A Wartime Romance

12 years ago I was unfortunate in losing my grandmother just at the peak of being a teenager. Someone who I idolized and cared for deeply. I had recently just lost my grandfather who equally stood out in my heart.

Until now, I thought I had lost my copy of the newspaper article my amazing aunt Pauline wrote in 1999 for a paper she worked for.

Today, my mother let me know she found it and handed my the copy I searched for all these years. I decided to copy it to this blog post to have forever, as I plan to frame this one to keep safe.

This is a direct copy from a newspaper article from the Life & Times section of the Times & Transcript that my aunt Pauline worked for way back when.

November 11, 1999

George Raft was the only man Marjory Chisholm planned to see that weekend.

Tall, dark and handsome, the dancer from the rough streets of New York was capturing hearts around the world after rising to stardom for his movies portrayals of gangsters. Chances were, the dashing your star would be headlining at the aging La Scala theatre in Inverness, Scotland.

Recuperating from tonsillitis in January 1945, the 19-year-old theatre buff and nursing student had been granted a week;s reprieve from her second-year studies at Colinton Fever Hospital in Edinburgh. She stepped lightly aboard the London Midland Scottish train with little other than a few clothes and a hope for two things.

One, that she might find and interesting seatmate for the exhausting eight-hour journey and two, upon arriving home that she would be able to take in a few films featuring her favorite actor.

“I had this picture on my wall,” the 74-year old remembers with a sigh as the late afternoon light filters into the room, creating dancing shadows on the cream walls. “I loved going to the show and seeing him and Clark Gable, maybe three of four times a week before I left for school, and thought I would do that on this trip home, too. It wouldn’t be any different.”

Easing onto the train’s worn read velour seats, the blur of the Scottish countryside proved comfortingly familiar: the Firth of Forth Bridge, gently sloping hills and evergreens stretching as far as the eye could see. As the boxcars neared the Inverness whistle stop – the largest town in the Highlands – the engine emitted to a sigh as thought it, too, were grateful for the rest. Its brakes squeezed an exhausted and prolonged hiss before finally rolling to a stop at the Terrace.

The row housing looked welcoming even in the dusk of January 1945 as news of World War II crackled across the radio. With blackout conditions in effect, heavy dark curtains shrouded the windows, although smoke rising from the chimney beckoned visitors to warmth of the stone havens where families of railway employees lived.

The nursing student picked up her bag and skipped along the concrete platforms to the comfort of No. 9. The last and most coveted address on the terrace, it was provided to Jock Chisholm and his family – his wife, Marjory and their children, Margaret, Marjory, and their eldest child, Finlay who had died in the diphtheria epidemic of 1928 – due to his position as the railway’s inspector of the permanent way.

“It always felt so good to be back.” the daughter recalls of that fateful homecoming nearly 55 years ago. “There was nothing like it. I was happy to be there and thought I would just settle into a peaceful week.”

Peace. It was a persistent wish that somehow managed to seem more a distant memory than future possibility to even the eternally optimistic Harold Furlong. The 23-year-old from the rural, close-knit community of Linden, Nova Scotia, had crossed continents, aged decades and seen more death and destruction in three years than he would wish on his worst enemy in a lifetime.

Raised in the relative sanctuary of a mixed farm some 20 miles from Amherst – the nearest urban centre which, in itself, was only a few thousand strong – he had been working full-time since age 14 when his father; Bedford, passed away from pneumonia, leaving his mother; Lois, to raise the family: five boys and three girls. Life was hard for everyone at that time, but there was little time to consider such matters for there was work to be done. With the summer’s harvest of hay and vegetables collected, the industrious Harold thought himself fortunate to find winter’s work in the lumber woods in Truro, about 100 kilometers away. Little could he know a chance accident there would change the quiet course of his life thus far.

While stitching his left hand – which had been sliced in an unfortunate accident with an axe – the local doctor wondered aloud why his young patient was not in a kahki uniform and offered to provide the necessary documentation to make it possible. Scarcely missing a beat, the prospective enlistee agreed to make the trip to Halifax, believing like almost one million other Canadians who joined the war effort (including 41.5 per cent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 45) that not only would that be his duty, but it might also prove an excellent opportunity to see the world that existed beyond Nova Scotia’s sandy shores.

Trained at Ontario’s camp Boreden as gunner operator on tanks, the former farmer was soon assigned to the armour corps and dispatched overseas. Tipping the scales at 191 pounds, the lithe six-foot soldier was deemed to heavy for the paratrooper position he sought, and instead went on to complete six weeks of intense training in Blackdown, England, preparing for the day he and his comrades would be called in battle as reinforcements for the North Nova Scotia Highlanders.

D-Day finally dawned on June 6, 1944 and, like other members of the highly-disciplined 9th brigade, Harold sailed in on the Prince Henry destroyer to the murky waters of the French coastline. Suspense was in the air as the North Novas went ahead, followed immediately by the reinforcements. The gunner operator and other young Canadians would witness the first of the famous bombing carpets laid down by Bomber Command the night before the assault on Caen, designed to break out of the beach-head area, although not all would live to tell the tale. Sadly, there was no substitute for infantry ond tanks fighting their way over ground disputed by the enemy and by the end of it all, the attached units, counted nearly 4,500 victims, including 1584 dead.

