When the debriefing and hospital checks ended, Leonard went back to Swift Current, hoping to get his family and his life back in order. Housing was the immediate concern. The “Corrigan House”, an elegant two storey home in which Leonard had grown up, had been for sale. For whatever reasons, Belle, Leonard’s mother, sold it before his return – removing the possibility that he could have purchased it for his family. Housing in the town was very scarce but he and Gladys were able to find a place on Second West that was available. Paddy returned home after her school year was finished in June and the family was together for the first time in five years.
I had been persuaded that it was very important for me to finish the school year at St. Mary’s Academy, so I didn’t arrive home until nearly the end of June. When I got to the house, which was at 470 Second West, I remember sitting down at the piano to wait for Dad to come home from work. It was quite dark when I finished the piece I was playing, and I remember being rather startled when I turned around to find this tall man with a full black beard staring at me through the screen at the front door. He had been listening to the music. Although I didn’t know it, because of the July 1stcelebrations, all the men had grown beards. Here was the Dad that I hadn’t seen for more than a few days when he first came back to Winnipeg now looking like a sailor off on leave, with this full black beard. Quite a revelation!
My first recollection of my father was that he was a tall, handsome man – that in his world children were seen and not heard, and that you did as you were told – no explanations necessary.
I probably spent the least amount of time with Dad after he got home. I quickly fell back into my routine of going to Regina to be with my maternal grandparents for every school holiday. I wanted to be with them – I had a connection there. In Swift Current, my parents were trying to get their lives back together. Where did a seven year old fit?
Despite his thoughts of looking for new employment, the Post Office job was waiting for him on his return, and with a wife and family to take care of, he decided to continue there. In fact, despite offers of promotion to other cities in Canada, Leonard stayed with the Post Office until his retirement. He had started in June, 1927 as an assistant – the war years intervened – and from 1946 until 1972 he advanced from his earliest position through Postal Clerk 2, Postal Supervisor 2, Postal Officer 2, and in 1957 became Postmaster of the Swift Current office.
Activities that Leonard spoke of in his diary, golfing and music, began again. Gladys played the piano and Leonard the saxophone in a seven-piece group called the “Serenaders” and they would play for dances every weekend in Swift Current and the surrounding district. Later on, Leonard joined the military band of the 14thCanadian Hussars, based in town and they played regularly in Swift Current for various functions.
When the dance band, “The Serenaders”, held a practice, I often got on my bike after Mom and Dad left the house and went to the Elks’ Hall. I could sit behind the screen at the main door and listen to the music being played – without anyone knowing I was there. Then, after a while, I would get on my bike and return home before my parents got back. I guess it’s why I know so much of the music from that era of dance bands.
Mom and Dad and The Serenaders played for our school dances which proved challenging for a teenage girl. Was I doomed to be a wallflower or did the fellows not ask me to dance because they didn’t want my father’s eyes watching us?
Leonard never resumed competitive golf – he had won several trophies locally before the war years – but he and Gladys were active members of the Elmwood Golf Club. Gladys, on the other hand, continued to play in tournaments yearly until 1978, consistently winning prizes and trophies. At the age of 60, she decided to see whether she could win a spot on the provincial golf team – won a place and went on to compete in the national tournament in 1973 representing Saskatchewan. She was also an avid curler, joining a team every winter season. Her great sense of competitiveness and sportsmanship resulted in her being named to Swift Current’s “Sports Hall of Fame”.
I went golfing with Dad fairly often, but it was always a test of wills as he demanded perfection. Any mistakes that were made meant an angry flare up. I fared much better when Mom or George Dunlop, one of Dad’s golfing buddies, were along, as he managed to keep his temper in check when others were present. Dad didn’t confine his criticism to me, as he often critiqued Mom’s golfing style. It frustrated him to realize that she was able to win competitions, and that it was no longer possible for him to do so, even though he had won a number of championships before the war. His swing was still powerful but his nerves were so frayed that he couldn’t control his shots and his putting was always unpredictable. I had first played golf with Grandpa Corrigan and Uncle Bert in Winnipeg, and I think the pleasure of those early games resonated through the trials and tribulations involved in my lessons with Dad, so that golf remained an interest for me for many years after I had left home.
Golf never appealed to me. Paddy had the good luck to be introduced to the game by Grandpa Corrigan. But being that I was younger, I just never had the same connection to the sport. I did, however, sense that it couldn’t be much fun as there was so much arguing and fussing when people got home.
In 1946, Kathleen was born and, in 1948, the fourth daughter, Michelle, arrived to complete the family.
I was the third Corrigan daughter, born in December, 1946, after the war. My really early years bring back memories that are generally pleasant – such as hearing my sister Pat practice endlessly on the piano and getting a great appreciation for classical music that has lasted my lifetime. My sister Shelagh babysat us a lot and occasionally enlightens us about those times which she claimed (typical teenager) were hard on her. I don’t think it was unique in those days, but growing up Mik and I went to Mom for all our emotional support. In later years, I understand why. Dad did not offer that level of love. He was like a soldier in that he had a number of rules to follow and discipline was important. One look from him – with his big, black eyebrows said it all! We always thought he was so crabby, but in retrospect he was a very unhealthy man with lots of pain and discomfort. Probably he didn’t have the energy to deal day to day with all that was going on. Today he might even be described as suffering from a type of post traumatic stress disorder.
