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Jack Boyd memoirs

by Jack Boyd

edited by Gary Fuhrman and Jonah Winters.
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Chapter 8

Robbie Boyd, My Father

My father had a generous share of faults. Who doesn't? But they are not very interesting so let me say at the outset, that is not what I am writing about.

You have heard the term "a troubled childhood"? You could say that about my Dad, but the trouble was usually inflicted on those around him. He was born in 1898 at Milton Douglas in Duntocher. His mother and father had a "mixed marriage," she coming from a Roman Catholic family of Irish descent (her maiden name was Margaret Bratton), and he from a Scottish, Protestant family. This type of marriage was unconventional and somewhat shocking in those days.

He was christened Robert Boyd, a name with a proud history, with due ceremony in the Presbyterian Church in Duntocher. A few days later the Catholic side of the family, afraid that his soul might eventually burn in Hell, "kidnapped" him and had him christened Robert Boyd in the Catholic Chapel. This left him all his life with a strong but ambivalent faith, and a very tolerant view of religion, which he passed on to his children.

Robert, or as he came to be known, "Robbie", was soon followed by two sisters and a brother, all of whom came to admire and love their elder brother. This was a mistake. There was nothing vindictive about my father, just a sense of adventure, curiosity and fun, which led him and those around him into many unfortunate experiences.

There was a steep hill beside Milton Douglas where he took his little sister, Polly, for a ride in a wheelbarrow, first up the hill, then racing back down as she yelled with excitement. Soon her yelling was for another reason when he fell, spilling the wheelbarrow and its contents, breaking little Polly's arm. On another occasion he gave Polly an umbrella, telling her she could jump from the second floor staircase and, using the umbrella as a parachute, float down over the big rocks. She faithfully tried this too, with predictable consequences. This time nothing was broken, but Robbie was in trouble again. When I last saw Polly she was over eighty years old, and still told these stories -- but loved her brother dearly.

Being the eldest in the family, Robbie was expected to act responsibly, taking care of his younger siblings. His parents left him in charge when they went out for a few hours. They were enjoying some noisy game, when the people upstairs started to knock down for them to be quiet. Robbie figured it was the children upstairs having fun at his expense so taking a broom handle, he started knocking back on the ceiling. Unfortunately he knocked so hard that a large piece of the ceiling, which was constructed of lathe and plaster, came crashing down about him. Ingeniously he took some slices of white bread, made them damp and, climbing on piled up furniture, stuck the bread to the exposed lathe hoping his parents would not notice. Shortly after his parents came home, the bread dried out and, to their astonishment came plopping down. Perhaps he was more unlucky than troublesome. He was usually well intentioned.

The house at Milton Douglas had two rooms, a "good" room which was a bedroom that was seldom used and a combination kitchen, dining room, with a built in bed in the wall. This is where everyone lived. It had a wooden table, some wooden chairs, one easy chair, and a recliner couch. There was a cast iron stove-oven combination and a built in coal bunker, whose top served as a sideboard.

After his parents recovered from the ceiling incident, Robbie was given another chance to be responsible. Again he was left in charge when they went out for a few hours. This time all went well and the children played lots of fun games including Hide and Seek. As the time neared for his parents return, they realised that no-one had seen five year old Jackie since the game of Hide and Seek. In a panic they searched everywhere, but Jackie was not to be found. When his parents returned there was a great uproar. "How could you lose your brother?" they demanded. A good question, but hard to answer when you are held by the ear in a vise grip. Eventually little Jackie showed up. He had hidden inside the coal bunker, on top of the coal, and when no-one could find him, he had fallen fast asleep.

All of Robbie's problems did not happen with others around. He was quite capable of getting into trouble all by himself. The next village to Duntocher was called Faifley, a low lying community of a few houses. My Dad was in the hills above Faifley where there was a substantial body of deep water. He found this contraption with a big wheel, and wondered what its purpose was. As he turned the wheel, nothing seemed to happen for a while -- it was later that he found the village had been flooded by the Faifley Dam.

Misfortune followed him in childhood. Everywhere. One time he was playing with Bengal Matches, a poor kids version of fireworks. You could light one and throw it up in the air to watch the trail of light. At night it made a quite impressive display. Next door was a barn, and this barn had a knot hole, high up on the side of the wall. Dad threw a match in the air - what are the chances of it finding the knot hole ? A million to one ? Guess what! Soon horses, cows, and chickens were being led out, bellowing and squawking. There were no serious injuries, but there was not much left of the small barn. I don't think he ever confessed his guilt.

