Jim MacPhee (1906-1997): A Life Well LivedI had the privilege of having Jim MacPhee as my father in law. He died in 1997 and I have been meaning to set down memories of him so that my children and their children may know something about his family history and his life. I’m the only one left who knew him well. He was a fine gentleman, well worthy of being remembered.
Jim served as a role model for my cousin by marriage, Eric Morter, who was a blood relative of the MacPhee family, and could have added a great deal to this story. Eric quietly passed away a few years ago, taking his recollections with him. Such is life.
My story starts with Jim’s maternal grandfather who was a tradesman, living with his wife and three daughters in London, England, in the 1880s. He worked in a factory and was blinded in one eye when struck by a flying metal chip. As was the custom in those days, he was immediately fired. From the company’s perspective, he was of less value with limited vision. There was no workman’s compensation or welfare, so suddenly he was without income. He and his family couldn’t pay their way, and suffered the social ostracism of being sent to London’s Poor House, just like the writer Charles Dickens before him.
As soon as they were old enough, his daughters were sent into domestic service in different wealthy households and the family was separated forever. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the three girls treasured being part of a family and somehow managed to maintain contact even into old age.
Bessie, one of the daughters, detested life in domestic service and took an early opportunity to run away. She met and married a handsome young man of Scottish background, named James MacPhee. James was "on the stage" in London as a "mesmerist" and Bessie became his assistant. His job was to pretend to hypnotize Bessie and hers was to lay rigid between two chairs while members of the audience were challenged to test her, which they did by blowing smoke in her face, trying to get her to blink. Some sat on her, and some even stuck a pin in her to try to make her flinch. Bessie always had an iron will. In fact, she used to take a bath in cold water every morning, right into her 80s. She said it was invigorating. I believed her.
Bessie and James were among the first in London to own bicycles. There were no gears or chains on these machines but each had a very large front wheel with pedals and a tiny rear wheel. They were popularly known as "penny-farthings", since they reminded one of a very large coin and a tiny one.
In 1906 James junior was born to this adventurous couple. He was an only child who dearly loved and admired his dad. When World War I broke out in 1914, James senior volunteered for military service in the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders regiment. He served his country with honour, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He was killed in September, 1918 on the last day of the war.
The closing days of both world wars were to impact this little family.
Young Jim was devastated, losing his beloved dad when he was only twelve. One of his dad’s fellow officers paid for Jim to attend a fine public school for two years, then he too passed away in the Spanish Flu epidemic. It seems ironic that many men survived trench warfare, snipers, poison gas attacks and shelling, only to die in this way. World War One claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918-19 attacked one fifth of the world's population, and killed an estimated 50 million people.. Within months, more people died of this than any other illness in recorded history. In two days my own mother lost her mother and a sister to this same deadly virus and many families had similar experiences.
To find work, Jim’s mother, Bessie, moved from London to a rough area of Glasgow. Suddenly Jim, with his polished English accent, did not fit in. It must have been extremely difficult. Jim had a very strict religious upbringing as his mother was a member of a Baptist Church. I am sure that did not help him to fit in with neighbouring kids either. I remember him telling me of a song they were taught in Sunday School.
For you, but not for me.
The angels they all sing-a-ling-a-ling,
It was here that he was exposed to asbestos, which was commonly used for insulation. Asbestos got into his lungs and eventually caused his death, but not until he was 91 years old. All during his training he pursued engineering studies and when he finished the apprenticeship at age twenty one, Jim became a sea going engineer. He always had work at sea while many who worked along the industrial Clydeside were unemployed during the depression. Sometime around 1933 he met and married the love of his life, Margaret McLelland, a beautiful young woman some ten years his junior.
Margaret was the favorite child from a large, close knit but poor family of Irish origin. She worked in a major department store and possessed a very quick mind for numbers and bookkeeping. Jim and Margaret were deeply in love and remained so all of their days. My late wife, Eileen, also an only child, was born in 1934. Jim was away at sea and didn’t get to see his daughter until she was 18 months old. Jim was a good, kind and loving father, but was away at sea much of the time until Eileen was twelve years old. She missed the influence of her father and had a very difficult upbringing at the hands of her mother who, despite many good qualities was temperamental and sometimes emotionally unbalanced. grandmother Bessie provided something of a "safe place" which was often needed. Bessie and Margaret were good friends and were good to each other.
