By Garry Ryan
It’s kind of strange to look back on a book after the writing, the research, editing, etc. and realize where it all came from. Blackbirds is the story of a young woman from Calgary who finds herself in the thick of it in England in 1940. It’s where she discovers her rare and valuable talent.
Now I realize the story is rooted in Calgary’s post war Glendale. Our next-door neighbours were from Poland. Cas had been a prisoner in Siberia then went to Persia (Iran), Palestine, to the UK and to Canada. Hedi survived the war in Poland. She once told me that during the war, “You never knew whether you’d be alive from one minute to the next.”
Across the alley lived Mafalda and Ernesto. He’d been in the Italian Army and had been a prisoner of the French, Germans and Americans. For four years his family didn’t know if he was alive or dead. When he returned home for the first time, he hesitated at the front door and coughed. His mother recognized the sound immediately, opened the door and collapsed.
Down the block, lived three men who had been in the Canadian Navy. Smitty was one of them. After the war he joined Calgary Fire Department, used to take us fishing and died rescuing a man from a fire.
My mother was orphaned in 1940 and for a time lived at Calgary’s Wood’s Home. At eighteen, my father joined the Canadian Air Force near the end of the war and was scheduled to go to Japan.
You won’t read any of these stories in the history books. Few people know the stories, because the people on my block were reluctant to talk about the war. They moved to Glendale, had livings to make and families to raise.
Blackbirds is fiction, but it was influenced by the lives of ordinary people who accomplished the extraordinary. In many ways it is an attempt to honour their remarkable stories.