At his father's insistence, Robbie started an apprenticeship as a machinist, which could have led to a fairly stable working career, but World War One was raging, so one day, instead of going to work, he headed for the nearest recruitment office where he lied about his age to join the army. His father was dismayed but helpless to do anything about it. Robbie had his boot camp experience at Maryhill Barracks, just outside Glasgow, then was assigned to the Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment. Since he was just a kid he was posted to Edinburgh and given the task of looking after the horses. This led to a life long love of both horses and Edinburgh.

During WWI, train stations were picketed by patriotic young women, who tried to shame young men into joining the military. A group of them were at Central Station in Glasgow when Robbie was headed home on leave, in civilian clothes. One young lady pinned a white feather on him, the symbol of cowardice. Robbie kissed it and pinned it on his bottom. Actions speak louder than words.

Coming out of the Army, he had lost his apprenticeship opportunity, and was destined to work the rest of his career at jobs more menial than his intelligence could handle. He was a very bright man, quite literate for the times, with a fine "copperplate hand" in writing, but lacking in formal education.

My mother, Molly MacKechnie, had lost her mother and a sister within two days during the great Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1920. She took on the responsibility of caring for her younger brothers and sisters. Being very impressive, Robbie dazzled my mother into marrying him, she thinking he possessed stability and security and would help her look after her siblings. This was not to be. "Let me take you away from all this" was a bluff. I suppose that all's fair in love and war. Their marriage turned out to be a little of both.

What he did was provide her younger brothers with an classic education in practical jokes at their expense. The twins, Jim and Angus, were apprentices with the huge Singer Manufacturing Company in Clydebank, about three miles away. When they went to bed, Robbie set all the clocks in the house ahead several hours. While they slept the sound sleep of teenagers, he blackened their faces with shoe polish. At one in the morning, he woke them up one by one.

"Angus, wake up. You're late for work. Hurry!" Then he gave Angus a wink and pointed to his sleeping brother's blackened face.

While Angus was getting hurriedly dressed ...

"Jim, wake up. You're late for work."

Jim moaned. "My God. It feels as though I just went to sleep!"

Robbie furtively pointed out Angus's black face. Jim sniggered quietly, rushed to dress , then the two boys hurried down the three mile walk to work, each quietly giggling about the other.

"What are you so happy about?" asks Angus.

"Nothing. Its just such a nice morning," says Jim

And so on, until half a mile away from work they come in sight of Singers clock, the largest in the world, with a big hand 23 feet long. They are stunned to see it is only 2 AM!

"The clock has stopped," says Angus, but they both know it is always accurate.

It gradually dawns, they have been tricked by a master.

Then they discover that they both have black faces....

While Robbie was still living with the MacKechnie family, Jim had completed his apprenticeship and joined the army, being posted to India. After a couple of years he came home on leave and brought with him a mongoose as a pet. This was an exceptionally smart animal which could move very fast. In India the mongoose is the only animal (apart, maybe, from the elephant) which can take on and defeat a king cobra. That is how fast and smart they are. Since there were no king cobras in Hardgate where they were living at the time, this mongoose took on and destroyed a fox fur stole which was my mother's most prized possession. I suspect the mongoose came to a bad end.

"The guys" in the family decided to make a cloth dumpling but did not wish to share it with the women, so they sterilized a chamber pot, and made the dumpling in that. There was no demand to share that dessert.

Robbie was always athletic -- a pretty good soccer player and runner too. He found out that a Highland Games was coming up and thought of an opportunity -- an event which would have few competitors. Lacking equipment, he improvised and trained for the Games using a wooden clothes pole (used to prop up a line of laundry for drying). He practised pole vaulting until he could vault over a goal post in the local soccer field -- the cross bar is 8 feet 6 inches high and very unforgiving if one does not clear it. When he arrived at the Games he found that the Scottish pole vault champion, a man named Speedy, was there, and Speedy could clear 10 feet 6 inches, but Robbie gave it his best. Those were the days when a bamboo pole was the latest technology, and vaulters had to land on a pile of sand or hay. During the depression he would go to the various Games with a group of local soccer players and take part in the five-a-side matches, bringing home some cash or prizes.

My Uncle Neil MacKechnie was a fine runner and many times I have heard Dad tell the story of how Neil beat all the favourites to win the Glasgow Cup in a quarter mile race. "As he neared the finish, he threw his head back and found that last bit of courage and speed to beat them all." My brother Bobby remembers Dad winning the married men's race at local picnics, and I remember as an older man, he could still "kick his height".

