way home in the dark, again and again and again.
The night I met Dell I was drinking with Thom at the Smugglers Inn near Tunbridge Wells. Thom was on a three day leave and Dell was fresh from ferrying airplanes, stock-piling them under apple trees.
It was thrilling, really, watching these women coming in for a landing after the crossing the sea, with us out there, in our coveralls over our nightgowns, waving them in with torches, guiding them in from the sea, there you go, all tucked tin. And then we had tea. (They brought all kinds of goodies- chocolate and biscuits.)
That night at the Smugglers, she was long-suffering, listening to a drunken pilot warn and whine about those bloody deadly P-39s. Don’t fly that thing, he’d shout in her face, then switch to singing, waving his crutch around: “Don’t give me a p-39. With an engine that’s mounted behind”-she just joined in –
“It will tumble and roll and dig a big hole” Everybody: “Don’t give me a P-39”
Then she lit a smoke and gave him that steely-eyed tell me something I don’t know, bub homesteader woman stare: “Dja check yer coolant before take-off, Jack?”
And then, thankfully, Myrtle got up and sang the land army anthem: “ Our mother earth has called us for the nations we must feed. We have rallied to her standard to produce our greatest need. We will labour on her bosom and achieve that greatest deed as we go farming on!”
That was the night I understood: A bluff is not necessarily a lie, but acting as if, it’s how courage gains purchase, the trick is: when do we get to stop acting, and start actually feeling brave? Meticulous preparation, says Dell. And no monkey business. Just get in, get ‘er done, get out. Repeat.
That same night, just outside of London, we saw nothing, heard nothing of the raid. It wasn’t til we got back to the farm the girls came rushing out: You missed it, you missed the crash, Jerry hit the barn, two men dead and Linda here, goes down to the creek and its lying there, Jerry’s head! You missed it!
The war ended and Thom and I returned home. We got the farm back and all new machines and in the kitchen too: matching appliances in harvest gold and avocado green. Bread came ready sliced, in plastic bags and flour in paper sacks, so no more aprons out of chicken linen. I couldn’t bring myself to wear those silly, frilly, cocktail aprons with nowhere to put anything!
Don’t I know it! Says Dell, having flown down from her new job as bush pilot in the North West Territories. They aren’t fit replacements for my coveralls and your old heavy-duty aprons with their pockets and bibs. And those ads, with women supposedly us, holding a mixing spoon or a baster, in pencil-thin dresses and high heels and buffont hairdos and red lips, as if they’re off to the bedroom or the bar…I see you’ve taken to the lipstick yourself, darling!
D’you like it?, it’s called sultry siren.
Don’t get me wrong, the modern conveniences are top-notch. Just the ticket. But I can’t help feeling they’re just consolation prizes. Like the boys are tryin to remind us: it was never meant to be a permanent thing- you on the tractor. Me in the air. Rosie on the line.
You still carry your ‘dear jane’ letter.
And she hands me the letter:
To each member of the Women’s Air Force Service:
I am very proud of you young women. You have freed male pilots for other work. But now the situation has changed and the time has come when your services are no longer needed. If you continue in the service you would be REPLACING instead of relieving our young men. And I know you wouldn’t want that. So I have directed that the women’s air force be deactivated as of December 21st, 1944. My sincere thanks and happy landings. Sincerely, HH Arnold of the army air force.
Oh Annie, there’s nothing I love more than flying. What kind of person does that make me?
A bloody good pilot! Bursts Thom and hails her with a toast.
“If you have a daughter teach her how to fly if you have a son throw the bastard in the sky singing zoot suits and parachutes and wings of silver too. He’ll ferry airplanes like his mommy used to do!”
As for Thom, God bless him, he walked again. But he always ducked at the sound of a plane overhead and half his friends had either moved away or were dead. I still listen to the big band music that got us through the war. But no one stooks beneath the moon anymore.
I don’t how it got there, a note from Thom in the pocket of my old apron hanging beneath his wool sweater on the back door: ‘May you move with the wind behind you, let your apron sail unfurl I will miss the map of your body out here on the hem of the world.’
Thom died in 1984.
To share beloved poems or stories or jokes among friends and family who will never meet in the same configuration again, catching up with each mid-journey, that is what life is all about to me. I have no need for a television because I am surrounded by so many dear ones fascinated and amazed by life, and so willing to share it with me. I’m told there were orators, preachers, opera singers and voyageurs in every limb of the family tree. I’ve been researching the past for decades now. But only recently has it dawned on me, as I travel with my nephew, lighting out for new territory every time we meet, that the tradition extends forward as well, and will continue, faithfully, thanks to the brave young among us, bluffing their way to take their courageous stand in the world, traveling long into the night, long after I’m gone.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home. Madonna will be doing a presentation at the Jasper Cultural and Historical Centre in celebration of Women’s History Month from Oct. 1 – Nov. 5