As a WW II ambulance driver at Camp Borden, my mother attended an average of six to eight fatal air crashes per month. She learned what a body looks like after it passes through a propeller and what it smells like while still smoldering.[i] Dramatic stuff. But whenever asked about her role in the War, she talked about her time as chauffeur to a famous pilot.
“I drove Billy Bishop to drink” was her one-line response.[ii]
By the time Donald Jack wrote his war story, the 1963 Leacock Medal winner Three Cheers for Me, an upbeat mood was starting to displace the pain of World War II, and veterans like Mom were more and more prone to focus on funny memories.
The British born Jack had served in the RAF, moved to Canada, and established himself in a less demanding situation as a playwright and author.[iii] He could laugh about war more often, but, as a writer, he also knew that a good story is more than a one-line joke. Three Cheers for Me never shies away from the trenches, muddy battles, and hairy dog fights.
The Bandy books, three of which would win the Leacock Medal, are first person accounts of the life of Bartholomew Wolfe Bandy, a sometimes smart, but luckless, Canadian medical school dropout who headed to the frontlines in 1916 and later fought from the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel. The realism of the stories convinced early readers and reviewers that they were non-fiction memoirs.
I found the battles amusing not because of what happens in them, but because of Donald Jack’s set up outside. When Bandy was preparing to leave for Europe, his father, a self-righteous minister in the Ottawa Valley still shaken by the fifty-year-old Origin of Species, described the Great War as a battle “not just against the barbaric legions of the heathen Hun, but against all revolutionaries, theorists, anarchists, and Charles Darwin !” He and others saw the greatest dangers in the temptations of alcohol and dismissed bleak stories of battle wounds and trench foot. “Plain carelessness,” one church elder tells Bandy. “No excuse at all. It may be a little damp at the front, but to let your feet get that way is inexcusable ... (I hear) the generals are thinking of punishing anyone who so abuses his extremities.”
As he watches the passing bodies, sits in the mud, and listens to the shells fall, Bandy reads letters from his mother who hopes that he’s keeping up his piano lessons while abroad, adding that her son must be having “an interesting time over there, seeing Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.” The correspondence from Canada reaches a crescendo when Bandy starts receiving letters of condolence: “My Dear Bartholomew ... we sympathize with you in your misfortune ... despite everything we are still your friends” with no explanation. Eventually, an aunt tells Bandy that his father was caught in an indiscretion in the cornfield.
Another force that keeps the story light is the intertwining of a love story based on narrowed eyes. Bandy has fallen for the young English woman Katherine Lewis, whose face was characterized by a squint. At first, Bandy says simply that “she had a slight squint” and later a squint to be “self-conscious about.” Then, he notices that “Her squint ... suits her” and eventually confesses that “That faint squint of hers affected me strongly.” Bandy later thinks there is “something almost erotic about (her squint).”[iv]
Through these techniques, Jack manages the mix of humour and horror pretty well, but it’s not easy. Even though Three Cheers for Me ends with a cliff-hanger inference of more to come[v] and even though Jack would eventually write many more Bandy books,[vi] a second one did not appear for over a decade.[vii] Despite his abilities and those inclinations to think of chauffeuring celebrities instead of corpses, it still took a bit of work to find humour in war.
[ii] Bishop, a flying ace in WWI, was a senior air force officer who promoted recruitment during WWII.
[iii] Jack was not yet a Canadian citizen when he wrote this book. He only came to Canada in 1951 and worked on survey crews in Alberta and as a bank teller in Toronto before turning to theatre and writing, which led to a job with Academy Award-winning Crawley Films in Ottawa. Two years later Crawley fired him. In 1957 Donald Jack’s Breakthrough was the first Canadian TV play to be simultaneously telecast to the United States. His third play, The Canvas Barricade, produced in 1961, was the first original Canadian play performed on the main stage of the Stratford Festival.
[iv] Jack’s relationship with his own wife Nancy likely affected his stories. In 1986, when she fell ill, Jack returned to his native England with her. He stopped writing for many years after her death in 1991. Born on Dec. 6, 1924, Donald Lamont Jack died in 2003, working on another volume of The Bandy Papers. (National Post and Globe and Mail Obits in June 2003).
[v] The book ended suggesting that the future was to bring an “awful new significance ... to the expression War is Hell.”
[vi] Jack wrote with military discipline, saying his dedication came from "reminding myself of how lucky I am to be able to be the only thing I ever really wanted to be -- a writer." Jack wrote 40 TV plays, several radio plays, four stage plays, and 35 film scripts. Leacock medals came for three of the nine volumes of The Bandy Papers : Three Cheers for Me in 1963, That's Me in the Middle in 1974 and Me Bandy, You Cissie in 1980. One of his two non-fiction books was about the history of medicine, Rogues, Rebels and Geniuses. The other was the history of the Toronto radio station CFRB, Sinc, Betty and the Morning Man.