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Monday, March 11, 2013


Today I was listening to Al Purdy read some of his work from The Collected Poems (Audio Encore cassette). Broke me up when he prefaced one of the readings with a description of his "long but inglorious" World War II military career. Immersed as I have been in his work lately, doing a line by line study, winkling out local connections for a future Purdy literary tour, it took no time to locate his accounts of the military life in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, and poems like About Being a Member of our Armed Forces.

The bucolic countryside of the Quinte region has been home to no less than three military bases in recent history  - two exist today. During World War II, the Commonwealth Air Training Plan brought thousands of Canadian, American and British trainee fly-boys to the area. Astonishing to look back; in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, Purdy describes the nearby Trenton air base: "1941-42 was a boring and highly dramatic time at Trenton Air Base....high excitement for officers and sergeant pilots. The Commonwealth Air Training Plan was coming into full effect then. Camouflaged Lancaster bombers lounged on the tarmac; British Mosquitoes, Fairey Battle fighter-bombers lunged and swooped...Yellow Harvard trainers climbed like vivid moths in the sun".

Camp Picton operated until the 1960's as a military base. Many evocative World War II era buildings still stand, home to a few industries. The location has been used in several films - it's a good stand-in for POW or internment camps.

Al's friend Earle Birney wrote a great send-up of the military life in Turvey, published 1949. I remember studying the novel in a Canlit course in the '80's.George Woodcock in the introduction describes Turvey's buoyancy thus: "it ends showing Turvey as the natural man triumphant, having survived all the numbering and testing and regimenting and bullying and discipline and short-arm inspecting" (oops)"to emerge in the end as irrepressibly his own self as Sancho Panza at the end..."

Sounds like Al may have taken some pages from Birney's training manual.

all photos from former Camp Picton

Of his time at Picton, Purdy writes: "Anyway, as the Picton NCO in charge of things, I used to go to Belleville sometimes, flanked by two or three of the American guard boys.We drank some beer....One one occasion we 'picked up' three girls on the street...The name of my girl was Eurithe Mary Jane Parkhurst." And that turned out to have been the best outcome of Al Purdy's military career.

Earlier in the account he wrote: "Then Picton. The army barracks there had previously been headquarters for the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (which is Angus Mowat's and Farley's 'Hasty P's)" - of which my uncle Elmo was a proud member. "Promoted to the temporary rank of sergeant, I was the NCO in charge of a hundred or so candidates for air crew..."

Long story short, Purdy ended up "demoted and demoted and demoted to the point where I finally saluted civilians" (About Being a Member of our Armed Forces")

How did he put it? "Long but inglorious?" But what amazing times to have lived through.

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