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By Emily-Jane Hills Orford
“Hey boys,” a voice called from the entrance to the canteen.“The Downer girls are here again.” “Hooray!” another voice was heard in the distance. “Homemade macaroni and cheese.” “Good evening. Jack, isn’t it?” Peggy smiled at the man standing at the entrance making his announcements. She was starting to recognize some of the boys, for that’s what they were. They came from all over, here to Simcoe to train for the infantry. The base had opened in 1942 and the same year the local women got together to plan special meals for the boys so far from home. Just once a week, but that was enough to make some of these boys, young and often homesick, feel a little bit like they were part of a family, part of a community.
It was sad, this war. So much life lost. So many young boys who would never grow up to be men, would never come home and raise families of their own. It was supposed to be over by Christmas, or within a year. That was in 1939. Pat, Peggy’s husband had wanted to serve, but he was already on his deathbed, inflicted with an untreatable kidney disease. He died in 1940. Peggy sold the family store to focus on raising her two girls, now in their early teens. Pat had invested in property, building houses that now provided Peggy with a substantial rental income to support her family, without the added stress of running the store.
Helping out at the canteen was just one way Peggy and the girls could help with the war effort. And the girls always came along to help. Peggy wasn’t sure if it was the steady stream of handsome young men in uniform that lined up for the freshly made macaroni and cheese. They were young enough to be looked at as little sisters, but old enough to giggle and flirt just a bit. It was all in good fun. No harm done. And the boys, for that’s what they were to the women of the community, just boys. The boys always left with a full stomach, satisfied with the good food and the sense of family and community that permeated the canteen on that one night of the week.
“I’m being shipped out next week, Mrs. Downer,” Jack announced as he picked up a tray and proceeded towards the steaming smell of good food. “I had to make sure I got in for one last good meal, my last supper in a way, before I headed over to deal with the German menace.” “We shall all miss you, Jack.” Peggy forced a smile, a little sad that this bright young lad, whom they’d come to know quite well over the past few months, would leave their community. She may never see these boys again. It was the same old story: no sooner did she get to know them, than these boys were sent overseas and, more often than not, met their untimely fates on the battlefield. “Oh. Never fear, Mrs. Downer. I’ll come back. I’ll want some more of this fabulous macaroni and cheese when I return. You do make the best.” He flashed a bright smile that creased the toughened skin of his cheeks that had blistered from the hours spent in the hot summer sun of southwestern Ontario. “If only you knew,” Mrs. Downer had to laugh. “My poor late husband had to live on macaroni and cheese for the first year of our marriage. I couldn’t make anything else.” “He was a lucky man, then. Because this is the best macaroni and cheese ever.” “Thank you, Jack. And all the best overseas. Do your bit and come home safe.” He just nodded. Crinkling a wink at Peggy’s daughters, he moved on, carrying his now full tray to an empty table at the back of the canteen. Other boys came along. Some chatted, but most were quiet as the troop here this evening was looking forward with very mixed feelings for their eminent departure in the next few days. There were currently four troops undergoing training. Some would be shipped out; others would remain until they completed training. And there would be a new troop arriving to begin their training. And the process would go on. Until, that is, the war ended. And it couldn’t end soon enough.
No. 25 Canadian Army (Basic) Training Centre was opened in Simcoe in 1942. It was later re-designated as the No. 25 Canadian Infantry (Basic) Training Centre. There were forty or more buildings: barracks, messes, drill hall, recreation centre, and, of course, the canteen where the local women cooked a special meal for the boys at least once a week. Peggy Downer, the author’s grandmother, helped out regularly for the three years that the Training Centre was in operation.
Emily-Jane Hills Orford’s nonfiction stories mostly about her family. Growing up in Toronto, then Hamilton and finally London, Emily-Jane has lots of family stories to warm the heart.
Emily-Jane Hills Orford has published several books, creative nonfiction stories mostly about her family. Growing up in Toronto, then Hamilton and finally London, Emily-Jane has lots of family stories to warm the heart. For more information about the author, check out her webpage at: http://emilyjanebooks.ca