Harry’s Summer Cottage

In the sixties, we may have been the only Findlays living in Canada, but we weren’t the only Tompsons.  My mother’s Uncle Harry lived near Toronto, a two hour drive west.  Along with his older brother Jack and his mother Kate, Harry had immigrated to Canada in the years between the world wars.  He was a short quiet man with an infectious though infrequent laugh.  In his late forties, his hair grayed around his temples. Harry smelled of dark leathery Cavendish tobacco, a scent warm and comfortable and as part of him as the dark briar pipe perched constantly at the edge of his mouth.


Harry’s hands and arms were calico from some mysterious childhood scalding. In his twenties he had gone off to war in Europe and spent two years in a German POW camp, though he never talked of it.

“You be polite and don’t ask a lot of silly questions.” my parents warned us. And though I managed to stifle my curiosity, I could not resist the temptation to run my hands along his mottled skin. The bleached white hairless patches on his hands and arms gave him the impression of a pencil portrait half drawn.  A black and white composition partially erased. Harry was different, interesting, kind but guarded, a man full of histories we were forbidden to uncover.

In addition to his home in Toronto, Harry and Jack owned a cottage a few hours to the north, near the town of Barrie on Lake Simcoe. On at least two occasions we vacationed there during the summer with Harry, Jack and sometimes Kate joining us on the weekends. The place wasn’t actually on the lake shore, but a short walk down a hedge lined gravel road would find us on the pebbled beach of one of the largest lakes in southern Ontario.  The cottage is one of my favorite summer memories, safe and secluded and appointed with old and quirky furnishings.

Water in the kitchen was drawn by a hand pump over the sink.  In the bathroom, the water tank hung on the wall above the toilet and was flushed by pulling on a wooden handled chain.  Outside the bathroom door, secured to the wall, a cartoon plaque with a rotating arrow could be pointed to a description of the activity of the occupant.  Takin’ a nap, soaking the laundry, sitting and thinking, were but a few of the humorous possibilities.  On a side table in the living room stood a party-line candle-stick telephone that rang in patterned staccato to indicate to which party the call belonged.  But for me, the most fascinating feature of Harry’s cottage was a 1930’s floor model RCA Victor dial-tube radio. It was a thing of beauty.

Harry found humor in my fascination. The radio stood nearly four feet tall, towering over me as I knelt before it, inspecting its knobs, buttons and toggles.  I admiringly ran my fingers along the ornate carving of the wooden panels. The handcrafted oak encasing the mysterious internal electronics shone with the well-polished pride of a prized possession.  Harry had kept it in perfect condition. His amusement and pleasure were evident as I asked with excitement if I could turn it on.

“Sure, give her a go.” He said.

My hand grasped the large brown knob on the face of the radio and turned. It offered surprising resistance. I applied more pressure. Was I turning it the right way?  And then…Click!  But there was nothing. Silence!

Instinctively I crawled around the base to make sure the device it was plugged into the wall socket.  Yes, all was in order.  I looked to Harry, afraid perhaps I had done something wrong, or God forbid, broken the electronic wonder. But Harry just stood there, looking down at me, bemused.

I looked to the dial face.  A warm yellow-white light dawned in the numbered glass. A slight hum emanated from within the frame accompanied by the low familiar “shhhh” of the white noise between radio frequencies.  Harry’s expression warmed, matching the glow of the vacuum tubes slowly coaxing the old radio to life.

“There she goes. She’s getting a bit long in the tooth now,” he added. Bending down slightly he pointed with his milky white finger.  “That’s the tuner.”

The tuning knob felt large and cumbersome in my small hand but turned with surprising ease and fluidity. The red transit line passed across the numbers on the display face.  Fractional, static smeared snippets of popular songs, commercials, and news, crackled from a large speaker concealed behind brown fabric and slotted wood.

I was thrilled, yet unexpectedly disappointed.  My unsophisticated brain had imagined the old radio would play only old broadcasts, “The Shadow” or “Little Orphan Annie”.  Or perhaps the music would be same as the 78 records we had played on my grandmother’s old wind up Gramophone.  Song’s like Gene Austin’s “Love letters in the Sand” or Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy”.  It was strange, a warp in the fabric of time, like watching Bing Crosby sing The Rolling Stones.

At the summer cottage, my brothers and I would fill our days swimming in the lake or playing croquet in the yard.  Some days were taken up with marathon monopoly sessions, making up our own special rules, building and going bankrupt around the kitchen table.  Mother would make us lunch of cucumber sandwiches, potato chips and pickles eaten outside at the picnic table or sitting with our Kool-Aid balanced on the arms of the brightly painted Adirondack Chairs.

