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Legion Magazine – January/February 2000 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – January/February 2000

The death in Ottawa last September of longtime acquaintance Charles Pearse reminded me that for some who served in wars the associations are often continued purposefully for the rest of their lives.

Charles came into my ken in the early 1980s when he was at the old-age pension stage. I had a cubbyhole office jammed with filing cabinets and books in the National Press Building across the street from Parliament Hill. Into it one morning bobbed a stranger. He was short, roly-poly, fair, large-eyed and open-faced. He was smiling broadly as he gave me his name, said he had been a magazine writer and was a fan of my political columns. He sustained the latter point by citing several recent pieces he had read.

Although his openers to me were ingratiating, I pointed to my typewriter and then to a wall-clock. I had to put a column on the wire to Toronto in the next two hours and at that moment it was nowhere near ready. “OK. I got it. I’ll wait. I’ve lots of time,” said Pearse. Over he stepped to a bookshelf where he grabbed a volume and then took a seat. He then began reading, as relaxed as though he was in an armchair at home.

While I wrestled with my column, Pearse could not keep from offering tidbits of explanation about the author of the book he was scanning—historian Frank Underhill. The book was In Search Of Canadian Liberalism.

A writer writes alone, and when on a deadline, detests distractions. And so my mood was dour by the time the column had been sent off and I was clear to talk with my cheery visitor. He was ready. He opened a satchel and drew out a pile of papers. The first offerings were several journal articles by the famous economist Peter Drucker on the subject of productivity which was then politically hot, and a topic I had been writing about. I was moderately grateful for this material, but Pearse soon pushed past this opening gift. He rolled on to something else he wanted me to read, and then asked if I would please offer some advice on its worth. It was a chapter from a manuscript in the making by Bill Olmsted, DSO, DFC and bar of North Bay, Ont., about his work as a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot in WW II.

Eventually Olmsted’s memoir was published in 1988 as Blue Skies: The Autobiography Of A Canadian Spitfire Pilot In World War II. The fine reviews the book got were too late for its author to enjoy. Olmsted was killed in a traffic accident before it was published, a tragedy that shook up his friend, Charles Pearse.

I hadn’t had more than five minutes with the Olmsted chapter before I wanted the whole thing. This led to my partaking in Pearse’s determination to move the Olmsted draft towards publishing. We enlisted a shrewd book editor for advice on shortcomings to be overcome, then found a publishing house that would print and promote the book.
Believe it or not, all this took several years, and Pearse and I developed a routine that lasted far longer, into the mid-1990s when the regular round of visits from Pearse stopped. He had had a serious stroke that eventually brought him to a veterans home in Ottawa where he died last fall.

The routine was that Pearse would stop by three to four times a week, almost always with a few articles or book references. Often these were about WW II or about some of his heroes, like General Andrew McNaughton, scientist Omond Solandt and air aces Johnnie Johnson and Richard Audet.

In an occupational sense, Pearse was retired. He lived most frugally and occasionally flogged a feature story on scientific or administrative issues to newspapers. In every sort of weather he kept a round of calls that included the public library, the National Library, the federal directorate of military history, and several newsrooms. As he put it, he was “batching it” in Ottawa, and he couldn’t spend all day in his rooming house.

Pearse was somewhat curious and well-informed about politics and politicians back to R.B. Bennett and Mackenzie King, but it wasn’t his priority nor was he gossipy about political persons or indeed about anything else. He was a straight, open person. There was no smoking, drinking, blasphemy or lewdness with Pearse. This routine of visits lasted until the stroke four years ago which left him with garbled speech and little mobility.

During the pit years of the Great Depression, Pearse attended and enjoyed a most respected institution, the University of Toronto’s school for boys. He couldn’t afford to go on to university and so he settled for office-boy chores at trade magazine publishing companies. This led him into reporting, editing and—following his war service—to a modest career in trade periodical journalism.

Pearse and I had had several years of association before I realized an unusual reticence on his part had kept me ignorant of the grand task to which he was committed. He was doing the research, and then he was going to write a well-deserved, much-needed account of the Royal Air Force’s Second Tactical Air Force, in which British and Canadian wings and squadrons supported the Allied ground war in northwestern Europe from D-Day forward.

