“Things end but memories last forever.”— Kumar Milan
“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”— Cicero
“Make peace with your past so it won’t destroy your present.”— Paulo Coelho
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”— Lois Lowry
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”— William Faulkner
“It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.”— Adlai Stevenson
“And the memories of all we have loved stay and come back to us in the evening of our life. They are not dead but sleep, and it is well to gather a treasure of them.”— Vincent van Gogh
Part 1 of these memories dealt largely with a magical time for me when, between ages 10 and 14, I lived with my family on my grandfather’s cattle ranch in the Porcupine Hills of Southern Alberta. Going to school in a one-room, 8-grades schoolhouse for three years. Riding a horse to school. Meeting a real old- time cowboy. Learning to harness and drive a team of very large draft horses. Meeting Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum.
This was, as you might imagine, an extremely formative time for an apprentice teenager. Much of what I became throughout this unexpectedly lengthy life was grounded in this wonderful experience. So much remains vividly with me today.
Before and after this magical time were some very painful and difficult periods.
Death of my father days after WWII ended
It seems reasonable to begin here at the beginning of myself. I was born in Calgary, Alberta, in 1940, the first of two sons of an oil and lodging business manager who became an RCAF Flight Officer and instructor in WW II.
I really never knew my father, who was known as “Bill” despite being “Everett Brock” officially (no one seemed to know why). For most of my early life in Calgary, I probably saw my father only a very few times when he was on brief military leaves. But, kids in their first four-to-six years probably don’t remember much of anything anyway. I sure didn’t.
On May 10, 1944, two days after V-E Day and the end of World War II in Europe, my father was flying several airmen from Edmonton to Calgary. They were all heading home – an Aussie, two New Zealanders, and a couple of Canadians heading for Vancouver.
Their plane was hit by lightning a short distance from the Calgary airfield and broke apart before crashing. No survivors.
I recall nothing of this time but it led to a huge change in my life when my mother shortly thereafter remarried – to another airman, an RCAF Flight Officer (navigator). My stepfather had spent over three years as a prisoner of war in Hitler’s Stalag IV-B after being shot down over Frankfurt in 1942. A bit on this traumatic experience (for me) below.
Forgiving a harsh stepfather after realizing he had serious PTSD
For folks who know little about WWII POW camps, you might find this bit of background helpful.
Stalag IV-B was the first WWII POW camp open in Germany proper. In fact, the first British flier shot down in 1939 was taken there. It was also used as a transit camp for processing prisoners to other camps and work areas. An International Red Cross report stated that there were 70,000 POWs in the camp at the time of liberation in April 1945. Camps in the west and east that were evacuated moved prisoners into Stalag IV-B in the closing days of WWII.
Stalag IV-B was on the eastern bank of the Elbe River near the town of Muhlberg – south of Berlin, east of Leipzig, and slightly north of Dresden. The camp was divided into French, Russian, and English compounds, and made up of long buildings where POWs were barracked. There was a chapel located in the back of a building behind some of the British barracks. A bare brick building contained the showers and delousing unit.
The camp was surrounded by two rows of fencing, electric wires, mines, and guard towers. The barracks were unheated and housed 200 prisoners per building. Inside, there were rows of double bunks where there was just room for men to lie down. Outside, the only thing on the flat horizon was endless rows of squat barracks in most directions, and a thin row of trees across a field that lay beyond the nearest edge of the Stalag. In winter, there was little snow on the ground. The sun seldom shone and the sky maintained a perpetual Baltic grayness.
My stepfather was a really great guy initially and wonderful to my younger brother and me. Among his many talents was that he was a stellar salesman. As I learned, rather soon after we moved to Vancouver where he quickly got a solid selling job, he had a very dark side as well. He was at times abusive in terms of becoming suddenly angry and harsh for reasons we did not understand, and even on occasion physically violent. Probably not uncommon from what I heard from my friends at school whose fathers were war veterans.
As the oldest of the five-child family, I caught the brunt of whatever was going on but I was mostly too young to protect my siblings. Getting away summers to my grandfather’s ranch and bungalow camps (motels) probably saved my sanity, or so I felt at the time. Leaving home for good following graduation as an engineer from UBC was a true godsend.
My stepfather and I never really got along after that time, even though I visited Vancouver as often as I could to see my mother, brothers, and sisters. We pretty much agreed to disagree on almost everything, limiting our conversation largely to family banalities.
He did start to mellow in his later years and we sort of built a father-son relationship during this period. Never really went much of anywhere before he died of emphysema in the 1980’s.
