JOHN CLARE January 15 1952


JOHN CLARE January 15 1952

WHEN Dr. Robert Greig, a thirty-eight-year-old war veteran who graduated in dentistry last spring, faced his first patient the determination which had carried him through six years of hardship as a student suddenly deserted him. Excusing himself he left the patient, a woman, and walked from the sun porch, where he had set up his office, through the living room where his four children were playing to the kitchen where his wife, Velma, was baking.

The sweat glistened on his forehead as he approached his wife.

“I don’t know whether I can do it,” he said hoarsely.

She regarded him for a moment, then patted him affectionately on top of his bald head. “Of course you can do it,” she said softly. “How do you suppose you’ve come this far?”

In his wife’s eyes and in her words, but mostly in her eyes, Bob Greig caught the essence of six shared years, so long with toil and trouble that at times it seemed they would never end. In that moment he knew again the look in Velma’s eyes when he brought her, with a new baby, to the only house he could find—a house on Toronto Island where you could see the cold December daylight through the walls. He felt again the panic of the day when all three children were hurt, two of them seriously. He knew again the sour sick feeling of the day when he missed his exams and he and Velma had to decide whether or not to struggle on without the help DVA extended to veterans going to school.

But they had gone on and now they were where they had wanted to be. Bob wiped the chilly dew from his high forehead and went back to the sun porch. There he took a fresh grip on his confidence a hold that has been firm ever since—and on his forceps and pulled the woman’s molar.

In a time when there are more baby carriages than convertibles parked outside the universities’ convocation halls on graduation day; in a time w'hen thousands of veterans and civilians in the nation’s universities are fighting many a private epic battle against great difficulties, Bob Greig’s story has a heroic, almost legendary quality all its own.

Bob had always wanted to be a dentist even during the prewar years when he was working in the transportation department of the B.C. Electric in Vancouver. When he was discharged from the RCAF in Dec. 1944 because the Air Force didn’t need any more navigators he saw a chance, with the help of DVA, to do what he wanted to do. DVA assistance to Bob with two children— Kenneth, three, and Dianne, two —was a hundred dollars plus a month, together with tuition. The Greigs had a good equity in an NHA house in Vancouver. Ground steak was selling for twenty-five cents a pound. They were a healthy, determined and happy couple as Bob told the B.C. Electric he wouldn’t be back, and they set out on the great adventure.

Bob took an accelerated course that first winter at the University of British Columbia with the idea of later taking dentistry at the University of Toronto. They didn’t give a dentistry degree at UBC. He got good marks that term and his DVA grant was extended. He went east in the fall; Velma and the two children went to Grantham’s Landing, about twenty miles from Vancouver, to stay with her family. Their house was rented for seventy-five dollars a month. The plan to put Pop through college was shaping up very well indeed.

Bob found a room in a boardinghouse in Toronto and part-time work as a cleaner in the evenings. Then began the search for accommodation for the whole family. His advertisements brought no response and his longing to see his wife and children grew with his disappointment. One day a classmate showed him a clipping from a Toronto paper telling how Bob’s son Kenneth had received a Royal Canadian Humane Association award for saving a young playmate from drowning at Grantham’s Landing. His longing to see his family increased.

Just before Christmas Bob ran an ad reading: “Is there a Santa Claus? Veteran university student needs accommodation for wife and two small children arriving from Vancouver by Christmas.”

The appeal brought them a two-room flat and Velma sold the house and went east with the children. The sale of the house added four thousand dollars to their war chest after the mortgage was cleaned up and they began to look at once for more space. By spring it was apparent that there just weren’t any places to be had at the price they could pay. And the need was even greater now because Velma knew she was going to have a baby in the fall.

When Bob heard a dentistry course was being opened at the University of Washington, at Seattle, just a hundred and fifty miles south of his home town of Vancouver, he decided to move his family back west and take his chances. The family went by train. He would follow by car, a secondhand car which he would sell for a profit on arrival in Vancouver. The project was touched with disaster from the beginning. The tires blew out the first day and all had to be replaced. The battery packed up as well as some other vital and costly parts which Bob had never heard of before and can’t hear mentioned now without blanching. In spite of rebuilding the car en route he sold it in Vancouver for eight hundred dollars, or twenty-five dollars less than he paid for it.

Like the car, his fortunes began to falter. Washington couldn’t take a Canadian in dentistry, it had so many GIs to handle. Bob got a summer job as a carpenter at Grantham’s Landing but prices were beginning to surge and the Greigs felt the impact of the first wave on their savings. Linda was born a week before he left for Toronto to resume his studies, which were delayed by an attack of mumps— presumably a parting gift from his son Kenneth, who had had the ailment earlier.

