Among the many interesting and strange things that we found as we cleaned out my parents’ apartment in Vancouver was a little pile of handwritten letters addressed to my father. The earliest ones dated back to 1946, the year he graduated from the University of British Columbia as a chemical engineer and moved to Powell River to begin his career working in the research lab at the local pulp and paper mill.
I first decided to keep the letters because I knew that the postage stamps would interest my brother, an avid stamp collector. Many of them are 4 cent stamps bearing the image of King George VI. Later letters, written in the 1950s, bear 5 cent stamps with the picture of a very young Queen Elizabeth II on them. A few, written on thin air mail paper, have foreign stamps.
After looking at the stamps and the postmarked dates, I began to wonder about the letters themselves. Who wrote them? What did they say and what glimpses might they give of life in a different time? Some people might not approve of me reading my father’s mail but I couldn’t help myself!
This evening, I opened the first letter. “Dear Lofty,” it began. I hadn’t heard my father’s university nickname for years! As a six foot six inch bean pole, it suited him well. The letters started shortly after his college graduation and came from his classmates who had scattered across the country in search of employment. They were obviously a close knit group who referred to one another as “the boys”. They contain lots of job talk that only a fellow engineer would understand but in between there are fascinating glimpses into life in the late 1940s. Come along and snoop with me!
On June 2, 1946, George, who went to work at B.C. Plywoods in Vancouver, wrote “My salary will be $175 to start. ” On August 20, he wrote that the men in the plant were receiving raises as the result of a strike and his monthly salary was going up to $190. Others reported similar incomes. Of course, the cost of living was similarly low compared to today’s prices. On July 3, Rhys wrote from Hamilton, Ontario saying that he hoped to move to a cheaper boarding house soon. “At present I am paying $1.50 per day for room alone,” he complained.
In early August of that same year, Steve described the butyl (synthetic rubber) plant in Sarnia, Ontario where he landed a job doing research. “The plant is the real McCoy. It’s a 50 million dollar, 185 acre affair. It turns out about 1 000 000 pounds a month of various types of G.R.S. and is one of the 3 butyl plants in existence. It’s design and construction is the best, and you can get any equipment you want for research. The boys taking their Masters would be green with envy if they could see some of it. Control of temperature to 1/50 of a degree is commonplace, and absolutely essential in this field.”
John, who went to Trail, BC wrote, “I am in the Zinc Plant research lab on steady day shift with Saturday afternoon and Sundays off – the hours are 8 to 4:30 with lunch from 12 to 1.” In a later letter, he complained about “some guy from the Central Research who got his job by marrying the right person’s daughter.”
I chuckled when Rhys asked in his second letter, “How is your love life progressing? I hear Powell River is quite the place for an old wolf like you.” My father was 23 years old at the time and if I’m not mistaken, the letter was written the week he met my mother as it was dated October 30 and they met at a Halloween party!
Less than three months later another letter from John said, “Your statement about finding PR not so entirely devoid of young women as at first you thought has me worried – steady old man – who will be left in our bachelor league if you fail me now? You can’t do this to me, Stewart! I’ll sue you for breach of promise – that’s what I’ll do.” I wish John’s letters included his last name. I wonder if this is the same John who later built a cabin on the shore just north of Powell River; a cabin where we stayed several times and made many wonderful memories.
Not all of “the boys” wrote as intimately as John did. Though Norm wrote three pages all about his job at the Development Lab of the Paint and Varnish Division of CIL in Toronto, he slipped in just one sentence of a more personal nature. “About myself, I suppose you know that I was married on June 1st.” No details; not even her name!
Jim wrote a long and interesting letter shortly after the New Year. He was at the University of Toronto “instructing in Chemistry, first year general and second year organic.” He was working 19 hours a week for $180 a month and though he didn’t plan to stay there permanently, he clearly enjoyed what he was doing. “The organic lab is Home Ec – 60 girls!” he reported. I was surprised to learn that there were that many girls studying science in the 1940s.
In the same letter, writing about a visit to Princeton University, Jim says, “I also had the great pleasure of seeing (at very close quarters) our good friend Albert Einstein of Relativity fame. He looks just like his pictures. I recognized him first about two blocks away by the terrific halo of white hair.”
Jim clearly got around as he also wrote about a visit to New York, a city that obviously didn’t impress him. “What a complete nuthouse,” he wrote. “There’s no real life there, just pure existence if the taxis don’t hit you, and just pure existentialism if they do hit you. The civil engineers certainly had a heyday in putting New York together. What a city! Nothing but city! It cost me $1.20 to go to the top of the Empire State Building. Reminded me of being on Crown Mountain back home. The subways are an engineer’s nightmare, but still very efficient; you can disappear from sunlight all day for just 5 cents!”
There are 35 letters in all, carefully numbered in my father’s hand. Most of them were written in the late 1940s and early 1950s but the last one was postmarked January 4, 1963. It’s clearly going to take me more than one evening to sift through them all and more than one post to share their secrets. I hope you’ll come back for more!