The year is 1940. A faded photo depicts my father sitting in rapt attention, hunched on a stool, his expression tense, his eyes fixed on an old, brown wooden floor radio. Although I was still a pre-schooler, I knew what he was listening to. He was listening to the news. I remember because that scenario was repeated several times every day during 1939 to 1945 -- the years of the Second World War. Daily reports from our then "Mother country," Britain, carried the news of the war across Canada by reporters such as Lorne Greene, who some dubbed "the Voice of Doom."
As an immigrant who came to the North End of Winnipeg with his young family to escape persecution and political oppression, my father was worried about the relatives who were left behind, their safety now being threatened by violent eruptions in Europe. But the true catastrophic human saga unfolding beyond the radio, even as he listened, would not emerge until after the war ended.
We grew up with that radio the way people today grow up with television. It performed a dominant function in our lives by connecting our family with the outside world. Radio in Canada began to grow and was a must listen throughout the war years for news of loved ones. By 1942, radios could be found everywhere; in taverns, in shops, as well as in living rooms across the country. In fact, Warner Troyer, in his book Sound and Fury, stated that the number of families in Canada in 1941 was approximately 21/2 million with about 11/2 million with radios.
Fortunately, we here in Canada escaped the devastating fate of so many others. And though the battle took place an ocean away, its impact reverberated in every Canadian household. For example, I recall one of the effects of the war was that certain foods were rationed, like tea, coffee, sugar and butter. And the rations coupon books provided by the Canadian government gradually extended to include many other staples such as meat, cheese and evaporated milk. These were needed for the soldiers and the war effort.
The radio also crackled out short, musical promotions appealing to Canadians to buy Victory Bonds with lyrics like, "keep on buying to keep 'em flying, And don't ever stop 'til they're over the top."
During those years, the radio gradually expanded to include entertainment, offering some relief to the daily distressing news. For example, I discovered Hockey Night in Canada. My family would huddle around the radio every Saturday night and listen to Foster Hewitt shout (in his inimitable high-pitched excitement), "He shoots! He scores!" The contagion caused a clutch of five kids to holler in unison along with the sound of roaring, raucous spectators. In time, I became a hockey aficionado, and could spout names like Syl Apps, Turk Broda, or even Conn Smythe, the manager of the team. Establishment of the "Hot Stove League" began during those early years and continues to this day.
Other distractions included shows like John & Judy, a serial about life in a small Canadian Town, and The Happy Gang with Bert Pearl.
Even the music emanating from this shabby box radiated doom and gloom. For example, The White Cliffs of Dover (1941) was written at a time when the British and German aircraft had been fighting over the Cliffs of Dover in the Battle of Britain. We'll Meet Again (1939) was a song that resonated with soldiers off to battle while their families and sweethearts suffered the pain of waiting and the uncertainty of their return. Both were sung by the haunting voice of Vera Lynn.
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (1941), made famous by the Andrews Sisters, and the hopeful message in When the Lights Go On Again (1942), sung by Vaughn Monroe, are but a few examples of the music that was spawned to offer comfort to the masses.
Our family's history not only tells a personal story but chronicles many other family narratives. It also highlights the role of radio in our lives. It served to bring news of the war into our homes between two catastrophic events -- the Great Depression and the Second World War. We cannot overlook its importance as a medium of communication that brought the world into hundreds of thousands of living rooms across the country.
Radio today has expanded into many other options, such as talk sports formats, which are carried through Internet radio, and all can be accessed anytime and anywhere with mobile devices.
However, it has not changed much in the hope that it would never again be needed in the service of war. With new technology that can transmit news flashes in all areas of the globe at lightning speed, and as hot spots of conflicts continue to erupt like volcanoes around the world, that will have to be an aspiration for the future.
Libby Simon is a Winnipeg freelance writer.