My dad was one in a million — literally.
My father, Ted Teahen, was one of more than one million Canadians who served in some way during the Second World War, either in the army, navy, or air force. Of those one million, 44,000 were killed and 54,000, my dad among that number, were wounded.
Canada’s primary role for the first years of the war was the defence of the British Isles from the German forces: it wasn’t until I was older that I realized the Second World War was a complex web of conflicts on many fronts. To me, it was about Bad Jerry (Jerry being my dad’s nickname for the German forces) led by Evil Hitler against the Allied Shining Good Guys. My frames for windows on the Second World War are named Dieppe, Normandy, Italy, the Netherlands and, looking up to the skies, the Battle of Britain: the Germans occupied countries in Europe up to the English Channel and then the Luftwaffe (German air forces) tried to conquer England by bombing it into submission. Britain and its Canadian allies managed to prevent that from happening.
Like so many of his generation, my father volunteered to serve and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. After training in Saskatchewan, he spent the rest of the war in England, mostly at the air base in Bournemouth, where he was a firefighter and ground crew.
He was wounded during a bombing raid of that airbase: he carried Luftwaffe bomb shrapnel in his shoulder for all his life. But his time in military hospital in England — he recovered and return to service until the war was over in 1945 — produced the story I loved to hear, over and over, when I was a kid. It was the story about Kit, the Burmese monkey.
Kit was the base mascot and, for whatever reason, the creature attached itself to Ted: So much so that when Ted was injured in that bombing attack the monkey pined in his absence. The other airmen decided to sneak tiny Kit into the hospital for a visit.
Two things you need to know about Kit: he loved shiny things, and hated women. Once released in the hospital ward, Kit clambered to the highest point — a traction bar holding up another airman’s injured leg. And then came along the Head Nurse. With a bouffant hairdo. Held together by shiny hair pins. Whoooop! pounced Kit, hating the nurse but loving the shiny bits on her head. When telling this story, at this point my father could not keep talking, overcome by laughter at the memory of this nurse shrieking with a monkey perched on her head, pulling out hairpins and flinging them around the room.
Kit was so beloved that someone at the base decided he needed a proper uniform. I have this uniform, now, among my family mementos: it measures 11 inches from neck to hem, and spans 15 inches across the arms. The material is authentic RCAF-issue dark blue-grey wool, with two brass RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) buttons, British RAF (Royal Air Force) wings, “Canada” patches sewn over both shoulders and two stripes around either sleeves, which I have been told made Kit officer-class as a Flight Lieutenant. Someone embroidered “KIT” in orange side-stitch over the uniform’s right breast pocket.
There’s something irresistible about this story: while I have no idea how a Burmese monkey made its way to an air base in England in the midst of a world war, that monkey brought cheer and a reminder of the world and possibilities beyond bombers and bombings.
Kit, like my father, survived that war. My father actually brought the monkey (and his wee uniform) home to Canada: can you imagine that trans-Atlantic trip on an ocean liner? The monkey may have thrived in an air force base but did not do so well in my father’s family home: my dad’s mother did not take kindly to a monkey climbing all over her kitchen. Kit was donated to a zoo in London, Ontario that eventually became part of Storybook Gardens.
I have no way of knowing this for certain, but I suspect I may have the only custom-made-for-monkey Second World War RCAF uniform on the planet. Which makes it as priceless as the stories it evokes.
Main photo: Taken of Ted Teahen, in RCAF uniform complete with the deliberately skewed Wedge Cap, and the company mascot, Kit, in England during the Second World War.