My name is Dirk. I am the son of Norman Arthur, who is the oldest son of Thomas Norman, my Grandfather. Thomas Norman was the oldest son of Thomas Martin, who was the oldest son of Thomas George, who was the oldest son of the first Thomas Britton, born in 1825. I am the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son, back to 1825. I don’t know if that is important, but I always thought it was a cool fact. Anyway, my wife and I aren’t having kids, so I put a stop to all that nonsense.
I tell you this to impress upon you the obvious. Giving your Grandfather’s eulogy is an honour, but it’s heavy. I’ve heard him refer to his entire clan as a bunch of criers on a number of occasions, which is fine, but put away your big sad puppy dog eyes for awhile. I’ve got some good stuff here. I’ve left plenty of time for crying and hugging at the end. I promise.
I’m going to tell some of my Grandfather’s stories. This was how I knew Norman. Sitting next to my Grandfather was always entertaining, and that’s were you would find me most often at family gatherings.
In my most recent conversation with him he stressed to me that the stories he told me were true. My Grandfather was not a braggart. I’m going to tell you his stories just the way he told them to me.
I learned about my grandfather’s sense of humour before anything. I was fascinated by the idea of the War and that my Grampa was in it. I was little, and he didn’t really tell the more serious stories until later in both of our lives. First I heard funny stories.
He and his army buddies were in France, drinking, and raising hell. This was a frequent theme of my Grandfather’s War stories. The army was full of small town Canadian kids, like my Grampa, and they stuck together. Bombs were dropping and people around them were dying. So they drank, and occasionally, they got into a little trouble and someone ended up with a bloody nose.
They come stumbling out of this bar in France, and there was a frozen dead cat in the road. One of my Grampa’s buddies picks the cat up off the road, gives it a couple of spins around his head, and throws it.
A moment later, a little Frenchman comes stumbling out of an alley bleeding from his forehead, he puffs his chest up, full of bravado, and yells, “Who t’row dat freeze cat!? It hit my brudder!”
Well, this friend of Grampa steps forward, a big man named Stone, and he answers, “I did.”
Immediately rethinking his approach the little Frenchman says, “Dat was a good one, eh!”
I was laughing at that story years before I had actually heard it. My Grandfather had a way of telling a story, where he assumed you already knew it. He laughed right through most of the details, and his laughter was infectious. He would laugh, and everyone around him would laugh, and so it took me years to hear a story from start to finish.
Norman started to sprinkle in some serious discussions with me in the last few years. I think we just both finally got old enough for them.
They landed in France on the Normandy beach head. He was told, “We’re going to get bombed and strafed before the day is over. Don’t dig a foxhole and park your truck over it.” Hours later he watched two men, who had done exactly that, run across the beach in balls of flame. They burned to death before anyone could reach them. That was his first night in France.
Grampa always turned his stories back towards something funny. He told me that story, and it immediately reminded him of a something that got us both laughing.
They came across these great big vats of apple brandy that the French called Calvados. It would knock Christ off the Cross, that stuff, he said. So the soldiers dumped out their water and filled up any container they could spare with Calvados.
Their unit pulled over for the night and everyone started to get into the stuff. They were drunk’er than hell by the time the bombers were spotted. Everyone dived for their foxholes, and the Germans spent the night trying to pound them out of existence.
They wake in the morning and see a fellow from their unit laying out in the middle of the field. Poor guy must be full of holes. He was fine, but he sure was pissed everyone had run off and let him pass out in the middle of a bombing attack. Bunch of fine damn buddies you guys are, he said.
When I think of my Grandfather, I think of him smiling and laughing.
There are no stories about Grampa being a hero. He wouldn’t have told a story like that anyway. Something had to be done, so he did it, that was Norman’s style.
The Allies were beating back the Germans, winning territory, and advancing. When you advance the line you are moving closer to the guys that are trying to shoot you. It’s sort of a big deal.
Headquarters sent my Grandfather and three other fellas to go pick out a place to set up camp on the other side of the Rhine river. Roads were barely roads. Tanks and trucks and men had turned them into rutted mud up to your knees. It was dark and raining, they were driving motorbikes with no lights, and heading towards a bottle neck that lead into territory occupied by German’s the day before.
