It was all we wanted to hear about.
But my father wasn’t the sort of person you broached subjects with once he’d let you know ‘he wasn’t talking about that’. He might pull your ear as he was prone to do when incited.His unspoken message was that war wasn’t to be used as entertainment. But it was exactly what my brother Alan and I wanted. We wanted to hear about him in his Spitfire, in dogfights with Luftwaffe, being a genuine hero.
Yet, I would search his face and could see there was something darker there. I wanted to uncover this secret life he held from me. I felt it was an act of selfishness that he kept these stories locked away. My mind hungered to know what it was like to be shot down, to be rescued by an Italian family, to hide for months from the Nazis, to be deemed ‘dead’ and what his family felt and said when they received the telegram that read: Frank Doyle has been shot down. Missing in action.
I gleaned most of everything I know about my father from family stories when he wasn’t around. Since he died when I was only 10, and was sick much of my childhood with a failing heart, I did not have the luxury of hearing many of his spoken words. I’ve learned to sew together his story, from tales told by my older siblings, old silk maps, and reports to the RCAF and postcards from Italy stored in his war trunk.
One story he did share, because it was funny I suppose and had a specific beginning and end with no violence contained therein, was of a reconnaissance trip he did, flying over Italy by himself on a beautiful day. He described the afternoon, the blue, blue open skies and brilliant sun surrounding him, feeling totally free and singing. Singing at the top of his lungs–Ave Maria. My father was a devout Catholic and really had a profound faith and love of the Virgin Mary and so he was completely in this joyful, spiritual moment when suddenly someone in a brusque voice shouted: Doyle, shut the hell up, we can hear you!
To his surprise, he’d left his audio on and so was singing to most of the Canadian Air Force across Europe.
I love this story because it reminds me of when I was working at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and was mopping the stage before the show, and I was singing, also at the top of my lungs, the Star Spangled Banner, terribly off-key, heartily pushing my mop back and forth across the large, black stage. I was completely alone in the theatre but I didn’t realize the intercom system was on and there were three other theatres, a lobby, and all the theatre offices that could hear me. So suddenly I jumped out of my skin when I heard loud clapping behind me, and standing there was a group of people laughing and enjoying my deep embarrassment.
I understand why my father wanted to shield us from the horrors of war, but as a writer, I miss the stories he couldn’t share with me as an adult. Now I find myself drawn to war stories, of survivor stories, stories of great courage, of underdog characters pitted against dangerous foes in highly desperate situations. They fortify my belief that with a slim wisp of faith you can stoke a flame and grow a fire within you. You can, in fact, fly into the sun, singing at the top of your lungs, and know joy in an uncertain world.
On Remembrance Day, I am thankful for his courage that gave me my life, and for all of the stories he never told but that reside in our family’s DNA, still as alive today as they were in his fiery fall from the sky and long journey home to his family in the village of LaFleche, Saskatchewan. RIP Frank Doyle.