Happy Birthday, Charlie!

It was my grandfather's youngest brother's 90th birthday yesterday. His son hosted a family party at Charlie's golf club - there were only 4 of us present (out of 30 or so guests, no children invited) who were under 40, and probably a dozen over 80.

As birthday parties go it was, unsurprisingly, a fairly tame affair. But I learned some interesting facts about my great-uncle's life, and there was a lot of talk about what the world was like when he was a young man. He and my grandfather were both born on a homestead in Saskatchewan, a few miles from a town that no longer exists. They were 5th and 3rd in a family of 8 kids, and lived, until after the birth of #6, in a 16' x 20' log cabin. How my great-grandparents found the time (and the privacy) to procreate, I can only guess.

My great-grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, sold the homestead and moved the family to Saskatoon in the early 1920's. They were poor - often living on oatmeal for weeks at a time - but he wanted his children to get proper schooling. Uneducated himself, he sent 5 of his 8 children to university.

Charlie studied medicine in Winnipeg, graduating just before WWII broke out. He joined up, the only one in the family to do so, and was sent to North Africa with the British army. I've seen photos of the massive tent city in the desert, and Charlie looking dapper in his khaki shorts. He took part in the retreat before Rommel's forces, then spent 2 years in Tehran, working in an allied hospital. He was called back to London and attached to an American unit for D-Day, was there for the liberation of Holland, and was the first allied medic in the Belsen prison camp. He doesn't talk about it at all. When I first learned about this as a teenager, history classes fresh in my mind, I asked him if the inmates were glad to see the Allies, and he said no, they were too far gone. That statement still haunts me. (I recently reread The Diary of Anne Frank, which says she died 2 weeks before Belsen was liberated. I find it strange to think that my quiet, unassuming uncle came so close to meeting the girl who became such an icon.)

After the war, he moved to Vancouver, and specialized in internal medicine. He practiced at Vancouver General Hospital for 40 years, retiring at 70, then came back to fill in for other doctors for another decade. He's still very popular with both doctors and nurses - a rare thing, I understand. When he had heart surgery last year, even the women from the hospital switchboard came to visit him.

I don't know my uncle Charlie very well; partly because I don't see him all that often, and partly because I think he's a hard person to get to know. The family has a reputation for being boisterous (to put it kindly) but he has always been the quiet one, seemingly content to drift along on the edges of family gatherings. I once asked my grandfather if it was because of what he'd seen in the war, but he said no, Charlie had always been quiet.

And now it's too late - his memory is failing badly these days, and I don't think he knows most of us anymore. I hope he took his brother's advice, though - my grandfather has been encouraging him to write everything down for years. He's the only personal link I have with the war, and there are so few left who can tell us what it was really like.