Perhaps I should have known that when working on the biographies of the dead there’s the chance of one of them coming to life in the research. I never considered that fact until I started working on this story.
I was working on a biography called Three Soldiers Came Marching Home. This was to be a story about my grandfather from the First World War, my father and my mother’s second husband who both served in the Second World War but on opposing sides, the Allies and the Germans. They’ve long since passed; only their stories remain.
Red flags showed up in the research, my father’s war record being one. He’d lied about his service record—not a big lie, and I’ll get to that later, but he lied all the same. My grandfather, said he’d signed up and actually had been drafted. And then there was Herbert Hahn, the strange and secretive German that was my mother’s second husband. I have no way of corroborating many of his stories, only to tell them in this tale in the manner that Herbert told me.
After three months of research, a thorough run down of numerous dates and times in the war to parallel the stories I had from each of my subjects, I thought I was ready to write my story. I needed one more thing. An interview with my aunt Marlene, the youngest of my mother’s sisters, one of the only four surviving siblings of a raucous family of seven Hansen children.
My aunt lives two hours from me, over a 1,200-metre mountain pass called the Coquihalla Highway. On a clear morning in late April 2016, that road was a thing of beauty. Mountains and snowy peaks blended into the clouds as the road rose to its summit. I’d left 18˚ C in my home of Kelowna, British Columbia and the temperature was 8˚ C at the top of the pass.
While driving, I thought of the recent conversations I’d been having with Aunt Marlene. We’d been talking over the past few months, probably more than we had since I was fifteen years old. I told her about the book I’m writing; she said it sounded interesting.
She hasn’t read any of my other books. None of my relatives have, but then, I have so few sales, that most of the world has no idea I write other than my wife and a few close friends. I was taking her a copy of my latest book, Misdiagnosis Murder, which hasn’t sold well either, but I figured I’d give her a signed copy. She would probably say “neat” and put it on the end table where she watches television.
People wonder why writers who don’t sell a lot of books still write. It’s because there’s something in us that wants to put words on a page and see where they go. Once you start writing, you get addicted. We are low abuse addicts that need only caffeine and any space to work in, from coffee shops to the end of a sofa. Rehab, however, doesn’t seem to work for many of us.
In my writing, I make enough to support my editor, my book designer, and my barista, but not enough, as yet, to pay for my bartender.
The reason for this non-fiction book started with an article I sent to The Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest newspaper. They actually published it. They featured it on New Year’s day 2016. I’d meant it as a personal growth piece. The Globe spun the story as my father’s struggle with alcohol and my family enabling him. The graphic they put on the story was of my mother, my father, and me carrying a bottle up a mountain. It was scary, but I saw what a national newspaper could do for a writer’s coverage. Did I sell more books? Well, no, but I did get some great exposure…perhaps this goes to that strange saying that all press is good press.
I did, however, get hooked on writing non-fiction. There was more to my father’s descent into alcohol: it had to do with his war years and his failure and his cover up of that failure. Here in my three soldiers, I was going to reveal the struggles that soldiers go through in war. Back in WWI and WWII, they had no word for posttraumatic stress disorder. Men came home mentally broken and were told to “man up” and deal with it.
I was thinking about all this as I pulled into my Aunt Marlene’s place in the city of Merritt, British Columbia. This small city of eight thousand residents is nestled in the Nicola Valley. Low mountains bracket it with clear blue skies overhead.
There are mines, some cattle, and people like my aunt and her husband, Tom, who wouldn’t live anywhere else on earth. Marlene’s children, Michael and Stacy, both live close by, and so do Tom’s children. This is my aunt Marlene’s fourth marriage.
Her curse was being drop dead gorgeous when she was young. She breezed through two divorces and then met a man she was married to for many years, until cancer took him away. I don’t know how she ended up in Merritt, perhaps to be close to her son, but then she met Tom, a nice man who looks after her and calls her “baby doll.”
I pulled up to the house, parked my vehicle, and hugged my aunt when she answered the door. She looked smaller; she’s in her early seventies and walks with a cane. I hadn’t seen her since my mother’s funeral over two years ago.
We sat and had coffee as she spread out a sea of photographs of my grandfather, Einer Hansen, and my grandmother, Elsa Lundgren. The pictures were old; they peered at me through a brown tinge. None of the people smiled. Everyone looked grim in the photos, as if someone had dragged them out of their dreary day-to-day life to stand or sit for their portrait.
There was a picture of my grandfather. He is sitting in a chair in a Canadian Army uniform while a man stands beside him. The man is better dressed than my granddad, who is somewhat slouched, his army cap pulled down to his ears.
“Who is that man?” I asked my aunt.
“That’s the man that saved your grandfather,” my aunt said. “He told your grandfather that he couldn’t sleep, so he’d take the watch over the trench. Granddad got down from the watch post, his friend took his place, and golly if a German sniper didn’t shoot him smack dab in the head.”
I jotted down notes and took a picture of the photo with my iPhone. This was going to be great for the book. Several of my relatives had mentioned my grandfather’s story of seeing a German prisoner being shot and how it bothered him.
Their unit had been fighting all day and captured a German prisoner. They were told to take the prisoner to the rear. As they walked along a road, one of the Canadian soldiers took off the German’s hat and threw it in the field. When the German ran to get it, the soldier shot him. My grandfather cried every time he told the story.
My mother had told me she thought she was the only one who knew my grandfather’s story. It seemed my grandfather told whomever he was drinking with. There were multiple recipients of the tale.
After going over the information and getting some new details for my book on my grandfather, I suggested we go someplace for lunch. We ended up at a local place, native owned, with bannock bread on the menu, and country music playing in the background.
My aunt Marlene tucked into the bannock bread, soup and salad special, and so did I. The bannock bread was light and fluffy and tasted of a heavy use of butter, nothing like the stuff I’d been served years ago in Canada’s far north. My aunt loved the bread; she dunked it in her soup and got soup on the sleeve of her white jacket. She reminded me of my mother at that moment. My mom wore half her food, no matter where we went to eat.
We were finishing lunch, sipping our coffee, when my aunt turned our conversation to ghost stories. I’d heard many of the stories before. They were the ones of my grandmother being a “ghost whisperer.” Anyone who had ghost problems in the little town of Elkpoint in eastern Alberta called my grandmother.
She would drop everything, come over, and have a talk with the ghosts. The ghosts would listen to my grandmother and shuffle off to either haunt elsewhere, the spirit world, or their final rest in heaven. I paraphrase heavily here, but that was the essence of what I got from my grandmother when she told the stories.
There were a few stories I hadn’t heard, which was one of my great-grandmother Lundgren roaming around their small farmhouse after she’d passed on. My grandmother, for reasons never explained, couldn’t convince her to leave. Perhaps she liked her company?
None of these stories seemed that earth shattering to me, and then my aunt Marlene narrowed her eyes as she fixed her gaze on me, and said, “Well, then there was the one where you were in the crib, that one was pretty scary.”
“How did I get involved in a ghost story?” I asked.
“Well,” my aunt said slowly, seeing she had my undivided attention, “your mom was staying at the farm with your two brothers and you. I don’t know where your dad was, but we were in the upstairs bedroom.”
I’d seen that farmhouse when I was younger. There were only two large bedrooms upstairs. The place was tiny. The downstairs had a small front parlor, a large kitchen in the back, with a little room off the kitchen closed off by a curtain that was my grandparent’s bedroom. The outhouse was of course…out back.
My aunt sipped her coffee and continued. “I was on the bed, telling your mom I didn’t want to go to the school dance. Your mom was telling me to not be such a wallflower and go. Then, all of sudden, she upped and grabbed you out of the crib and told me to grab your brothers and follow her downstairs.”
“What was the matter?” I asked.
“She wouldn’t tell me until we got downstairs. She looked pretty white. She said she saw the ghost of her old boyfriend. He was standing there, looking down at you in your crib with his hat in his hand.”
I think I finally breathed again at that point. “Did you know my mom’s old boyfriend’s name?” I asked.
My aunt shook her head, “No, I don’t recollect that.”
I slumped back in my seat. “My mom told me I was named Lyle after a young man she knew who went off to war and never came back. I wonder if he was the ghost?”
“No idea,” my aunt said.
I drove them back to their home, hugged my aunt, and thanked Tom for his hospitality. I liked Tom. I’ve liked all of my aunt’s husbands—the ones I’d met, anyway. I got in my vehicle and began the journey home.
A light rain turned to snow in the highest part of the pass. I turned this story over in my mind thinking of how I’d approach this latest information. I’d initially started on Three Soldiers Came Marching Home, but what if there was a fourth soldier? This one had died in battle and journeyed all the way back to Canada, to a bedroom to stare over me, the child that bore his name.
The thought was eerie. Was my namesake an ethereal ghost? There was only one way I could find out. I had the email address of my cousin Marvin Jackson in Oregon, USA. My cousin Marvin is the son of my aunt June, the oldest sister of the Hansen family.
Aunt June lived in a care home and was approaching her ninety-first birthday. Marvin visited his mother every Sunday. She was now slipping into dementia. She couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast, but she could remember almost every detail from the past. The problem was, sometimes the past can get a bit clouded, and I’d experienced this phenomenon with my mother as she slipped into dementia in her last few months. People and places could get mixed up.
I sent a quick e-mail off to my cousin, asking him if he’d ask his mom if she happened to know if I’d been named after my mother’s boyfriend who went off to war and never came back. I also wanted to know his last name, if she could remember it.
I had visions of getting his name, then running either a war records search or an obituary search in the local paper in a few cities, to see if there were any surviving relatives.
I saw myself, finding this ghost’s war record, where he’d disappeared in a hail of gunfire at Normandy or was missing in action somewhere in Italy. All of this was rattling around in my head as I journeyed home. I had to put the story on hold. We were heading off on a much-needed vacation and looking forward to swimming and snorkeling in the Pacific off the islands of Oahu and Maui.
I packed my things, my computer and flip-flops, and we headed off. I was thinking, with my Cousin’s answer I might start my search while on vacation. I’d utilize Google to run my story into the ground, find this ghost, and enjoy a few Mai Tais. How foolishly I was lulled into a sense of complacency.
We left on May 3 for Honolulu; I didn’t get an answer back from my cousin Marvin until May 9. He always saw his mother on Sunday. May 8 was Mother’s Day and was also the day of our thirty-fourth anniversary. I opened my computer on the morning of May 9 to see my cousin’s answer. His answer would rock my world.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish