LOCHABER – Merle Taylor, who lives where the highway sneaks down to the lake she first glimpsed in the springtime of 1945, is foremost a teacher. And, while she’s personable and outgoing, I’m more comfortable calling her “Mrs. Taylor.” After all, this is only my first day of school.
“So,” she says over the phone, “your last name would be dah-dit-dit-dit dit-dah dit-dit-dah dah-dit-dah dit. Go it?”
Not really. Maybe try that again? She does. Still no luck in the “me-ever-getting-the-hang-of-this” department. Clearly, I’m not an apt pupil, when it comes to Morse code.
She laughs good-naturedly and changes the subject – sort of.
“Anybody who comes here to my home and who has the time … I teach them Morse and they really, really do get quite excited,” she says. “I get some very important people here sometimes. You know I taught [former MP] Peter Mackay how to send his name in code.”
I resist the temptation to joke how that might explain a few things about federal politics over the past decade or so. Besides, Mrs. Taylor, who will be 98 next August, is far more interesting. And today – as we near the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, of which she is a veteran – she has a few thoughts of her own she’d like to share.
Thoughts about women …
“I was born on a farm about four miles from Stonewall, Manitoba. I am a Prairie girl. I was in the Royal Canadian Air Force. I was in the ‘WD’ – that was ‘women’s division.’ The women took over jobs so the men could fly. They took over jobs, like transport drivers, cooks and hospital workers. You can imagine how many women could take over men’s jobs and certainly be just as efficient as a man at the job.”
Thoughts about service …
“I joined up in November 1942 at 19 years of age. I joined up as a wireless operator. The reason for that being was my uncle Sandy, my Dad’s brother, he was a wireless air gunner overseas. I thought … if I studied the Morse code, I could be like Uncle Sandy, so, that’s the reason why I joined up. And I joined up because all the young people were either already gone, or they were going. I just wanted to do my part.”
Thoughts about meeting the love of her life …
“Fred was a wireless mechanic in the Air Force. He was Willie and Laudie Taylor’s son, from South Lochaber. I met him at No. 1 Wireless School in Montreal, where we trained. We got married in Calgary in 1943. I was very sad that I had to leave the Air Force. I loved my job, but I loved Fred Taylor more.”
Thoughts about leaving home …
“Fred went overseas in May 1945. I came to South Lochaber with our first son, Sandy, who was nine months old, by troop train to Antigonish. We were picked up there by Fred’s mother, his dad and his brother. You can imagine I was very lonely. My own people were back in Manitoba on a farm, and I didn’t see them for 12 years.”
Thoughts about coming to a new home …
“But the Taylors where wonderful, wonderful people. Mother and Dad Taylor were very good to me. And Fred came back in January 1946. We bought a farm. I had actually thought when I first saw Lochaber that I had gone to heaven. It was certainly a lot prettier than the Prairies in Manitoba. There’s no comparison to how wonderful it was down here. There were deer in the woods. There were trout in the brooks.”
Thoughts about the past …
“I went through the ‘Dirty Thirties’ on the Prairies. I am telling you … We did not have one cent even to mail a letter; for my mother to mail a letter to her sister. We did not have any cash at all. Now, here in Lochaber, if you didn’t have anything for dinner, you just grabbed your little fishing rod and you went up the brook and you cooked the potatoes and you got the trout, and the trout were still jumping when they went in the pan.”
And, of course, thoughts about the lessons the past can teach to build a better future. It’s all too easy to forget, she says, not only the sacrifice of an entire generation but the remarkable innovations people and their governments created at that time of enormous strife and penury – innovations that would astound many people today.
“The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan that England and Canada made up in 1939 provided a lot of work for Canadians,” she says. “We went from the Depression in 1939 to having plenty of everything, which always astounded me. A total of 59 bases went up across Canada from east to west. One of them was the Service Flying Training school in Saskatoon, where I trained pilots. And then there were the navigation schools and wireless schools and air bombing schools.”
She’s happy to talk more; for as long as you want – about her “two boys, Sandy and Sid.”
Sid and his wife Barbara own the family berry farm and still run it. Sandy and his wife Roberta live down at Lochiel Lake, near Sherbrooke.
She talks about her 15 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. She talks about the Dutch who came over from Holland after the war and “taught us a thing or two in this area about farming.”
She talks about the Syrians who have come to Nova Scotia from their war-torn country in more recent years and done remarkable things with their lives.
There is faith in the future, she says. Mrs. Taylor is, after all, foremost a teacher.
“So,” she says, “dit-dah dit-dah-dit-dit dit dah-dit-dah-dit.”
Well, how about that? A-L-E-C – I guess we are on a first name basis after all.
Maybe, in this time of remembrance, all of us are.
Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal