Growing up in Coboconk during the war
By Sue Tiffin
Marg Valentine has vivid memories of her youth, growing up in Coboconk.
She remembers where buildings long gone once stood, and the two times a year that the teachers boarding with her family took their brief holidays. She remembers how much money she made each week carrying newspapers – about 18 cents – and the first dollar she had to change.
Marg remembers living through the Second World War.
“World War 2 started the day I started Grade 1 – there was no kindergarten then,” she said. “And it ended the day I finished Grade 8, only because I skipped a grade.”
Marg’s dad had died the same September that the war started, and with the help of a family friend, her mom decided to continue running the service station her husband had run as a mechanic.
“I have my gas ration coupon book,” said Marg. “You had to make sure you got coupons for every gallon of gas you sold. A lot of gas stations, they either closed up or they were caught underhandedly selling gas at premium, I guess.”
Marg’s sister was eight years older than her, in Grade 9 or 10.
“People a little bit older than her, who were maybe 17 or 18, were all keen to go to war,” said Marg. “There was nothing else to do. It was going to be an adventure but it was going to be at least something to earn money by. They were patriotic too, don’t take that away from them.”
Through Marg’s sister’s memories, Marg knows many of the teenagers went to the Lindsay Armouries, and trained there as part of the 109th Battalion before they moved on.
“She said there was this man that had a truck with racks on it, a big truck,” said Marg. “He used to take us to hockey games and stuff like that. The racks were on it and you had benches. You wouldn’t do that now. He loaded the truck up with young men - my sister would have been just a couple years younger than them - and took them to Lindsay to join up ... And off they went on an adventure, and a lot of them didn’t come back. They’d never been out of Victoria County probably, most of them.”
Marg’s grandmother helped fill the gaps after the loss of her dad alongside Marg’s widowed mother. Marg remembers a table in the basement full of preserves, where she would be sent to get a jar of peaches for dessert.
“Sugar was rationed, tea was rationed,” said Marg. “I can’t remember all the coupons we had for food. You took them to the store and exchanged for whatever. And they were able to do the preserving. They’d done all those things, they had to. I guess the teachers [boarding at the family’s house] gave them their coupon books too.”
On Saturdays, students would participate in war drives, going out with a wagon to collect newspapers that they stacked in the school hallways, an image clear in Marg’s mind so many years later. “And then an army truck would come along, maybe the next day, and gather them all up and take them away,” said Marg.
That was one thing they saved. Also old tires, and milkweed pods, the contents of which Marg believes was used for stuffing in life preservers.
From Grades 1 through Grade 8, Marg had three teachers, who she remembers were all excellent even though there would have been days that the students weren’t as focused as they should be.
“I can remember the army constituency would drive through the town and would come to the school grounds and set up for lunch,” said Marg. “We’d be able to go and see them, lining up with their little tin plates for lunch, out the window. I remember we all got out of our chair, once, and my teacher was so annoyed, she had asked who had gotten out of their chair and she had to strap us all. The only time I ever got a strap. I just loved that teacher. My sister was one of her bridesmaids.”
The teacher was Annie Robertson.
“Which of you were out of your chair looking out the window at the soldiers?” remembered Marg. “It was half the room, more than half the room. She was pretty worn out. I think she gave us probably one on each hand and that would be it.”
Marg had a paper route, delivering papers – the Telegram in a bag on one shoulder, and the Toronto Star in a bag on the other shoulder – until she started high school.
“That newspaper business certainly did well, because of the war, because everyone wanted to know what was happening,” said Marg. “And the other thing was the radio, I think at 9 or 10 o’clock at night Gabriel Heatter came on, and would say (lowering her voice) well, there’s bad news today.”
A map of Europe was posted on the kitchen wall, keeping track of three family members – one in the air force, one in the navy, one a paratrooper, who all eventually came back.
“I remember my mother and grandmother waiting for that news every night, because that was about all there was, plus the newspaper,” said Marg.
