My father, Roddie, passed away this evening; he was a little less than three weeks shy of his 98th birthday. He was fading, not failing, but he was starting to get tired of being bed-ridden for the last several months. My daughter saw him yesterday with one of her cousins, and they both said he was joking and happy to see them and planning his birthday party.
He volunteered for World War Two when he didn’t have to: he was a farmer’s son, and exempt from the draft. But he felt that he owed Canada more than it owed him, and so he joined the RCAF and became a wireless operator air gunner in a bomber and sunk a U-boat. Because his brothers had stayed home, after he finished his tour of duty, he signed on again and flew all the extra missions he felt they should have.
He should have died several times over but didn’t, and he became pretty cavalier about the whole idea of dying. He didn’t expect to survive another weekend when he met a British woman in London, my mother, at some kind of party. She’d been widowed with a young child (her Australian pilot husband had gone missing over the ocean). London was being bombed, and she was terrified, and willing to do anything to escape. He married her the very next day to make sure that she and her son (my brother Keith) would get safely out of England. And then to his surprise, the war ended and he was not only alive but had a family to take care of. (That picture is of him in North Africa in March, 1944; he was 28 years old.)
They came back to Canada to Moose Creek, a little town between Ottawa and Cornwall, and he tried his hand at farming and building a few houses, and when neither of those went all that well, he re-enlisted in the Air Force and started all over again as an Airman Second Class.
That time around, he was a carpenter. When he retired from the military, we were living in B.C. By then he was in his 50s and decided he wanted to teach. For a man who hadn’t finished high school, university was a challenge, but he worked hard. He got his B.Ed, and ended up going north to teach shop courses in the secondary schools on First Nation reserves in the interior and in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
When he finally retired for real, he lived in Chilliwack for the winters, but he used to drive his van to Moose Creek every summer to see his brothers and sisters. He did that well into his seventies, until he decided he wanted to be closer to his family and moved back to Moose Creek to live year-round at the old family farm.
I would have to say that old farm was his greatest joy. It sits on around 240 acres of rolling fields and still has the original barns and outbuildings. It was patented to my great-great-uncle Joseph Blair in the early 1800s and has been owned by a Blair ever since. After my grandmother died and left it to my uncle John, my brother Mike bought it so that my dad could live in it and gave him the resources to rebuild it and make it comfortable.
My dad was always completely aware of the creatures that shared the farm with him. He knew where each barn swallow nest was, and where to find bats, and he loved the fact that the deer would come to the back of the farmhouse to eat crab apples from the trees that had been there as long as he had. He’d been born in the log cabin that he’d built a new house around; he was deeply connected to the land and knew it intimately.
He was open-minded but opinionated; intellectually curious, and always engaged with the world around him. He was a mostly self-taught man whose brushes with death made him think deeply about life and why we’re here.
He had a soft heart when it came to animals. He would put out peanuts for the chipmunks and fretted about the feral cats that hunted them. He set out traps for mice but would feed their babies with eye droppers if he found them. When Jade was a toddler, he bought seven goose eggs and an incubator because he thought it would be fun for her to see goslings. When they hatched, of course, they imprinted on her (they were all male, as it turned out), which was fun when they were little but not so much as they got older. They got too big to keep and aggressive, so he had to find a new home for them, but by then, he’d fallen in love with them and couldn’t bear the idea of giving them to someone who might eat them.
Like his mother, he had a green thumb and planted potatoes and onions every year. When Jade was around three , he taught her how to plant onions too. He had a little cart made that he attached to his rider- lawnmower so that she could sit in the cart while he was doing the yard work, and ride along with him.
I think he was happiest, after my mother died, when he reconnected with his high school sweetheart, Martha. She was the first woman to slap his face, as he put it. He had taken her out in the horse and cutter when they were teenagers and got stuck in a mud rut and broke a wheel, and she had to get out and walk and ruined her clothes.
He was a voracious reader of absolutely everything. You would usually find him with his nose in a book, until he took up painting in his eighties. For a naïve painter, he was pretty good and even had an exhibition at a gallery in Cornwall.
He came from a big family, and all but three of his siblings are still alive. (His sister Helen turned 102 this year.) I’m sure his death will come as a blow to the ones he’s left behind. But he had a full life — a pretty amazing life, really– for a man born in a log cabin without power or running water. He wasn’t afraid of dying. I think he was ready to go.
James Roderic (Roddie) Blair was born in Moose Creek on November 24, 1915. He died on November 7, 2013 in Aurora, Ontario of an apparent heart attack.