“You have another girl, Len”…the fourth, to be christened Mickey but shortly thereafter amended to Michelle by our French parish priest…and nicknamed Mike by a father destined to spend the rest of his life in a house full of women. It seemed an ironic twist of fate for someone prepped to behave as a more traditional male, a leader of men.
The early years were full of tension, although to the people that Dad knew at the office or in the town itself, he was a hard-working, conscientious kind of person who played for dances, along with our Mom, almost every weekend, and golfed whenever he could. For us at home, it was often quite a different story, in that he was very exacting in his approach, and brooked no dissension when it came to his wanting things done in a particular way. He and Mom sometimes had arguments that lasted a considerable time, often at full volume. These would be followed by a day or two of chilly silence, where all of us had to tiptoe around the house so as not to disturb Dad too much.
There was a great deal of tension in the house, understandable when you look back at it from an adult perspective, but not as a child, listening as Pat and I did through a vent in the bedroom floor. Years later, it took me a long time to realize why I couldn’t stand to watch television programs where the voices started to be raised – or that I moved away from arguments beginning in social settings. The tension from those early days was being repeated.
Mom and Dad had what we felt was a stormy relationship and at a very young age, I remember listening to them argue in the basement while my sister and I were upstairs. As a couple, they lost so much time in their relationship with the five-year gap in their marriage. It must have been difficult to regain lost time. But they persevered, playing for dances, golfing and being involved in many community groups together.
The other memory that is still vivid is the amount of sleeping he did. It forced us as a family to always be aware of the noise level, which was hard on all of us. Looking back, I suspect Dad certainly didn’t ever feel well, but I also wonder about depression in addition to his stomach and other health issues. I still, to this day, feel annoyed when my husband has a nap and I have to tip-toe around. We laugh about it now, but it’s a vivid memory.
There are a lot of memories of tip-toeing around the house because Dad would be sleeping. I know there were many times when he was not well – stomach problems mostly. He would come home from work and be doubled up with pain. The doctors diagnosed ulcers, but I doubt that they really knew, no matter how skilled they were. We always believed it related to Hong Kong.
Much of our real communication came through Mom. He would tell her what he wanted us to know, and she would pass the message along. Even in situations where I was performing in public on the piano, such as a Kiwanis Festival, he would never come in and sit down at the performance, but would stand at the door and tell Mom afterwards to let me know that he thought I had performed well.
I felt he was honourable – people looked up to him as a leader and if he gave you his word, you could count on him. He was not good at expressing emotions (except perhaps on paper), you never received a compliment or praise from him – rather he would say to Mom “tell Shelagh that….”. Once after he’d heard me play the piano in a very fine restaurant in Toronto, he commented that “he never thought he’d see his daughter play in a “joint” like this”. I took it as a compliment.
What a complex man! He seemed able to write his feelings but never speak them. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, or didn’t love us, it was just never verbalized, at least in my growing up time. As all of us grew older, Kathie brought “hugging” into our family greetings. But it wasn’t something that happened in the time I lived at home.
Early in 1959, I decided to leave home to find a job in Ontario where Pat and Bernard were living. Dad took me to the train and carried my bag on board. And when he turned to say good-bye, he kissed me on the cheek. It was the first time I ever remember him kissing me.
In my teen years, I would often sit and talk with my Dad after he came home from playing for a dance. The talks sometimes escalated into arguments, fuelled no doubt by the drinks he had had to help him wind down after playing. After one particularly grueling session, he kept getting more and more irate, as I was disagreeing with him about a particular topic. There was so much tension that I finally burst into tears, telling him that I was sure he was trying to “break me” psychologically. He hugged me then and became a little teary himself. That was the one special hug I remember in those years.
Dad had a very strong value base – which made him reluctant to give praise. To him, with his expectations, what you did wasn’t extra ordinary, but what you were supposed to do anyway. I think all four of us have grown up conscious of doing the right thing because of the values we have carried on all our lives. But still there were scars that we can now recognize, as mature women, who looked for credit for what we had done.
Ours was a disciplined childhood – no tantrums for this crew – and we experienced the spankings and smacks (that were accepted in that era) from our father, which resulted in a tendency for us to give him a wide berth if he was in a black mood or not feeling good. Consequently, I never thought he was much fun and have virtually no recollections of goofy times with him. Of course, I was doing the self-absorbed kid thing, so I also had no inkling of the type of worries he had, trying to make sure his family was taken care of. He succeeded because we lacked for nothing growing up.
