Songs of Love – But Not for Me
Harry’s younger brother Ross, age 22 was marrying his high school sweetheart Elaine, age 18. They’d been going out for a couple of years. Helen was looking forward to their wedding, but knew she would have mixed emotions once she got there.
As she entered the church, she spotted Harry Sr., Ida and Ross driving up. She wished them well and went to the groom’s side, where she sat behind Harry’s grandparents. They turned around and invited her to join them and Grandma Culley commented on how much everyone thought she looked like Betty, Harry’s cousin who lived in New York City. Helen smiled weakly at this and at all of the relatives sitting around her and tried to remain composed, but it wasn’t easy. She kept thinking about how she wished that she and Harry were getting married and that it had been such a long time since she’d heard from him. Why was he being so silent? It didn’t help matters when some people suggested all the other things that might be going on with him. She seemed to need his reassurance regularly, especially when he was so far away.
Hearing the organ music begin and turning to watch Elaine come up the aisle, Helen vowed to put her feelings aside for the time being and be happy for the young couple.
Toronto, June 17/44
I hardly know where to start in telling you about everything. My mind is in such a state of confusion just now. Anyway, it turned out to be a perfect day . . .
Elaine looked so charming as she walked up. Really I think I was almost as excited as she was. The ceremony wasn’t very long; Gordon Darling sang during the signing of the register. I’m thinking so many things in between these sentences but I can’t seem to explain them to you. They were gone by the time we got out of the church. I stayed with your Grandmother and she made me acquainted with more of your relatives, who all passed the remark that they thought I was Betty sitting there;
I resemble her so much.
Art said I could consider that quite a compliment. I met Mrs. McGuire too, her
two boys are over there [fighting in Europe]
and she hasn’t heard from them for some time. We rode up to the Alexandra Palace; your Grandfather was muttering
away to himself, but seemed to be enjoying everything. She [Grandmother
Culley]] keeps nudging him and he knows what to do next. She was talking about
the two of you [i.e. Harry Jr. and Ross] all the way up. We had to wait about
half an hour for the bridal party to arrive then we filed into the reception
|(l to r) Ross, Elaine, Ida, Helen|
When I offered my best wishes to Elaine, she thanked me and said “Don’t you wish this was you standing here?” My feelings at that I didn’t express. They served punch, dainty sandwiches, cookies and ice cream and the wedding cake. The photographer was there to snap her when she was cutting it. I asked Mrs. Ackerman [Elaine’s mother] if she would save a piece to send to you and she said she would give it to your Mother. Your Dad, Art and members of the band and Navy were absent for a short while [perhaps having a drink?] then when they came down from upstairs, the minister gave the toast to the bride, and before the best man toasted the groom he read your cable, also Billie Haye’s which I thought was a very nice gesture. Oh! you were so close then dearest. Is there any reason why the afternoon was a bit difficult for me? I’m just a funny person, I guess. Ross was slightly nervous but responded very well. . .
We saw all her gifts last night, and they were lovely. Mine wasn’t duplicated [Helen gave them a casserole dish], but she got four coffee silexes. The only thing they said they needed was a tea kettle.
It has been pretty terrible over there the last few days. How many times those people must wonder how long it is going to last. Were you anywhere near the bombed area? It isn’t very safe there right now.
Well, darling, I’m going to lie down for awhile. Maybe you know how much I missed you today. Did you think of them at three (nine your time)? I must love you so very much honey or I wouldn’t feel “like this” tonight.
So long dear. Yours always, Helen xxx
England, June 12, 1944
My Darling Helen,
We have just completed our tour of the eastern provinces and believe me I’m plenty glad. Ceremonies might impress the people over there but it’s a pain in the neck to me.
I’m terribly sorry about the mail situation, darling, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Everybody is complaining at home about not getting letters for over a month even. I’m keeping my promise; I mean the one I made about writing more often and when you do get them you will realize that. Say, what do I have to say to convince you that I love you? I’m glad you don’t listen to those people you are living with. What a pair of warped minds they must have!
I was surprised to hear that Ross is getting married and will already be in that state when you receive this. I don’t blame him a bit and my only wish is that it could have been a double wedding. Don’t you?
We’ll be on the road again this week-end as we’ll be in Coventry on Sunday to play a concert. There always seems to be some place we haven’t been to. I don’t mind it a bit though especially on week-ends because I wouldn’t know what to do with myself around here.
Goodbye for now sweetheart. All my love, Harry
Realities of War
By 1941 the British had cracked the secret German code machine called Enigma.
They were able to intercept German radio signals and
knew in advance what actions the Germans were planning.
|bombed-out Coventry Cathedral|
Some historians maintain that Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew ahead of time that the Luftwaffe were planning to bomb Coventry and destroy its 14th century cathedral on November 13, 1940, but they had broken the code. As a result, not only was the cathedral bombed but around that time several munitions factories and buildings in the city were also destroyed, resulting in many civilian casualties. Some believe Coventry was sacrificed “for the greater good.”