The three motorbikes in the lead crashed, but Norman got his stopped. They untangled their bikes and managed to reach their destination, only to find that the Germans were still there, and one of the guys had broken his leg in the crash. Someone had to go back and tell headquarters what they had found. Norman was chosen to go.
He made his second trip across the river through the dark and the rain without crashing or getting shot. When he had done what was asked of him, he hoped to be rewarded with food and some sleep, but soon he was called back to the officers tent.
“Britton, we need you to go back.”
Norman crossed the Rhine river, at the head of the Allied front, three times in a single night.
When the war ended, the soldiers didn’t get to come home. Today, you would assume that would be the first thing that happened. The war ended, so all the small town Canadian boys should head back to small towns in Canada.
Times were different. There were no commercial airlines to ship everyone home on. It took more than a year to get the soldiers onto boats back to Canada. Until then they stayed with local families, and killed time. Norman’s unit was billeted in a little Dutch town near the border between Germany and Holland.
A couple houses down from where he was staying there lived a little girl named Monique. The soldiers were missing their own families, they were homesick. They adored Monique.
Her father, Joe, had been taken by the Nazis into Germany for slave labour. Joe was taken before his little girl was born, just like my Grampa went oversees before my father was born, neither man had met their children. Monique’s mother received a letter from Joe early in the war, but didn’t know if he was still alive, and had no way to find out. Europe was in lock down after the war. The borders were guarded and uncrossable. If he was alive he was trapped in Germany.
Grampa’s buddy Chapman noted that the letter originated in a town just across the border, so he told Norman they were going to get him.
“How are we going to do that?” Norman asked. “We would need a truck.”
“You never mind. I’ll get a truck.” Chapman told him.
They forged some paperwork, stole a truck, and headed out to find Monique’s father and bring him home.
The plan was to tell the soldiers at the border that they had been sent out to find some chickens for the officers dinner. I never did find out why this ruse worked, why it would make sense to cross the border to get chickens, but it did work, they made it into Germany. Now they just had to find the guy, and some chickens, and sneak him back over the border without all three of them ending up in a military prison.
They only knew a general area to look, so it took awhile, but they found him. Joe had been used terribly by the Germans, so he was nervous around uniforms, and he didn’t speak any English. They managed to make him understand that they were there to take him home. Grampa said Joe fell to his knees, grabbed him around the legs, and cried like a baby.
They gave him a pair of dirty overalls and doused him in liquor. If anyone asked he was the trucks mechanic, and he had been drunk since the war ended. It worked.
When they got him home Grampa said you had to wonder where that Dutch town full of starving people managed to dig up all that wine. They had a hell of a party. Last time he saw Joe he was sitting with his little girl on his knee.
I like Grampa’s war stories. They are so full of adventure peppered with his good humour. They also help me keep things in perspective.
In my early 20’s I worried about final exams and maybe a girl who had wounded me a bit. My Grandfather’s early 20’s were filled with death and tragedy. Whenever I’m feeling whiny about some inconvenience in my privileged life it helps to think of my Grandfather. Out of his experiences came a man who was welcoming, and kind, and funny as hell.
When he was 82 his right leg started to give him trouble. It was hurting and he couldn’t walk. So he went to see a doctor, a few of them actually, and they did tests, and poked and prodded to try find out the problem.
He gets called into the doctor’s office to get his results and the doctor sits him down and tells him they can’t find anything wrong. The doctor explained to him that he was aging, and the problem with his leg was just that it was getting old.
My Grandfather looks at the doctor, he taps his left leg, and he says, “Well, this leg is the exact same age as the right one, and it doesn’t hurt.”
My Grampa always had puzzles and clever toys lying around. He built a game with a hook and tube of wood that was ingenious.
The idea was easy. You tried to hook a loop of elastic that was hidden at the bottom of a narrow wooden tube. You knew you got it when you could pull the hook out a little bit, let it go, and the elastic would snap that hook back into the tube.