Dad was a natural athlete, and had he not leaned towards always testing the limits in his youth, he might have found a career in sport. I think he occasionally played badminton at the armouries after his Hussar band practice, and I knew he was a smooth golfer, but I had never seen him play tennis, which I had been toying with at university. So, I challenged him…in no time, I was running all over the place, and he looked so collected and cool that I decided to drive a zinger at him and get him jump started. My enthusiasm overshot my skill, with the result that I missed the ball entirely, and followed through straight into my left eye with the racket…POW! Dad was at my side in an instant, but not with sympathy…he was chuckling at my comeuppance, which further embarrassed me and promptly ended our game. I only asked for his guidance on one other occasion in the sports field, and that was when my fiancé discovered he had a natural affinity for golf (my parents gave him golf shoes as a wedding present – they bonded ever thereafter), and I wanted to join him. Kath and I had caddied for both parents a great deal in our growing years (cheap babysitting!), but neither of us harboured any real desire to learn the game. I was probably past my learning prime when I asked Dad to be my teacher, and it seemed impossible to get it right. It was only after I followed through with a back wrenching stroke that literally brought me to my knees, that he finally praised my efforts. I didn’t ask for help again.
I don’t remember Dad ever going to a movie. His dislike of pretension and phoniness was likely the reason. He loved good books, music and golf and his need for quiet and sleep time didn’t allow for child play. When I was a little older – 10 perhaps – we were outside at 627 when I asked him to play catch with me. We threw the ball back and forth a few times and then, in despair, he said “You catch like a girl!”
The growing family necessitated new accommodation and the Corrigans moved into one of the first Veterans’ Houses built in Swift Current. The familiar designs were springing up all across Canada as returning veterans needed houses for their families. Only Kathie, age four, wasn’t sure about living in the new house. She disappeared one afternoon on her tricycle – she was located shortly after, heading down the hill to the old home.
Both Leonard and Gladys became involved in volunteer and civic groups in Swift Current. Their contribution generally started with an involvement in music and ended up with them joining the organization. Leonard joined the Lions Club, serving as President in later years, was an Elk, a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, the Knights of Columbus and the Chamber of Commerce. He served on the Catholic School Board and the Emergency Measures Organization and was an active board member of the Prairie Pioneer Lodge, a residential complex for seniors. Gladys joined the Lioness organization and the Royal Purple Lodge along with her golfing and curling activities.
Dad was a loyal and respected man, sought after by many local organizations because he was thorough and would work until the job was done. Fulfilling his need to be a leader, to do the right things and to influence people was all part of that.
I have some flash thoughts – walking down the streets of Swift Current, a pre-teen trying to match her dad’s long strides, and being proud of his handsomeness and his assertive take-charge demeanor…my hand in the crook of his arm; waiting for him to give me a ride home after band practice…sitting in the back of the post office, watching him skillfully slap the letters into mailboxes, an easy camaraderie with his co-workers and their discernible respect for him, which did not falter when he became Postmaster; leaning over the front seat in our car, listening to his stories about the war as the miles stretched endlessly, surprised that he could find humour in many of the incidents that occurred in camp; interviewing him about his years as a prisoner of war for a public speaking contest in my Grade 9 year – a unique topic that took me to the finals, but not a win; having him as a guest in my grade 4 classroom to speak about being a soldier, as part of the Remembrance Day recognition – I was so proud and the kids treated him like a celebrity…what fun!; realizing that he was behind the scenes supporting all our endeavours, whether we were in singing festivals (yuck), at dance recitals, on trips with our Junior Band, or sharing the spotlight at our school musical productions; watching he and Mum dance together, so fluid and practiced – who taught him?; dancing with him myself, held so firmly I could barely breathe, and me fighting the urge to lead; waiting for the back porch light to pop on after we arrived from up north, knowing that, whatever the hour, he would not sleep until we were safely home.
Another of Leonard’s appointments was that of Justice of the Peace – which meant hearing cases involving traffic violations and various other charges laid by the city police and the RCMP, who were the provincial police in Saskatchewan.
My husband Bernard and I were attending a party in Ottawa in the mid-‘60s, and at one point several couples gathered around, and began to tell some funny stories about travelling across Canada. Following one person’s encounter with the police while driving out West, a friend of ours decided to tell his story as well.
He described being stopped for speeding by the Mounties near Swift Current, Saskatchewan. No matter how he put it, he couldn’t convince them that he shouldn’t receive a ticket. When he persisted, they informed him that he would have to go into town and appear before the Justice of the Peace who would decide on the appropriate fine.
Our friend then began to describe the situation once they got to the building where the official was to be found. He was directed to a particular office, where he waited for the JP to arrive. A few minutes later a fellow with piercing blue eyes and a black bushy beard walked in the door carrying a set of golf clubs. At this point in his story, we added a few more details, was he 6 feet tall? Dressed in casual clothes?
It turned out that this gentleman was indeed the Justice of the Peace our friend had been waiting for….our Dad. The beard had been grown for Frontier Days, and he had just come from the golf course. Needless to say, the gentleman with the story was flabbergasted – and the whole group convulsed with laughter.
The highlight of my teenage years? Dad was named a Justice of the Peace. He asked me to do the paperwork involved. And because in Saskatchewan the RCMP were the provincial police, it meant that any warrants or other official business often brought handsome young men, recently graduated from the RCMP training centre at Regina, to our house. Swoon!!
Education, which Leonard felt so strongly about, caused a bit of an uproar at the local Catholic Church when Leonard and Gladys decided that Paddy, instead of heading off to the nearest Catholic High School some 100 miles away, would go to the local public Collegiate. Leonard was denounced from the pulpit and threatened with excommunication by the Pastor. After being separated from his daughter for four years, Leonard felt strongly about another dislocation in his family. The matter was settled between the Priest and Leonard over a bottle of rye.
Considering that Dad was expelled in Grade 9 (caught smoking by the principal’s wife behind the school), he was eloquent and articulate in his diary and letters to his family/friends; he read voraciously, watched educational TV and loved a good argument (discussion!) where he could test the waters. It was frustrating to have an opinion, because his was always right! When reading the diary, it isn’t obvious how young he was, because it illustrates such depth of character, a clear-headedness and focus not in keeping with his age – but above all, it was the way he put words to paper without an educated background to guide him that is most astonishing.
He also continued his flair for writing – composing long letters to the daughters away from home and writing poems and limericks which Gladys would find waiting for her after an evening out.
Something special that Dad did for all of us was to send a letter at least once a year. Dad did very little writing so the letters were either typed on his Olivetti or printed. He captured on paper what was going on with him and Mom, but would also talk of events in Swift Current or what was happening with golf, family, friends or we sisters. For someone who was reluctant to be chatty, he seemed so in his letters – as shown in his Hong Kong diary. I’ve saved every letter he ever wrote. Even though his formal education was cut short in his youth, he was a very smart introspective man.
Music was the real glue that allowed the family to blend together. Paddy continued her classical piano training and after completing her Conservatory courses and competing in local music festivals, she earned her ARCT at 16 years of age and began teaching music. After finishing High School, she attended the University of Saskatchewan, completed her teaching degree and returned to Swift Current to teach school at the local High School. Later she went east to obtain her Bachelor of Music degree and continued teaching in Ontario.
Music was an important part of all our lives as we children were growing up. If it wasn’t our parents playing for dances, our taking piano lessons, or, later on, our two younger sisters playing in the Community Band, we would often have singing or playing sessions in the house. Dad had bought a Webcor Wire Recording machine in 1946 that he used quite often, more than we had realized. In 2004, we discovered how much he had recorded of our playing and singing, and the parents’ dance band called “The Serenaders”, when we had the ten wire recording spools we had kept all those years edited and turned into CDs. What a wonderful keepsake! The CDs will give the family many more opportunities to get the flavour of those musical moments in the years to come.
Shelagh began music lessons but ultimately ended up playing as Gladys did – by ear – and was involved in music throughout her school years, sometimes playing with her parents’ dance band. She continued to play the piano professionally after moving to Ontario.
Music was so important in our family. Dad had purchased a wire recorder (forerunner of tapes) and, thanks to brother-in-law Bernard Turcotte who found a source to retrieve these recordings just a few years ago, we rediscovered some precious family moments – Pat playing classical music, age 15, me playing, age 10, and the two younger sisters singing at ages probably two and four. But I had completely forgotten one segment where I was singing “Now Is The Hour” and Dad’s voice comes in to harmonize with me. What a keepsake!
That recording also brought back another memory. I loved dogs and I remember coming home one day with a beautiful collie dog called “Major” who had “followed me home”. I remember opening the bathroom door while my mother was having a bath and shoving the dog through the open door saying couldn’t we keep him because he didn’t have a home. My mother screamed at the sight of this animal and Major and I quickly left the scene. But Major became embedded in our family history. On the wire recording comes the two very young voices to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell”, singing “Major’s at the door, Major’s at the door, heigh-ho the major-o, Major’s at the door.” Later there was an Irish setter puppy given to me which became sick and died and to replace it a Golden Labrador, which also didn’t last. Each time, Dad would stay with me through the night as we tried to save them. No more dogs after that.
Perhaps those moments stand out because we didn’t have a lot of common ground, Dad and I. I was six and a half when he returned home and I don’t think either of us knew what to do with the other.
Both Kathie and Mik were very involved in music in Swift Current, singing and performing in dance recitals with Gladys playing the accompaniment to the dancers. Both Kathie and Mik played the trumpet with the Swift Current Junior Band, a well-recognized group of young people from the community. They took part in a band trip to Ontario and performed at the CNE, as well as a number of other events.
All four girls sang – four-part harmony without music – and were well known in Swift Current for their musical ability.
As we grew older, my younger sister and I were very involved in singing and dance, both at school and in the community. Music epitomized who we were as a family and I think Mom and Dad got a lot of satisfaction from all that we did. Except on one unhappy occasion when Mik and I, at about 10 and 12 years of age, with Mom accompanying us on stage at the Experimental Farm auditorium, started to sing our duet and froze! No explanation as to why and after a minute or so of awkwardness, we started again and successfully completed our song. Dad, with his need for perfection, was very upset with us for quite awhile that week. Expectations placed on us to attend school or music practices were the same, even if we were feeling ill. I suppose no matter how under the weather we were, it would never have been as significant as what he had experienced in prisoner of war camp. To this day, I generally dismiss how I’m feeling when asked, choosing not to dwell on problems or talk about myself.
