On the home front

Like so many other men and women of his generation, local resident Mike Solomon Jr. has a personal connection to war.
His father, Mike Sr., was a veteran of World War Two, having served overseas with the Lake Superior Regiment-Motor Battalion.
But while Solomon, 64, a retired police chief, proudly bears witness to the invaluable service his father and other soldiers gave to their country, it is boyhood memories of his mother, Edith, and the sacrifices she made to raise a family during a husband’s absence, that he believes was one of the most important contributions to the war effort.
At the time his dad went to war in 1939, Solomon was barely five years old. One of five children, including three sisters (one of whom was newborn) and one brother, the family lived in the small remote village of Richan, located north of Dryden along the CNR railway, where Mike Sr. had been employed as a railway section labourer prior to the war.
“I’m very passionate about those memories even though I was very young,” Solomon said of his childhood.
But it was with the insight of an adult that he looked back at the single parent lifestyle and severe poverty his mother endured for nearly six years to make what life she could for her children.
“There was such harshness of conditions . . . I get chills even now when I think of the loneliness and lack of anything for the future that my mother must of faced with five children,” he pondered.
“But what is significant is that for the length of the war, without any amenities whatsoever, my mother pulled us through–like many other mothers did,” he stressed.
During that time, Solomon said families did without many of the basics taken for granted today, including electricity, radios, and phone. Richan did not have a grocery store nor a gas station, and communicated with the outside world only by railway.
“We had to juggle the use of ration stamps and send out orders on the railway for groceries,” he recalled. “And our kerosene for lamps–we had to send glass gallon jugs on the train for [more] and they would often come back with a potato or other vegetable stuffed in the top.”
And if the kerosene spilled into an order of oatmeal or flour, those staples would still be salvaged.
Solomon also recalled listening to the women who would sometimes gather in his mother’s kitchen to package provisions for the soldiers overseas.
“I remember them getting together to package homemade mitts and socks, scarfs and sweaters,” he said.
“Sometimes the women would conceal eggs inside a tin of sugar or powdered milk so they wouldn’t smash,” he added, noting the packages then were sewn into flour sacks and shipped out of the community by railway to face the perils of the long journey.
Solomon said the most perilous time for his family occurred when their home burned to the ground in February, 1943. Everything was lost.
“I can remember getting some ill-fitting adult clothing and moving into a tarpaper lean-to to live out the severe winter,” said Solomon. “There was no insulation, and we had to take turns sitting up all night putting wood in the stove to keep from freezing.”
The railway also brought the villagers messages of the fate of loved ones in wartime service. Eight men out of the 15 families that lived in Richan were serving overseas.
“The engineer would start tooting the train whistle from a distance to signal there was a message . . . and there were no good [war] messages,” he said, adding notes usually were thrown off the train tied to a stick.
“One day, my mother got a letter from the Secretary of War–it was terse and cold,” Solomon recalled. “It said ‘We regret to inform you that your husband as been killed in action.’
“I remember my mother sat paralyzed, looking at the wall for hours,” he said. “What would you do with that death message when there is no future to begin with?”
A couple of days later, the train whistle signalled another incoming message–this time to inform Solomon’s mother her husband had been seriously wounded in action.
Solomon recalled a lot of emotional confusion over which message was true, with neighbours finally making contact with a war office in Dryden and confirming that Mike Sr. was indeed alive–wounded but recovering in hospital in England.
He returned home to his family in September, 1945.
“He came home very frail and sickly having took shrapnel in his head and bullets in his chest,” said Solomon. “My father had been a giant of a man, both physically and mentally, but that was before the war.”
Mike Sr. continued to recover from his war injuries for a couple of years after and later returned to work with the CNR as a section foreman, eventually moving his family to Fort Frances.
Meanwhile, Solomon felt it very important for people to continue to educate the younger generation about the purpose of Remembrance Day and the great sacrifices made during wartime.
“Sometimes I think people complain too much about such little things,” he said. “People don’t know what poly-phasic suffering is and don’t have a tolerance for really tough times.
“We don’t know what war is. The only ones that do are those who fought and we owe them big time, not only for our freedom, but an ongoing respect and appreciation.
“And we owe the mothers–those women who stayed behind. They are the unsung heroes,” he stressed.