Once released from the infirmary Bob began to look again for part-time work and a place to which he could bring his family. He quickly found work as a sweeper in the physics building at the university at sixty-five cents an hour. Space for a family of five seemed nonexistent until a classmate suggested that he try Toronto Island. The island, a crescent formation in Toronto Bay, was for many years primarily a summer resort, until the postwar pressure on housing converted it into a year-round residential district with about three thousand people living, with few exceptions, in winterized cottages.

Four Long Months in Snow Boots

Bob was shown such a house on the windy lakeshore at Hanlan’s Point, one of the three islands in the group. The house was frame, long and narrow like the railway flats of Manhattan, so-called because the rooms are strung like boxcars. In the case of the house Bob saw there was a suggestion that real boxcars had been used, for daylight could be seen through the walls. It was cold and unfriendly and had all the cosiness of a leaky two-story. But the price was right for a desperate student, forty-seven hundred dollars with two thousand dollars down. He took it.

When Velma arrived with Kenneth, Dianne at her side and little Linda in her arms, she turned to her mother, Mrs. Telfer, who had come east to help her with the children: “Don’t bother unpacking, Mother. We can’t stay here.”

“You certainly will,” said Mrs. May Telfer, a brisk helpful woman. “You haven’t come three thousand miles to turn around and go back again.”

Mrs. Telfer stayed in the upstairs apartment that first winter. The winter that followed for the Greigs made the Red River settlers’ experiences look in some ways like a junket arranged by the Chamber of Commerce. When it snowed, as it did frequently that winter, drifts formed in graceful ridges inside the house in line with the cracks in the wall. Bob shoveled them out before going to class and worked to plug the new breaches revealed in the defenses by each storm.

Velma didn’t have her snow boots off once, except to go to bed, in the four months that followed. And over their draughty lives that winter hung the constant threat of frozen water pipes which were even more exposed than the Greigs.

When they left taps running at night to make sure they would not freeze, the basin or tub into which they were flowing would be sheeted with ice by morning. One night a hot-water bottle slipped down between the end of the mattress and the floor board of a bed and Velma missed it when she was making the bed next morning. By the time she found it later in the day the hot water had been turned into a solid chunk of ice.

The house was heated by an oil space heater in the living room and about sixty feet away, down in the kitchen, was a coal stove, the only other heating element, on which Velma did her cooking.

One day when the doctor was leaving the house after examining the baby a neighbor asked him how it was that her brood had a succession of colds and those Greig children were never sick. “Too cold for germs in there,” replied the doctor, loosening his scarf now that he was outdoors.

The second floor of the house on the lakeshore was a separate apartment and this was rented by the Greigs for sixty-five dollars a month in summer and forty dollars a month in the winter. Later they cut their own downstairs apartment in two, keeping four rooms for themselves and renting the living room and one bedroom to a university couple who “were up against it and had no place to go.” The couple paid twenty-five dollars a month for this after Bob helped the man to partition the living room in two. The two families downstairs shared the same bathroom. The income from these rentals was a big factor in the economic survival of the Greigs in the hard years ahead.

The hot-water supply was uncertain to nonexistent, and the night the gas heater burst like a bomb the shock waves of the disaster reached deep into the lives of the struggling Greigs.

Bob had been upstairs in his mother-in-law’s apartment studying for an examination in organic chemistry the next day, because it was quiet there. About two in the morning he came down to warm himself at the space heater, for it was one of the colder nights of a cold winter on Haitian's Point. As usual his ears were attuned to the liquid cry of a distressed pipe and, as he opened the door going into his own place, he heard the most terrible sound he had ever heard from the water system.

The coils carrying the water around the gas flame burst and the water poured all over the place. He lacked the equipment or the skill to staunch the flow and there were no plumbers on Hanlan’s Point to call. He worked unsuccessfully most of the night and left for his exam early the next morning carrying the heavy knowledge that the water would continue to pour until he could return with a plug to fix it.

When the results were announced Bob learned that he had flunked organic chemistry.

Troubles seemed to queue up outside the Greig house that spring and on one day they burst inside in a classic cataclysmic clutch of three. “That day” as it’s known around the Greigs, who have known many “days,” began in the morning when Velma noticed a swelling on the side of Linda’s head.

The baby had fallen out of her high chair a few days before but with no immediate serious effects. Velma, now, made arrangements at the Hospital for sick Children to have an X-ray taken. Bob dropped his work of winterizing the house, which had top priority that spring, and took the baby on the boat over to the city. When he walked into the hospital he was told to call his wife at once.

Dianne had put her arm through the wringer of the washing machine and her skin was broken and torn. Would he ask the doctor what she should do? As soon as the doctor, had finished explaining to Bob that the baby had a fractured skull and must be watched very closely, he said he would like to see Dianne. Skin grafts might be necessary.

Velma was waiting at the dock with Dianne when Bob arrived home and as she went off to the hospital he returned to the house to find another emergency. The schoolteacher had called to say Kenneth had lodged a pencil eraser deep in his ear. The teacher thought it would need a doctor’s help to get it out. Bob got it out himself, however, and sat down to wait for the word on Dianne. It was good; the grafts were not necessary.

Sideline In Septic Tanks

But later in the same burgeoning happy season Dianne had to return to the hospital to have her appendix taken out and Velma soon followed for an operation on her varicose veins. Later, DVA wrote to say that Bob would no longer receive aid because he had flunked a class.

That summer Bob took over the four-mile milk route on the island pulling a heavy cart loaded with as many as twenty full cases of milk through the flood water which covered the roads to a depth of three feet in places. In his spare time he dug gardens, strung tennis rackets, helped Velma with the children until she had recovered from her operation, worked on his house and on other people’s houses against the winter.

And it looked like a tough winter. Medical expenses had been heavy in spite of the fact that Velma and the children had availed themselves of such benefits as outpatients’ clinics and public wards. The RCAF benevolent fund had helped with doctors’ bills but there would be no DVA assistance in the year to come. The war chest was light.

It was at this point that Bob Greig, as many other deserving students have done and will do, applied for a bursary based on need. He was granted two by the university, two for one hundred dollars each, and in another year one for a hundred and fifty dollars. Others among the 124 veterans in Bob’s class of 152 were seeking and getting aid from the same source. Dean R. G. Ellis, of the U. of T. faculty of dentistry, had this to say about the problem: “It’s getting increasingly difficult for young people to train for the professions without some kind of help. Bob Greig’s case is not an isolated one. This year, with half of our graduating class still made up of veterans, we had requests for aid amounting to thirteen thousand dollars and were able to offer only five thousand. The problem will be with us when the veteran student is not, and we’re trying to do something about it inside the profession and within the alumni of this university by sending out an appeal for funds to set up our own bursaries.”

When Bob applied he was told he was the only man ever to apply who listed “cleaning septic tanks” among his extramural activities.

He passed his supplementary exam, thus becoming eligible to continue his course and got a part-time job at the post office. The Greigs were now renting half of the downstairs apartment, and the baby-bonus cheques, together with odd jobs including babysitting, kept the Greigs in operation. Clothes were almost eliminated as an item of expense through the generosity of friends and relatives. Even Bob’s clothes came from a brother. He didn’t buy a new suit all the six years he was a student. Christmas gifts came from the same kind sources.

Velma tried to relieve Bob of financial worries—although there was little she could do about the actual financial burden he was carrying-—by taking care of all money matters. Each morning she gave him a quarter for car tickets and made a lunch which he ate at school.

Later, when he was through his course, the price of tickets went up to three for a quarter in Toronto and Bob remarked to a friend, half in earnest, “If this had happened earlier I would have been licked.”

In those days when people attempted to tell the Greigs about the fine job they were doing Bob would always nod toward Velma. “It’s her,” he would say. “I don’t know how she does it.”

He Slept In Streetcars

In all his school years they went to one movie together, attended one university function, an at-home the first year. Yet the Greigs were known to all the islanders as a happy contented family. The children were happy, well-fed and as well-dressed as any children at Sunday school.

The family’s health remained good and Bob, except for a tendency to go to sleep in class, on streetcars and ferries, was managing to handle a heavy academic year. Frequently he slept past his streetcar stop and had to walk back because he didn’t have a spare car ticket. Professors sometimes referred to him as “that fellow who sleeps through my lectures.” He did his studying during the week in the dentistry library where it was quiet, and on Sundays when the library was closed he would go across the bay to the Royal York hotel and study on the mezzanine. One Sunday afternoon he fell asleep there and a hotel detective stirred him with the brusque warning: “This is no place to be sleeping, Mac.”

Velma felt that because of his heavy school year he should be relieved of all outside work so she took a night job packing Christmas-tree ornaments in a factory.

Velma would feed the children their supper, put the baby to bed and put Bob’s meal to warm on the back of the stove. Then she would start out for the ferry, the same one on which he came home from school. They had a few minutes together at the ferry slip, a few minutes to talk and be together, and then she would go to work and he would go home to have his own supper and put the two older children to bed. Then to his books.

It didn’t work, however, and Velma’s legs gave out on her and she had to leave her job and Bob went back to work in the post office nights. Financially they got by but Bob failed his year, precipitating the gravest crisis they had yet faced.

Should he repeat his year? Fees were to be higher; there was equipment to be bought. The doctors had just told them Linda had a coeliac condition, which meant an expensive high protein diet since she was intolerant to fats. A can of special milk cost a dollar-fifty and lasted four days. She also had to have her tonsils out.