Often when bad news came, it was delivered in person, if possible.
“If there was somebody who did get killed in the war, it came by Morse code to the railway station, and [the] station agent, he would have to get in his Star car, everybody knew his car, and if it was coming up your street, you knew that it was bringing bad news.”
Marg was sitting on the veranda when she saw the car driving up her street, passing her house, and going to the Wakelin family’s home to tell them that Lloyd Wakelin had been killed in service.
(According to the Canadian Virtual War Memorial, Flight Sergeant Raymond Lloyd Wakelin was killed Sept. 30, 1942 at the age of 24. He is buried in Bergen General Cemetery, Netherlands.)
At the Pattie House, the community’s women got together to knit socks, and balaclavas, and mitts with wool sent to them by the Red Cross, the organization then sending their donations overseas.
“There was always somebody who would be shipping something to their son overseas anyway,” said Marg. “Whether they got it or not was another question.”
In part because of the family’s connection to the service station, Marg developed a keen interest in cars.
“I loved cars, I couldn’t wait to learn how to drive them,” she said. “My mom had a ’34 Chev. I was sitting in my mom’s car, pretending to drive somewhere I guess. I’d be 12. My grandmother came around the veranda, around the old house, and she shouted to me that the war was over. And I was sitting in a car. I’ll never forget that. It was a celebration.”
Marg hasn’t opened the box of wartime memorabilia she has on the table in front of her since she last brought it to a Grade 6 or 7 class to share stories of the past so they can better understand why we remember. As she digs through the box of historic treasures that she has safeguarded through the years, she can tell great details of the contents within, told to her by family through the years: the belts filled with insignia traded by the men as they sat on boats, spats to cover boots, a bible small enough to be carried in a pocket, photographs of soldiers in uniform, and a leather pouch, an old pipe, an ammunition casing, a wallet carried by a relative with his sister’s photo still inside. Inside the soldier’s service pay book, a template for a will, reminding those who served to make a few quick notes about where to leave $10.
And then, the box of letters to William Valentine, posted with stamps worth two cents, marked with stickers noting “opened by censor,” with an envelope on top once sent to his family. He was her husband Peter’s uncle, the oldest of five Valentines in his family, and he served and died during the First World War.
“Mail came over by train to Kinmount, then by stage coach to Miner’s Bay,” said Marg. “You know that first house coming down the hill, before the lodge, that was a post office. The family lived further up the road, they had a farm on the left side of the highway.”
The letter contains details of William’s death, typed carefully on graph-lined paper, dated May 17 and preserved so that for a moment the reader has to remember the date reflects 1917 and not 2017, occurring more than 100 years ago. The envelope is stamped July 23, arriving four months after he died.
“See the family hadn’t heard from him,” said Marg. “And they started to enquire. There were channels that you could enquire through. But, imagine in those days.”
I am in receipt of your letter of April 12th in which you are enquring for your son private William Valentine who was killed in action on March 26th. The enemy blew a mine one morning, the gas from which penetrated the dug out in which your son was with others resting. Every effort was made by the men on duty to get them out. Some of the men having been decorated for bravery for risking their lives by going down. His death was perfectly painless. His body along with others who died there was buried in the Military Cemetery at Villera au Bois, a suitable cross having been erected over his grave. His personal belongings were removed and forwarded through the usual channels to you and should reach you in due time.
Your son had not been a great while with my company but his good work and bravery in the face of danger won the admiration of his platoon Commander Lieut. J.W. New who has himself since been killed in action.
I wish to extend to you my sincere sympathy in the loss of your son and hope that the knowledge that he always did his duty will be a satisfaction to you in your bereavement.
Yours respectfully, W. Wood, Major, 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion.
The letter is carefully folded again along the crease, returned to the envelope that once brought it overseas and set to rest on top of the letters that William once received, sharing news from home and reminding him that he was loved.