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Corvette Mischief

hmcs sackvilleYesterday we were at last able to announce that my mother, Jacqui Tam, has been awarded an IPPY Silver Medal for the Tenth Anniversary Edition of her masterful work, A Daughter’s Gift. It only took a decade for the world to recognize what I’ve been saying since 2002: that hers is Iceberg’s finest book. It is my grandfather’s story, told by my mother, and it has already made a difference for countless families confronting Alzheimer’s disease.

My grandfather, Richard Joseph Barron, would be –– undoubtedly is –– most proud.

Now, in honor of the recognition of his story, I must tell a tale I know he would have appreciated –– might have told himself, with a twinkle in his eye. It took place in Halifax last Friday evening (after the presentation of the Defense Command novels to the RCN) when around 80 people gathered aboard HMCS Sackville for the Battle of the Atlantic Dinner.

This dinner is an annual event for the trustees of Canada’s Naval Memorial, and their guests. I fell into the latter category, but was welcomed warmly aboard ship, and quickly felt at home in Sackville’s Mess. This was in no small part because the people aboard –– many veterans of the RCN, and other services –– are very much like my grandfather. For the first time in years, I found myself entirely surrounded by people who possessed his dignity, his lack of ego, and his sense of humor. It was wonderful.

Now, you must appreciate that this was a $70-per-plate fundraiser –– the kind I’ve been to many times over the years. At best, such events tend to be somewhat staid; at worst, they’re equal parts pretentious and aggressive, as people jockey for position. Not so in Sackville; there was a profound sense of respect aboard the ship. This wasn’t somberness due to the occasion, but instead a welcoming atmosphere derived from the fact that no one aboard had anything to prove. Conversation came very easily.

With Richard and Cherry Wood — genuinely charming dinner companions, with an appreciation of the finer things in life (such as Monty Python). Thanks to Sackville’s Bill Ward for the photo.

I learned, for instance, that Jennifer Hevenor, the Collection Manager at Halifax’s Pier 21, is a fellow graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University –– we had plenty of notes to compare. More stories came quite genially from Richard Wood, Sackville’s gentleman webmaster. Richard had served as a hydrographer in HMS Dampier, and thus was part of the last crew to bring a Royal Navy ship back to Britain under sail (Dampier lost a propeller shaft off Africa, and sails had to be jury-rigged to get her 3,000 miles back to England, in time for Christmas).

Many more fine conversations were had… but as we were all nattering, there was a crisis afoot. At last, the Chair of the trust –– retired Commodore Cal Mofford (skipper of HMCS Iroquois during Operation Apollo) –– called for everyone’s attention, and informed us that the caterer who had been doing this event for years… had managed to get the date wrong.

That’s right: we were at a $70-per-plate fundraiser… and there was no food.

My friends who routinely organize events probably just fainted.

This is the ultimate nightmare –– a scenario so implausible that few believe it can ever happen. But this was no dream, and together with Sackville’s current Captain, retired Lieutenant Commander Jim Reddy, and a few other elite people, Cal had to present alternatives. If we could tolerate the delay, he suggested that alternate foodstuffs could be secured in time to save the dinner. Would we be willing to wait?

Well obviously, yes –– it wasn’t as though the company was bad. So with that settled, a plan was put into motion.

They called Swiss Chalet.

No seriously. At some Swiss Chalet restaurant in Halifax, the phone rang, and the answerer was greeted by: “I need 80 quarter chicken dinners aboard HMCS Sackville… in half an hour.”

As Jim Reddy said to me later, “I think whoever answered the phone realized they had one on the hook.”

Richard Wood: dressed for dinner.

They sure did, and by some force of restaurant brilliance, they came through. Plates that had been set out for fancy beef were thus shortly covered in chicken, fries, and gravy. I’m sure some people might have been miffed, but when I reached my assigned seat alongside Richard Wood, his wife Cherry, and Lieutenant Stephanie Murray, we were all rather delighted.

Improvisation at the last moment really is a tradition of the RCN. I’ve heard it argued –– not incorrectly –– that our entire navy during the Second World War was improvised… a fleet of ships doing duties they weren’t quite designed for, but getting the job done anyway, in spite of the odds.

It was in this tradition that the crisis of the caterer was met, so when it turned out that a $70 ticket only bought a $10 quarter chicken dinner, the atmosphere didn’t become grave, self-important, or bitter… we chuckled, thought here we go, and enjoyed the madness. See, for instance, the above photo of tuxedo-clad Richard Wood assaulting his chicken and french fries with gusto. Well done indeed.

But good spirits aside, I feel I must address the crisis head on, and ask: what happened? How could anyone mix up a date so completely?

I don’t think it was by accident. Call me mad, but I believe a particular soul sabotaged best-laid plans, in order to make a point. Who was this? What villain replaced catering with take out?

Almost certainly, it was the lady herself: HMCS Sackville.

hmcs sackville
Don’t let the innocent face fool you: she did this.

I’ve said before that this corvette possesses a great soul. It’s obvious the moment you go aboard that she’s seen much, and lived to see even more. But in the midst of a week of somber remembrance, I believe she set out to remind us all of an important truth: that seventy years ago, the boys she and her sisters carried across the Atlantic knew how to laugh, just as well as they knew how to fight. And the former was at least as important as the latter.

My grandfather knew how to chuckle when meals were undone and plans went awry. Neither being sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic, nor fighting in Korea, robbed him of that joy… and clearly, nothing has taken it away from Sackville either. She is a wise and wonderful ship, blessed by the kinship of good people, and she reminded us that if we forget to laugh, we are starving our souls of something most vital. That night, thanks to her and her team, we were very well fed.

So Bravo Zulu to you, Sackville, for your corvette mischief. My grandfather would have been… I believe, is… proud to have shared the ocean with you.