The Pipe Smoker and Me...

As a child, it wasn’t hard to idolize my father. I imagine it isn’t hard for any child. For me, my father epitomized what he read. He was a product of his times. A man with Brylcreemed hair, expertly ironed shirts with starched collars and slacks whose razor-sharp creases could cut diamonds.

Leigh Thompson was as men in his generation—born in the early 1900s, serious-minded, hard-working, survivors or both world wars. Such men weren’t great talkers, weren’t overly demonstrative, but they exuded depth. You knew when you looked at them you were looking at an iceberg, a mere fraction of their passion and humanity peeking above the surface. 

In 1916, at the tender age of two, my father would tell how he remembered holding his mother's hand as the residents of the wee hamlet of Orangeville, Ontario Canada watched as the soldiers marched to war. His life began with those first images, of naïve men enthusiastically heading to their wretched deaths—and that spectre forever coloured his life.

If those men miraculously survived, they tended thereafter to live and breathe life's Big Picture ideals—your word was your bond, work ethic was paramount, and protecting your family in wars, figurative and real, never really escaping their minds. Such men have often been accused of being too emotionally distant, certainly not the hands-on dads of today. In fact, back in the day, such touchy-feely men would have been laughed at and scorned, that having any interest in what was then considered a woman’s role painted you a sissy. Maybe today’s society scorns those men who scorned themselves, but when a Nazi U-boat is quietly gliding up the St Lawrence River or tuning into a New York City radio station off the Atlantic coast, baby feedings, diaper changes, and playtime are not on those men’s minds. We in the 21st century have forgotten that.

Decades after WWII ended for the world, that generation of men never really stopped fighting that war in their heads, and so non-fiction works and novels discussing those horrific times were what landed in their laps at night. Complex reads. Tomes like Churchill’s volumes,
autobiographies of soldiers who overcame tragedy like fighter pilot, Douglas Bader, 

in Reach for the Sky 

or stories of lives and loves lost in works like From Here to Eternity and The Bridges of Toko-Ri. These men, like my father, consumed those books because they spoke to them. It was a language imbued with meaning that only that generation could best appreciate.

Back to me as a kiddie watching my father...

I would watch him—Manhattan framed eye-glasses affixed, his head down, slowly turning those pages, for speed reading was never the goal as it is today; rather it was to linger on those pages and relive those times with each page turned. His burled walnut pipe would hang from his mouth and unregulated puffs of musky-scented smoke would billow out seemingly in tune with his thoughts—the book would hit an emotional button the puff on his pipe would confess.

I could not read in those early days, for I’m four or five years old, but I instinctively knew what laid on those pages was damn important if it kept my father’s rapt attention, so the logical jump wasn’t hard for me to make. I wanted to live “there” too, be where my father wanted to be. It took decades for this realization to percolate to the surface that my true métier would be as a literary/historical writer; in essence, be a writer for my dad, to craft tales on deeply serious, heart-rending topics that would touch him, his generation and we children of those warrior men left behind. Looking back now, it was obvious: a wee daughter could get her father’s everlasting attention by becoming what he loved... if even that “becoming” came some three decades after his death.

Of course, in the end, it became much more than that for me. Having grown up in a Northern-Irish Canadian household, Irish wakes were de rigeur and akin to Olympic events. It took no time at all for me to see the natural confluence of history and death and how the glint of a diamond is only truly revealed at the moment of its greatest cut. In other words, I wanted to examine how man’s ultimate truth is only unveiled in the final moments of a tumultuous life lived.

Grade school, university, personal highs and horrendous lows, and at the ripe young age of 54, I have finally found my voice, my reason for being, my personal joie de vivre.

I believe my pipe smoking father would have approved.