It was one of those summer mornings, everything looked yellow except the blue sky, daisies danced in the field and birds flitted about in the trees. With a warning from Ma to behave myself, I set out for a visit with the King and Queen.
It was June 5, 1939, in the tiny village of Gogama, where twenty-six school kids, ages six to sixteen in our one room school, practiced their singing for two whole weeks and the Queen’s favourite, , so our teacher said.
All the countries in pink that took up one quarter of the globe sitting on the stand belonged to the British Empire, and we should be proud to be part of it, Miss Cavandish told us for about the fifth time.
My Dad said they were making this Canadian cross-country tour to drum up support for the European war that was shaping up. Even though he was going to be on the platform with the other veterans of the Great War, he said he had mixed emotions. I had no idea what he was talking about. When you’re eight, it doesn’t seem to matter.
With great anticipation we sat quietly while the teacher counted the votes. Which one of the girls was going to present the bouquet to the Queen? The teacher, with a cheery smile, announced the winner, my cousin Alice!
She sat silently sobbing in class the next morning after being told her homemade dress just wasn’t good enough. Betsy who finished second would be taking her place. The teacher tried to explain because of the Great Depression we had been experiencing for the past nine years, many families were going hungry and didn't even have shoes.
Going on about the stock market crash and dust storms didn't seem to take away the sad feeling and shame many of us felt.
We felt quite different sitting in our desks wearing our good Sunday clothes when we gathered, but then it wasn't a regular school day. There was a sense of excitement in the air, and we weren't even told to be quiet when we started to laugh and talk. The sun shining though the side windows had a special glow while it danced on the blackboards showing the tiny particles of dust hanging in the air.
Sitting on the grass beside the school, squinting in the sun, each waving a small Union Jack for a final practice, we sang our heads off. We then marched down to the viewing stand especially built for the occasion.
We were ready.
More people than I ever saw in my life were gathered around the viewing stand. The kids from the Catholic school, who were about three times as many as us, stood on one side below the platform. We were lined up on the other with the townspeople behind us, as well as the Indians from Mattagami Reserve and families from the settlements along the railroad tracks.
On the platform were the veterans, town representatives, the two girls who were presenting the bouquets, the unofficial mayor for the day, Mrs. M J Poupore, wife of the mill owner who ran the town, wearing a fur stole and a huge blue hat.
It was getting close to ten o’clock when we first heard the piercing scream of the train whistle, the chug-chug of the engine, and saw the white smoke puffing from the stack. When the engine passed by, painted purple and gold, with the bell clanging, the cheering started.
Then all went silent as the royal couple came out of the door, passing the scarlet-clad Mounties standing at attention, and walked down from the coach platform and up the stairs to the viewing stand, the Queen with an even bigger and bluer hat than Mrs. Poupore’s.
The king wore his dark blue navy uniform, with the medals across his chest glistening in the sun. It seemed to be a dream, or from a fairy tale. The singing and flag waving started; cameras flashed and the cheering from the crowd erupted.
The Queen looked right at me, smiling and waving; it made me feel so proud. In that instant, I knew she liked our singing. She talked to the people on the platform and then accepted the bouquets, while the King talked to the veterans. They were quite proud of him because he was in the famous battle of Jutland, a naval battle between England and Germany in 1916.
Finally, after about twenty-five minutes, they returned to their coach and waved as the train slowly pulled away.
We all watched until the train was out of sight.
It was a great day.
The visit made us feel special and part of something.
The war did start that fall, and most of the young guys joined up.
Seven didn’t come home.
Postscript: When it was announced the Queen was visiting Canada about four years ago, Alice’s granddaughter wrote to the Queen’s staff, telling them the story of the dress and the sadness and shame Alice felt for sixty-some years. Alice was invited to a reception in Ottawa. She isn’t poor anymore. Dressed to the nines, they say she almost outdid the Queen, and probably had a bigger hat.
See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Algoma, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.