By this time Jim had qualified as chief engineer and was employed in this capacity on the various ships on which he served. He travelled the world on cargo ships and tramp steamers during the 1930s and was exposed to many people of other religions, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, among others. He was surprised to find most of them decent people who lived a spiritual type of life with good values. His eyes were opened to how restrictive and narrow minded his upbringing had been.
Cargo ships usually spent a bit of time in the various ports as they were loaded or unloaded, and the ship’s crews and locals would sometimes get together for a game of soccer. Jim was slim but strong and enjoyed these games, but his preference was for his own team to lose. It was even better if they lost by only one goal for the sake of respectability. He was quite unusual in this way. I mentioned his strength - he could swing a sixteen pound sledgehammer when needed and could do that rare feat, a one handed chin up. Also during his travels in the far east he learned some strange and unusual skills. I have seen him unobtrusively take a mouthful of water and blow it out through his nostril for cleansing purposes.
When World War II broke out, Jim, like his father before him, immediately volunteered to serve his country and joined the Royal Navy. In the Navy he undertook the same type of work, supervising crews in the engine room and boiler room on armed Naval vessels. These warships provided escort to merchant ships crossing the Atlantic to bring food and supplies for the beleaguered British population. There he ran the hazards of bombing by the Luftwaffe, German U-boats (submarines), surface raiders, mines and torpedoes.
Jim never viewed himself as a hero. Far from it. However, he lived through some dangerous experiences. He told me of one occasion on which he had been on duty for three days and nights while being bombed and having no sleep. They were part of a convoy of seventeen ships. Finally he was able to go to bed and sleep. When he woke in the morning only three ships were left. The Germans had invented magnetic mines.
Now for a story within a story, Jim features in this one too...
The Grille-Hitler’s Yacht
Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer, had a yacht built for his personal use. It was named the Aviso Grille, was built by the great shipyard Blohm and Voss in Hamburg, Germany and was the 500th ship to be launched there. Grille can be translated as "grasshopper" or "cricket" but a secondary interpretation is "whim, fancy, caprice." Caprice seems a more appropriate name for such a stately yacht. At 443 feet overall it was the largest yacht afloat, costing four million dollars, raised by public subscription, it was Germany’s equivalent of a royal yacht. She was equipped with three 12.7 cm cannon, six anti-aircraft guns, two machine guns and had the capacity to carry 280 mines. It was the first ship to test the high pressure steam machinery planned for German destroyers. The Grille carried three smaller boats on her deck, designated Motorbooten 1, 2 and 3. They were used as pinnaces or admirals’ barges.
The crew included four junior officers who wore immaculate white uniforms and had to be at least six feet tall. They were subject to intense security checks as their job was to look after VIPs who would be brought aboard by Motorbooten 1. These VIPs were the highest ranking personalities of the Third Reich. Included among Hitler’s guests were Goring, Goebbels, Hess and Himmler, along with honoured guests from Hungary, Italy and Japan. Important secret conferences of the Naval Command took place on board.
The Fuhrer forbid alcohol and often gave his staff severe temperance lectures. After one such harangue on board the Grille, the staff gathered in the saloon to calm their nerves with a bottle of champagne. Suddenly Hitler appeared in the doorway and the bottle which had just been opened was discretely hidden under a table. He stormed in, kicked the bottle, spilling its contents, and walked out without saying a word.
The Fuhrer was a very poor sailor and did not travel far aboard his yacht, using it mainly for state occasions. He had very little understanding of naval strategy, but often memorized small details of the ship to humiliate his admirals when they could not answer his questions.
On Hitler’s orders, the Grille was not camouflaged at first, but retained its distinctive yellow funnel and white hull with gold trim. He called it his "White Swan of the Baltic." Yet she became a warship and, with a destroyer escort for protection, laid mines in the North Sea.
