For Kenton’s Jack Houston his three-and-a half years of service in World War II has marked his life like a giant knot in a rich piece of hardwood, a stamp of character.
In his room in Birch Lodge Personal Care Home, at 95-and-a-half, he is still amazed that he got to come back from that war to live a satisfying family life. He doesn’t dance any more, although he used to love it, and he uses a walker; but says agreeably that he is in “relatively good shape.”
For the fact that he survived 11 months on the front lines of French and German theatres of war, Houston’s story has been carried in publications as far away as Edmonton and Winnipeg.
“I was blown up in a mine in my armored vehicle, and bombed twice by my own air force,” Houston says.
At 18-and-a half, he signed up in 1942.
“Seeing the first man killed beside you, that’s when you became a man so fast….” He adds, “We were living a life of fun – that all stopped in one second.”
He wonders how anyone survived that war; now he is among just 3,000 Canadian WWII survivors.
“I was in a reconnaissance outfit. We were always out in front, looking for the enemy.”
It was his very first taste of action. “We just got into position in Caen when this mortar hit a tree branch and got the man beside me, and left me alone. How do you explain that? You can’t. I just knew that Somebody looked after me.”
Many such incidents could have taken his life.
“When you see bomber planes coming at you, the width of a plane apart, you wonder ‘where you will go?’” He instinctively moved and survived.
“We lost 17 men that day.”
Houston saw his role in WWII simply as a job he signed up for.
“It was just one chapter of my life that I gave to my country and I was fortunate enough to live through it.”
When he returned from Europe his sweetheart, Gwenith Butchart, was awaiting him.
“We talked about getting married before I left. I said, ‘No’.”
He told her that if she was still waiting for him, when and if he came back they would get married then. They had 64 years of marriage.
“We had a wonderful life together,” he said earnestly, then laughs. “I’ve had a charmed life!”
His father was the butcher in Kenton, but without enough to sustain two families, Houston worked in construction for S. A. Magnacca in Brandon. In the late ‘40s the family moved to Saskatoon where Houston was promoted as superintendent of construction, building municipal infrastructure. A role that required research.
“They gave me the blueprints. I did a lot of studying, a lot of reading….”
When he left the construction businesses, he opted for a more settled life, due in part to the protest of their daughter Janet, at having to move seven times in her first year of school.
Houston purchased a farm three miles south of Kenton.
At Kenton, Gwen Houston served as a secretary for Lawlor and Strange, Dodge dealers in Kenton.
Out of five of a family born to Jack and Gwen, they lost three children over the years: Janet in a car accident, a son to a heart attack and one child in infancy.
“I’ve had my ups and downs. You have to accept it as part of living.”
THE BRIGHT SIDE
He described the best part of his life as his marriage.
Sometimes work took him away for a few days, but in essence he and Gwen were never far apart.
“Gwen and I went to all the dances. You might have pitched bales all day long. Come evening, you had a bath and you were ready to go out.”
After Gwen’s passing in 2013, Houston lived on his own until about 18 months ago, when he was ready for a change. After a stay in hospital, he moved into Birch Lodge.
“I think it is wonderful,” he says of his new place. “There’s’ no way I could look after myself as well as I get looked after in here.”
He reflects that some people resist the move to full care.
“I’ve never been resistant. I may as well enjoy it. That’s the bottom line.”
In Houston’s small room, furnishings are simple, but his wall is adorned with life-like birds. Wrens, a sparrow, and a killdeer – beautifully carved in basswood.
“I’ve carved everything from an eagle to a hummingbird,” he says of a hobby started in the 1990s. He produced 20 some carvings before he moved.
“When I got in here, they wouldn’t let me have my knives,” he chuckles, “So I took up painting.”
He has a painting in progress, a stamped canvas.
As seen in the patience to carve tiny birds, an acceptance of duty signified by a chest of medals, and the way he embraces change, Jack Houston has developed a healthy attitude.
“I can still see the humorous side of life,” he once again laughs, “even if I have troubles … many troubles.”