Chapter Five: R&R and the Future

The distance from Halifax to Sauk Centre, Minnesota was over 2,000 miles. I will spend some time discussing his railroad trip from Canada since I only briefly mentioned the original journey in passing in a previous chapter. The main reason I did not discuss the original route Grandpa Gordon took to get to Canada was because it was all a blur for him. In his life, he had never traveled further then to Minneapolis, so when he decided to join the RCAF he was way out of his comfort zone. So his mother gave him some of her much cherished tincture of Opium or Laudanum. He took one small swig of it when he boarded the train and the next thing he remembered was crossing the border into Canada. Prior to that he had the vague feeling that someone had  dragged or carried him, but of that he is not entirely sure.

When he reminisces about those times, it seems like a lifetime ago. He is still amazed at how much he has grown and matured in the last four years. Certainly being exposed to constant life threatening events will make you grow up pretty quickly. He had lost track of how many times he faced death from either German fighter pilots or anti-aircraft ground fire. So how could a train ride ever compare to those harrowing adventures? Indeed!

The train ride from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada to Sauk Centre,  Minnesota would take over 55 hours of travel time and involve four train car changes. The first one being at the Saint-Lambert Station in Montreal. The second one would take place in Schenectady, and the third one would occur at Chicago Union Station. The last one would be in Minneapolis. The first two exchanges were quite short and lasted a little over an hour each, where the one in Chicago would be almost five hours long, so he thought he would avail that time and do a little sightseeing. Since the rail line to the town of Sauk Centre was not a main line there was only one train a day stopping at it. The train didn’t depart until 8:00 in the morning. So he planned on staying at a cheap motel after he arrived in Minneapolis at approximately 11:00 PM the night before.

He knew that the scenery along the way would be excellent as the train hugged portions of the great lakes of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan, in particular. He also spent a little extra money and got a sleeping car for two of the four legs. He thought since he was going to spend 50 plus hours on the train he definitely would be needing to get some sleep no matter how excited he was going to be. Besides what was he going to look at during the nighttime?

Before he left Halifax he bought a slightly used Black Contax Mark 1 rangefinder camera with a Carl Zeiss Tessar f/2.8 50mm lens. He had always liked photography,  but he never had any money to spend for a nice camera. Besides this trip would provide many opportunities to get some nice photos. Most of his life he had lived without a lot of creature comforts, so why not enjoy himself a little and splurge some.

The leg from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Saint-Lambert, Montreal was the longest one and took approximately 22 hours, so he got a sleeper for this portion of the ride. The leg from Schenectady to Chicago took close to 17 hours so he got a sleeper for that one as well.

The scenery on this trip was spectacular. In addition to the beautiful waterways and views of the magnificent great lakes, there were also wondrous national forests to gawk at. Grandpa Gordon also got to enjoy the views of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Indiana Dunes Natioal Park, Fort Stanwix and Mississippi National River Recreational Area. Even though he did not get to explore them individually he was able to see quite a bit from  his railroad car. What he could see only served to wet his appetite for more. He vowed to someday make the trip by car so that he could explore these sights more closely.

When he arrived in Chicago he hired one of  the tour guides that were ensconced at the train terminal. When he hired the guide,  he made the stipulation that he only had 4 hours for the tour. So the guide suggested that they take a drive down a few of the most popular and spectacular thoroughfares. He took him first down Michigan Ave, where he saw Stephen’s Hotel which was at that time the largest hotel in the world with over 3,000 rooms. He also saw the Chicago Public Library that housed over 800,000 volumes,  Rigley Building a 438-foot tall multi-tower white office building, the Shedd Aquarium known as a mission blue hotspot and the Chicago Museum of Natural History.  They continued their tour and drove by Soldier Field Stadium before they came upon Rigley Tower and Merchandise Mart, the largest commercial and design center in the world.

They continued with their tour and passed the Civic Opera House which was a 42-story tall building that covered an entire city block. They continued on by the Board of Trade building which housed the largest grain exchange in the world. It was capped off with a statue of Ceres, the Goddess of Agriculture. They had just enough time to visit one more street and that was Randolph street where there were hundreds of theaters, dance pavilions, shops and restaurants. While on this street, the guide stopped at a street corner vendor  at his behest for one of Chicago’s famous hotdogs. boy, was it a good dog. He had been thinking about it since the last time he traveled through the Windy City four long years ago. Thanks to his mother’s Laudanum he had slept right through the layover and therefore missed out on that delicacy. He was bound and determined not to miss out on it again.

