Pouring rain pounded on the window pane of the mess hall.
“Reminds me of home,” Sergeant Ted Temple muttered to the corporal sitting opposite him, as he gazed over the fellow’s shoulder and peered through the window. “Whatever happened to sunny old England?”
“I don’t know,” the other officer replied, “but I bet it’s sunny and warm in Vancouver.”
“Mail call in five minutes,” Ted said checking his wrist watch. “Let’s go. If we’re lucky, there’ll be mail from home to cheer us up.”
The two men pushed away from the table and exited the mess. They slogged through mud and puddles, across the tarmac to the mail hut, where other soldiers waited expectantly. Ted watched as men stepped forward in response to shouted names, collected mail packets and disappeared in search of a quiet place where they could open and savour whatever had been sent. His mind wandered.
The camp was filled with a sense of expectation. Something big was going to happen. They had been ordered to run drills frequently, practising over and over all that they had learned before they were loaded onto ships in Halifax, and brought to England. He watched the men around him, anxious without knowing why. Edgy.
“Temple! George Edward!”
He heard his name and pushed away from the wall where he’d been leaning.
“This looks interesting, Sergeant,” the postal clerk said. He held a small package and gently rotated it. It made a soft rustling sound.
“Must be from my dad,” Ted said. “His parcels are always interesting.”
Ted carried his parcel to the dorm that he had called home for several weeks and found an empty chair in the corner. As he sank his lanky frame into the wooden office chair, he sat the package reverently on his lap and ran his hand over his father’s familiar handwriting. Slowly, he peeled away the brown paper wrapper and extracted a letter. His father’s cryptic message spoke of life in Vancouver, and of his family’s love and concern for him. The treasured message closed with the hoped that he would enjoy the cookies made especially for him by his youngest sister, and two jars of raspberry jam made by his mother, and the can of tomatoes from him. Canned tomatoes! Ted thought. Dad knows I hate canned tomatoes. They must have it rough in Vancouver.
Ted stared at the box still sitting on his lap and tugged off the lid. He inhaled the smell of homemade oatmeal cookies, and hastily retrieved one. He stuffed it in his mouth, savouring the memories provoked by the taste, then he rotated the two jars of jam, caressing his mother’s careful labelling. At the bottom of the box lay the small can of tomatoes. Yup! Food rationing in Vancouver is definitely tight.
“Box from home, Sir?” Master Corporal Herbert (“Bert”) Swan asked, as he entered the barracks.
“Yeah,” Ted replied. “Things must be getting tight at home. My dad sent me a can of tomatoes. He knows I hate them!”
“I don’t think you’re the only one,” Bert said. “I’ve heard a few of the lads commenting on odd contents from home. Think they know something we don’t?”
“You might want to hold onto it,” Bert said after a moment of quiet. “Even if you don’t like canned stuff, it could come in handy in a pinch.”
A few hours later, senior officers called an assembly and explained that within hours every able-bodied man would be dispatched to France by ship. The allied forces would be attacking all along the French coast. The Canadian objective was code named Juno.
Ted sat on a haystack leaning against the planks of a barn wall. His long legs stretched in front of him. He removed his helmet and scrubbed his wavy red hair. His belly rumbled, as he looked around at the company of men who had followed him through the fields of Normandy. They had survived a particularly nasty skirmish two days ago, taking several German captives. As soon as they had handed the prisoners off to the military police, they received orders to move up and maintain contact. Earlier that day, they had followed their enemy across the border into Belgium.
It was late June. The weather had finally turned warm and their woolen uniforms had dried out, leaving them itchy, hot and tired. The vacant barn provided them a slight reprieve from the heat of the day.
“Does anyone have anything to eat?” Corporal William (“Bill”) Opitz asked. “I could eat a horse right now!”
“Good thing the barns empty,” Bert said, eyeing the vacant stables.
A private admitted to having a square of chocolate, while the others grumbled that they had none.
“Well, Sergeant, I guess it’s time to break out those canned tomatoes,” Bert said.
Ted was deep in thought, planning their next action. Bert poked him in the shoulder.
“What?” Ted said, peering at his men.
“Canned tomatoes,” Bert said. “Maybe it’s time to share: hungry, no food.” His face was an insistent question mark, as he ticked his head toward the men.
“I guess you’re right,” Ted said. “My little sister Eleanor is driving me nuts! Every time we receive a mail sack, there’s a letter from her asking whether I liked the canned tomatoes. If we share it, I can put an end to her nagging.” Ted reached for his haversack and unclipped the straps. “Does anyone have an opener,” he asked as he pulled out the can.
A can opener appeared at the end of an extended arm. Ted took it and jabbed it into the can, just below the rim. As he began to saw through the tin, he realized that he was sawing through wax, not tin.
“What the –” Ted exclaimed, as the lid fell away. He jerked in response, expecting red juice to spill down his pant leg.
Collectively, the men leaned toward him to see what had happened.
“Well, I’ll be,” Ted said, as he reached his long fingers into the can and pulled out a mickey of rye whisky. Grinning, he held it up for all to see.
“That’s a mighty pretty tomato,” Bill said admiring the bottle.
“And to think you’ve been carrying it with you all this time,” Bert said.
“Did your dad bless it before he sent it?” the private asked, crossing himself.
Ted quirked a questioning eyebrow at the private.
“Well, sir, how many times have we taken fire, and none’s come close to hitting us?”
“With a thought like that,” Ted replied, motioning to return the mickey to the can, “maybe I shouldn’t share it. I’ll just tuck it back in my sack.”
“No!” the men groaned collectively, reaching to dissuade Ted.
“All right,” Ted said chuckling, “I doubt it will fill your belly, but it might provide a respite until we find something better. Pass it around.” Ted handed the bottle to the Master Corporal. “Just save the last mouthful for me will ya! I have to tell Eleanor and my dad how much we enjoyed the tomatoes!”
[In memory of my Uncle Ted (George Edward Temple) and the Regina Rifles who landed on Juno Beach in June 1944; and respectful, albeit misplace, reference to Herbert (Bert) Swan and William (Bill) Opitz.]