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larry humber The Globe and Mail

Summer sunlight danced through my south window as I handed Roy LeSage a photograph of a dark-haired, 23-year-old Canadian soldier.

After a few moments he glanced up, brushed his moist eyes and said: "You can't imagine what it's like for me to have this. I just can't tell you - I've never seen a picture of my father before. My mother wouldn't tell me anything about him, not even the colour of his hair."

A few years ago, I decided to search for descendents of two soldiers who had sent me studio photographs of themselves during the Second World War. I felt a child or grandchild might be pleased to have a picture that had been held by the subject.

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Over tea and cookies, I told Roy what I knew about his father, George LeSage. I'd never met his dad, although we'd attended the same high school and had corresponded for almost three years of his overseas service.

A major difference between today and the war years is the ease and frequency of communications. In the 1940s, letters were the key links, particularly important for those in the armed forces.

Posters in public places encouraged civilians to "Write to our boys." I started corresponding with servicemen while in high school. Within a year I was exchanging letters with more than a dozen soldiers and airmen, plus one cousin in the U.S. Navy. Most - George LeSage among them - were boys whom I'd never met but whose names came to me from various acquaintances. A few, like the soldier whom I married some months after the surrender of Japan, I knew or had at least met.

Shortly after George and I started writing, I became a nurses' aide at the Fort William Sanatorium in Northern Ontario for almost a year and then entered St. Joseph's Hospital school of nursing in Port Arthur. In the 18 letters I had kept that I eventually gave to his son, he'd usually called me "Nursie."

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George served in Italy as an ambulance driver for more than a year. In a letter received during the autumn of 1944, he gave no hints of his deeds when he wrote, "Things are pretty tough."

He did tell me about a relative's letter predicting that the war would be over by Christmas. George's comment was deadly accurate: "It'll be over by Christmas, but Lord only knows what Christmas."

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From Italy he was transferred to Western Europe in the early spring of 1945, and was given a week's leave. He spent it in Scotland where he was photographed at a studio in Glasgow. The portrait shows a slim, handsome, fair-skinned young soldier, beret set at a jaunty angle on his dark hair, and dark eyes that had seen too many dead and wounded men.

On a tiny slip of yellow-lined paper, he'd written: "Just a little something to remember me by. Though I look serious in the picture I usually have a smile on my mug. Hope you like it."

After Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945, George's letters from Holland grew longer. In one, written in June, he mentioned that he was 19 when he joined up. "As for enlisting and coming overseas: It all happened four years ago. Signed up in my diapers in June '41. Got my first long pants and came over in October '41. Since then I've seen 13 different countries. Quite enough for one soldier, don't you think?"

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That fall, with George still overseas, his story made the front page of The Daily Times-Journal of Fort William. I had taped the clipping to a page in my girlhood photograph album, and while Roy and I drank second cups of tea that summer's day I showed it to him. He was both stunned and proud.

The story was about George being awarded the Bronze Star by the American army "for gallantry during operations in Italy" on Sept. 6, 1944. The citation for the award read in part: "As an ambulance driver during a time when the infantry troops to which his unit was attached were under an intense enemy artillery barrage, Pte. LeSage during the course of one afternoon made six trips through the rain of enemy fire to evacuate casualties. Though subjected to continuous heavy shell fire and though a portion of his route was under sniper fire, he succeeded in bringing many seriously wounded men to the rear area for treatment, under conditions which normally would have prevented any daylight evacuation. Pte. LeSage is a member of the 24th Field Ambulance."

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In addition to the Bronze Star, George had been mentioned in dispatches by the Canadian army.

Roy sipped his tea while he read and reread the clipping, then began to tell me about his life. His parents had married in 1951, but separated less than a year after his birth. His mother had insisted she had no pictures of his father and refused to describe him.

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After high school, Roy had worked his way through university and found his niche in a laboratory. In the 1980s, he learned that his dad had also fought in the Korean War and was able to trace him to Alberta. Roy made a long-distance phone call and his father promised to visit soon, but the veteran died suddenly before the trip.

Roy and his wife are busy with careers and their family of a son and two daughters. Later I learned that their younger daughter had been gazing at her grandfather's photograph and exclaimed, "Why, he's got Dad's eyes!"

As for me, Roy LeSage's face, as his eyes locked on his father's photo, will stay with me as long as memory lingers. And when he and his wife sent me a bouquet of flowers - the card addressed to "Nursie" - I wept a little.

Dolores Kivi lives in Thunder Bay, Ont.

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