The decision to continue was not made any easier by a post-office edict that only veterans with overseas service could hold part-time jobs. Bob liked the work and he would have been due for an increase. Besides he would need every cent he could get because Velma was having a baby, their fourth, in January. However, he got a job at Eaton’s packing groceries in the evenings and began to repeat his year.

In November Bob was called at school and told his wife must have more surgery done on her legs and was, in fact, at the hospital for the operation. He went home to look after the children until she had recovered.

Velma, strong of body and even stronger of spirit, recovered quickly and when her baby was due in January she went down to the boat by herself after persuading Bob to stay at home and get some rest.

“Husbands are only a nuisance around a hospital at a time like this,’’ she told him. Bob, too tired to protest, agreed. He was asleep when David was born.

Velma came home from the public yard two days later. David was sickly at first; he only weighed five pounds. But expert medical care corrected a lung ailment and the child quickly gained strength, although he too suffered from the same coeliac condition which afflicted Linda.

The obstetrician who delivered the child and the specialist who treated the baby’s lung both contributed their services.

The little family, not so little now for there were six Greigs, continued to work and thrive and survive. Bob passed his year and that summer went back to his carpentry work by day and a job he had secured the year before with the Army Dental Corps by night. The fees at school were raised again to three hundred dollars this time, and there was expensive equipment to buy, but they managed. It helped a little when the city rented their house as a polling station for the civic election. Kenneth was now making about fifteen dollars a month delivering the Star. Dianne helped too, by working as a photographer’s model at five dollars an hour. She got into this line of work the same way Lana Turner got before the cameras. When a visitor to the island commented on her blond beauty he got in touch with a studio, which got in touch with Dianne, and used her picture in several magazine advertisements and knitting-instruction books. And then there were those small, welcome cheques from Bob’s and Velma’s parents which seemed to arrive when they were needed most.

During this summer Bob had one of his few chances to play tennis, a game he loves, when he entered the island tournament and without practice finished in the finals of the men’s singles, which he lost after taking the first two sets; and the finals of the men’s doubles, which with his partner he won. He took the cash in lieu of a prize and bought a textbook, Oral Diagnosis.

He told a friend: “Might have won the singles too, but I got sleepy.”

Through all the six long years the Greigs remained out of debt, although there were times when it was hard to hold their heads above water. The welcome parcels of used clothing continued to arrive from relatives at the coast and in California. There were times too when one of the young Greigs could exclaim, “Why, this is brand-new!” as a worn-out piece of clothing was replaced. Velma found money for everything that was needed.

As the end of Bob’s course approached, excitement mounted on Hanlan’s Point, for everyone knew the story of the tall smiling man with the four good-looking children and the plucky wife, who was going through so much to be a dentist.

Kenneth kept his class and his teacher at the island school informed with regular reports on his dad’s progress. On the early boat each morning Bob was asked by his neighbors how it was going. It was going fine.

“She did it,” says Bob now, looking at his wife.

Mrs. Telfer was visiting them when the results of Bob’s final exams came out one May day last year. A classmate phoned to say his name was on the list in the dentistry building. Bob called to Mrs. Telfer that he had passed and went out to look for Velma. She was down the street helping Kenneth deliver his papers.

She looked when he called. He was grinning and holding his hands clasped above his head like a boxer.

Velma helped her son finish the papers first. That seemed the thing to do. Besides, she had waited so long for this moment she could wait a little longer to enjoy it to the full. Then she came back to the shabby frame house and went through the gate and walked up to the porch where her tall smiling husband, Dr. Robert Greig, was happily waiting for her.

The children were there, wide-eyed and silent with the knowledge that this was a very great moment.

Now, if this were the movies and the Greigs weren’t real people, the music would come up and the camera would get sentimentally misty and steal away. But the Greigs are very real people and while they’d arrived at the land their courage had promised them, it turned out to be just as rough in some ways as the country through which they had been traveling.

Velma had taken up a great deal of the strain to spare her husband and the children, but she paid for it with a duodenal ulcer. An operation recently removed a section of her stomach.

She says she’s fine now, though.

The Greigs have another island house now, financed with the money they put into the old one, although in all their years of paying for the first one at twenty-one dollars a month they added only five hundred dollars to their investment. This one has no holes and it has five bedrooms, so the children can have some privacy and Kenneth can have a place to hang that certificate he got for saving his little friend’s life. They have a dog called Pal. “We could never afford a dog before,” says Bob.

Dr. Greig has an office in the sun porch at home where he takes island patients and has his main office on Yonge Street, near St. Clair Avenue. He has turned out to be the good dentist his professors said he would be. Each weekday morning he conducts a clinic at Morse Street Public School. Some day he would like to do all his work among children.

Right now it’s tough sledding getting started. He looks at the debts he’s acquired getting set up since graduation, and he worries. Away back when he was fighting to get here he was too busy to be worried. Besides, in those days a man could always string a tennis racket to take his mind off his troubles. ★