This past week I had my first break from work since December, and I took the opportunity to visit my grandparents in St. Thomas, Ontario. They always enjoy having me visit; and they are both lovely people who are full of stories and wisdom so I always enjoy visiting them too! I always find it interesting to visit St. Thomas. I was born there, and although I left when I was three I do somehow feel a connection to the city and the area. It saddens me because although St. Thomas has a rich history as a railway town and industrial centre, nowadays it is dying. Many people commute to London for work; the railway tracks are overgrown and their buildings disused; and few large employers remain. However, this makes what used to be all the more evident, and it is a fascinating place for someone interested in the past.
A lot of retirees call St. Thomas their home. My grandparents live in an established neighbourhood and many of their neighbours have, like them, been there for over fifty years. I visited one such neighbour while returning home and spying his classic car parked on the street! My grandpa was happy to accompany me, and the neighbour was happy to show me his car. It was a 1947 Chevrolet Fleetline, which he restored himself using many parts from other vehicles. A completely custom ride, and a very beautiful one too! Talking to him was very cool– he seems to spend his time restoring cars (he also has a 1946 Ford pickup and a roadster and coupe as well). Having a few sheds full of old cars to restore is something that is very appealing to me, I was jealous!
I love the lines of 1940s automobiles. They had such style!
Old engines are so different from the ones I’m used to seeing at work
My grandparents’ house is also full of treasures. They might be odd to some, but I think their collections are awesome! Hanging over the stairs in the back hall are a bunch of brightly painted model airplanes– they seem to be engaged in a dogfight, and they make a gallery-worthy display if you ask me.
Suspended by wire, the planes make a striking and unique display
My grandparents also have a great collection of books. I think they are mostly my grandpa’s, since they are largely war or car books, and my brother and I have spent many a summer afternoon looking through consumer automotive reports, old copies of Popular Mechanics, and accounts of battles from the Crimean War to WWII.
I really think there’s nothing better than a good collection of books!
My grandpa shares my fascination for World War II– he has certainly encouraged my own interest and enthusiasm
I took many drives through the countryside this past week– driving around to obscure sites is something my grandpa loves to do, and he has a story or memory about everything. I drove them around in my new car quite a lot, which was fun for everybody! One place we stopped was a cemetery for a 19th century “House of Industry and Refuge”… or poorhouse. Although the term poorhouse seems more suited to Dickensian London than rural Ontario, there were many such establishments in Ontario in the 1800s.
The cemetery is situated behind an unfinished and abandoned retirement residence– a sorry location for such a sombre memorial
These houses were places for the destitute, infirm, or elderly to live and- if they could- work if they had nowhere else to go and no one else to help them. The Elgin County example at least was situated on a farm, so the residents worked the land while they lived at the house. From 1876 to 1894, many people died at this poorhouse; but at least they are now remembered here.
The names recorded here belong to all kinds of people; relatives, men, women, and even a few babies.
Our country drives took us to happier places as well, and for me rural southern Ontario really does feel out of a different time. It’s so quiet, and farmers who live here wave at you as you drive by. The rolling green fields and narrow twisting roads remind me a little of England and its B-roads, and it’s a really picturesque place. My grandma grew up on a farm with horses, so she has many stories of farm life from her childhood. Visually, the area hasn’t changed much since then!
My beautiful car in an (almost) equally beautiful setting
There was one highlight from all these country drives; and that was a visit to the old St. Thomas Assembly, which from 1967 until its close in 2011 assembled cars for the Ford Motor Corporation. Most notably, it produced the Mercury Grand Marquis (of which my family has owned two); and the Ford Crown Victoria, which is used by taxi fleets and police forces across North America. It is a former police Crown Victoria that I now own, and these cars have been one of the brightest spots for Ford over the last twenty years. They are reliable, sturdy as anything, and although they are very old-school they are superior to most trendy new cars on the road today. They don’t make them like they used to; and the splendid vehicles manufactured at the St. Thomas Assembly are a prime example of this.