Music was the constant and the comfort, and probably the ingredient that we shared best as a family…we four girls harmonized without deference to age, an inherited natural talent that we took for granted, and enjoyed immensely. I have few early flashbacks of Paddy, except a pride in her exceptional skills as a pianist.
There wasn’t much discussion about Hong Kong in the early days following Leonard’s return. Probably it wasn’t a subject you could talk to young girls about. And in any event, it seemed that Leonard and Gladys just wanted to get on with their lives. The daughters all remember tension at home, having to be quiet in the house and very few meals with Leonard. His eating habits revolved around eating his food cold after everyone else had finished their meal – or making a sandwich of the food (which one of Gladys’ friends said he did because he couldn’t stand the sight of food – so he covered it with bread). His favourite meal was a raw onion sandwich – a taste his whole family developed.
There were many times when Dad would not sit down and eat with us, and when he did our behaviour was very carefully scrutinized. In one situation, I didn’t want to eat a vegetable put in front of me, and made a face about it. He very quickly smacked my face, and reminded me that it was good food and that I should eat every bite before leaving the table. Needless to say, we were happiest when eating separately from him. He would often just make himself an onion sandwich, and eat it nearby, either before or after we had had our meal. His food habits were quite unusual, and had a lot to do with not being able to be used to having proper meals for such a long time. The one meal I do recall when he enjoyed a sit-down meal with us was on the occasion of his 80thbirthday when we had company, and a full turkey dinner. Quite a pleasant surprise!
Dad had such strong principles and once committed would not relent. I remember my loathing for porridge, which Mom and Dad felt we should have before going to school. When Dad said I could not leave until I finished this awful stuff, he meant it! At the same time, I couldn’t be late for school, so I remember to this day the gagging I did until I finished the bowl. Today if my husband cooks oatmeal porridge, I almost have to leave the room. Just recently, I learned from my sister Shelagh that when my Dad was sent to St. Boniface to school at age five, he also struggled with having to eat porridge. He solved the problem by stuffing it into his pockets.
What to eat and how to cook food was a great challenge for our Mom. We were a meat and potatoes family like most people then, but routine got to be a big part of our life. Hot dogs on Thursdays, fish on Fridays (good Catholics) and hamburgers on Saturday morning after Band practice, then roast on Sundays. Choice of vegetables was limited by what did not have strong cooking odours. All the sisters entered the world of broccoli, turnip and cauliflower long after we were adults on our own. Dad seldom sat down for a family meal. He loved homemade bread and crackers with lots of butter on both. He ate onion sandwiches his entire life – not just any onion, but Spanish onions – which he cut and cubed, soaked in at least three tablespoons of sugar and cold water, and put outside, rain or shine, to ferment for at least three hours. When they were ready, he would put butter on the homemade bread, sprinkle salt on the onions and press the bread flat before eating. Dad’s food oddities will be remembered forever by the family. We learned later from a friend of Mom’s that Dad ate mostly sandwiches because he couldn’t stand the sight of food, after his prison camp experience. Another trait, that might have been more “Corrigan” than “camp”, was not eating or drinking really hot food or beverages. Dad had his own way of doing things at meal times. He would mix his food around on the plate and let it cool for half an hour or so, joining the family but eating later. Mom felt maybe it was better for his digestive process. But habits linger, and to this day, my son and I enjoy eating onion sandwiches.
Kathie twigged a memory when she mentioned the onion sandwiches, which I also love. It was such simple fare, and Dad didn’t cook, so because it was his thing – he “made” the onions into a delicacy – and we could share the eating experience, it became something special. It was part of the ritual to leave a hand print in the top of the bread when pressing it together, and truthfully, after Mum died we couldn’t pull it off on anything less than her homemade bread. I’m the next generation that doesn’t like to eat or drink anything hot, though I can’t provide any clever rationale, like digestive problems. Genetics, I guess.
And there was Hudson Bay Dark Rum, and Buckingham cigarettes – a lot of those.
Dad loved rum and coke, but being the disciplined person he was, he never drank until after work was done. After a few drinks, he didn’t eat well, which got his stomach ulcers raging. The drinking exposed us to memories that he had of the war and camp in Hong Kong. Lots of times, he would laugh hard at the funny antics with the men, but generally he showed sadness and pain from that experience. Not wanting to show his emotions, he would retreat to the bedroom hiding the tears running down his face. He always said there were things that he knew but could never talk about for fear of reprisals. Imagine ten or twenty years after a war still experiencing that fear!
I married a man who liked to smoke and drink rum along with Dad, and every visit over the years, that combination would invariably lead to stories of his life in the camp. It never mattered that, with the passing of time, many stories were repeated…often…because he had a terrific way of sharing his memories – a true entertainer. Sometimes he laughed with tears in his eyes, and he moved quickly past the hurtful elements, rather than spoil the mood. We came to recognize the names of those friends who made those long years survivable, and if we asked “whatever happened to…” then we were in for a long night. It never occurred to me there were households of returned soldiers who never spoke of those four years, and many others whose fathers remained steeped in hate and resentment for the rest of their lives. Somehow, Dad let those feelings go, but there is no question that harm was done to his health and his psyche.
