What is known

One of the first and best pieces of advice often given to nascent authors is to “write what you know.” That makes perfect sense, but what happens if you want to write about a man who died over 50 years ago, whose World War II service in the RCAF and with Bomber Command spanned five war years and involved over twenty perilous flights over enemy territory, not mention being shot down, injured, and made a prisoner of war? How could I ever presume to know that?

This was the task had I set for myself in writing about my father’s experience during his early adult life in That Lucky Old Son. That he passed away when I was a child only spurred my desire to better know him and his brothers in arms.

Research would fill in many of the gaps. There has been much written by and about those who lived in those turbulent times. Meeting with veterans who had similar, often hauntingly parallel experiences helped set the scene and gave me necessary perspective. Talking to those who knew him then and subsequently was also hugely beneficial.

But the story desperately needed the emotional feel of facing almost certain sudden death at the hands of enemy night fighters or antiaircraft fire — when you might only have an instant to realize that your life was over. Even routine training and proficiency flights held more than their share of danger. How can you possibly imbue your narrative with that gut-wrenching stress and its lingering effects? It was that that my own critical eye deemed missing from my work.

Then during one of my frequent and frustrating duels with “writer’s block,” life itself stepped in to lend a hand. During an exploratory, and as it turned out, largely superfluous CT scan of my heart, pulmonary emboli were detected in one of my lungs. I was certain to ask the doctor who hurriedly phoned me with that dire news that he had used the plural form appropriately —yes, more than one! I am not an expert, but I had heard enough stories of people pitching forward, dead, into their breakfast cereal with the postmortem, subsequent determination being, “pulmonary embolism.” My expedient, if overly gentle trip to the emergency ward, followed by over two weeks in hospital gave me more than enough opportunity to ponder what facing a sudden death might be like!

I had the luxury of proximate and caring medical staff, and the comfort of nearby family and friends . . . unlike what my father and so many others endured many years ago. But still, I think that my experience allowed me to feel some of the emotions and travails that I was trying to chronicle. I can still only imagine what sacrifices and hardships were endured. Things that I have been spared — at least until relatively later in life.

Much of writing is unbridled fancy but the emotions conveyed must be authentic or they will not be palpable or even believable. At least I now feel less a fraud in claiming that I was “writing what I know.”

- Mark Cote, 21 December 2018         

© Copyright Mark Cote