Only after his death when I started reading about PTSD among servicemen in the U.S. did I begin to understand my stepfather. He had all of the classical, fairly severe, symptoms. Apparently all of his war buddies had these to varying degrees, according to my mother.
Sadly, my forgiveness – and that’s what it really was – at last occurred many years following his death. It is so unfortunate that I did not have any idea about what he suffered in Stalag IV-B.
My great-grandfather’s bible following his Spanish Flu death
My grandfather William Fay Becker was born in Easton, NY, just north of Albany. He got into some kind of trouble at school around age fifteen and ran away from home, permanently. He worked on railroads, with his brother “founded” the town of Baker MT, and eventually ended up in Calgary as a pioneer oilman. With early oil business ups and downs, my grandfather decided to try homesteading in the small central Alberta town of Trochu. My mother was born there.
His crops were hailed out three years in a row, which pretty much finished his dreams of becoming a farmer. In 1919, Fay’s father, with whom he had apparently reconciled, visited the Trochu farm with his wife and their daughter.
Terrible timing. The Spanish flu epidemic hit Trochu just at that time, eventually killing around half of the population, including my great-grandfather, his wife, and their daughter. All buried in a mass unmarked grave, as I learned years later when trying to locate the graveyard. Nothing there but bare dusty prairie.
My great-grandfather’s Bible, given to him in 1916, ended up with my mother, who passed it along to me when she died in 2003. A picture of this Bible, which I still have, appears below. A constant reminder of the deep uncertainties and vagaries of our lives.
Paul Hillman and General George Patton
My grandfather’s mother was a Hillman via some rather complex genealogy. Paul Hillman was a younger cousin, who started a milk delivery business with his brothers in the early 1900’s. Paul eventually built this into one of the largest propane haulers in the U.S.
During WW II, Paul outfitted his trucks with Ford engines that just so happened to be powering the tanks in General George Patton’s Third Army. These engines proved so unreliable that the Battle of the Bulge planning was threatened. By some odd means, Patton learned of Paul’s great success with the engines in his milk-hauling trucks.
In true military fashion, Paul was inducted in secret to join Patton’s army and was charged with fixing the battle tank engine problems. Even Paul’s wife did not know what happened to Paul for a month. Paul’s great success earned him a battlefield officer’s commission despite Paul having never served in the Army. Paul’s conference room in Fort Edwards NY had a life-sized, and Patton-autographed, picture of Paul shaking hands with Patton.
I met Paul when we were living in Mt. Washington MA in a 1780’s-vintage farmhouse money-pit. Paul was a mere 98 years old when he drove up to visit us and enjoy some of what he called my wife’s “Paris cooking”. Paul told us hours of stories about his time with Patton. Paul finally retired at age 100, leaving his thriving trucking business to his son, who was then close to a normal retirement age. Paul died at age 104, of boredom I believe due to no longer actively working.
Living on the side of Mt. Everett, my father’s given name
The Patton story was a long way of introducing another very odd coincidence in my life. My father’s name, as noted earlier, was Everett Brock Allan, but everyone called him “Bill”, so I learned from my mother (without explanation). We were for almost twenty years living on the side of Mt. Everett, second highest “peak” in Massachusetts. I hiked Mt. Everett in early mornings almost daily for much of this time. Good way to get prepped for whatever the day brought forth. Worked for me, at least.
Now, what are the odds of my living on the side of the only Mt. Everett in the U.S. so far as I am aware?
I am not a great believer in serious coincidences like this, so something deeper may well have been at work here. I leave you to speculate.
Sir Isaac Brock and Sir Hugh Allan
While touching on coincidences, these are a couple of very odd connections. My father was an Allan, born in Mt. Royal, Quebec (part of Montreal). His father Hector Allan lived there all his life before moving to Calgary. The family was moderately well off, supposedly supported by modest inheritances from somewhere. Sir Hugh maybe?
The only real connection that I could find was that an elderly aunt, who lived all her life in Mt. Royal – Mabel Gertrude Allan – was one of Sir Hugh’s nine daughters.
This connection goes a bit further.
My middle name is Brock and my given name Gerald comes from my aunt Geraldine Brock, who oddly enough spent most of her life in Mt. Royal. Her sister, Margaret, was my grandmother. Allan’s and Brock’s seemed to have a long-term thing for Mt. Royal.
Anyhow, the Brock name goes way back in early Canadian (Upper Canada) history to Sir Isaac Brock, a British Major-General. Sir Isaac managed to get himself killed in the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812 at age 43. Childless. But his family was a prolific breeder of Brocks. Among them, quite likely, was my favorite Aunt Gerry.