He never bragged about or embellished the war years. If there were stories – and in my days at home it didn’t happen often – they would be anecdotes – not about himself.
Occasionally there would be a visitor to speak with Leonard in the early days – a young man trying to get his life back together. The two of them would sit in the living room in the dark, talking late into the night.
He was always grateful and really enjoyed the visits from men he had served with in the Winnipeg Grenadiers. I was enthralled to see Dad in the company of men with whom he had such a tight bond and shared so many memories – I realized the brotherhood that evolved in the camp that enabled them to survive.
Leonard was a little older than the regular recruits when he signed up. He spent his thirtieth birthday onboard ship going to Hong Kong. Some of the younger men – many were only 17 and 18 years of age when they joined the army – couldn’t cope with surviving the terrible days of imprisonment, perhaps for poor health reasons that were not recognized. They faced enormous struggles to get proper pensions and medical care that was due them. The Canadian government signed away any rights to compensation from the Japanese government regarding slave labour the men were required to perform. And the significance of health problems was not understood almost until the Viet Nam Veterans returned to the United States with a host of diseases which Western doctors had not seen or dealt with before. Hong Kong Veterans began being tested in the late seventies for many things, including parasites which they had probably carried in their bodies for all those years.
Leonard’s promise to help Edo Da Silva and his family come to Canada had never been forgotten. Over the years after their liberation, Edo had applied without success a number of times. Leonard often spoke of his admiration and fondness for his Portuguese friends in camp. Alzira Da Silva, Edo’s wife, had endured much hardship with the fall of Hong Kong. She had lost her father, father-in-law and a baby daughter during the years Edo was in the prisoner of war camp. Edo had been a member of the Hong Kong volunteer force when he was captured. Alzira was one of the many wives who were on the other side of the fence trying to be sure their men were still alive, and providing any food or other items that they could through the fence. After the war ended, they knew they didn’t want to stay in Hong Kong. Leonard and Edo had talked often about what they would do when they were free and when Edo expressed his desire to take his family to Canada, Leonard agreed to try and help. Finally in 1957, approval came through from the Canadian government and the family – by now including two little boys – left Hong Kong to live in Swift Current Saskatchewan – a town of 10,000 situated on the prairies.
Leonard’s family never remembered him ever having a hammer in his hand, or expressing the slightest interest in building or woodworking. But with the pending arrival of the Da Silva family, Leonard set out to build a room in the basement of his house where the family could stay. To his credit, it was finished, furnished and ready for the new family when they arrived. But the tools were put away forever.
Edo, a Portuguese gentleman interred in the same POW camp, was sponsored by Dad to start a new life in Canada, and within a dozen years after the war’s end, we were sharing our house with his wife and 2 sons, while they searched for their own accommodation. The close friendship of these former prisoners of war lasted the rest of their lives, and the children of both families have recently renewed contact.
Dad actually built a rumpus room in the basement in anticipation of the Da Silvas’ arrival, and truth be told, he did a commendable job, considering he really had no carpentry skills. He generally waited for my husband to arrive before attempting repairs, and he always had large, albeit unusable tools, as if he had read about them and figured every household needed them, so why not? He had the good grace not to try and be macho about his capabilities, and since he enjoyed learning new things, he didn’t seem the least embarrassed.
There was great excitement and a sense of urgency about getting ready for the arrival of the Da Silva family. Dad decided to create a room in the basement for them. That was a surprise to all of us because as far as we knew he’d never built anything in his life. But he did it and they arrived.
Considering the bustling culture and many family and friends that they left behind, Edo and Alzira were remarkably calm and never lost their enthusiasm and sense of humour. Alzira was pregnant when they arrived and soon after their daughter Angela was born, completing their family with sons Philip and Michael. Alzira had a wonderful wit and when she heard there was a contest in Saskatchewan called the “Miss Wheat Queen”, she said she could be “Miss Puffed Rice”.
It wasn’t long before Edo had a job with the Swift Current Utility company and the family found a house. Soon they were very much a part of the community in Swift Current. The children all attended the local schools and after graduation all three went to work in Calgary. On their retirement, Edo and Alzira joined their children there as well.
Pat and Shelagh left Swift Current in the late fifties just around the time the Da Silvas arrived so they didn’t spend as much time with them as the two younger Corrigans. The families shared Christmases and other holidays and kept in touch always.
It took very little persuasion to convince my then boyfriend to come home with me at Christmas break, because it was such a hoot! We had a piano in the basement, which Mum would play, and she would be joined on the tenor sax by Dad, and on fiddle, drums or alto sax by other friends…which meant we had our own little dance band under the stairs. It was a particular treat to be joined by the Da Silvas, as Edo had a beautiful tenor voice and loved to share it, so we would sing the old-time tunes in harmony or listen while he danced and serenaded his wife.