This information was not known at the time, but came to light in the 1970s, long after the war had ended.
Coventry, June 20, 1944
Continuing on their tour of the English midlands, the band spent a weekend in Coventry where they played several concerts, including one for the British Royal Air Force Sports Day in the middle of a
|Spitfire at sports meet in Coventry|
Afterwards, Smitty and Harry made their way to their billet on the outskirts of town. “Was it my imagination, or was that pilot using us as a target?” asked Harry.
“Yeah, he was diving right at us for about 15 minutes – I think he forgot that we weren’t the enemy,” said Smitty.
“He certainly was skilful, pulling out of a dive in the nick of time and just skimming the trees. I guess after all those missions to the continent, this would be child’s play.”
They knocked on the door of a tiny cottage that had a large tin hut in the backyard.
“Good afternoon boys, come on in,” said an older gentleman. “I’m Mike and this is my wife Betty.”
“Thanks for having us – you people here have had quite a time of it,” said Smitty. “The downtown area has been knocked about quite a bit.”
“Aye, we’re lucky to be alive,” he said. “The Gerries rained down on us steadily for three months. I don’t think the wife and I took our clothes off that whole time, what with running out back to the Morris shelter at all hours of the day and night.”
“I noticed Woolworths and J. Lyons are still doing business, but in a very modest way in a corrugated tin garage,” said Harry.
“Yes, it will take a long time for us to rebuild, but things are looking up now that the second front has started. Here, we’ll show you to your room.”
After they deposited their kit bags, Harry and Smitty headed back downtown. They walked along to the site of the bombed-out medieval cathedral, to see for themselves the horrific destruction.
“Nothing left but the tower, spire, and part of a wall,” Smitty said solemnly, as they looked at what used to be the cathedral’s interior, now a pile of rubble. “The futility of war – a building that had lasted for 700 years, only to be destroyed in a single day.”
|Inside the bombed-out cathedral|
“I suppose we’ve done an equal amount of damage on their side,” Harry said. Smitty nodded.
“It was beautiful inside,” said a grey-haired older British woman, coming over to them. “Ornately carved arches on both sides of the centre aisle. Would you boys like some tea?”
“Sure – thanks.”
“Where are you from?”
“Toronto,” Smitty said.
“Well, this tea wagon was donated to us by the citizens of Guelph after the Blitz,” she said.
“No kidding, that’s just 60 miles west of where we live,” Harry said.
“Help has been pouring in from all over, but I doubt our city will ever be the same. However, it did bring us all together – we spent so much time in the communal shelters during the bombings.”
“Let’s all pray that the war will be over by the end of summer,” Harry said.
Buzz Bombs over London
The German Luftwaffe dropped a wide range of bombs on England over the course of the war. By June 13,
London, June 30, 1944
By the time they got to their fifth piece that day, “Long Ago and Far Away” by George Gershwin, Steve was at his wit’s end.
“You guys are playing well but we need to do a retake – the technicians say they can hear the sirens and explosions in the background – I guess the soundproofing in this studio isn’t as good as the blackout curtains. We’ll take it one more time from the top and see if we can get a clean take. Maybe the Gerries will give us a break for five minutes.”
|RCAF dance band, Al Smith (left), Harry Culley (2nd from right)|
“As long as we can hear those doodlebugs, we’re OK, but as soon as you don’t hear them, look out, they’re going into a nosedive,” Harry whispered to Ossie, who played the clarinet beside him.
No sooner did they sound the last note, than there was an explosion in what seemed to be the next building. The BBC recording technicians ran to the shelter, while the musicians fell over themselves looking for cover. Harry and Ossie dove under the grand piano, where they stayed huddled together for what seemed like hours. Nobody moved until they heard the all-clear.
London, June 30, 1944
Well Darling, I promised to tell you about our London trip. We got through the five records without too many bumps on our part. There was an almost continuous alert on during the process but we were in a pretty safe spot under the BBC House. The records are for the forces overseas so you won’t be able to hear them. [They would be played on the ACF Network.] I went to one Prom concert and Myra Hess played a concerto but I really didn’t enjoy it as there were several distractions during the program. [i.e. bombs exploding.]
I was very uneasy last night when one passed very low overhead. I might say I was scared, but so was everyone. Smitty practically lived in the shelter and began to look quite green this morning. Lucky we didn’t have to stay any longer than three days [in London.] It’s very hard on the nerves with sirens going on at all hours of the day and night. So much for that!
Aug. 12, 1944 . . . I can tell you what one [a buzz bomb] sounds like. Just imagine the biggest truck you’ve ever seen going up a street like Winnett [the street where Helen lives in Toronto]. There’d be quite a vibration in the houses. Only two came over London yesterday, so they must be destroying more bases every day [i.e. the Allies must be destroying the German bases in Europe where the bombs originate.]
August 28, 1944, London, . . .we had to play a broadcast, quiet so far. We’re going to rehearse a bit tomorrow and I hope it’s not raining because there’s no roof on the only place we can get. It was blown off recently by a near hit.
All my love,