Veteran Stories:
Don David Gaskill

Army

  • Captain G.B. Shellon, Intelligence Officer of the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and Lieutenant R.C. McNairn of the Pioneer Platoon, Algonquin Regiment, talking with Dutch civilians near the Belgium-Netherlands border, 16 October 1944. Credit: Lieut. H. Gordon Aikman / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-144085

    Lieut. H. Gordon Aikman / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-144085
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"Only the French have complete freedom of facial expression. I shall never forget the look on this man’s face. He was both horrified and amused at the same time."

Transcript

The war had been over for more than a year and I spent most of that year perched up on the edge of the cold North Sea. Now it was time for leave to sunnier climes. I was going to Paris for two glorious weeks. I stood on the platform. I wondered if that train was ever going to arrive. Then we heard it in the distance, huffing and puffing, belch and smoke and steam, it pulled up to the platform and came to a screeching halt. I elbowed my way into the nearest compartment, found a comfortable corner and lit up a smoke. As I watched the countryside pass in front of the windows, I realized I was finally on my way to Paris. The further south we traveled, the warmer and greener it got.

When we arrived at Amsterdam, it was a beautiful hot day in August. It was just a matter of hours but it seemed like an eternity. I had a layover for one hour before I switched to another train heading for Brussels. There was an open market near the depot and among other things, they sold fresh fruit. My God, I couldn’t remember the last time I had fresh fruit. I bought some of everything and when I boarded the train, I had an armload of it. The train was a bit of a shocker. It was made up of English commuter cars. Europe had lost much of its rolling stock [vehicles used upon the railway] during the war, hence the temporary English cars.

A commuter car looked much like an ordinary English railway car. The only exception was the hallway that runs the length of the car, there wasn’t any. Which means that there wasn’t any plumbing either. I climbed into the nearest compartment and looked around. This box had a door on either side with a window that we pulled up or lowered by a leather strap. There was bench seats on either side with luggage racks over head. I shared this compartment with three French speaking civilians. I settled in and promptly opened my large sack of fruit. I offered some to my fellow travelers but they graciously declined.

As I bit into a large juicy pear, I thought to myself, now this is really living. After a few more pears and some crisp apples, I realized I was quite full; full of ripe pears, succulent apples and lots of tasty cherries. It was now time to relax and have a smoke. I lit up and sat back to watch the scenery unfold. Halfway through my cigarette, I felt a bit of an ache in my stomach. I had no idea where that came from. I hadn’t eaten anything for hours except for the fruit and that couldn’t cause any pain, could it?

There it was again, only sharper and stronger this time. I looked about me and there weren’t any facilities onboard. Was this train going to stop or was it going all the way to Brussels non-stop? Oh my God, the pain was unbearable. I had to do something and fast. I walked over to the door and grasping the window strap in both hands, I lifted and lowered the window into the pocket in the door and carefully dropped my pants and shorts and waited in agony for a space in the line that had no buildings. In that part of Europe, you’re constantly passing from one town into the next.

Nature indicated that I couldn’t wait any longer, so I gently eased my butt out of the window. There I was, with my ass out of the window and my head between my knees, completely stripped of all dignity. Or so I thought. The final indignity came in seconds with a large whooshing sound; my tortured body eliminated every ounce of solids and fluids. As I sat or perched like a jaybird, I realized, at the speed we were going, it must have reached back at least 20 car lengths. I sure hope they had their windows closed. I needed paper badly and I looked for my fellow passengers for help. Two of them were sound asleep and the third was completely engrossed in the book he was reading, oblivious to what was transpiring. I shouted at him, do you have any paper? Of all the people in the world, only the French have complete freedom of facial expression. I shall never forget the look on this man’s face. He was both horrified and amused at the same time. My French was very limited but he finally realized that I wanted the paperback that I had been reading. The next look on the face was one of incredibility and humour. I believe he thought I was going to read as I sat with my ass out of the window. When I slowly started tearing out pages, he realized what I was going to do. By the time I was finished, I had torn out the first 250 pages of the Moon and Sixpence. Fortunately, I had read this far. I wondered what Somerset Maugham would have thought if he knew that half of his novel was spread over the European countryside.

As I lowered myself down from the window, I wondered if the train would come to the platform in Brussels on the leftor the right side. Or the brown side. I vowed that if it came to a stop on the left, I would open the door and run across the tracks. There was no way I would face the population of Brussels with all that incriminating evidence all over the side of the train. I waited on pins and needles as we pulled into Brussels and praised the Lord, we landed on the right or clean side of the train. I practically ran through the station to the nearest decent hotel with full plumbing facilities.

As I lay there in the nice warm water, my growling stomach told me that I was voraciously hungry. I would get dressed and go in search of food. To this day, I have never eaten unwashed fruit or traveled on trains without full washroom facilities.

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