In 2007 in Calgary, where the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association held their Convention that year, the two families were once again together. There were tears and hugs and stories to share from all those years. For the Da Silvas, Philip, Michael and Angela, it was also an opportunity to meet some of the Veterans who had been with their Dad in prison camp and to see memorabilia from those days. Like the Corrigan family, the young Da Silvas hadn’t heard much about what went on in those wartime years. The parents and the children had never returned to Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Veterans’ Commemorative Association of Canada has become a unique organization. It was first proposed in 1996 when it became obvious that it was difficult for the Hong Kong Veterans to carry on their own association, the HKVA, for reasons of age and health concerns. The sons and daughters of Canadian soldiers who fought at the Battle of Hong Kong in December, 1941, stepped forward to help out. Since then, the membership has grown to include relatives and friends who want the story of the Canadians in that war to be better known. There are six Regional HKVCA organizations in Canada, from coast to coast, who meet every two years in August to mark the day the soldiers were liberated. Each region has its goal focusing on the needs of the remaining Veterans, the widows and families. The need for education in the schools to teach young people about the Battle has been a major commitment. Many Canadians are not even aware that Canada sent soldiers to attempt the defence of Hong Kong in 1941 – nor that the men and women remained there for nearly four years as prisoners-of-war.
Pat became involved with the HKVCA and with her experience in Education helped to organize the “Ten Lessons” for use in the High Schools in Ontario and in other provinces. As Pat says in her introduction to the Ten Lessons, “It was thought that, perhaps for the first time, many young Canadians would begin to understand the important role these soldiers played at Hong Kong in exemplifying the very best that our country has to offer in terms of fortitude, determination and endurance.”
In the late sixties, I left for the great beyond (Ontario) to pursue further education in nursing. While living in Ontario, I met a man, married, and had a child. However, when my marriage ended, I found myself back in Swift Current in the early seventies with a year-old son in my arms. Mom and Dad were a strong support for me in every way and Dad’s role as a father was rekindled. Having a grandson became important to him and he spent many long hours talking about the war and going through the “Life” book series that highlighted all the battles of the war. Sean (Kathie’s son)now has the entire collection of those books as a memento of the grandfather he loved.
He continued to protect and provide for us even as adults. When Kathie divorced and became a single parent, he made sure she had a car (twice) that would keep her and his grandson safe, and on every excuse possible he sent money to all of us. When my husband and I were initially married, he backed our first new vehicle – a Mustang! – and it was because of his contribution that my family could afford tickets to Australia for our year-long teacher exchange.
Dad’s generosity was a tangible reflection of his love for us, a substitute for his reluctance to hug or kiss us at all stages of our growing up. I only saw him kiss Mum on the lips once...he was going away somewhere…and we teased him about it in an attempt to minimize our shock. There is likely some anecdotal explanation from his childhood and life experiences to explain his reluctance to be more hands-on with his kids, and though I always knew he could be counted on for a rescue, an unpremeditated hug from him would have been a treasure. Kathie worked on him to the point where he allowed us to hug him and peck his cheek in greeting or leaving, and I didn’t hesitate to cry in his arms when Mum died.
Dad still got a little upset when I hugged my son and showed a lot of affection, thinking that certain negative traits might evolve from that affection. What I was doing was establishing a relationship with my son and getting and giving hugs became a more natural response from both of us.
Gladys and Leonard decided to make the 1975 pilgrimage to Hong Kong with the Veterans Association – an event that takes place every five years. As can be imagined, it was an overwhelming experience. As was his habit, Leonard wrote to the family about the trip in the form of a diary. (Return to Hong Kong in 1975)
The thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of the Hong Kong prisoners of war provided the opportunity for Leonard and Gladys to travel to that city. This was the first time Leonard decided to attend – and the first time Gladys would have to see Hong Kong. Ironically, they would land at Kai Tak Airport, the airport that Leonard helped build during the war as part of the work gangs from the prison camp.
The diary kept by Leonard on this trip includes all the sight-seeing and tourist things that are provided. But on arrival back home, he confesses that “a jaunt like this is of such magnitude that it would really be an impossibility to summarize it in a few sentences. There is little more for me to add than the fact that it was a “Once in a lifetime thrill!”
By 1978, the Corrigan family had grown to include Pat and her husband, Bernard Turcotte and their three children, Kevin, David and Carole. Shelagh married Allan Purcell and they had four children, Mark, Sandra, Jo-Anne and Megan. Both families lived in Ontario. Kathie had moved back to Swift Current with her son Sean, and Mik and her husband Tom Bergersen were awaiting the birth of their daughter, Jessica in Slave Lake, Alberta. Gladys’ mother, Jess McDonald had turned 90 and lived in a retirement home in Swift Current.
Gladys started to develop health problems in the fall of that year – diagnosed with a virulent form of lung cancer, although she had never smoked. By the following September, she died at the age of 66 in 1979. For the family, it was unthinkable. She had been the healthy one all these years as Leonard lived with the problems related to Hong Kong. She was athletic, busy, interested in her family and community. Her two younger daughters were only 32 and 30 – too young to lose a parent.