In the evenings we played crazy eights or other card games. But many nights I would just lie on the rug-covered hardwood floor listening to the music playing low on the old radio. My parent’s and uncles sitting around me, their laughter and voices murmuring, I was surrounded by the furnishings of an old movie and accompanied by the soundtrack of the sixties. I would listen until the music and the voices faded and I would fall asleep and dream radio dreams of The Lone Ranger and Superman.

Wonders and Horrors

Growing up in Canada in the sixties, every night we watched news reports on television about the War in Vietnam. There were weekly counts of the numbers of young American soldiers killed and wounded in South East Asia. We watched protesting students on college campuses, activists burning draft cards, and champion boxer Cassius Clay being sent to prison for refusing to serve in the military. Hanging over it all was the shroud of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, capitalism versus communism.  So much talk of war, civil unrest and endless news coverage of it all. To an eleven year old child the world seemed like a very dangerous place indeed. When my father informed us we were moving to Texas, I was nervous and unsure.  America appeared to me a country torn by conflicting ideas.

In contrast Canada felt like a haven. Not immune, but less directly exposed to what appeared an inevitable showdown between the United States and the USSR. When I shared the news of my impending move to my friends at school, one of them, Jamie Thompson said, “You know the Russians have a super hydrogen bomb that just circles the earth waiting to be dropped on America when the war breaks out.”

Jamie, like most boys of our age, was prone to exaggeration so I wasn’t quite sure his remarks were true. But then again, satellites and men were routinely orbiting the earth. It was an age of wonders and horrors. The first heart transplant had taken place in South Africa.  The US and the Soviets were posturing and saber rattling, quickly building vast nuclear arsenals to ensure mutual annihilation. NASA was racing to land a man on the moon.  John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had all been assassinated. There was rock music and protest music and talk of war and talk of peace and love and drugs and to me it seemed we were either on the brink of a fantastical new world or cataclysmic destruction.

In the summer of 1969 my family moved to Texas.  The world continued to revolve. Wonders and horrors!  Men walked on the moon. Students protesting the draft and war in Vietnam were killed on the campus at Kent State. The NY Mets won the World Series.  The Beatles released their last album.  Woodstock!  President Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops. A hand-full of soldiers were arrested for the murder of an entire village in Vietnam.

In 1972 I wrote a high-school term paper on the 1968 My Lai Massacre, one of the most infamous events in the history of the United States Armed Forces. Although the exact number of casualties was never determined, approximately 400 unarmed civilians, men, women, and children were brutally murdered. Twenty-two soldiers were charged but only Platoon Leader Lt. William Calley Jr. was convicted, serving but a few years under house arrest. Researching those events, the numerous newspaper and magazine articles I read, the retelling of the story, those things had a profound and lasting effect on me.

I wondered how I would have reacted had I been there. I wonder still. Would I have had the courage to stand up as three soldiers had done and try to halt the atrocities only to be shunned and branded as traitors in the months that followed? Or would I have stood by and done nothing, or even participated, afraid to challenge authority?  I like to believe I would have done the right thing, but war changes people. Heroes and villains often walk the same path distinguished by a single choice on a divergent road.

I don’t write of those events to disparage the countless brave men and women who have served and even given their lives for their country. I respect and admire those who have served with honor. I mean only to frame the years in which I came of age. I had classmates with brothers who served and some who lost their lives in the terrible conflict. During those years, military service was something many sought to avoid, by college deferment for those who could afford it, by refusing to register or leaving the country for those who could not. The draft system wasn’t fair. It was biased against low income and under-privileged members of society. By the mid seventies the country was sick of a war few wanted or understood and in 1975 TV broadcasts shocked and enthralled us once again.  This time the images were of terrified South Vietnamese gathered at the embassy gates, clambering for a place on the final departing American helicopters.

Registration for Selective Service ended with the Vietnam War in 1975 and did not resume until 1980. I turned 18 then 21 in the years between. Unlike other young men, I never faced the choice between conscience and military obligation.  The need to make a decision was eliminated.  But over the preceding years more than 125 thousand young men had gone into exile rather than fight a war that they could not personally support.  Finally in 1977, as one of his first official acts, President Carter granted amnesty to those who had failed to register or who had left the country to avoid military service. Ninety percent of those had found refuge and were given legal resident status in the country where I first considered the wonders and horrors of our time.  Canada, a haven for many after all!