A man of bullheads, bass, and poetry

March 8, 2009

And as a boy I loved it.
The clear blue sky
Reflected in the shining surface
Of the lakes –
The old stone house,
Resplendent on the hill,
Our home.

It has been my pleasure recently to read Don Warren’s new book, The House on the Hill:  Recollections of a Rideau Canal Lockmaster’s son.  (Trafford, 2008).

The first section consists of Don’s memories from the twenties up to World War II.  The second is a sanitized version of his military experiences, and the volume concludes with a collection of poems he has written over the years.

The Lockmaster’s House at Chaffey’s Locks is very much at the centre of this book. At the end of a long wagon ride from Newboro in his seventh year, Don took one look at the big house on the hill and fell in love with it, ghosts and all.  As he gives a lively account of the exploration of his new home, I kept checking back to the photographs he included in the volume.  I hadn’t known about the footbridge across the spillway to the rear entrance of the Mill.  I wish I could have seen the eels tumbling through the current on their way to the Atlantic.

Don’s accounts of battles with Daisy the Cow and early skirmishes with Opinicon guests with sensitive noses make it evident that the young man will not turn out to be a farmer.  The campfire sing-alongs, practical jokes, outhouse mishaps and thefts from his mother’s garden provide a warm and amusing picture of life at the lockstation during the Great Depression.

Then, as now, a lockmaster must be an agent of the government.  Don recounts his father having to tell the Chaffey’s fishing guides that they could no longer camp on the property in order to make more space for visitors from the capital.  Don carries his father’s shame at this act of “democracy” to this day.

Understandably, some of the best sequences in the memoir concern fishing.  Don lists detailed instructions on the construction of a “bob” for fishing bullheads in early spring.   He offers a few tales of his guiding experiences, as well.  For the talented young fisherman largemouth bass were seldom a problem to catch, but he greatly admired the style and equipment of the wealthy clients who came to fish for them.

Don’s remarkably modest throughout the book, and this no doubt takes away from the military saga, Guys in Gaiters.  Like many who have signed the official secrets act, Don explained to me that he preferred to concentrate on the army hi-jinks rather than explain what he was actually doing outside Antwerp during the later stages of the war.  “If it seems as though I had a four-year vacation in Europe during the war, I guess that’s a chance I have to take, but I did get shot at four times during that interval.”

Not much detail of the action sneaks into his account, though one paragraph does mention being left behind at Ardenes, Holland as the Allied forces pulled back to avoid a full-on German attack.  Don explained, “What happened was that four or five of us were left behind to warn of any enemy attack by tanks.  The trouble was that they had to be within 3000 yards for us to intercept their wireless signals.  This meant we had to be left far behind the rest of our unit.”

A member of the 3 Canadian Special Service Company, Don trained in signals interception on the Isle of Man.  One paragraph mentions Don’s crew’s discovery of a coded German radio message which went out immediately before the firing of every V2 rocket.  This insight created quite a stir in intelligence circles because it provided the people of England with an early warning of each V2 attack. This reduced the threat of Hitler’s terror weapon.

But the best part of the book is the poetry.  Don presents a great variety of rhymes, ranging from the ribald antics of The Ballad of Peter Milan, to the timeless portrait Woman of War. But Don won’t hold a serious mood for long, so these give way to the driving rhythms and the lively wit of Lesson for Old Age Dodgers:

So pull up those aged pants
Give old ways a different slant
Take a lesson from the youngsters in the crowd

The reader must not miss The Ballad of Senator Bill.  It deals humorously with an accusation of indecent exposure at the Narrows Lock.  Canoeists are apparently a vengeful lot, and in the ballad Don makes shrewd use of the rumour mill to deal with their tormentor.

The poem Old Age shows the hell of sitting with boxes of multi-coloured pills, blear-eyed and aching, “with conversations centering on the dying and the dead.”  Nestled between those of his children, Don Warren’s home couldn’t be further from this drear scene.  With a brave little dog watching his every move, a flock of turkeys at his window, swans on the ice below and a bevy of songbirds in his garden, Don traces with coffee cups and all-nighters his progress through the next volume of his memoirs.  He’s in his eighty-ninth year.

Donald H. Warren.  The House on the Hill:  Recollections of a Rideau Canal Lockmaster’s son.  Trafford Publishing.  2008.  ISBN:  978-1-4251-6019-7



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