KING GEORGE VI & QUEEN ELIZABETH AND MY FATHER
WHY PRINCE WILLIAM AND KATE WON’T CHAT WITH ME
I won’t ever meet Will and Kate privately, just the three of us bumping into each other on an outing. The reason I probably will never meet them casually like this is because there is nothing casual about them or their lives. They are the property of the world, as will be their children and probably their children’s children. God help them. My father met William’s great grandparents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth one day, an extraordinary day for him, and maybe for them as well. Who knows what they might have thought, or if they ever shared this story as I am doing now? It might have been as much a novelty for them as reigning monarchs, as it was for my dad, the vagabond pauper.
In 1939 The King and Queen made the first visit to Canada of any reigning monarchs. The tour was touted as being a chance for the royals to inspire Canadians with a new found sense of patriotic pride as a nation. I assume that the more obvious reason was the imminent threat of war with Germany. Adolf Hitler was as much the tour organizer as Lord Tweedsmuir, the then Governor General of Canada. The Brits needed to reinforce sovereign influence over their prospective Commonwealth allies. “All for one, hip hip hurray, there’s a good chap.” sort of thinking.
Since the trip was from coast to coast the only available mode of transportation was by train. I suppose they could have tried a royal bus ride but since most of the TransCanada Highway was gravel in those days the drive would have probably lasted longer than the war. (Besides, the train is the key to my father’s rendezvous with destiny.) You see trains in those days weren’t the super trans-continental electric stainless steel bullets of today, clipping along at a cool one hundred and twenty-five miles an hour, an invisible aircushion providing a ride as smooth as a baby’s bum. The trains of that era were steam locomotives clanking along at thirty or forty on good days, their massive iron engines spitting and belching smoke and ash like dinosaurs readying themselves for extinction. They were truly monsters in every respect, beautiful monsters albeit, but nonetheless prehistoric by today’s seamless, shiny example.
The thing about steam trains is that they had to make regularly scheduled stops to take on fuel and water. Coal and wood were the preferred combustibles. This meant that since most of Canada was barely populated (still isn’t) the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) had to create small desolate depots all along the route to provide these basic services. Each of these stops later became small communities hewn from the boreal forests. They dot the landscape to this day, many abandoned to be reclaimed by the wilderness, their pioneer stories carried forward on the winds of time. The train meant a lot back then. I believe that today First Nations peoples still have the sovereign Treaty Right to flag down a passing train and hitch a ride to wherever they want to go, without question or payment.
The geographical center of Canada is a city called Thunder Bay. It was actually called Port Arthur back then. It was, and still is, surrounded by thousands of miles of forests and muskeg on three sides and Lake Superior on the fourth. It was my dad’s family home. My father and a friend were hired by one of the logging companies of the day to travel a few hundred miles outside of the city and spend the summer living in a tent doing a rudimentary calculation of the available timber in the area. (This didn’t take astute science since the whole place was nothing but trees.) The two young men were all alone, abandoned in God’s great wilderness, completely cut off from civilization. No phones, no newspapers, no nothing. They had been stuck out there for over a month and were probably going a bit squirrely. The only possible entertainment outside of the Northern Lights and trying not to be eaten by the bears was the occasional train shuffling through. There was a water tower located not far from their tent. One day an unusually short passenger train, consisting of only a few classic looking cars, chugged past them stopping at the water tower. Since my dad had nothing to do but think of girls and swat flies he wondered down the tracks to take a look, hoping to have an opportunity to gossip with the engineer and crew. Any news of the pending war in Europe was of importance to the two young fellows, if for no other reason than a war could provide a chance for alternative employment and get them out of that mosquito infested incredibly boring forest. (At that point Europe sounded good even if it required dodging some artillery fire.) He sidled along past the few cars and rounded the corner of the caboose. Low and behold, standing there in all their finery were King George and Queen Elizabeth. They were as shocked to see my father as he was to see them. There were no human beings for hundreds and hundreds of miles. If it wasn’t for the train crew’s prying eyes the royals could have been standing there stark naked taking a bit of fresh Canadian sun. As it was they were all prim and proper (are they ever any other way) and after the initial jolt of coming face to face with another English speaking white man in the middle of nowhere, they began to chat amiably about this and that. My father’s friend came along after a bit and fetched his camera to take this historic (from our family’s stand point) photo of my dad and the royal couple. My father said that no security of any kind presented itself that day. There may have been a few royal body guards or RCMP dozing in the bar car, but none of them deemed this strange bushman lolling about under the King and Queen’s noses as anything to be overly troubled about. My dad said that he thought the King might have held a pistol in the hand he had stuck into his suit jacket pocket. He said the mood was polite and easy so he didn’t think (The King) was readying himself to start blasting away like James Bond at the blink of an eye. They all shared a couple of smokes as they waited for the watering to be completed. (I hope they were The King’s ciggies. My dad was broke, that’s why he was living in a tent in the first place.)
Anyway, that’s the way it was in 1939 when the royals came to your neighbourhood. So what are my chances with Will and Kate?
“Anyone for tea, one lump or two… There’s a good chap.”