During the depression the men of the village would hang around together, sometimes going for long walks. It was at this time that some of the great mountain climbers emerged, unemployed all, formed the Creag Dhu Climbing Club, and went on to blaze breathtaking new routes on the mountain faces. The men of Duntocher and Hardgate were more into long walks and "drumming up" or making tea over a fire by the roadside. Ghost stories were a very popular form of entertainment around the campfire. People of this time were much more superstitious than today, and many people in the villages seriously claimed to have heard banshees calling for the dying, or seen balls of fire, apparitions, and even Satan himself.

Robbie knew this group of friends were going to be walking past the Hardgate Golf Club after dark, so he got himself suited up in a bed sheet and hid in one of the bunkers. As the men came past he gave a loud frightening moan. Nobody could see him, it was a black night, and they were all quite superstitious and scared. They had all heard the scary stories. This was the real thing, but they were unwilling to admit to being afraid.

'Whit was that noise?" someone asked.

"I didny hear onything," said another.

"Sure ye did, it was an awful moan."

Robbie let out another awful moan.

"It's a ghost," said someone.

"Rubbish. There's nae such thing."

"Well, you go and see whit it is, then."

"Not me, you go."

Finally when they all went together into the darkness towards the green, Robbie emerged from the bunker and ran toward them, then disappeared into another bunker.

"My God. Whit was that thing?"

They eventually got up the courage to cautiously come nearer. The ghost reappeared, and rushed toward them. This was too much. They took to their heels in full flight with the ghost after them. Robbie caught the slowest of them, a small man with a limp and a stutter.

"Help, h-help, don't k-k-k-kill me, Mr G-g-g-ghost!" he shouted.

Robbie felt sorry for him and whispered "It's all right. Its only me, Robbie. Keep shouting as though I was killing you."

The man got over his terror and co-operated fully. "He's k-k-k-killing me. Don't l-l-l-leave me! Help, m-m-m-murder!"

His friends reached the road and stopped running, ashamed of themselves, but still didn't want to come anywhere near the ghost. Someone got a bright idea and picked up a stone, throwing it at the ghost. The others quickly joined in. After a couple of direct hits, the ghost took flight, racing across the golf course and disappearing into a remote bunker, where he removed his sheet and remained hidden. He later joined his animated friends and calmly asked them "How was your walk?" They told him tales of the terrible ghost that tried to kill them. It was ten feet tall with huge fangs and eyes of fire, but they fought it off and saved the village.

"Weren't you scared?" asked Robbie.

"No sir, we're no feared of any ghost."

Robbie was a cross between Sergeant Bilko and Zorba the Greek. He was full of fun and practical jokes, but he could dream, and he could translate those big dreams into reality. Everyone in the village was out of work and quite depressed. Some were getting into trouble with the law. Robbie had an inspiration. The village really needed a first class soccer field, soccer being the national religion in Scotland. A local farmer, Laird, had a field that was not much use to him, being just an extremely steep hill.

As Secretary of the local soccer club, Duntocher Hibs FC, he came up with a breathtaking proposal. They could raise the money and build their own soccer field. The protests came thick and fast. "How can we raise that much money at a time like this?" was the main one. He said "It wouldn't take much money to buy that big field from Laird, the one off the Roman Road." It took lots of discussion and wrangling, but after a while others bought into the dream. Robbie was only 25 years old at this time, but he could be very persuasive. The team had a small fund and they worked hard, putting on dances and such until they raised the sum Laird had asked for his field, 100 pounds (about $400 at that time).

It took five years of backbreaking labour. There was no heavy equipment, so with picks, shovels, and no more than half a dozen old wheelbarrows, they excavated the field, moving the soil from the middle to build up the lower side, leaving a flat field with two embankments at either side to provide standing area for the spectators. Some 7,500 tons of earth were moved, an amazing feat of civil engineering accomplished. A small stadium would be added at a later date. All of this kept the men busy and out of trouble, gave them a sense of purpose -- they were too busy to be depressed -- and left them with a great sense of pride and self esteem.

The area newspaper (possibly The Clydebank Press) dated September 6, 1929 reported on the opening ceremonies for Glenhead Park, and my brother remembers being there as a child. All of the local politicians were there and many dignitaries from all around, to bask in the glow of success. The President of the Glasgow Intermediate Association, a Mr J. Paterson, and said it was one of the biggest engineering feats and indications of local support he had ever encountered. He pointed out that many of the big clubs in Glasgow, with thousands of supporters, had good grounds but he doubted if there were many places outside of Duntocher where such a gigantic voluntary job would have been attempted by football supporters.

