NWORA Remembrance Vol.4 - NE99

NE99

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Forget-me-not 16 H istory records the facts: dates, places, numbers of casualties, the introduction of new weapons, the names of the leaders. Bare bones. Dead, dry and worthless. It seldom has anything to say about the individuals loved, then lost, or the changes imposed upon the generations stained by blood and haunted by the ghosts locked away in cherished old photo albums. That's where the life is - in conversation, one-on-one - not in grand, sweeping sagas with casts of millions. History must be personal to have impact, if we're to learn anything from it. Thus I'd like to share with you the story of my father's cousin, who was the only member of our small family to perish during the, Second World War. Douglas Ernest Paul was born in Smiths Falls, Ont., on 23 Feb 1918, the youngest of four children. His brother, Clifford, the eldest, had succumbed suddenly to diphtheria just weeks before the First World War began in August 1914. Cliff was three years old and had been in perfect health. His parents were devastated. Doug, on the other hand, was born with spina bifida and polio, although at that time it was known by another name: infant immune deficiency syndrome. Polio attacks the muscles and left Doug with a small hole in his heart. Spina bifida goes to the bones, giving him a clubbed foot and a crooked spine. Doug always claimed that he could remem- ber lying in his crib and hearing the doctor tell his mother he would never walk, play or do anything a normal child could do. That made him angry: He would become a huge financial and emotional burden on his widowed mother. The doctor then suggested it would be a blessing if his life were cut short. That made her angry. For the first couple of years of his life, Doug was carried around on a pillow "like a holy relic" according to his sister Gwen, who was two years his senior. In those days, no nation had a social safety net. There was no health-care system such as we have come to rely so heavily on in Canada today. Women took care of the home; they didn't work for pay. They also couldn't vote. The war changed that, but other changes came more slowly. Widows, orphans and those who became seriously ill were expected to be cared for by their kin; and failing that, it fell upon the church to look after them as best it could. Georgina, Doug's mother, was a very strong and fiercely inde- pendent woman who was locally famous for her religious faith. With two little girls and a seriously crippled son to take care of, she was forced to move in with relatives - a pair of newlyweds just starting a family; but they took their turn. Luckily, the Van Exan clan was large: eight girls and three boys. There was always at least one sister or brother living nearby who could take her in. The doctors didn't expect Doug to live more than three years. Even today, with all our modern medicines, any child born with the obstacles young Doug had to overcome would not be given much of a chance. Certainly no one ever thought he would one day see Canada come pleading with him to don its uniform. But that's precisely what happened. Over the course of his short life, Doug E. Paul had a dozen surgeries, all of them paid for out of pocket by his family without any help from government. There were also a lot of people praying for him, quietly led by his mother. They declared it a miracle when the little Doug E. got up off that pillow and into a wheelchair. They celebrated an unbelievable triumph when he got out of the wheelchair and was able to walk with a crutch - then a cane. By the time he graduated from Lisgar Collegiate in Ottawa, Doug was walking without any aids and even joining in physical education classes with the other children. Despite having a slight limp, which he was never able completely to overcome, he could keep up with the best of them. Britain declared war on Germany on 3 Sep 1939 after Hitler's troops invaded Poland. And within the week, Doug and his cousins (my father, his elder brother Graham, Roy Pearon and Jimmy Anderson), "borrowed" Grampa's car and slipped away to Ottawa to enlist in the air force without telling their mothers they were going. Grampa reported his car stolen; the police caught them on the way home. But by then it was too late. The other boys were immediately accepted - but not Doug. The recruiting officer laughed at Doug. They had thousands of strong healthy young men swelling their ranks; what did they need a gimp for? Doug Paul insisted upon taking the physical just the same - and passed it. He passed the written exams and his intelligence quotient qualified him as officer material. But they said he "wouldn't look good limping around on the parade square," and with that weak excuse they sent him home seething with rage. Doug Paul: by Roy H. Torney Douglas Ernest Paul was killed on 6 May 1941, in eastern England. Photos courtesy Roy H. Torney

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