Part One: In which I am born, do very little of note, and learn to fly.
My parents were born in Stanmore, just outside London, where they were childhood sweethearts. Dad saw the army as the quickest way to earn enough to marry Mummy. He served with the 60th Rifles in Zululand and was promoted sergeant. He returned home in 1886, married my mother, left her with child, and headed for Canada to join the North-West Mounted Police. Soon he was writing home with thrilling stories of new communities springing up on the Canadian Prairies and occasional adventures controlling American whiskey traders. Mummy moved in with her parents in nearby Bushey and raised my sister Dorothy.
Father sent for my mother in 1889 and they set up home on a farm outside of Regina, Saskatchewan. Regina was then, and still is, a little bit of bugger all surrounded by a whole lot of bugger all.
I was born there in June 1896 but remember nothing of it. In early 1897, Dad quit the Mounted Police and left for the Yukon, where gold had been discovered. Mummy announced she was putting the farm up for sale and moving east to stay with a cousin in Ontario. If Dad wasn’t home by the end of 1898, she said, she would return to England and civilisation.
Arriving in the Klondike, Dad quickly realized that prospecting for gold was one of the least likely ways to make a fortune in the north. Fortune intervened when he met a Dominion land surveyor named Bill Ogilvie, who was verifying the miners’ staked claims. Ogilvie mentioned that when the claims were corrected, many small fractions were orphaned. Dad began buying up the fractional claims. Then he began buying up bench claims – land up the slopes from the stream beds. As new prospectors arrived in the area to find all the good sites already claimed, Dad sold them shares. The miners did the real work and split the proceeds with Frank Collins. Enough of them found gold to make Dad very comfortable. Meanwhile, Dad befriended a Scot named Angus McCready who had set up a small distilling operation. Father bought him out, and within a year Collins Yukon Gold Whiskey was a well-known name.
My father returned from the North just in time to prevent Mummy from leaving Canada. We settled back east in Kingston, Ontario, where we acquired a fine, stately home with a view of Lake Ontario, close by Queen’s College. Dad set up Collins distillery just outside town and hired Angus McCready to run it. My parents at last enjoyed a good life. Mother revelled in friendships with college professors and their wives while Father dabbled in Tory politics. I remember many elegant parties at the old house.
As a boy I took a great interest in things mechanical, building iceboats to race on the frozen lake in winter and tinkering with motorcycles in the summer. School was quite another thing. I took little interest in studies, which caused Mummy to fret that I would be of little use to anyone other than the army. That suited me fine.
We didn’t see many aircraft in Kingston, but after reading about McCurdy and Baldwin’s flights, I read anything I could get my hands on about aviation. In June 1910, Dad let me accompany him on a business trip to Montreal and we got to attend the Montreal Aviation Meet, where I saw the Wrights and Compte de Lessep put their machines through their paces. From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do.
Compte de Lessep at the Montreal Aviation Meet, 1910
In August of 1914 the world went mad. With Germany’s declaration of war, the entire Empire rushed to arms. As an eighteen-year-old, there was no question that I should go, too. I could see how it pained my mother, but my father’s only question was whether I should volunteer in Canada or head back to the “old country” to join the real army. The idea of joining the Flying Corps had been in my head for some time when I confided it to my father. His response was “Don’t tell your mother,” but he made inquiries and told me that it was possible to apply for the RFC without going to England, but it was first necessary to obtain one’s Aero Club of America licence. This could be through the Curtiss School in Hammondsport, New York. He gave me the four hundred American dollars I needed and promised to cover my room and board until I was taken on strength. And so the adventure began.
Or so I thought. On 14 November 1914, my father suffered a heart attack and died. Dorothy and I thought we would lose Mummy too. It was as if the world had ended for her. Until then I had never understood that these two people, my parents, lived very separate lives but were bound so very tightly together. My mother announced at Christmas that she would sell the big house in Kingston and move back to England. Father had left her very well off. In his will he stipulated that I should inherit the distillery and pay dividends into trusts for my mother and sister. He also set me up with enough to be quite comfortable.
So instead of heading to New York, I apprenticed at “my” distillery under Mr. McCready. It was a fascinating job, I discovered. Besides the craft of distilling, I engaged the comptroller, a Mr. Carson, to teach me the financial side of the business. I soon regretted my lack of interest in school work. The newspapers were full of talk of prohibition, and I worried that if I remained attached to the business I would lose my chance to fly for the Empire only to have the business shut down by the government. I directed Mr. McCready to work with Mr. Carson to prepare a plan to move the business to Quebec in the event of prohibition in Ontario. French Canada wisely looked down on temperance as a Calvinist (or worse, Methodist) plot.
In May 1915, Dorothy and Mummy headed to England, leaving me feeling very alone. I needed to get away from Kingston myself. Curtiss, I learned, had opened a new flying school in Toronto. I sent them a telegram and received an acceptance to the school by return wire. At the end of July, leaving the business in McCready’s capable hands, I boarded a train for Toronto…