Sunday, June 21, 2015

Able Seaman M.A. Fitzpatrick

Not too long after Audrey, Fenya and I moved back to Alberta in 1999, Mom and Dad went gyppo.

They sold their town house in 2002, bought an RV  took off to Newfoundland, and my sister Tara went along with them. No fixed address and if it didn't fit in the motorhome, it didn't go with them.

As sad as I was that Fenya's Nanny & Poppy were now going to be 4 time zones away, I was also envious of their audacity and proud of their courage at such a huge lifestyle change, especially with Dad turning 70 that year.

They'd already downsized quite a few artifacts moving from the split-level years earlier, but moving into an RV meant an even more ruthless assessment of belongings, some of which were given away, others sold, and a bunch came home with Audrey and I.

Going through some of these old belongings in preparation for the building of BatCan, I came across a battered manila envelope from the U of A Hospital Radiology Department that I presume had once contained x-rays, but was now home to a thick file folder full of certificates and photographs of Dad's.  It seemed appropriate to paw through it tonight in order to see if I could find a good shot of the Old Man for Father's Day, and I did, but stumbled across some others as well.
Maurice Fitzpatrick, RCN, 1955
Dad talked a fair bit about his ten years in the service from 1950 to 1960, particularly his 5 years in the Royal Canadian Navy.  As a young man fascinated by aircraft, he had actually joined the Air Force at the age of 17, but left after they had mixed up the marks on his officer's candidacy exam with someone else's, and didn't speak as much of those five years.

As a sailor, becoming an officer eluded him as well, but for what reason I can't say; possibly he had his eye on a trade in civilian life, working as he was towards an airframe mechanic's certification at one point, but eventually following his proficiency for ground-based radar into a career in air traffic control.

One of the many things I take from my father is his humility, so when he talked about his military service, it was never out of pride or bluster or braggadocio.  His stories typically centered around people he had met, things he had seen, or times that his quick wit and smart mouth had gotten him into trouble (yes, quite possibly another dominant gene).

Often his anecdotes were incidental, a way of setting recent events into a proper scale or context, such as when he was animatedly relating a near collision in traffic on his way home in the rain.  When I asked how scared he was, he looked at me and paused before saying, "Well, it's not like the time I was sitting in the back of a sub-tracker and about to land on the deck of aircraft carrier in shitty weather in the North Atlantic when the pilot turned around and said to me, 'I sure as hell hope the landing gear came down this time'...but it was no picnic, I'll tell you that."

Dad grew up on a farm, loading pulp-wood (which he spoke of far more than any other agricultural endeavours he might have undertaken; so much so that for years I assumed his father had a pulp wood farm) and driving teams of horses, so he was no stranger to hard work by the time he got to the armed forces, and in good physical condition (despite being a smoker at the time).  Any complaints I might have as a child regarding physical exhaustion were typically met with suspicion, if not outright scorn, and often a relating of one of two tales from his time in uniform.

The first was when an officer took exception to Dad's attitude about something (which may have been justified, or the officer in question may have been a  martinet; I can't recall), and made him jog around an airplane hangar on a hot day with his rifle held high above his head as an alternative to more formal punishment.

Dad completed his lap, and stood there dripping with sweat and panting while the officer asked if he had reconsidered his position.  When Dad indicated he was unsure, the officer suggested he take another lap to see if that might modify his perspective, so he hoisted his .303 Lee-Enfield (a bulky bolt action number still in service with the Rangers of Canada's north) and trotted off.  Momentarily, his chest heaving, he faced the officer again, but neither of them proved malleable on whatever point of contention they had, and Dad being stubborn (I'm seriously starting to question how many of what I consider my own behaviours are just more things I inherited from him at this point...), he once again lofted his rifle and began another lap.

I'm not sure how many laps there were in total, but whatever the number of the last one, Dad didn't finish it, as he woke up in the sick bay with heat stroke, and with the officer in question terrified that he had actually killed one of the men under his command. They never gave each other any trouble after that incident, as I recall.

The second benchmark for exertion in my father's world was the survival course he took at CFB Shearwater in 1958, and I think these are pictures from that same course. It's possible that this was a different course at CFB Cornwallis, but the legibility of some of the records leave a fair bit to be desired.

It is not unreasonable to assume that a Survival School would include some degree of obstacle or 'confidence' course as part of its curriculum, and that such a course would include some tried and true features of such conditioning tools.

Fear of heights? Don't want to hear about it; enjoy the rope bridge.

What's that? You're not infantry? Oh, my mistake! Tell you what, finish climbing under this barbed wire and we'll sort it all out back at the base, no hard feelings, right?

Just kidding; please negotiate this ravine without permanently destroying your ankles or knees, as they are government property until your day of discharge.

Say, is that water cold? It looks kind of cold, which is why myself and all the other instructors are wearing bulky coats in most of these pictures.

As mentioned, physical exertion and discomfort didn't slow the Old Man down a heck of a lot (one area we obviously do differ in), but there were elements of this course I distinctly remember him describing as extremely unpleasant and discomfiting. 
One of them was having to stay inside a boarded-up shack as it filled with smoke, and waiting for the sound of the instructor's whistle before making your way out of a window.  I'm pretty sure a couple of candidates passed out and had to be removed by the instructors.  

I know for a fact I have a peculiar trace of claustrophobia in my makeup; I have no trouble in elevators or small rooms, but if I can't move my arms freely or have my elbows pinned to my side, even in a crowd, I start to get pretty agitated.  It wouldn't surprise me a bit if some of that came from Dad too, and I hope I remember to check with Mum on Canada Day.

If that is indeed the case, then I am amazed he was able to make it through this part of the course, which involved crawling through an narrow underground tunnel for a considerable distance.  

At one point the tunnel took a sharp turn that was extremely difficult to negotiate while pushing a rifle in front of you, and necessitated some careful maneuvering around the corner in pitch blackness, and taking care not to get the firing assembly of the rifle dirty, as this would mean having to traverse the tunnel a second time.

Regardless of whether this represented an obstacle course or a confidence course, Dad apparently passed it, and kept the certificate to prove it.

It's no secret I am proud of my Dad, and with good reason I think, but looking at these pictures and records is a bit bittersweet as I regret not having looked at them when he was still here to ask about them.

Still, I'm grateful some of these artifacts lasted long enough for me to scan them and share them.  Encountering my father at a time when he was considerably different individual than how I tend to remember him and when he was significantly younger than I am now has been a fascinating exercise in time travel.

Maurice Fitzpatrick: front row, second from right - Aug 1958

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