It was a game that drove me and many other people completely around the bend. Because you could never hook the elastic. Unless you were my Grandfather, who could do it so easily. He’d stick that hook in the tube, give it a twist and a yank, and the hook would go shooting back into that thing with a snap. He confounded people with it for years.
I wanted to know so badly, and he loved me, he never kept his secrets from me for very long. I think he’d be okay with me sharing it with you.
There was no loop of elastic. The handle on the hook was a smooth wedge shaped piece of wood. When you squeezed it between your thumb and forefinger it shot forward, and it looked exactly like it was hooked on a piece of elastic. It was easy as pie once you knew how to do it.
He made dozens of toys, puzzles, and carvings. He made wooden chains many of you have probably seen. He had a set of intertwined pieces of wood that looked impossible to put together.
When he had taught me all his secrets he started buying tricks and puzzles. I got better at them over the years, and he hasn’t been able to stump me for a few decades, but he had something new to show me every time I came to visit.
He taught me how to fish. He taught me humility. He taught me how to see the humour in things. He taught me that dentures suck and you should take care of your teeth. He taught me to eat corn on the cob with reckless enjoyment. Those last two things are related.
He also helped me fall in love with building things. I built a plane for him when I was a little kid. Spent hours out in his shop putting a few nails in the end of a couple of 2x4s. It didn’t look much like a plane. I had forgotten all about it, until he showed it to me a few years ago. Pulled it out of the closet at his home. It must have been in there for 30 years. Can you imagine how many times my grandmother tried to throw that stupid thing out. But he wouldn’t hear of it.
Some of my earliest impressions were fishing with him. According to my father and grandfather, I hooked a salmon in a lake outside of Skagway, Alaska when I was 4 years old that was bigger than I was. I had a little kids rod, not intended for such things, and the line snapped before they could get it into the net. It’s a perfect fishing story. So I was Skagway Louis, one of the many nicknames he gave kids over the years.
My Grandfather was 92 and he was in good health for most of it. He spent weeks in the hospital, not years, but it was serious enough from the start that he knew, and he had time to say lots of good-bye’s. He died quickly surrounded by people who loved him holding his hand. You couldn’t have scripted a more lovely death. Norm did it up right.
My grandfather and I never talked about spirituality, or death. I don’t know his thoughts on such things. I can only share my own.
Once I had an Engineering degree I thought up a puzzle to make for my Grandfather. I’d seen a toy somewhere and it gave me the idea. I looked forward to watching him play with it, and then explaining how it worked. It was a simple box, but to unlock it, you needed to set it on a flat surface, and spin it. I designed a few different versions of it before finally settling on something simple, and if you will allow me my ego, it’s quite clever.
Those thoughts existed because of my Grandfather, he put them in my head. I realize so much of who I am is because of who he was. It is not an accident that he was a carpenter, and his son became a mechanic, and I became a Civil Engineer.
I hear my grandfather’s voice, his mannerisms, the way he would tell a story, come out of my Dad’s mouth, and my wife hears my Dad’s come out of mine. Art-isms, she calls them.
We are all interconnected. We affect one another in ways that transcend time. My Grandfather’s life has certainly been a part of my past, but as surely as I stand here he is influencing my present, and my future. How I speak, what I do for a living, what I find funny, Norman is wrapped up in all of that. He will continue to ripple through my life in ways I will never fully understand.
Death has got to remind you about living, I think. I flew in from Victoria on Wednesday evening to come and see him in the hospital, but he died on Monday, and now it is Friday and I’m delivering his Eulogy. Tomorrow never comes.
In the last ten years my Grampa has said on numerous occasions, “Dirk, it’s amazing how quickly a man’s body will give up on him.” If you asked him the day before he died, I’m sure he would have said it all caught him by surprise.
Norman’s passing has reminded me how fast life happens. Take your moments. Say, “I love you.” Say, “I’m sorry.” Be kind, and honest, and welcoming, and, above all, find a reason to laugh.
In loving memory of Thomas Norman Britton, my Grampa.