Mom passed away, far too young, in 1979. I have one vivid memory of the only time I yelled at my father without fear and lived to tell the tale. Mom was diagnosed with cancer a year before she passed away. I remember how mad Mom was one evening when she complained to Dad about pain and he dismissed her complaint, indicating she needed to deal with it herself and stop complaining. I’m not sure Mom ever forgave him for that. After she passed away, Dad was in disbelief. He couldn’t make funeral arrangements or go to the cemetery after the funeral. Weeks later, I went to pay my respects at the cemetery and I searched the entire area designated for Catholics, devastated in not finding Mom’s grave. Beside myself with grief, I drove to Dad’s house where I found him relaxing in the backyard. I told him what had happened with fury in my voice and tears in my eyes and on my next visit, a stone was in place. We never talked about it again.
For Leonard, who had never shared his feelings except on paper, it was a huge blow. He could never believe that she wouldn’t get better. He endured without her, but he also stopped playing the saxophone and played very little golf after her death. He visited his children in Alberta and Ontario and was able to cope in his own home. Kathie was the one who always made the trip home to Swift Current to see that everything was alright. During Gladys’ illness, she and her son, Sean, would make the trip from Lethbridge, Alberta so often – and regardless of weather – that she actually wore out two cars. She would cook meals for Leonard and build in support systems that made his life easier. The plus side of this caring of Kathie’s was that her son Sean developed an even closer relationship with his Grandfather. When Sean married, he and his wife, Gina, named their first child, a boy, Corrigan. Kathie married John Carlson in 1989 with Leonard escorting her down the aisle. She and John continued looking after Leonard and with the help of Grace and Seymour Smith, excellent neighbours of Leonard’s, he was able to stay at home until his own health gave out. He also discovered that hugs were okay in the time he lived alone and welcomed his children and grandchildren with hugs. It was a long way from when children should “be seen and not heard”.
In Dad’s later years he was fortunate to have strong supports from his neighbour and from our family and he was able to stay in his home until four months prior to his passing. When his health deteriorated, he still proved what a strong will he had. He had smoked Buckingham cigarettes since the age of ten but when he was in hospital and told he could not smoke, he didn’t. Despite two weeks in hospital without cigarettes, you think he might have suffered withdrawal symptoms, but he didn’t complain or seem to be in distress. Yet as soon as he was home, he started smoking again which only made his emphysema worse. In his last few months he hesitated to ask for anything for pain and discomfort. You had to admire his fortitude.
In spite of the shortcomings Dad had in his relationships with the family, he was much to be admired for coming back from a dreadful dehumanizing experience and making the most of his post-war situation. For all that he had been through, it was truly amazing that he was able to lead what everyone around him would have perceived as a normal, happy life. For the most part, he was indeed a father to be treasured, with a sense of humour, a somewhat shy persona, a person of intelligence, who challenged his daughters to do the best they could in a world full of challenges.
Looking back, I think my father and I had a distant but respectful relationship. There was not a closeness that I felt but I’m not sure I questioned that. I think it was fairly typical of men of his generation. I just assumed all families were like that. I don’t think you could say we bonded in those days – I’m not sure parents and children even knew what that was when I was growing up. But I always respected him – maybe had some fear of him.
I always thought of Dad as a hero – defined by me as someone who has overcome difficult times and carries on with life. I don’t think I thought much about whether I was loved or not in those days. It took another generation to grind out the self-help books on family dynamics. But I think you carry forever the effect of wanting to please your father, wanting to do the right thing.
For a man who never understood women and had to live with five of them, I think our lives turned out well.
When we as a family talk about Dad’s experience in Hong Kong, people are in awe of his story. I often wonder how our growing up years might have been different had it not been for the war years. I know that I’m a better person for having been his daughter and a stronger parent to my son because I wanted to set better examples of parenting. Dad always said, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” – which cut off communication and didn’t allow for discussion. It was important to me that I listened well, that my son felt loved and supported, recognizing his strengths and supporting him in his challenges. I felt communication was key and forgiveness essential as part of my parenting role. Dad seemed to have neither in his growing up years.
When all is said and done, Dad did his best with what he knew. I am not sure where he gained his strong will to survive but it probably started in his earliest years being sent from family to family. Imagine at age five to be the only English-speaking child in a French Catholic boarding school. He survived his troubled youth out of sheer determination and this strong will made him the strong person and great officer he turned out to be. Although this made it tough on us as his children, in hindsight it probably gave him the ability and fortitude to face incomprehensible odds in battle and to survive through 4 years of degradation, starvation, mistreatment and absolute hell. His propensity never to complain, reluctance to show affection or feeling and just to carry on had to come from all his early experiences.
I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to live close to my Dad and share his last remaining years with him.
Had I been born 20 years later, I would have the chutzpah to hang on to my maiden name, as it reflects who I’ve always been. My heart soars whenever I see the Corrigan name, in print, on street signs, on Irish heritage cards, or movie credits…whatever…because I recognize the talented, articulate, generous, loving, solid offspring that have been generated from within that family structure, with all its flaws and strengths.
On January 1st, 1994, Leonard got a phone call from Shelagh to say that he had become a great-grandfather with the arrival of Connor Allan Fox, Sandra’s son. Two weeks later, Leonard passed away at the age of 83 years.