The War Amps Pool
Most of the social events Bunny and George dragged me to were held at assorted Legions, veterans clubs and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The War Amps on the mountain brow was the closest club to our rented house on East 36th Street. It’s where I would be taken to swim from time to time in the summer as a young boy, and at Christmas it’s where I’d go to get my presents from Santa.
Children of broken World War II veterans would gather for Remembrance Days, Easters, Christmas parties. These gatherings were a chance for the vets to drink and bitch and watch the Leafs and Ticat games together, and for the aging war brides to drink and complain and talk about what was happening on Coronation Street. As a young fella, I saw it as the best of times for all of them.
The War Amps club was an old house on the edge of the Hamilton escarpment at the end of East 34th Street, on land granted by the Queen to the boys who gave so much in the fight against “those nasty Germans.” It was a Garden of Eden for working-class war heroes, I suppose, a break in the action, a place to lay down the swords and join the family. The house was on a treed lawn bordered by a short stone wall. There was a parking lot, some picnic tables and a swimming pool.
Oh god . . . the swimming pool.
My first trip to the swimming pool was when I was six years old. Our family didn’t own a car, so Bunny and I walked down East 36th Street and over to the brow in the blistering afternoon heat. It was the sixties and everything I wore in the summer was polyester and came in Hot Wheels colours. Lime-green bathing suit, spectra-flame tank top, antifreeze sun hat. I looked like I had rolled right off the Mattel assembly line, a walking version of Big Daddy Roth’s Beatnik Bandit.
I remember Bunny giving me a little history lesson about the pool as we walked up the steps towards the smell of chlorine and cigarette smoke. “This is the pool that Harry Cockman’s crippled son committed suicide in by tying himself to his wheelchair and rolling his wheels towards the edge of the concrete bunker filled with water. He drowned and sank to the bottom until the grounds maintenance man found him the next morning. Poor wee fella.”
It’s also where blind veteran Dino Rocco stripped down and stumbled onto the diving board, then, running full speed off the board and into a dive, landed on the concrete at the bottom of the—yes—empty pool. Rocco broke his neck and died there. After surviving two years in a Japanese POW camp, tortured by his captors and nearly starved to death, Rocco met his end right there on the floor of the empty war-vets swimming pool. Needless to say, I was terrified as we approached my maiden swim at the pool. Bunny’s timing was always spot-on when it came to telling horror stories.
The most unthinkable stories she would save for supper time. She couldn’t help herself. Tales of train wrecks, body parts, mob hits, Hiroshima, Kennedy’s day in Dallas, priests and altar boys, white slavery, shotgun suicides—all got thrown out across my plate of meatloaf and boiled potatoes, the bloody condiment to otherwise boring meals.
I stood there in my lime-green bathing suit for a long, long time with the August sun beating down on me before I finally found the courage to jump in. As the cool water took hold of me, I could imagine poor Cockman’s wheelchair below me. I screamed underwater but no one heard me. I swam to the surface and saw Bunny poolside in a camp chair reading the Hamilton Spectator and smoking a Rothmans. I screamed again. She looked across the water at me for a moment and went back to the news.
Inside, the club was dark and dreary and filled with smoke and the smell of piss and beer and dried blood. Blind men and men missing arms or legs would gather to drink and often fight in the dimly lit room. Shuffleboard tables and pictures of Queen Elizabeth, Lester B. Pearson and King George hung on faded wallpaper. Nobody ever stopped to look at those pictures. Ever.
I was the youngest of the WWII kids, due to Bunny and George having become parents late in their lives. I was flung into a group of vets’ grandchildren, some orphans and assorted child amputees from around the region.
We’d be brought to the War Amps club to ring in the Christmas season in style. Santa was a guy named Jack Fairfax. He dressed in the well-worn Santa suit, strung the beard around his gin-blossomed cheeks and stuck a black glove on the stump of his left arm. He manoeuvred the gifts from a big bag with his one good arm and his only hand, while his assistant, Mrs. Fairfax, bellowed the names of the lucky children across the bar. Santa smoked Player’s and drank Molson Export stubbies.
What a mess. But the vets’ hearts were in the right place. They had come marching home from war a fraction of the men they were before they left. They continued to fight addictions and poverty and shitty jobs, and still every year they would pull together their version of a Christmas party for some kids with less than normal lives. Way to go, boys.
There was no money for a babysitter, so I accompanied Bunny and George to War Amps dinners at hotel ballrooms in Hamilton and Toronto. I would be dressed in bow tie and blazer and forced to sit through speeches and awards and beer and rye, and sometimes a band would play some old country classics or Vera Lynn tearjerker. “White Cliffs of Dover,” “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “Red River Valley,” etc., etc.
When I got a little older, around nine or ten years old, I was usually sat at a table with the annual “Timmy.” Timmy was a young person who, due to an unfortunate accident, had lost a limb, just like the big boys from WWII. He was put up on posters and dragged out to War Amps events and shopping centres and presented at schools as an example of what can happen if you fuck around and act like a careless daredevil.
The speakers and dignitaries at these dinners would sit at the head table at the front of the room. In front of that head table, exposed to the entire room, was a smaller one with just two chairs. As a spotlight shone down on him, Timmy would be paraded in and led to the little table.
“There he is folks—Timmy.” The wives applauded and the old men dragged their forks across their plates searching for a carrot or a pea, or sat back and poured whisky over their gums and banged their canes on the hardwood floor while Timmy limped by.
I would be brought over to Timmy’s table and introduced to him. The crowd would ooh and aah, and I would take my seat across from Timmy. We’d sit there in complete silence eating our roast beef and carrots and extra kid-helpings of dessert. We would both act like it was not happening. Like nothing was happening. Like the world had stopped and we were invisible.
Here are a few facts about the annual Timmy:
• Timmy was an understandably miserable kid who had lost an arm or a leg doing some foolish shit like playing with blasting caps at a construction site or trying to hop on a moving train.
• Timmy was, nine times out of ten, a peewee hockey star before his accident, although I had no way of proving this annoying fact. And because I was such a lousy skater myself, I never acted impressed by this potential NHLer’s poor luck. In fact, I was a bit pissed off that this kid threw away a chance to stickhandle and shoot a puck with amazing ease just so he could impress some girls or some buddies or, even worse, pick up on a dare from his so-called friends.
• Every time, the train will take the leg.
• Every time, the blasting caps will take the arm.
• Every time, I prayed to God that no more kids would lose any more limbs, just so I didn’t have to sit and eat another meal in silence under a white spotlight in a ballroom full of tired old men and women eating roast beef.
I prayed that no more kids would have to be named Timmy and used as an example to show the world how unforgiving life can be to those whose luck runs out early. I prayed I would grow up fast and forget all this, but I guess my luck ran out.
Copyright © 2017 by Tom Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.