The miracle of how I met my late wife Jolaine
This is a truly fresh and painful memory, Jolaine having died in April 2022 at age 79. We were married for nearly 60 years. She was a wonderful wife and mother of our two sons, but I remember her most as my very best friend and joyful companion. Our getting together was so unusual in its circumstances that I still think of it as a “miracle”.
Jolaine was born in Lethbridge AB, Canada in 1942, to her mother Frances and her father Pete, a coal miner who immigrated from Poland in the early 1930’s. She was the youngest of their ten children. She grew up in Calgary AB after her mother died, and went on to study hospital pharmacy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. After graduation, she practiced for several years in a big city hospital and later for plague vaccine-maker Cutter Labs in Oakland.
That’s the overview. How we both ended up in Edmonton at the University of Alberta at the same time, living in adjacent dorms, and falling in love at first sight – truly – is something amazing. Super-coincident.
In the summer of 1964, I was preparing to leave my field sales engineering work (and its two-Martini lunches, another story) for a master’s degree program at the University of BC in electrical engineering. My sponsor Dr. Geoff was my favorite undergrad teacher. Then, without any notice, I received a call from Geoff saying that the entire electrical engineering department at UBC, dean included, was moving to the U of A for the fall academic year. Geoff asked if I’d like to join them – since there was, at that moment, no UBC electrical engineering department in existence. I accepted mostly because Geoff had become a good friend during undergrad times and I trusted him completely.
So, in September 1964 I began a master’s program at U of A and living in a tiny room in the men’s dorm.
Jolaine meanwhile had managed to complete her pharmacy degree work at U of A – all except for a bad grade in a lab course. Hard to believe since she was a very competent lab technician, or at least Cutter Labs thought so.
After thinking seriously about giving up pharmacy studies entirely and finding an office job, she “suddenly” decided to go back to U of A and upgrade to a hospital pharmacy degree while making up her bad lab grade. She told me that she wanted to get away from her difficult home life (she was adopted by her oldest brother after her mother died), but this explanation was without conviction.
So, back to U of A she went, and into the women’s dorm next to my men’s dorm. We ended up eating at the shared dining hall, and that is where we met. I fell in love, deeply, at my first seeing her, and she returned my eager affections shortly thereafter. Enough so that we were married in a simple ceremony three months later.
Back to my coincidences sense: What are the odds that:
- The entire electrical engineering department at UBC suddenly moves to U of A and invites me to join them.
- Rather than my usual apartment living preferences, I decided to give the rather harsh men’s dorm at U of A a try.
- Jolaine did not graduate in pharmacy because of one bad course grade, began thinking about quitting altogether, but “suddenly” decided on going back for a hospital pharmacy specialty degree.
- She looked for an apartment but her late return decision sent her back to a final year in the women’s dorm.
Don’t know about you, but to me this goes way beyond any reasonable definition of coincidence. Way, way beyond. I strongly believe that it was meant to be. It gave me the 60 happiest years of my life, and a wife’s love that was strong and unwavering. Doesn’t get any better than this.
Getting tear-gassed on my way to classes
National guard guys at the main gate at UC Berkeley. And yes, those are real rifles and bayonets.
As part of my never-ending school life, I decided to get an MBA in applied economics from UC Berkeley while we were living, with first son, a few blocks from campus. I was able to con my employer, engineer-builder Bechtel, into letting me work part-time during the school months. How this happened I still have no idea.
My timing in one respect was seriously off here: As Wikipedia describes:
“After its creation on April 20, during its first three weeks People’s Park was used by both university students and local residents, and local Telegraph Avenue merchants voiced their appreciation for the community’s efforts to improve the neighborhood. Objections to the expropriation of university property tended to be mild, even among school administrators.”
“However, Governor Ronald Reagan had been publicly critical of university administrators for tolerating student demonstrations at the Berkeley campus. He had received popular support for his 1966 gubernatorial campaign promise to crack down on what the public perceived as a generally lax attitude at California’s public universities. Reagan called the Berkeley campus ‘a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.’ Reagan considered the creation of the leftist park a direct challenge to the property rights of the university, and he found in it an opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise.”
“On Thursday, May 15, 1969, at 4:30 a.m., Governor Reagan sent California Highway Patrol and Berkeley police officers into People’s Park, overriding Chancellor Heyns’ May 6 promise that nothing would be done without warning. The officers cleared an 8-block area around the park while a large section of what had been planted was destroyed and an 8-foot-tall perimeter chain-link wire fence was installed to keep people out and to prevent the planting of more trees, grass, flowers, or shrubs.”
“The action came at the request of Berkeley’s Republican mayor, Wallace J.S. Johnson. It became the impetus for the ‘most violent confrontation in the university’s history.’”
