Tuesday, June 17, 2014


I was always a word eater. When I was in elementary school, my father taught me composition and coached me in spelling so that I was usually two or three lessons ahead of my class. I wasn't keen on other subjects, as I recall. We were taught by dull teachers from books with very few pictures. Those who have television and the Internet today cannot imagine how dull school was back then. Arithmetic terrified me and Pop had to punish me to force me to memorize the multiplication tables. But I loved words.
I was in elementary school during World War II and my Pop, George Rubin, volunteered for the Canadian Army reserves, thus sacrificing his American birthright. Better to volunteer and choose your vocation than be drafted.
Pop would have hated fighting. He trained as a medic. As a married man with young children, he wasn't at the head of the list to be sent overseas. He and my paternal grandfather, Sol Spiegelman Roy, and my uncle, Sam Feldman, volunteered early on. Sam was freed from the service when he suffered frostbite to his hands while in training in the foxholes in our Canadian winter.
Pop served at Farnham, Quebec, not far from Montreal, so he came home from training camp - but I can't remember how often that was. I just remember him coming home in his uniform and me running to my Daddy Joe whom I adored. I was so young that I couldn't really understand much about it.
I remember we had to cover our windows at night and keep the lights out. I remember Pop picking me up in his arms at the front window so we could secretly watch the soldiers from the Fletcher's Field Armory marching past our house. I will never, ever, forget the sound of their boots crashing on the pavement.
The memory of that sound haunted my dreams for many years. I dreamed we were walking by the railroad tracks near a small station in the area of Van Horne and a train was coming. The sound of the train. The sound of the boots. The sense of impending danger. I dreamed repeatedly of Indian warriors with feathered head dresses marching south on St. Lawrence Blvd. near Shubert Baths, carrying fiery torches. I would wake up shaking, in a sweat.
I remember my Pop's khaki coat, haversack and gas mask hanging on the back of the kitchen door. He let me try on his gas mask once. I remember the awful acrid odour of the black rubber. How sickening it must have been for him and the other soldiers to wear those masks even for a few minutes.
And I remember Pop's army dictionary. It was a long, thin, pocket size little volume with a black or brown cover. The words inside let a soldier know how to ask for food, water or a safe place, in the European languages of the battle sites.
I remember that little dictionary. I took it to school one day and, during a boring history lesson, I secreted it in my history text book and read it while the teacher preached. But I got caught. The teacher noticed I was too absorbed in the book and not listening, so she posed a question about the lesson. I was scared. I had to admit my sin. I loved words more than the meaningless - to me - dates of history.
I still have that precious little dictionary somewhere among my many books. Even though I can't get at it now in my tight quarters, I enjoy knowing my Pop's dictionary is here. It is full of memories of my Daddy Joe.
Dictionary of Slang From Another War



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