But although the Crown Victoria is an amazing vehicle, times are changing, and nobody seems to want one anymore. The last Crown Victoria was completed in September 2011, and its completion marked the closing of the St. Thomas Assembly. Empty since 2011, the plant’s huge complex is now finally being demolished. When I asked my grandparents if we could visit it, I wasn’t sure what I would find– and it’s a good thing I visited when I did, because demolition is slated to be finished in only four months’ time.
What was once a bustling operation employing over 1,000 people now looks like something out of Detroit
I remember seeing photos of these parking lots full of row upon row of gleaming new police interceptors, waiting for delivery. What a sad sight they are now.
Of course, my grandpa had lots of information about the plant in its heyday. The complex itself is massive- 635 acres- and it had its own railway station, set of railway tracks, and sewage treatment plant. Situated in the middle of the countryside and surrounded by barbed wire, it would have been a truly impressive sight mere years ago. But today, it is simply sad to see. It had quite an effect on me to see it dilapidated and in pieces– it was such a huge part of the economy and culture of an area that is dear to me, and it was the source of a car that is also dear to my heart.
The rear of the plant is very obviously being torn down.
However, my beloved Crown Victoria and many others still on the road are a testament to the illustrious St. Thomas Assembly. Long after the building comes down, the cars will still be running. Although it was sad, it was also very cool to see the site of such a long history of great cars. Watch any action-packed Hollywood movie, and you’ll no doubt see a few Crown Victorias involved in high-speed pursuits– these cars are a big part of automotive history. How awesome it is that they came from such an unassuming place; just a small city in southern Ontario. Although I feel mostly British and could easily wish that I had been born in the UK, St. Thomas’s history means that I am not unhappy that my history belongs there as well.
I was eager to get a photo of my car where she was born. Five years ago she rolled off that assembly line, and I am so grateful that she eventually came to me!
One of the most rewarding parts of writing is when a character comes alive. Much is said about how good stories come alive to readers and how characters in them seem to be real people, but in my experience the same happens for writers as well. While writing my novel A Calling Above Oneself in grade 12, I had everything planned out; before actually writing it, I knew what was going to happen in every chapter and who all my characters were. Except for one… Private Franz Karl Schachen.
Judging by my book sales, few of my blog readers have read my novel, so I will try to avoid any spoilers here! But I will tell you a little about this fascinating character who took on a life of his own. I had very minimal plans for Franz in my story. He was meant to add a little bit more interest, being a young Wehrmacht soldier who decides to abandon his comrades and instead support the quest of the heroine, Galya, and her Soviet friends. I didn’t know what kind of traits Franz would have, past innocence, idealism, and naivety. And how surprised I was when Franz became the most alive character in my whole book– the character of Franz Schachen wrote itself, and became an integral part of the story when he was supposed to only be a supporting character. It really was a special thing to witness, because in every scene with Franz I felt like I was watching the story unfold instead of writing it myself!
Franz is described as being a tall, blonde German with wide eyes and a young face. I hope I did his sincerity and cheerfulness justice in this drawing!
Above is a drawing I made of Franz, who is one of the most beloved characters I’ve ever created. In a time of war, he shows great dedication to the cause of good; so much so that he turns his back on all he knows and accepts ridicule and rejection. Beyond that practical idealism, he is an exceptionally sweet and kind individual who does not allow the horror of war to change him. He is devoted to Galya’s cause, and while helping her in her quest he also keeps her smiling. Franz plays perhaps the most important role in A Calling Above Oneself, because his dedication is supplemented by an attention to the human side of things. Although young and perhaps slightly simple, Franz is exactly the kind of person I would want as a friend in the middle of a war.
How better to demonstrate Franz’s character than with an excerpt from my novel– this excerpt is from Galya and Franz’s first meeting, and I think it portrays him well!
“I’m Private Franz Schachen,” he said, in accented Russian. I was surprised. “What’s the matter?”
I took his hand warily and shook it, feeling very suspicious and reserved.
“Toothache,” I growled- which really did seem a terrible explanation for my tears. But let him think what he pleased; after all, I would probably be lying in the yard and riddled with bullet holes by the next morning.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Could it be your wisdom teeth? I had to have mine out three weeks ago, the battalion surgeon did it for me. If they’re really bothering you, I could fetch him if you like.”
