EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 3
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With only two thousand men a month initially returning to Canada after the armistice, it took some time before Brampton began to see a return of its men. But slowly, over the course of the next year, those who survived the trenches of Belgium and France, the hills of Italy, the deserts of East and West Africa, Egypt, and Palestine, the British campaigns in Greece, Malta, Turkey, and Mesopotamia and the various enemy camps, returned to Canada, and our small portion returned to Brampton. Those who were able often insisted on returning by the same Toronto-to-Brampton rail route by which they left it. Others, particularly those who were injured, were driven home from Toronto by car. They were met by a receiving party, a notice in the newspaper, and one or more celebrations in their home or church. Over the course of four years, we witnessed this for dozens of men. Although we desired to do so—although we prayed to do so—we were never able to hold such a celebration for Eddie McMurchy.
Eddie was Jim’s best friend. The two had been chums since their youngest days, sharing every classroom, club, and sport. Together they abandoned their weekend and summertime play for responsible part-time and summer jobs. They attended the same university, where they lived in the same boarding house. They adopted as sweethearts two girls who were, like them, the best of friends. Theirs paths diverged in only two respects: sports and war. Jim, being the better athlete, participated in national and international hockey and lacrosse tournaments that Eddie did not. Then, in 1915, without the knowledge or consent of his friend, Jim enlisted in the Canadian Army Dental Corps and was sent overseas. Eddie, being one of the eligible men called out by Father in his infamous do-your-bit speech, did not enlist until the summer of 1916, at which time, against the wishes of his father, he joined the fledgling air force.
We first learned that Eddie was missing a week after Jim’s memorial service. Ina had gone downtown to purchase a loaf of bread. As she approached the four corners area, she noticed a crowd of people assembled outside of Mr. Wood’s jewellery store window. Though the position of telegraph master had long since passed from Mr. Wood to his retail neighbour, Mr. Thauburn, Mr. Wood had agreed to allow the window of his premises to be used as the mounting board for the county’s list of dead, injured, and missing.
Ina could see people jockeying to get closer to the list. The men left the window with their heads bowed; the women with their handkerchiefs at their cheeks. Ina returned home without the loaf of bread.
“Missing?” Father said. “Since the tenth of August? That was nearly a month ago. Why are they just posting it now?” The delay in the posting might have led to another declaration of the army’s incompetence had Mother’s neurosis about the location of Jim’s grave not started Father on his mental journey toward respecting the organization again.
“Missing,” Ina repeated. “Since the day that Jim died.”
“Do you think he’s dead?” Mother asked. “In the same turnip fields as Jim is laid?”
“No!” Ina declared before Father had a chance to dispute her reference to the French soil. “He isn’t dead. I’d know it if he was.” We all looked at her. We knew that Ina claimed a special connection to Eddie. “I would know. And the McMurchys would too.” Retrieving the fraying straw hat and the badly stretched sweater she had just discarded, she left for the blue-pillared McMurchy home.
“Behind enemy lines. That’s what the McMurchys say,” Ina reported on her return. Her visit with the distraught family was made even more difficult for her by the attendance of Sarah Lawson, Eddie’s long-time sweetheart, and her best friend Millie—neither of whom Ina liked. Eddie had never been aware of his position as Ina’s first and longest unrequited love. Sarah, the usurper of his affections, became, unbeknownst to her, Ina’s nemesis. Millie being the best friend of that nemesis, the breaker of Jim’s heart, and the instigator of Jim’s enlistment earned her a position with Ina even less favourable.
“Do they have any evidence of that?” I asked.
“Of course they have no evidence,” Ina replied critically. “If there was evidence, he would not be listed as missing, would he? But they feel it. And I share their feelings. He is either in hiding or possibly in a prisoner of war camp. He’s very resourceful.”
Eventually, as the enemy lines moved east, the McMurchys received a report that Eddie’s burnt-out airplane had been found, but neither his body nor that of his flight mate had been located. Sarah and the McMurchys refused to believe that he had been incinerated in the conflagration. They were convinced that Eddie escaped the wreckage and that he was alive somewhere. All expressions of sympathy were refused. Friends and family who wished to do something were urged to make a gift to the International Red Cross.
Sarah and the McMurchys claimed no discomfort when that charitable organization was unable to reveal to them Eddie’s whereabouts. If he were in hiding, as they sincerely hoped, the Red Cross would be unaware of his location. If he were a prisoner of war, the Red Cross would only belatedly be advised.
At the many services and impromptu commemorations of the Armistice Day that followed, Sarah and the McMurchys refused to ally themselves with those who had lost a loved one in the hostilities. They moved through the Armistice Day and the weeks that followed, confident that with the war’s end, Eddie would soon return home safe and sound; that word of his location and situation would be sent.
No word was sent: not in the weeks immediately following the armistice when prisoners of war were being released and returned to England; not at Christmas time or the New Year as those still abroad sent greetings home; not through the winter and spring as our men began returning en masse.