After he finished savoring his delectable hotdog, the guide speeded him back to the train terminal via Gold Coast street where they passed by beaches and marinas, and Jackson Park which housed the famous Water Tower, the Fine Arts Building recently renamed the Museum of Science and Industry, the Statue of the Republic created by sculptor Daniel Chester French, Buckingham Fountain, a gift by Catherine Buckingham and the Fountain of Time created by the world famous sculptor, Lorado Taft. By the time he arrived back to the train terminal his head was ready to explode from all the things he had just seen. He surely got his $2.00’s worth. Thank goodness he was able to snap some photos along the way so he would be able to go back and look at them later. He quickly hopped on his next exchange and began the portion of his train ride to Minneapolis. 

He had to admit that even though he was enjoying himself immensely on this train ride back home the anticipation of seeing his family was starting to get to him. He was going to arrive in Minneapolis at 10:56 PM, so he ended up staying at a small sleazy motel near the train station. The final leg was scheduled to depart at 8:00 o’clock in the morning. He had eaten on the train so when he arrived at the station he immediately crashed on the bed in his motel room. It was a lumpy bed, but he had slept on far worse mattresses and in far worse accommodations. Actually that night was the best he had slept in quite some time. It was nice not to feel his room moving or having to listen to bomb and mortar shells exploding.

When he finally made it back to the farm in Sauk Centre his family had a big handmade banner hanging from the front porch and his whole family was there to greet him. They had put on quite a spread for him with even a cake and candles. It felt so good to be home with all of his loved ones.

As time progressed on the farm he found himself reminiscing more and more on events in his past life. A life that now seemed so alien to him. He could not believe how his life had changed and all the things he had seen during the war. The final horror that he got to experience was a fly over of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. He was tasked with flying a photographic reconnaissance mission over the camp to get evidence of the atrocities being perpetrated by the Germans on the Jewish people. He could still see the billowing smoke spewing from the furnace smokestacks. He knew that he would have this etched in his memory for all eternity. He was not even sure if the photos he took would ever see the light of day.

Another thing he started noticing and had in fact  it had been occurring more and more frequently when he first boarded the transport ship and that was his recurrent nightmares he was having. In these dreams he was reliving all of the kills he had made as a fighter pilot.  He kept on seeing the faces of the German pilots that he had shot down. Since there were no air-to-air missiles in WW2, all the dog fights that took place occurred in fairly close proximities. They were so close, in fact that in many cases you even were able to see their expressions.  There was a sort of intimacy involved in these aerial contests.

Little did he know at the time what he was experiencing was post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Now there are resources to help the affected combatants. Unfortunately back then there were little to no real information on the subject and there was no way to treat this disorder. So the vets had to suffer in silence. Most of them felt that if they expressed their feelings it made them somehow less of a man. Lucky for him, Grandpa Gordon was young, healthy and very resilient.  He also had the support structure and love of a very close knit family to help him to get through the difficult times that laid ahead. *

It turns out that family is one of the best therapies for PTSD. Another great therapy is simply to talk about it. Since he was a decorated pilot he had no problem finding people who wanted to listen to his war stories. So every time he regaled his adoring family and neighbors, the healing process proceeded in incremental fashion. The outdoors and fresh air can also be helpful in treating PTSD. Obviously, he had that in spades on the farm.

As the weeks progressed, he began to experience fewer and fewer nightmares until his sleep pattern had returned to normal.  As a matter of fact, as the symptoms of his PTSD faded away his youthful exuberance began taking over and he started getting antsy all over again. There was in fact only so much visiting that a young man could take. He had caught up with all of his friends and family and in fact his stories were becoming a little stale and repetitive.

Another thing he started noticing and that was that he no longer was satisfied with his life on the farm. Frankly when he got back he was unsure how he would really feel. He knew that he had planned on joining the US Airforce, but he also wanted to leave his options open as well. Now, he was finding it harder and harder to relate with his friends. While he was secure in the fact that he would always have his family, his friends from high school and the neighboring farms were not so close any more. They just could not relate with his experiences. They could not comprehend the atrocities that he had witnessed and the lives that he had taken. He was coming to the realization that he missed being around people who had the same experiences. He could relate with these people a whole lot better.

Despite the effort he had made not to establish close relationships in the war he found that they had still happened. Now he in fact missed those friendships that he had established. There was something about sharing near death experiences that brought you closer together. So if he had ever had any doubt about his future, they were all squelched over the last few months. He finally came to the realization that it was time to move on.

Even though his parents were sad to hear about his plans, they knew that this day would come. When they had met him at the train terminal in Sauk Centre they had quickly realized that he was no longer their little boy. He had become a sober, quiet and reserved young man. They could see not only pain in his eyes but also a hardness there as well. He still hugged and kissed them, but things had changed. Their baby was no more. It made them sad but proud as well.

So Grandpa Gordon packed up all of his belongings and gave his keepsakes to his siblings. His parents had kept his room just the way he had left it when he went off to Canada. He now realized that he could not come home anymore. Too much had changed. So he told his parents to use the room for something else. His mother had always wanted a sewing room, so that is what they did, they converted his room to a sewing room where she could work on her quilts and other projects.

