Robert Collins’s wartime experiences were as benign and agreeable as any serviceman could hope for. According to The Long and the Short and the Tall, his memoir of the Second World War, Collins was never in a battle and never even in serious danger. Instead, his stint as a mechanic in the Royal Canadian Air Force allowed him “to glimpse the world and grow.” Growing included loving—and losing—a Belfast girl, as well as learning to travel, to overcome shyness and to live with men in groups. All that, he claims, helped shape the man who later became a respected magazine journalist and author. Collins’s account of his wartime maturation is graced with a certain candor, especially about his early sexual awkwardness. But his book’s main value lies in the faithful mirror it holds up to an era slipping rapidly from memory.
Collins never intended to spend the war 10,000 km from the front. But in 1943, when the Air Force discovered he was color-blind, his future as a noncombatant was sealed. At training camps in Brandon, Man., and St. Thomas, Ont., he mastered the intricacies of airplane construction. But his real education was the shock of a new life. As a product of a south Saskatchewan farm—evoked in one of Collins’s previous books, Butter Down the Well—he had to adjust suddenly to the rough camaraderie of the barracks. On his first night away from home, he bunked down with 750 swearing, jostling men in Brandon’s Winter Fair building. One enlistee had the courage to kneel beside his bed and say his prayers. Collins expected the others to tease him mercilessly—but no one did.
The pages of The Long and the Short and the Tall bristle with authentic detail: toilets without doors, the smell of Brasso used to polish buttons and buckles, breathless kisses with girls whose photos adorned the airmen’s wallets. There is a special poignancy in such images—as well as vividness enough to recreate the era for a new generation and provoke those with memories of their own.
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