:The bombs were everywhere and I remember one landed right beside me, right beside me, and the a bullet went right through Butts, a fellow from Cape Breton, the 77-year-old recalls in a low voice. “I started digging a hole and was telling him ‘I’ll get you in here and you’ll be safe’ and then a shell landed right on top of him and he was gone.”

Waking up alone and shell-shocked hours later, Harold found his comrades and waited with them – many of whom had been killed or lay injured and in agony on the ground during that fear-filled night – for reinforcements. Those who could, forged ahead to Caen the next morning when the unit was met with a surprise avalanche of bombs that cut swathes through the group, leaving to many dead and others en route to hospital.

Suffering from yet another concussion, severe shrapnel wounds to both legs and overwhelmed by the tragedy that had becoming the norm in the blood-soaked fields, the young solider was immediately discharged by doctors, having been diagnosed as too ill to continue. Evacuated to England and then, Scotland, the soldier focused on getting better as he waited for the first transfer home.

With time came healing, But for a solider unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with having little to do, the days were long; he leaped the opportunity to supervise the Sergeant’s Mess Hall in Loch Ness. The six-day weeks were busy and fulfilling, with nearly everyone in the camp travelling to town on their days off for a welcome reprieve from the daily grind. Laughing and joking to keep spirits high, simple indulgences like a Vera Lynn song and meal uncommissioned by the army were savoured and proved therapeutic to the weary soldiers.

Befriended by a Chisholm man and his wife after wandering into a neighborhood pub, Harold relaxed as their easy banter and ready friendship bridged the generation gap and cultural barriers. Soon, he became a regular at 9 Railway Terrace, even sleeping overnight in the absent Marjory’s bed when he was in town on a day off.

Month’s later, when the Chisholm’s youngest daughter arrived home for that fateful week, she accompanied her parents to the pub and the Canadian found his fate sealed and his faith verified in love at first sight.

“She was a lot of fun and liked to laugh.” He recalled. “I knew she was the girl for me.”

The feeling appeared mutual. “I remember looking at him and thinking he looked pretty good,” Marjory says with a laugh, admitting it was she who summoned the courage to make the first move. “He was tall and handsome and very funny. I liked that.”

After just three days of courtship and breaking off a previous engagement to a Red Cross nurse in Ontario, the soldier proposed marriage, an offer which was happily accepted and not entirely unexpected by the bride-to-be. So much for Canadian Army Routine Order 788 and its bleak reminder: : the general policy is to dissuade members to the Canadian Army from a marriage in foreign lands.”

Promising to write letters faithfully, Marjory reluctantly returned to Edinburgh to formally discontinue her studies while Harold went back to his duties in Forres. But if most envelopes were travelling within Scotland, at least one was sent to home to Linden, where older sister Laura was instructed to cash in part of her brother’s savings and purchase a suitable ring. News of the whirlwind courtship and impending nuptials was related to surprised friends and relatives across the ocean.

Such encounters between Scottish lasses and Canadian servicemen were inevitable, even if most came to as a happy shock to the folks waiting at home, author Joyce Hibbert writes in The War Brides. The sense of urgency cultivated among soldiers and their foreign fiances was viewed as de rigeuer during a time of uncertainty when no tomorrows were promised to anyone. Like danger, war has its own strange allure; after the atmosphere of expectation culminated in Chamberlain’s announcement of war being declared, reality set in and everyone was caught up not only in the terror, but also the excitement.

“These couples were young and determined,” Hibbert writes, “and, despite the obsticles, they were getting married.”

Meeting for only the second time in their lives at their engagement party in March, just a few days before the wedding, Harold and Marjory quickly made arrangements that week. All three marriage banns were proclaimed Sunday by Rev. George Grant, with the intimate ceremony taking place Wednesday, March 28 in a Church of Scotland manse between a groom looking smart in a dress uniform and a bride clutching a bouquet of flowers and clad in a fashionable, short, rose crepe dress purchased for the occasion.

Throughout the British Isles, similar ceremonies were being performed nearly every day. In fact, more than 48,000 marriages ultimately resulted from just such change encounters in Scottish pubs, London shops and offices, sheltered English towns and war-ravaged Dutch villages. While some later panicked and seized the opportunity to back out of their new commitment, most carried on, sustained by love and the momentum of their adventure.

Setting sail on the Aquintania – the only major ship that served and survived both world wars and was the last four-funnel liner to be retired – the would-be nurse and other war brides waved good-bye to friends and family clustered along the dock before putting aside any apprehension they were feeling about their decisions.

“I didn’t really know what i was doing,” Marjory admits, not knowing at the time that, 54 years later, the couple would approach the millennium with eight children and 10 grand children while awaiting the arrival of their third great grandchild. “I just knew that he was a good guy, that was all. I thought it would work out.”

Editor’s Note – For Life & Times writer Pauline Furlong, this is a story that hits close to the heart. Pauline is married to Donald, a son of Marjory and Harold.


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