What this description fails to include is the spraying of the campus by a military helicopter with tear gas. When I was pushed away, literally by bayoneted-rifle side, by the very young Guard guys – me in my business suit and briefcase, I walked around the campus to an unguarded entrance and down to the classroom building.
Oh-boy, that was really bad timing. Just as I reached the building, the helicopter passed over me (after already spraying the hospital) and gave me a good dose. This stuff temporarily blinds you, leaving a pink haze that I could barely see through. I managed to get to a water fountain and tried to wash the spray out of my eyes. Another bad move. Turns out that this just makes things worse.
I mostly-felt my way upstairs to the classroom where half of the class was throwing rocks down at the amazingly patient Oakland cops while the other half was trying to hear a lecture on varying-parameter regression. The students throwing rocks were having the most fun as I recall.
The tear gas spray effects gradually wore off over an hour or so, but I was seeing through a faint pink haze for most of the day. Joys of student life at UC Berkeley.
Refusing to write fraudulent purchase orders
I had some concerns about writing about this one, but since those involved are, to my knowledge, now all dead, I decided to go with it. It changed my life in a huge way – and in the outcomes, a very positive, wonderful way. And also prevented me from making what could easily have become the biggest mistake of my life.
More highly unlikely events coming together here.
Working in Calgary again after our years in Berkeley, I stumbled upon a unexpected opening for a purchasing manager for a major gas pipeline system. Previous occupant got himself cross-threaded with management and was abruptly and unceremoniously booted. This position was responsible for purchasing what today would be several billion dollars a year in construction and operating materials.
Challenging job but I had some very good folks in the department who did the heavy lifting and complex stuff. I mostly made sure that they had everything they needed to do their jobs well. And I was the interface to the top management group. Worked well – until one day it didn’t.
I was asked by a very senior executive to “create” some purchase orders that would in effect cover up some very bad decisions (or maybe worse) by the executive and his team. This was pure fraud although for a “good” purpose – keeping some top folks from getting into some very deep trouble. Like getting fired, or maybe worse.
After talking to a number of senior oil business people whose opinions I trusted, it came down to: create-the-frauds or refuse. The latter option went with the caution that “you-will never-work-in-the oil-business-again”. It meant quitting and heading elsewhere, not long after we had begun to settle into Calgary for the long-term.
My conscience finally won out. I refused and the executive found one of his engineers to create the required purchase orders. Very quickly, I learned that I was going to be moved aside to “broaden my experience”. Yah, sure.
So I decided to apply to Harvard Business School and to Stanford’s equivalent for their doctoral programs. My vague goal was to move into teaching, having already seen as much of business reality as I could handle. Short story: Stanford said no and Harvard said yes. In the fall of 1973, we four homeless waifs landed in Boston and a huge life change got under way.
Very tough times making this work for many reasons, but the outcome, a doctoral degree in decision analysis, was gained in 1978. To my wife’s huge relief. At the commencement, world-famous Russian author and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave one of his most important and prophetic speeches, A World Split Apart.
Living with very large black bears
To conclude this rather rambling series of memories, I should bring up our life with bears – very big black bears (and cubs). While living for almost twenty years in Mt. Washington, MA, we became very close to a number of these wonderful creatures. Our place, farmhouse-and-money-pit vintage 1780’s, had a lively brook and was situated next to a large blueberry farm. Both bear magnets.
What the bears liked most, however, was cleaning up under my wife’s many bird feeders. For a while the bears dragged the feeders off but I got pretty good at figuring out where and returned them for further action. They would literally spend hours under the several feeder sites – at first only at night but in later years, much of the day. They kind of became “family”.
Black bears are truly wonderful creatures. They are very cautious until they begin to trust you. Then, they begin to join into daily activities. One very large bear, who we imaginatively named Mr. Big due to his roughly 400-lb size, became a constant companion of my wife. This bear lay beside a rock garden for hours while she weeded, just like a big dog. Mr. Big was waiting patiently for feeders to be refilled. He knew the routine.
Town folk reacted nastily to this extended family arrangement. We were daily threatened with “don’t feed the bears” screeches even though all we did was fill the bird feeders. People develop their own blindness’s despite easily visible facts. Big surprise, yes.
Our biggest loss after leaving the mountain in 2017 was the companionship of the bears. People, with a few exceptions, not so much.
End of random memories
I hope that you found some of these memories to be interesting. My take in recounting these is that my life, and that of my beloved late wife, were in a real sense not chance occurrences but instead a strongly-guided progression. Too many “coincidences” that simply could not have occurred by any random process.