His mother could not bear saying goodbye again, so this time it was just his papa that drove him to the Airforce Recruitment office in Minneapolis. He would not hear of him taking the train this time.

When his father pulled up to the recruiters office they simply shook hands. Their tears had already been shed at the farm. There were no more tears left. As he walked into the office and was greeted by an agent attired in a dress uniform his father sped away with fresh tears streaming down his face.

*Whatever your personal experiences or symptoms, the following tips can offer effective ways to help you heal and move on:

PTSD self-help tip 1: Challenge your sense of helplessness

Recovery from PTSD is a gradual, ongoing process. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, nor do the memories of the trauma ever disappear completely. This can make life seem difficult at times. But there are many steps you can take to cope with the residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear.

Overcoming your sense of helplessness is key to overcoming PTSD. Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times.

One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity. Taking positive action directly challenges the sense of helplessness that is a common symptom of PTSD.

Positive ways of coping with PTSD:

  • Learn about trauma and PTSD.
  • Join a PTSD support group.
  • Practice relaxation techniques.
  • Pursue outdoor activities.
  • Confide in a person you trust.
  • Spend time with positive people.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Enjoy the peace of nature.

Tip 2: Get moving

When you’re suffering from PTSD, exercise can do more than release endorphins and improve your mood and outlook. By really focusing on your body and how it feels as you move, exercise can actually help your nervous system become more efficient.

Rhythmic exercise that engages both your arms and legs, such as walking, running, swimming, or dancing. Instead of focusing on your thoughts, focus on how your body feels. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin.

Rock climbing, boxing, weight training, or martial arts. These activities can make it easier to focus on your body movements—after all, if you don’t, you could get hurt.

Spending time in nature. Pursuing outdoor activities like hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing helps veterans cope with PTSD symptoms and transition back into civilian life. Anyone with PTSD can benefit from the relaxation, seclusion, and peace that come with being out in nature. Seek out local organizations that offer outdoor recreation or team-building opportunities.

Tip 3: Reach out to others for support

PTSD can make you feel disconnected from others. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. You don’t have to talk about the trauma if you don’t want to, but the caring support and companionship of others is vital to your recovery. Reach out to someone you can connect with for an uninterrupted period of time, someone who will listen when you want to talk without judging, criticizing, or continually getting distracted. That person may be your significant other, a family member, a friend, or a professional therapist. Or you could try:

Volunteering your time or reaching out to a friend in need. This is not only a great way to connect to others, but can also help you reclaim your sense of control.

Joining a PTSD support group. This can help you feel less isolated and alone and also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery.

Tip 4: Support PTSD treatment with a healthy lifestyle

The symptoms of PTSD can be hard on your body so it’s important to take care of yourself and develop some healthy lifestyle habits.

Take time to relax. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, massage, or yoga can activate the body’s relaxation response and ease symptoms of PTSD.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. When you’re struggling with difficult emotions and traumatic memories, you may be tempted to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. But substance use worsens many symptoms of PTSD, interferes with treatment, and can add to problems in your relationships.

Eat a healthy diet. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day. Omega-3s play a vital role in emotional health so incorporate foods such as fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts into your diet. Limit processed food, fried food, refined starches, and sugars, which can exacerbate mood swings and cause fluctuations in your energy.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can trigger anger, irritability, and moodiness. Aim for somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Develop a relaxing bedtime ritual (listen to calming music, watch a funny show, or read something light) and make your bedroom as quiet, dark, and soothing as possible.

Getting professional help for PTSD

If you suspect that you or a loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s important to seek help right away. The sooner PTSD is treated, the easier it is to overcome. If you’re reluctant to seek help, keep in mind that PTSD is not a sign of weakness, and the only way to overcome it is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past. This process is much easier with the guidance and support of an experienced therapist or doctor.

It’s only natural to want to avoid painful memories and feelings. But if you try to numb yourself and push your memories away, PTSD will only get worse. You can’t escape your emotions completely—they emerge under stress or whenever you let down your guard—and trying to do so is exhausting. The avoidance will ultimately harm your relationships, your ability to function, and the quality of your life.

The information that I have included at the end of this chapter is by no means a definitive and comprehensive discussion on the subject of PTSD. I included it here so that it can serve as a starting point or place. I have devoted more time to this subject in my book “The Making and Life of a Registered Nurse in the Era of COVID-19.” Chapter 14 “My Battle with PTSD”. In this chapter I cover it more in depth. It is definitely an important topic. Countless people suffer from it and it claims way too many lives every year. If you suspect that you are suffering from it, seek treatment don’t become a statistic.