Many people had worked hard and long on this project, but nobody objected when the ball from the inaugural game was officially presented to Robbie. My brother, who was eight years old at the time told me that Dad later had the ball painted green and white, the Duntocher Hibs colours. Glenhead Park is still in use today, some 75 years later, a lasting memorial to a man who could dream.

A hall was built behind soccer field and named the "Black Diamond". It was given its unusual name because nobody had any money at the time it was built, and admission to the hall was a lump of coal, or a "black diamond". It was used as a changing room, a social club, and for fitness classes etc. I remember Dad taking me there as a very young child and watching some boxers and football players training. Someone gave me a small bottle of milk and two chocolate digestive biscuits. The hall was destroyed in the Clydebank Blitz of 1941.

At some time Robbie's ability in spotting soccer talent was recognised and he became a "scout" for Manchester United Football Club, a famous first division team. I remember clearing a drawer in our bedroom that was stuffed with telegrams from the legendary Matt Busby, manager of that team. Matt himself died just a few years ago from this writing, still a nationally recognised figure in soccer. I do not imagine Robbie was ever paid very much for this service -- it was more a labour of love -- and he did so enjoy helping youngsters with their careers, in football or otherwise.

At the outset I mentioned that Robbie had his share of faults. A lack of courage was not among them. He always stood up for the underdog, facing up to police, gamekeepers or whoever was trying to be intimidating, especially around children. I heard many exaggerated stories about how he had beaten up a gamekeeper who fired his gun in the air to scare off a local teenager. That never happened, but it became local lore. I witnessed the event and all that he did was give the gamekeeper a real telling off with threats of dire consequences if it ever happened again. I don't remember him ever striking anyone, especially not me.

Anytime he had to be given a needle in hospital, he always asked for the inexperienced nurse who had never done it before, then he would commend her for a great job. During WWII we had an air raid shelter in our backyard. It was something like a section of culvert, half buried in the ground and sodded over the roof. These shelters could withstand most things except for a direct hit. After the fall of France and Norway, the Germans could send bombers over with impunity and these would primarily go after industrial targets. Our little village was not industrial but was close enough to Clydebank, whose shipyards had produced the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and were now busily producing warships. Clydebank also housed the huge Singer Manufacturing Company which was now busily producing machine guns and various armaments, and the Royal Ordinance Factory (where Robbie worked), which produced much bigger guns.

Dad, being too old for the army, after work was a member of the Home Guard, a militia group responsible for home defence and freeing up younger men to go off to war. Brother Bobbie was an apprentice in a restricted trade that was needed for the war effort, and was trying desperately to get away from work to join the Air Force. When the sirens went off warning of approaching enemy aircraft I was usually bundled up and hauled off to the air raid shelter. Dad had a very strong faith and belief in prayers and used to tell me that if I said my prayers, the Germans would not come over and bomb us. In March, 1941, when I was six years old a major air raid happened and I was wakened from a sound sleep, bundled off shouting words I had picked up in the street and protesting "and I said my bloody prayers!" My faith in prayer diminished, and now I am always surprised when I see them work.

During that air raid, which became known as the Clydebank Blitz, the Old Kilpatrick Hills were set alight with decoy oil bins, hoping to make the bombers believe that was Clydebank ablaze. That night Robbie and my brother, Bobbie, who was 19 years old, stayed outside and fought fires in neighbours houses. The bombers were dropping land mines which would make a whistling sound as they fell, then there was silence for a few seconds, followed by a huge explosion. (An eerie footnote to this: the trees near us were home to many crows, which are great mimics. For some time after this they faithfully reproduced the whistling sound of falling land mines, and in the ensuing silence we waited for an explosion which did not come.) They also dropped sticks of small incendiary bombs, which would stick on the roofs of houses, then burn their way through floor by floor, setting everything alight.

My Dad and Bobbie watched for these incendiary bombs and went into houses where they fell to somehow get them outside, or extinguish them with sand. They had great difficulty breaking down a heavy wooden locked door with a pickaxe, then found a bomb smoldering in an armchair. When my brother carried it outside, it burst into flames in his face when the air hit it, singing his hair and eyebrows. It was afterwards that my Uncle Tommy asked "Why did you not just break that little glass window in the door and open it that way?" Three houses west of us was just a ruin, hit by a land mine, five houses east of us was gone too, but the houses nearest to us were all saved thanks to Dad and Bobbie. Some neighbours afterwards, when they emerged from the safety of their air raid shelters, complained about the mess they had made ...