Pearse had been a non-commissioned officer clerk in the RCAF since early in the war and had been sent to France shortly after D-Day where he kept records at a fighter base and helped draft news releases of the tasks the squadrons undertook.
I can only guess why this talky and outgoing gentleman was so cautious with me for so long about his big project. By the time we met I believe he knew how huge a body of records and reminiscences he must examine and master, and how long and detailed the narrative must be to be worthwhile.

Could he cover and master all the sources, then write a book that would be readable, sound and thorough? This would need well over 100,000 words and his longest writing assignment had been less than 5,000. He so much wanted to honour both those who flew and fought and those who handled the logistics of supply and maintenance
for such large, diverse and dangerous operations.

Some time in the late 1980s I went after him to explain why he was putting in so much time at the history directorate of the Department of National Defence. At last he explained his goal, adding that he soon hoped to try his first few chapters and a complete outline of his project on me. Over the next few years I would often ask how his grand enterprise was coming, and always he was doing all right. At last, sometime in 1993—when he was almost 80—a confident Pearse came in with a typescript of his introductory chapters, and a book outline of several pages.

Would I please do two things: First, read his material and give him a thorough critique. Second, put him in touch with a seasoned editor of military books?
His outline was very much a skeleton. One could not see much logic from its headings, other than that the arrangement was chronological. As for the text narrative, I found it a jumble.

As one who had had to be rescued a few years before by two able book editors, I felt Charles was foxed by the problem I had had. There was just too much material and it was confusingly arranged in a tumbleweed sprawl of names, dates, and quotes.
My review made a hodgepodge of Pearse’s pages with slashes and marginal comments. Before I would give it to him I insisted that he engage the considered advice of an experienced book editor, and he did. Shortly, the editor phoned me to say there was no way out. To be fair and kind she would have to be cruel. She had to tell Pearse that if this was what he had after a decade of research and drafting he should stop, concede this was too big a project, given his past experience, his age, and the absence of either research or writing help. Let it go!

As I saw it, Pearse reacted bravely and without bitterness to her critique and to my somewhat softer but matching one. He wouldn’t deny our strictures nor offer excuses. He was having a devil of a time surmounting his research. He knew he must be more ruthless at discarding data and more consistent and clear in his writing. Nevertheless, he would not give up.

After this, Pearse made no more references to his project. He remained cheery as ever and still assiduous in bringing me clippings and photocopies of various commentaries. Then the visits stopped, and a few weeks later someone called to tell me that he had had a stroke, was in hospital, but would soon be visitable.

When I made my first visit he was preoccupied with tests, X-rays and therapy. His speech was a mystery to me and frustrated him, and his movement was limited. He looked much the same, the smile as ready and wide as before.

At a later visit he had taken to communicating with pencilled notes, and after we’d struggled over what books, if any, he would like to read, he handed me a succinct note, looking at me closely as I took it and read it. The note went like this. “Don’t you worry. My Tac air force study is still on. Watch for it.” Staring at him as he stared at me, I realized that he meant it. He was not jesting, and in his mind he was not bluffing. He would get it done.

Please accept there is no patronizing intent in this personal retrospect on the late Charles Pearse, a former RCAF clerk and a cheery citizen through a long life. I do understand the reasons he came up short. For 50 years I have gathered or noted material for two mighty books. One I have long titled: Just A Trooper’s War. The other I call The Press Coverage of Federal Politics.

I’ve loaded several filing cabinets for these ambitions, plus draft plans, even a few false-start chapters. Daily these two books-to-be keep flitting in and out of my stream of consciousness, so vividly that much of the time I believe they will be done. And then for my benefit I say once again the familiar Biblical verse with which I tried to ease the bleakness Pearse felt at the critiques of his drafts. It goes: “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is the weariness of the flesh,” Ecclesiastes, 12:12
To round off this awkward elegy on incomplete purposes and the late, indefatigable Charles Pearse, I hazard this guess: Of the million some Canadians who served in the forces from 1939 to 1945, over half of whom are gone, there were and are several thousand who have or will depart without completing and getting published the memoirs that they thought they had in them.