Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Stories about our lives'

Writing about war-vet father 'has brought him back to life'

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Mac Horsburgh had always read stories to his two sons, even long after the boys could read for themselves.

There was a reason he did that -- there always is, but it's not always obvious.

Which is how he came to take his then 11-year-old son Graham to hear someone else read at a McNally Robinson bookstore back in 2005.

Jake MacDonald -- an old boyhood pal of Mac's from Crescentwood -- was launching his latest book: Out With The Boys: Field Notes On Being A Guy.

The book centres on hunting, fishing and male bonding, and, as it happened, both the title and the theme held a profoundly important place in Mac's heart. His father, John Horsburgh, had been a hunter, something Mac knows mostly from the shotgun he inherited. Mac never got to hunt with his dad, much less listen to him read him a story.

But curiously, the telling of stories is what this story is about.

-- -- --

Mac Horsburgh only faintly remembers his father, the Canadian army engineer and officer who made it safely home from the Second World War. But he always remembers him on Remembrance Day. John Horsburgh was a gold medallist in civil engineering at the University of Manitoba, who, while serving his nation, was decorated for bravery while dodging death in July 1944 -- only to be killed in July 1952 in a northern Manitoba float plane crash while serving his province. Six other men died with him, all of whom were also war veterans employed by the province, and all but one of whom left behind widows and young children.

John Horsburgh was 33 when he died; his son was three and his baby daughter only two months.

John's widow, the dark-haired beauty Bernice, would go on to be a teacher, but never remarry.

As it happened, she and her husband had named their first-born Macintosh, after John's father, Macintosh Horsburgh, who had died soon after his own son had returned home from war.

Ironically, not being able to spend more time with his father had been John's greatest regret.

As it would be his own son's.

Mac would grow up with women -- his mother, grandmother, sister and aunt. And for years, well into his adulthood, Mac would struggle emotionally because of the loss of a male figure to guide him. Over the years, when he was a child, his mother had now and then shown him photos of his dad, and gradually, when she thought he was old enough, offered him glimpses of the 70 letters John wrote home to his parents while serving overseas.

Once, in hopes of helping him deal with the loss, his wife framed a photo of Mac at the age of two, sitting beside a sandbox with his dad. Mac burst out weeping.

He visited war cemeteries in Europe, where he also wept.

Over the years, he had gotten to know his father better through the stories of friends and colleagues who suggested John was a visionary in the water resources branch who foresaw the need for a Red River Floodway. And eventually, Mac -- who operates a men's counselling service -- would come to tell people he had completed his emotional search for his father. Still, he never felt he really knew him.

And then last year, as the 60th anniversary of his death approached, his now 87-year-old mother arrived for Sunday dinner with a gift. It was all she had left of who John was; all the medals, photos and letters together in one place for the first time.

It was those material memories that inspired Mac to write a story about his father, a Remembrance Day story that Reader's Digest deemed good enough to publish recently in its Our Canada magazine.

This week, as Remembrance Day neared, Mac would allow that researching and writing the story did more than help Mac get to know his father better.

"This has brought him back to life."

But it did even more than that.

-- -- --

Earlier this fall, Mac gave the shotgun he inherited from his father to his younger son, 15-year-old Carson.

And together they went to the kind of place Jake MacDonald wrote about in his book, and Carson bagged his first ruffed grouse. One father had passed on a part of who his father was to his son. And they each had connected, both earthly and spiritually, with the man both had only known through stories, told and written. Which reminded Mac of something he recalled Jake MacDonald saying that day he took his older son Graham to hear him read from Out With The Boys.

"In the final analysis, this is all we have and that's all we are. Stories about our lives."

There is a plaque on the halls of the Legislative Building that features a Norseman float plane flying in the clouds. It is in memory of the seven provincial government employees who died in a northern Manitoba plane crash on July 21, 1952. All were Second World War veterans, and all but one left behind widows with young children.

Here are their names.

John Horsburgh, 33, senior hydraulic engineer

Martin Madden, 30, chief inspector, liquor commission.

Arthur Hanson, 34, engineer, water resources.

Robert Frederickson, 35, chief photographer, Manitoba Travel.

Allan McLellan, 34, liquor commission hotel inspector.

Frank East, 40, draftsman, water resources.

Russell Percy, 34, provincial government pilot.

(Source: Winnipeg Free Press archives)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 B1

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