Honour Our Aboriginal Veterans
At the tender age of 17, George Underwood had already done a lot of living. He left Coqualeetza Residential school in Chilliwack, not because he had problems learning, but because he was very unhappy with the nature of the schooling he was receiving. The hours of work on the farm produced few rewards and most often the students were hungry. Frequently they rewarded themselves by stashing fruit in the barn or by raiding the root cellars.
He enjoyed great success as a fisherman, hunter, and boat-builder but was left with a question many young men face "What next?" Upon leaving school George's days were filled with roaming the Saanich territories either by canoe or by walking. Any trophies: deer, fish, rabbitt, seagull eggs, ducks, pheasant or quail would be brought home to share with his extended family and Elders. The Elders greatly admired the young man who remembered the tradition of providing for others before he took for himself. They knew that is why he enjoyed such success whenever he ventured out.
The answer to "What next?" was suggested by his parents. Their marriage had been arranged according to custom when they were young teenagers and they thought that a similar arrangement would help settle George. Fortunately for us this was not the course of Dad's life.
Inspired by the action of his older brother, Ed, George enlisted in the army. This was a very difficult decision for he had seen the tears his Mother shed when his brother Ed left. Nightly he heard her prayers. However there were too many things that were gnawing on him compelling him to serve. He loved the freedom he experienced in the territory, he loved and respected the land and all it provided, and he needed people to know he was a human being, an Indian, and a man. Those aspects of his identity had been threatened by the misguided teachings of residential school and George set out on a mission to reassert himself.
Although my Dad had hoped to catch up to Ed it was not meant to be. Ed was assigned to the Canadian Scottish regiment.
My uncle Ed Underwood is known to me only through stories and pictures. He was a spectacular looking man, extremely fit and handsome. As a youth in residential school he gained a reputation as a talented high-diver when he was taken to Britannia Beach by the priest. However these privileges were taken away from him and other Indian boys whose abilities detracted from young white men of privilege who were practicing for Olympic trials.
The memories we have of him are joy-filled. There are some pictures of him with his company skinny-dipping by a lake, all frolicking in being relieved of itchy uniforms. There are "Charles Atlas" manuals that he subscribed to and followed to maintain his physique. There were pictures of a beautiful mystery woman in Europe.Perfect fuel for romantic imaginations.
Ed died overseas, he had survived many battles, but succumbed to a ruptured appendix waiting to come home.
My Dad was assigned to the Princess Patricia Light Infantry. Our first imaginings of what the war was like for my Dad grew out of an old trunk. There we found our Dad's old uniform, medals, pictures, and letters. As curious children we did not know about respecting privacy in our quest for knowledge. We were in awe of that uniform, even as children we realized how young my Dad was when he served.
Playing fastball in Victoria surprisingly brought me close to some memories of what the war was like for my Dad. One of the founding coaches of the Women's league in Victoria, Smokey Green told me that my Dad was a runner for him. I was able to picture my Dad running nimbly through the chaos of battlefields focused on the mission that Smokey had assigned. He was a natural runner and the prayers of his Mother added wings to his feet that safely carried him through many brushes with death.
From time to time, my Dad shares some of his stories. Often though he finds it very hard. There was too much death. Too much destruction of humanity. What he instilled in me was a hope that there would never again be such wars. He hoped people would learn what they needed to learn so they could prevent them.
One story that often makes me laugh is when my Dad described how his company ended up being in a church in Italy with Turkish allies. The Turks had their magnificient curved swords and presented an intimidating presence. Many in that young Canadian company did not sleep well. Not until the next morning did both companies find out that the Turks were equally afraid of the Canadian Indians in the company because they had heard Indians were stealthy killers who would steal your scalp while you slept.
As children we peppered my Dad with requests to show us his scars. While in Italy he was wounded twice, once in the shoulder and once in the forehead. While recuperating in Italy Dad picked up the Italian language. This ability helped him when he returned home. Even though he fought against tyranny, as an Indian he faced it too often on his return home. Indians were not allowed to possess alcohol but my Dad frequently was able to pass as Italian and bought liquor for himself and his friends.
My Father's tattoo was also another source of questions. He acquired the tattoo as a rite of passage while overseas. When I was old enough to ask questions and young enough to pretend I understood I had heard that the sultry raven-haired woman on my Dad's arm was "one of the deadly sins called Lust". I had also heard from a maiden Aunt that she was "temptation". Sounded pretty formidable so I made up my own interpretation. The tattoo of the raven-haired beauty was my Dad's destiny. He had yet to meet her but the tattoo was my Mother and it was this image that brought him home to father the 15 children in our family.
No movie or documentary can ever recapture the reality veterans faced. I can appreciate how traumatic and life altering it was when my Dad describes how they were trained to hate so they could kill. What he has shared in some of his darkest moments is that now he cannot get the hate out of his heart and sometimes he directs the hate at innocent people.
My Dad also does not hunt anymore. In shooting his first and last moose its anguished cry flashed him back to the bloody battlefields and he vowed never again to hunt.
The great hunter and fisherman enjoys his moments of peace. He now finds comfort in the chatter of the mallards, loons, and geese that frequent the little bay in front of his house. He also still puts meat on the table but now it is through his success in winning meat draws at his veterans club.