“I’ll be alright,” I replied stiffly, puzzled because his offer seemed genuinely well-meaning.
“If you’re sure,” Private Schachen said. “What’s your name?”
” My great-grandmother was named Galina,” he commented brightly. “She was from Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad now, I suppose. But don’t tell Major Mittenwald; the army officially thinks I am German for six generations.”
One of the hardest things to do is to remain kind under difficult circumstances. Positivity can be hard to cultivate in terrible times, and I can’t imagine how people were able to remain upbeat or even sane in World War II. So I really appreciate the character of Franz, as he is the epitome of optimism and is endlessly kind. A Calling Above Oneself is one of my proudest accomplishments, and Franz is one of the proudest parts of that. It is so cool to me that the character of Franz became everything that he is!
I hope you have enjoyed this post and are as fascinated by the character of Franz as I am. If it has piqued your interest, you can read more about A Calling Above Oneself here and pick it up from Kobo here. There’s nothing more exciting than when a character comes alive; and if I may say so, I think few are more alive than Private Franz Karl Schachen!
© Adair Elizabeth Robin Jacobs, 2014
Today, along with Russia and other former Soviet states, I am commemorating Victory Day and the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union in 1945. The capitulation of May 9 ended four years of intense and ferocious fighting on the Eastern Front; fighting which claimed more lives than all the other theatres of World War II combined. As a writer and blogger, I’m a purveyor of words; but sometimes words are just inadequate. So today, I am sharing a collection of photos from the Eastern Front in order to perhaps give a glimpse of just what those involved in the Eastern Front endured, and thus what this victory meant to the Soviet people.
Soldiers of Army Group South in 1941 laugh as Russia burns. Image attributed to Josef Gierse, via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 3.0
SS men stumble upon a partisan child in 1943. Hitler’s instructions meant that children were not always guaranteed immunity from execution. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Niquille-067-24/Niquille/CC-BY-SA 3.0
A group of Germans executes a small number of partisans. Partisans were usually shot or hanged, but in some cases they were subjected to torture and humiliation as well. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-212-0221-06/Thiede/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Soviet POWs, considered “subhuman” by official German decree, are loaded like cattle into rail cars for transport. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-267-0124-20A/Vorpahl/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Such were the numbers captured by the Wehrmacht in the early months of war, that scenes like this were not unusual. POWs were kept in massive open-air enclosures until they could be transported to proper camps. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B21845/Wahner/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Sevastopol, an important Soviet naval port, was all but destroyed by a German siege in 1941-42. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, N1603 Bild-121/Horst Grund/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Everyone knew that Russia’s survival hinged on the fate of Moscow. In the autumn of 1941, with Germans fast approaching, young and old were mobilised to build defenses around the city. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #3500/B. Vdovenko/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Due to the stakes, the fighting at Moscow was ferocious. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #633408/Anatoliy Garanin/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Germans trudge through the snow to surrender at Moscow. The severe cold and staunch Soviet resistance gave them more trouble than they had expected. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #4406/V. Kinelovskiy/CC-BY-SA 3.0
The ruins of the Red October Factory give shelter to its defenders at Stalingrad, one of the Eastern Front’s most bitter and costly battles. Attribution: Georgi Zelma, public domain
The Red banner flies triumphantly over a destroyed Stalingrad. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0506-316/Georgi Zelma/CC-BY-SA 3.0
Although strategically a Soviet victory, the Battle of Kursk claimed over 6,000 Soviet tanks compared to just under 800 German ones. Here, KV-1 heavy tanks are inspected before the battle. Attribution: fotoreporter sovietico sconosciuto, public domain
During the Siege of Leningrad, civilians died perhaps even quicker than their military comrades did. Pictured is the diary of a young Tanya Savicheva, who recorded the deaths of her family one by one until she was the only one left. Attribution: world-war.ru, public domain