Hitler planned to invade England, and the first step of the plan was to dominate the skies over the English channel and England. However, he allowed only 80 days of preparation. It was code named Operation Sea Lion. (As a contrast, the Normandy invasion took two years to plan.) Ten infantry regiments, 170 cargo ships, 1,277 Rhine barges, and 471 tugs were all gathered around the Grille in Ostend. The barges could not operate on anything but a dead flat sea or they would overturn. Worse, the mobilization was so large it was spotted by the RAF, who bombed it to hell. It has been described as the most flawed plan in the history of modern warfare. All the docks were destroyed and almost everything lay in rubble and ashes. One captain said "Our ship was undamaged so we sailed away from Hell, back to Kiel." Suddenly Operation Sea Lion was cancelled and the Fuhrer turned to Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Grill was painted wartime gray in 1942 and used as a staff ship and operational headquarters for Grand Admiral Erich Rader, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy. The Battle of the Arctic was controlled from her dining room. When Rader was replaced by Karl Donitz, Grille became command ship of the entire U-boat fleet.
On May 1, 1945 Grand-Admiral Donitz was ferried to the Grille, which was anchored in Norway, and on her foredeck announced the death of Hitler. It is recorded in the ship’s log "that he, acting on the Fuhrer’s orders, had assumed leadership of the German nation and supreme command of the fighting forces." The last German entry in the log was "May2-4: flag at half mast in memory of the hero’s death of our Fuhrer."
The Fuhrer’s grand plan had been to totally defeat Britain, then to sail there in his "royal yacht", the Grille, have one of the Motorbooten bring him up the River Thames where he would take over Windsor Castle as his "London home." This would not have been the Grille’s first visit to the Thames, as during the early days of the war she had been laying mines in the Thames Estuary, the first German vessel to enter British territorial waters.
The world survived six years of war, sacrifice and suffering, but finally Adolf Hitler’s dream was shattered. As a final stroke, a nail in his coffin, a hand picked Royal Navy crew sailed to Norway at the end of the war, and took command of the Grille, the Fuhrer’s "White Swan of the Baltic." They sailed with only one working boiler (the rest and some of the engines had been sabotaged), the German crew commanded by British officers and the Aviso Grille was finally anchored at Rosyth in Scotland. The Royal Navy’s Chief Engineering Officer on that voyage was none other than my father in law, Jim MacPhee. Jim said that they had so much engine trouble on that short cruise, that if Hitler had been in charge he would have shot somebody.
Again, like his father before him, a major event in his life on the last days of a world war
In Rosyth, naval personnel stripped the ship of anything valuable. In his typically modest way, Jim took just a few souvenirs from the Grille. There was a wall clock in his kitchen which came from the ship and I now have in my possession a diary for the year 1944 that came from the Grille, with a foreword by Adolf Hitler.
Following the war Jim held various positions including one in London, where the owner wanted him to have the equipment operate continually without ever having a maintenance shutdown. "That’s why we hired you," he was told. Leaving there he moved to East Kilbride, Scotland where he worked for the National Research Council. They had many extremely bright scientists working on leading edge projects, such as trying to harness the sun’s energy, or utilize the energy available from the tides. These "boffins" were often prima donnas and Jim’s job was to try to harness them, to get them to listen to each other and work together.
One favourite place for vacations was Majorca, an island off Spain, but Jim and Margaret also took many bus trips around Scotland. Since Jim was older than Margaret she was often after him to keep fit, which he was happy to do anyway and into his 70s, both of them would often take their old bikes (no gears) and travel by train to the highlands where they would disembark, often cycling over a hundred miles a day.
As he had been a good father, Jim was also a fine grandfather and all his grand children loved him. My son, Robert, still remembers visiting his grandparents when he was quite young and his grandpa getting him toy soldiers every day he was there. One day grandpa did not bring any, and little Robert complained. His mother lectured him for being greedy, but later on that day grandpa slipped out and bought him some fine little soldiers.
One day the couple were walking home from the bank where they had collected their pension money when a young hoodlum grabbed Margaret’s purse and ran away with it with Jim in hot pursuit, or perhaps lukewarm pursuit, unsuccessfully, with Margaret shouting at Jim for being such an idiot. He was 85 at this time.
