John-Ward Leighton

BROWNIE’S WAR
(Chapter 10)

Don Brown was a real person and his war record was real. The hotel setting is real but the other characters are fictional to protect the guilty…

This is the last chapter of my novel and it’s always said that you should write about things you know about, so my life, for the eight years I lived at the Yale, are the template for the stories.

It’s been ten years since Brownie passed from this mortal coil and Joe was wondering why the thought came into his mind. Brownie was one of the old timers at the Yale; he’d lived there from 1952 until his death in ‘94. It was one of those stories were you learn more after it’s finished than when it was being lived.

He hit the ground running and quickly got himself out of the rail yard. Seven years of itinerant labour, work camps and riding the rods had hardened him. He was very wary of the police and anyone in authority and the railway bulls were being extra vigilant with a war on.

Don had tried to join the army but they wouldn’t have him because his eyes weren’t up to snuff. He felt that he had to get into the fray and heard that the merchant navy was taking on hands no questions asked so he had rode the rods from Calgary to Montreal that fall of ‘39 to join up. He had worked as a deck hand on a tug towing booms on the west coast and felt this at least would get him on the inside track, besides they were paying merchant seaman three times what they were paying private soldiers.

Don was snapped up immediately because he at least knew his starboard from his port and his aft from his forward. He shipped out immediately for Halifax by rail and went on board his first ship and was underway almost before he put his duffle bag down.

Don spent the duration on the North Atlantic run and was torpedoed once on the run from Halifax to Belfast and rescued only because a Norwegian skipper ignored convoy orders and stopped and put down a life boat and Don and four of his shipmates were rescued.

Don had been blown overboard by the force of the initial explosion and the ship which was carrying munitions blew up broke in half and sank immediately. It was over in about four minutes. Two of the rescued men died of their wounds and the other fifteen men onboard went down with the ship. Don was lucky because the blast had blown him clear of the resulting oil slick and aside from being deafened for about two weeks was none the worse for wear at least physically.

Don’s next ship was an oil tanker bringing oil from the ports in Texas and the south east coast of the USA. They made two runs before being torpedoed in the Caribbean just after Pearl Harbour and spending four days on a life raft again with four ship mates. They were picked up by a US navy destroyer after being spotted by a patrol aircraft. The only comment that Don ever made about that incident was that the US navy ate much better that the merchant navy.

Don stayed in the merchant marine until the SIU wars and the breakup of the Canadian merchant marine by ship owners looking to pay slave labour wages under flags of convenience. Don ended up on the beach in Vancouver and spent the rest of his days surviving on a burned out pension and welfare at the Yale in the room overlooking the Yale neon sign at the top of the stairs facing Granville Street.

There was a marriage and the birth of a son but we didn’t know anything about that until after Brownie’s death. All of the time that Joe had known him his routine was the same. He would leave the hotel after the mail was delivered and go to the Army, Navy and Airmen’s club across from Victory Square and have lunch and play cards or darts with the other old sweats until tree o’clock when he would return home to the Yale. The only deviation from this was on Saturdays during the racing season when he would go with the old air Force vet who was the night man at the strip hotel next door and bet a few bucks on the ponies.

Brownie was quiet and polite man although he didn’t have much time for small talk. The long term tenants all knew him and as he got further into his dotage looked in on him and did his grocery shopping for him and helped him up the stairs when he got a little too far in the jar and generally made sure he was not in harm’s way.

Old age, at least old age on the mean streets, is not a steady decline and a lot of the people living down here don’t collect much old age pension before they exit the scene. The hotel management kept a benevolent eye on the older guys because usually they were the better tenants and most reliable guys next to the working poor who inhabited the hotel.

Brownie was rapidly reaching the level of being unable to look after himself, and the visiting social worker didn’t seem able to help him much. There were no beds or so they said. Joe carried Brownie up to his room when he collapsed in the street as Joe happened to be looking out his window one day in November of 1994. Joe was appalled at the disorder of Brownies room and after he cleaned up Brownie and tucked him into bed washed the dishes picked up all the scattered paper and dirty laundry and vacuumed out the carpet.

Joe took the dirty laundry and washed and dried two loads going back to Brownies room and checking on him. Finally unable to get a response from Brownie he phoned 911 and got an ambulance to take him to St. Paul’s. He went in the ambulance with Brownie to check him into the hospital. He had Brownie’s wallet and his medical card and it was then that he learned that Brownie’s next of kin was a son who lived in the city.

He phoned the son’ phone number and got an answering machine. He left a message saying your father is in the hospital in a coma, and leaving a phone number signed off. The next morning Joe informed the hotel management and MSS about the whereabouts of Brownie and went to the hospital to see how he was making out.

Brownie was in critical care hooked up to an IV and a heart monitor. The son had not checked in yet and neither had MSS. Brownie looked like he had shrunk and had the pallor of death on his face. He was breathing but only barely and did not respond when Joe held his hand and talked to him. Joe was overcome with grief when Jim the hotel manager appeared and they both had tears in their eyes.

Seeing that there was nothing they could do they went and had a coffee and arranged to sit with Brownie until he expired or the son or MSS made an appearance.

He was in the North Atlantic again dazed and then shocked into full and frigid consciousness by a chill that shrunk your testicles to the size of peas pulled them and your penis up into your body cavity. Then suddenly it was warm and there was a light off to his left like a beautiful sun rise and somehow he knew if he could reach the light that he would be saved and free. He struggled out of his life jacket and swam toward the light.

The heart monitor flat lined and the alarm rang at the nursing station and the code-blue team was summoned and came racing down the hallway but Brownie had beaten them to the light and was beyond the tender mercies of their revival.

About a week after Brownie’s funeral to which none of the Yale people had been invited Joe was going down the stairs just after the mail had been delivered. There was one of the short timers going through the trash barrels looking for pop cans and beer bottles. The guy who had taken Brownie’s old room was at the head of the stairs.

He had a wad of junk mail and letters in his hand and waving them at Joe and the other short timer asked,

“Who the hell is Don Brown?”

“Fucked if I know.” said the other short timer out the trash room door.

“Here let me look at those.” said Joe and he took the flyers and mail out of the short timer’s hand and sorting out the mail went into the trash room and got rid of the junk mail and wrote no longer at this address and took the mail down to the manager’s office and put them into the retuned mail box.

Joe was struck by the fact that Brownie was not even cold in his grave and nobody knew who he was and it was going to be another ten years before the federal government recognised the contributions of the merchant marine to the war effort sixty years before.

On a more ephemeral plane there is this question.

“Why do learn to love the blues?’
When we all end up with lives no one would ever choose,
and there is no suitable hymn to sing for our final requiem,
and there is no way we can we can lose,
yes there is no way we can lose,
I’ll say it again, there is no way we can lose,
these old down and dirty
Requiem Blues.

Soon to be an old blues refrain by Anonymous, that famous Greek poet.