Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Capturing the unlikely friendships of war

Don Hunter has written a novel, "Incident at Willow Creek," inspired by his own boyhood friendship with a German prisoner-of-war.

By Tom Hawthorn

Special to The Globe and Mail

September 16, 2009


As a boy growing up in the north of England, Don Hunter captured snapshot memories of the war.

He remembers his father, the son of a coal miner and the grandson of a coal miner, signing up for the air force, choosing the service taking him the farthest from collieries whose shafts extended beneath the Irish Sea.

He remembers brave Ernie Stabler, a sharp lad in his uniform, standing in the family home, a hero off to fight the Nazis.

He remembers German warplanes flying so low overhead he could see the pilots. Happily for those in the village below, the twin-engined Heinkel bombers sought more important targets in Scottish shipyards.

He remembers a prisoner-of-war camp not far from his family home.

“We had seen friends and relatives from our village go off to war and not come home,” he said. “This group on the fringe of the village might have killed them.”

Captive enemy soldiers behind barbed wire proved irresistible for a lad of eight. He and his friends would taunt taunt the Germans by holding fingers to their nose in mockery of the fuhrer’s silly toothbrush mustache. To the tune of the “Colonel Bogey March,” they’d sing a ditty that left them in stitches: “Hitler has only got one ball, Goering has two but very small, Himmler is very sim’lar, but poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.”

The prisoners laughed, too. The boy came to a realization.

“Hey, they’re human,” Mr. Hunter said recently, recounting a childhood in Distington. “They’re not monsters. Which was a bit unsettling because they were supposed to be.”

The prisoners repaired local roads and laboured in farmer’s fields. They became a familiar sight, each passing day making them less of a threat in a boy’s imagination. Words were exchanged between bored young men and an adventurous boy, much to the displeasure of the sentries.

“The Home Guard would tell us to bugger off,” he remembers. “They’d say, ‘We’ll kick your arse if you don’t get out of here.’ ”

On one unforgettable day, a prisoner passed to Don a toy fashioned from scraps scavenged in the camp. Rubber bands and bits of wood had been transformed into a spring-loaded jumping jack, “like a circus trapeze act.”

A friendship, of sorts, formed.

The boy never forgot. He grew up, wisely avoiding his birthright down the mines, completing his obligatory military service with the airborne before leaving England for British Columbia in 1961, where he got a university degree and became a teacher. Instead of removing coal from the bowels of West Cumbria, he’d try instead to implant critical thinking into the minds of the young.

After eight years as a teacher, Mr. Hunter left the classroom, working as a longshoreman on the Vancouver waterfront and driving taxi for Coral Cabs of suburban Richmond. He also wrote, selling a story on local theatre to the Province newspaper for $25. The ex-teacher got hired after a reporter quit to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hunter sent off a short story titled “David’s Friend” about an English boy befriending a German prisoner. He got in return a stack of rejection slips, the most encouraging a favourable note from the fiction editor at Playboy, who liked the piece but suggested a war story at the height of the conflict over Vietnam was not likely to be embraced by the market.

He later rewrote the short story into a screenplay, which was sold to the CBC but never produced. Mr. Hunter eventually bought back the rights for $1, “which was a lot less than they paid me for it.”

Though “David’s Friend” remained unpublished, Mr. Hunter had success as a writer. A critically-praised television movie for CBC about an idealistic high school teacher from Britain and his unruly charges in northern British Columbia, titled “9B,” led to a series of five one-hour weekly episodes that first aired in 1989. These featured an unwed teenage mother, a death in a car wreck, and a threatened teacher’s strike. Though the series lasted but one season, it has since been sold in 50 countries.

He co-wrote a book with Rene Dahinden about sasquatch (“non-fiction,” he insists, laughing), while a collection of columns from the Province, titled “Spinner’s Inlet,” was shortlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour.

He never gave up on his original story, changing the setting from England to rural Alberta, altering the time element from 1944 to the present, adding the element of a mourning daughter finding the truth behind a tragic family secret. The Fort Langley writer travelled to Alberta to do further research at Lethbridge, even incorporating a sudden prairie deluge that forced him from a golf course.

The story, at long last, found a home.

NeWest Press of Edmonton has released "Incident at Willow Creek," a first novel for a 71-year-old writer who has had a lifetime to contemplate the unlikely friendships of war.

By coincidence, the weekly newspaper back in his hometown ran a recent report on the forgotten prisoner-of-war camp at Distington, concrete slabs in wasteland the only physical evidence remaining. The newspaper followed their report with the surprising news about a Canadian novel inspired by the same camp.

Finally, spare a thought for the memory of a young man splendid in uniform who impressed a boy on a visit to the Hunter household before going off to war.

“He was glorious,” Mr. Hunter recalls. “These were our heroes. They were going to beat Hitler.”

Ernest Stabler, a sergeant (air gunner) with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, was killed in a crash during a training flight in poor weather on Nov. 23, 1943. He was 20, not much more than a boy himself. The only son of Edward and Norah Stabler is buried in Cumbrian soil in a grave in the churchyard of Holy Spirit at Distington.

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