Margaret loved her Jim dearly, but possessed a tongue that could cut steel. One day in 1995 the old couple were returning home from the shopping mall in East Kilbride. It was a morning with a bright sun rising. They were holding hands as Jim was a bit unsteady on his feet, and while crossing a minor road, about twenty feet wide, were struck by a car driven by an white haired lady. They were both knocked down and Margaret died right there. Jim was taken to hospital for treatment.
The lady had a young child in the front seat with her and claimed that the sun was in her eyes and she didn’t see Jim and Margaret crossing the road. We suspect she was distracted by the child, but who knows? Eileen senior and I were doing volunteer work in Madeira at the time and had just managed to have a telephone installed in our flat. Our first call was from Interpol who had tracked us down, to inform us of the accident. We dropped everything and flew back to Scotland.
A strange thing happened at the accident scene. Mr and Mrs Bruce were neighbours who lived across the way from Jim and Margaret. Mr Bruce saw the crowd gathering at the accident scene and when he saw Margaret lying on the road, he thought it was his own wife. The shock was too much and Mr Bruce died of a heart attack the next day.
Mrs Bruce was a lovely, interesting lady who had been a dancer on stage when she was young. She lamented to me "We never had a retirement." Her mother had lived to be a hundred and died shortly before this. They had faithfully waited on her every day, and now Mr Bruce was dead.
Jim loved wildlife and had a tiny Robin who came to his window ledge every day for little pieces of cheese. Mrs Bruce went one better. The same little robin went into her house for cheese and perched on the TV or the back of a chair for a visit.
We stayed in Scotland for some time until Jim felt well enough to come to Canada with us. He was delightful company and was very popular at Baha’i gatherings as he asked such interesting questions. Jim did not believe in God, because he wondered "what kind of God would allow animals to suffer?" I don’t know the answer to this and it is one thing I plan to inquire about when I finally get to the next world. Maybe by then, Jim will be able to fill me in....
After six months Jim wanted to go home, because, as he said, Scotland was his home. Many times he told me that he was really sorry that he had not been killed in the accident. "That would have been perfect, for us to go together," he said. We travelled with him back to Scotland to make sure he was settled. His doctor confided to us that Jim had hinted to him that he would like the doctor to give him some medication that would end his life. He did not want to try it himself in case he messed it up.
At this time Jim lived alone, but continued with his exercise program and had lists of the meals for each day of the week, and reminders posted about the walls, "turn off the gas" and "lock the door." We checked on him before going to do volunteer work in St Vincent in the West Indies but once there we had a phone call telling us that Jim was not doing well, so we rushed back to Scotland in January in our tropical clothes. Brrrr.
Jim was in hospital and was not being well cared for so we got him into a very nice nursing home in Eaglesham, a nearby town. It was a fine place and Jim kept his sense of humour. Here is his last joke. Jim was sitting in a wheel chair in the Sunroom. He had been a skilled artist and when Eileen asked him "If I brought a tray in for you, would you like to paint?’ Jim said, "what colour would you like it?"
One time we came in and Jim had a black eye. He had fallen out of bed. We asked him what happened, and he said he woke up and thought he was in a very fancy hotel which he couldn’t afford, so tried to get out of bed to call a taxi to take him home.
Jim was 91 years old at this time, and with the asbestos in his lungs from his apprenticeship days, his condition was terminal. He wanted to visit his home once more, but we had to arrange for a nurse and an ambulance to bring him. It took two weeks to make the arrangements, and by that time he had lost interest in his home. There was even a squirrel performing acrobatics for him on the clothes line on the back lawn, but he was no longer interested. He died soon after this, two years after Margaret, and finally got to join his beloved wife who, no doubt, would tell him off for taking so long.
In preparation for his funeral we contacted a local Presbyterian Church that Jim and Margaret had sometimes attended. We wanted to include a Baha’i prayer in the ceremony but before he would agree, the minister wanted to know "What God do you pray to?"
During one of our visits Jim told us, "the Baha’i Faith is the only religion that makes any sense." I suspect that at the end he still didn’t believe in God, but he was a very decent man all his life and I am sure God believed in him.... I certainly did.
(Written 29 November, 2011.)