After this my dad decided to evacuate Mum and I to the relative safety of Uncle Jim MacKechnie's home in Garelochead, about thirty miles away. Cars were not very willing to stop, but I remember Dad standing in the middle of the Boulevard, a normally busy highway, and with his rifle stopping a car and insisting that the driver take us to Garelochead. He would not take no for an answer, but the driver was quite nice about it eventually.

During the war we volunteered our home to extend hospitality to soldiers, sailors and airmen from overseas. They would visit and spend weekend leaves with us. My Dad, just like myself, saw himself as something of the Great White Knight. I remember seeing his copperplate writing in a journal, quoting that poem:

If there is some good that I may do in this world,
let me do it now, for I may never pass this way again.

Unfortunately it was the Great White Knight's wife that had all the washing, cooking, cleaning and providing rations for the guests while the Great White Knight told them funny stories. He was a lot like me.

Both my sisters married some of these friends that we met during this time. Isobel married Paul Olson, a staff sergeant in the Eighth Army Air Force of the USA, and Betty married Eli Baldwin from Newfoundland, a petty officer in the Royal Navy.

Cultural differences were sometimes interesting, and the USA and Scotland used the same expressions to mean vastly different things. Robbie was an early riser and left to walk to work at about 5.30 AM. He did not start work until 8 AM so enjoyed that time. What Robbie liked to do in this quiet time was wander with his thoughts, listening to the birds, sometimes visiting the graveyard "to see my old friends," he said. Only too soon he would be joining those old friends.

On the way to work he would wake some others as a favour, by knocking on their door or window. In Scotland this was what was meant by "knocking them up". My mother was telling Paul and two of his friends about this, but when she said that he knocked people up she noticed startled expressions on their faces, so she followed it up by "Oh, yes. He knocks up half the village every morning." To her surprise, Paul and his friends exploded in uncontrollable laughter.

The word was out. My sister Betty had a new boy friend, and he was a Polish soldier, an older man. The whole family was shocked. At this time in Scotland, Americans and Canadians had come to be accepted, but Poles, while being allies in the War, were seen as foreigners, with strange ways and a strange language. We were told that at the annual New Years gathering at my Grandparent's home, we would be introduced to Josef, the new boyfriend. When he finally showed up along with my sister Betty everyone had braced themselves to make him feel welcome. He was a tall man with black hair, sideburns, and a small mustache. He spoke English with an accent, but had elegant manners. He was introduced to my Grandfather first. Grandpa shook him by the hand and said "Welcome to our country." He was then introduced around, kissing the hands of the ladies, saying he was enchanted. Grandma was heard to mutter "He is old enough to be her father." Finally he was introduced to an old maiden lady who lived next door and she saw through his disguise. "Oh, my God," she shouted. "It's Robbie!" That was perhaps his finest hour as a practical joker. He had fooled his own mother and father. Grandpa, I think, never did quite forgive him for that one.

In September, 1951, after a series of strokes and recoveries, Grandpa Boyd finally passed away. Robbie dearly loved his father, and while he was able to help others cope with the loss, he himself felt it very deeply. Two weeks after Grandpa's death, Dad, Mum and I were sitting at home on a Saturday evening. Dad had been feeling unwell for some time, but suddenly he started throwing up blood. He did not want to go to hospital, but with all the authority of my seventeen years I insisted and we went together. It was cancer of the stomach. Two weeks later he was pronounced incurable. He expressed the wish to die at home, so Mum and I looked after him as he wasted away very quickly. Brother Bobby came when he could and he and I would carry Dad in a chair to the bathroom when he wanted to go.

Robbie faced his end as bravely as he lived, but asked to be converted to Catholicism. That ambiguity had followed him all his life. He got one last smile, getting his brother Jack, a Freemason, to bless him. I am still not sure why that was funny, but he thought it was. Two short weeks at home and in October, 1951, aged 53, he passed away. He is buried in Dalnottar Cemetery, looking towards the Old Kilpatrick Hills which he loved. His grave is close to that of his father and mother, just off the Boulevard, where he stopped the car with his rifle, demanding that the driver carry Mum and me to safety.

At Glenhead Park, the flag was flown at half mast, and a moment's silence was observed at the soccer game.

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