Leningrad was cut off for over two years, and its citizens suffered appallingly from hunger. Belts were boiled and newspaper was shredded for food; and here, people queue to gather water from shell-holes in the street. Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #907/Boris Kudoyarov/CC-BY-SA 3.0
With Operation Bagration, the Soviet military began to take back ground. Now German vehicles lie burnt and abandoned near Babruysk, where Soviet ones had lain three years earlier. Attribution: 194407_abandoned_german_vehicles_belarus.jpg. public domain
In 1945, Germany was running out of men, and instead turned to boys. 16-year old Willi Hübner was awarded the Iron Cross by Joseph Goebbels for his part in the defense of Lauban. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J31305, CC-BY-SA 3.0
The war is won, and now east meets west. How long did this friendship last? Attribution: Pfc. William E. Poulson, from http://www.archives.gov/research/ww2/photos/images/ww2-121.jpg, public domain
These banners from Moscow’s 2015 Victory Day Parade honour each one of the fronts of the war. Attribution: Kremlin.ru, CC-BY-SA 4.0
Last year was special, being the 70th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War. But the truth is that every Victory Day is special– every one is a chance to honour and remember what took place so long ago. Attribution: Government.ru, CC-BY-SA 4.0
Veterans of the Great Patriotic War are deeply respected in the former Soviet Union and enjoy something of a celebrity status. Here, a young woman poses for a photo with a female veteran at last year’s ceremonies. Attribution: Klausvienresh, CC-BY-SA 4.0
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin Wall. We don’t know who he is, but we will never forget him. Attribution: Kemal Kozbaev, CC-BY-SA 4.0
Victory always means the most when one knows what it’s like to fail; and the Soviet Union certainly knew failure and despair in the four years of the Great Patriotic War. Because of this, every Victory Day is a cause for celebration but also for a measure of sadness. It’s impossible to remember the victory without remembering its price, and all the horrors and sacrifice which defined it. In terms of sheer scale, there was perhaps no victory greater than this one; and I’m not alone in commemorating it even 71 years after it was won.
Back in university, I was required to buy an anthology of poetry for my English class. At the time, I was none too pleased– I’ve always appreciated poetry, but what I did not appreciate was being forced to spend a ridiculous sum of money on a book I didn’t think I would use for anything other than that one class. However, I was proved wrong. This anthology of poetry (which covers quite a range of poets, from Shakespeare to Percy Bysshe Shelley and Sylvia Plath) has been well-read in those years since I was in university. I’ve read most of it, but the most-thumbed pages are those of the Romantic era. Whether it’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, I think Romantic poetry is beautiful, expressive, and relatable.
Romantic poetry was often based on nature and emotion; as it was a reaction against the more objective attitudes of the Enlightenment. I think it’s because of that emotion that I appreciate it so much. Though the Romantic poets may have been frustrated in their careers or personal lives, they were still able to create amazingly expressive and wonderful poetry. It’s that beauty through adversity that so appeals to me.
My favourite Romantic poet, John Keats, certainly had his fair share of trials and frustrations. Often depressed and ill, he was well aware of the fleetingness of life and he seemed to have premonitions that his own life was to be a short one. I personally don’t have such troubles; but I can feel the emotion in Keats’s work and in my own times of uncertainty and hopelessness his poems resonate with me. It is a good thing to be young, but it can also be difficult when one doesn’t know the way ahead. It was with a Keatsian mind that I wrote the following poem: it’s not a thing like Keats’s work, few have a gift like his and I certainly don’t! But I think the idea is a reflection of the themes he felt and included in his work. I hope my readers will enjoy it.
We Are So Young
We are so young, how can we know
When to stay and when to go?
Which voice to heed, and path to tread
Do we choose sanity, or love instead?
We have not known life, yet never will
Without trials that teach and risks that thrill
But we are so young; where to find
The key to future, and peace of mind?
Regret is for the old, let it not touch us
Let us not look back, until all is dust
Yet we are consumed, and simply led
And will not even look ahead.
Too young for wisdom, we forge on
Towards an indeterminable dawn
Perhaps, we say, to find our own
Though we shall stand in that sun alone.
We are so young, how can we know
We must not wait, but bravely go
We are so young; and were never told
That all this time, we’ve gotten old.